“First United Church of Philippi, part II”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 18th, 2020
Before we dive into our next chapter of Philippians, I want to talk about the stars. As a person who is fascinated with all things astronomical, the stars are one of my favorite items. When I was a child, I used to have a glow-in-the-dark poster that would illuminate the night sky above my bed. I could see all the constellations that are a part of our universe and I could dream about my place in these stars. Well, one amazing fact about stars that is pretty difficult to comprehend, but is awe-inspiring to think about, is that some of the light we see as the stars bright in the sky has been travelling to reach us for millions, if not billions, of years! This means that there is light just reaching us now, perhaps, that has been travelling to see us since the dawn of our universe.
So why do I bring this up? Because one of the greatest lines we hear this morning that Paul writes to the church in Philippi is that of verse 15, where he says, “so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Remember, Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, and our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that the Philippians should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that they must be active Christian citizens. So, Paul is asking us within our framework of focusing on what really matters most to be the beacons of hope to our weary world. But how do we do this you might ask? Well I’m glad you did, because now we can begin to unpack chapter two!
How we focus on what matters the most becomes evident in Paul’s second chapter where he begins with unity and humility. Of course Paul is writing to a church that was in its infant years of existence and unity would be important to that church, but do we think so little of being of one mind that we can disregard the importance of being united in the 21st Century?! If anything, our church is more in need of unity now then ever. And contrary to belief, unity is not without diversity, unity is focusing on what truly matters most through focusing on the love of Jesus Christ being our unifying centralization.
What I mean by that is that when we put aside the pettiness of our own ambitions and drives and leanings and you name it, and we instead focus on the awe-some love of Christ and live our lives as we were taught to live them…then we are truly united in one mind to love our world as God loved our world, as Jesus lived in our world, and as we are charged with extending to our world. When we recognize and realize that all God’s creation is all God’s creation and can unify around the dignity we all desire and should be given as part of God’s great tapestry, then we can be united in the love of Christ, as stars created by God.
Humbly, as the stars created by God and called by Paul to shine so brightly, we are one in a billion, or if you are counting humans, seven billion. Amazingly, in our creation we are infinitesimally ourselves, and yet also part of this great collective called creation. But more so, when we combine this realization of both how great and how small we are with the instruction to focus on what matters most, we are left to wonder how indeed we are to live our lives.
This is where this wonderful hymn comes in that we receive in verses 6-11:
(Jesus) who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I call this a hymn, because that is what most Biblical scholars agree this was; an early Christological hymn of the early church. I’ll remind us that Paul was writing this letter in the 50s-60s CE, so this is in fact one of the earliest hymns that ever existed. What scholars love to do with this hymn though is try and figure out the minutiae of why Paul is using the language he does. When what I think we need to focus on is the entirety of the hymn’s message that we are to humble ourselves and answer the call of God in our worlds as those who would be called servants of a Great Master.
And why should we do this? Because Jesus, who himself was God, did not exploit his power, he did not exploit his position, he did not use the fact that He was God to rule over and be harsh on all his “subjects.” No, Christ emptied himself to serve the mission He was called to, to serve the Grace he was called to be, to be our Forgiveness we could never accomplish on our own, and to be the Love that our world so needed.
And Jesus did all of this in human form so that we could approach and digest the message God has for our lives and the message that Paul is once again reminding us through the repetition of this hymn. When we focus on what matters most and are active Christian citizens thorough loving God and loving our neighbor as Jesus taught us, that will appear to all others as acts of humility, not power; that will be acts of charity, not greed; that will be acts of love, not violence.
Moreover, because the call to action and the call to focus on what matters most can be a daunting task, Paul also reminds us of one thing that is not explicitly mentioned in the hymn but is deep down inside us all and such a part of being those created by God: Verse 13, “for it is God who is at work in you.” God is the one who is working within you to call you and inspire you and empower you to act. To be one of those bright shining stars in the night of our world and to let our world know that love does still exist, unity does still exist, and that what matters most are not the affairs of our world, but the affairs of our God who longs for us to love!
And when all seems lost and dark and scary and fear-filled; God shines ever more brightly through us by the lesson of Jesus who gave it all so that our world would know love and so that we would forever be loved in life eternal! So that indeed, nothing could get in the way of our doing of things on earth, not even death itself, for Christ conquered death, Christ conquered our crooked and devious world, and Christ did all of this through the humility of a life lived in love and paid for upon a cross.
Which brings us to what some scholars have called Paul’s digression in the second chapter when he speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Sure it is important to mention that Timothy was Paul’s companion to Philippi and other places and helped Paul out immensely. That Timothy was like a son to Paul and his most trusted ally. Or that Epaphroditus was a Philippian sent to help Paul in prison and care for him on behalf of the Philippian church, and was actually probably the one who delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippians, since when Paul wrote this letter Epaphroditus was returning forthright and Timothy was going to be following shortly thereafter.
All that is definitely important and Paul thanks both Timothy, Epaphroditus, and the Philippian church for their care. But I could certainly have left out this little section and still had plenty to sermonize and focus on, as you all have experienced already! But I wanted us to hear something in this passage that could easily be missed. Paul is sending Epaphroditus back to the Philippians only after he was made well by the mercy of God for “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died.” The Philippian church was so concerned for Paul that they sent a messenger who almost died.
Now I would not advise anyone to go anywhere at the detriment of their health to help others. But I would say that we should care for one another so much that we would be willing to risk the comfort of our lives, the prestige of our lives, the ivory towers of our lives, the churches of our lives, the status and rank and popularity of our lives to help those who need our help. Again, I want to be really clear here, I am not calling us to purposefully step into dangerous situations that might end up in illness or death, for we are not to test the Lord our God. But what I am saying is that we do need to be in a place where we can imagine nothing standing in the way of the love of God.
Where if need be, if we are pressed, and if the Good News is at stake, we would send any resources we could muster, perhaps even those willing to physically step up, so that those who need our help could be lifted up and loved as we are called to love through Jesus Christ. Now we are not going to be able to be everything to everyone, but that is why there is seven billion of us, that is why we are not alone and God is working in and through us, that is why we are to focus on what matters most and to be active Christian citizens. Because when we do this, we live out our lives as we are called to live them by Our Creator and the one who put that spark of starlight within our soul. Not sitting idly by while the world falls apart, but humbling ourselves, centering ourselves on God, and actively pursuing where God is calling us now as Christian Citizens, as the stars shining brightly in our world! As those who Paul would call the world to welcome in the Lord with all joy and honor, because such people are willing to risk even death for the “work of Christ.”
This part reminds me of another important tidbit about stars…some of the stars we see, the light we think is shining and burning bright, have actually already perished. Their light is just reaching us, but they are long gone from the universe. This may seem sad to some, but the reason I bring it up is to remind us that a huge part of being the light to our world is that wherever we shine we leave a mark, a presence, a part of our essence, our God-spark, that will forever change our corner of our world. Which begs the question for us again, how will we focus on what matters most as stars in the darkness of our world? How will our light shine as Christian Citizens called to be God’s light in our world? How will we work within our call by God to bring hope to our world, with what time we have left in our world?
Do it like Jesus would; humbly, peacefully, and in a way that lets nothing get in the way of God’s love. But however you answer that call to do what matters most, to be a Christian Citizen, know God is with you, working in you, shining through you, Amen!
“First United Church of Philippi, part I”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 11th, 2020
As we begin our journey into Paul’s letter to the Philippians, some background and historical context will be important. The city of Philippi which existed in the northeastern part of ancient Macedonia (modern day Greece) and was named after Philip II who was king of Macedonia and father to Alexander the Great. Geographically, it was a settlement about ten miles inland from the northern edge of the Aegean Sea on a major Roman road, the via Egnatia.
By the time of Paul’s letter, this was a thoroughly Roman settlement and although it no doubt held onto its Macedonian roots, it had become a resettlement for Roman veterans and reorganized as a Roman colony named Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis. Because Paul would have been writing this letter in the 50s or 60s CE, this would fall historically in the reign of the emperor Nero.
Paul writes this letter from a prison somewhere, and while some sources want to claim that he is writing it from prison in Rome, others claim that it was when he was imprisoned in Caesarea, and still others want to claim that it was while he was imprisoned somewhere, we just don’t know where. I guess the point is we should all understand that Paul was imprisoned a lot! So, the authenticity of his imprisonment is not up to debate, just the actual location. Nevertheless, the importance of him being imprisoned is that he was willing to risk it all for God…foreshadowing!
We do know from Acts 16:9-15, that Paul has a vision that he and Timothy were supposed to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” When they awake, they immediately head for Macedonia and just outside of Philippi meet Lydia a trader in purple cloth who was a “worshipper of God,” and after she and her household were baptized, Paul and timothy were invited to stay with them. This was their inroad into Philippi and their establishment of a church there.
A couple of important items to note: the church in Philippi was the first church established by Paul in Europe. Also, when we say church, we mean that Paul and Timothy are using Lydia’s house and other houses to do small worship that, yes will eventually spread, but in its infant stages was really small group worship inside the homes of rich women. Which brings us to a point that we must never paint over, and Paul himself beckons us to recognize and uphold, that if it were not for the women of ancient Roman society, Christianity might never have had a chance of ever surviving…more foreshadowing!
This gives me another opportunity to do what I love and offer some historical context into what life was like for Christianity during the Roman Empire, especially on the European continent. In a letter to Diognetus from an unknown second Century author, it is written about the Christians, “They live in their own homelands, but reside as resident foreigners. They share everything as citizens, and put up with everything as foreigners.” If this does not describe aptly how Christians lived in Rome and how Romans themselves lived with Christians, then nothing else will. Greco-Roman cities like Philippi, were small in area and compact with populations exceeding modern averages of people per acre. In fact, some estimates place the population density within Roman cities to be around 200 people per square acre. The streets were narrow and, in most places, wide enough only for a horse cart at best. The houses had no fireplaces or furnaces, and to say the city was a dirty place might be a compliment. As historian Rodney Stark comments, “It is all well and good to admire the Romans for their aqueducts and their public baths, but we must not fail to see the obvious fact that the human and animal density of ancient cities would place an incredible burden even on modern sewage, garbage disposal, and water systems. Keep in mind too that there was no soap. Hence it is self-evident that, given the technological capacities of the time, the Greco-Roman city and its inhabitants must have been extremely filthy.”
Beyond the high population density and filth, Roman cities were also places of constant newcomers. Greco-Roman cities were not populated by generations of families but by a constant flow of immigrants. This constant flow of new people to a society produced strain on an already strained system of public utilities, public institutions, and public need. This created a society that was loosely affiliated with one another and focused highly on the stratification of income and the neglect of those who needed the most help. Is this starting to sound familiar to any of us?
I hope so, because now that we have some background and historical context, I want to get on with the why and what of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will not cover the whole book of Philippians today, but for the next four weeks we will be covering a chapter each week. And what comes abundantly clear out of this first chapter that Paul writes to the church in Philippi is that he wants them to focus on what truly matters most. We hear Paul, after addressing the church in Philippi say in verses 9-11, “9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Paul is asking the church in Philippi to make sure the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and joy continue to be shared with the world that needs it so much. And Paul is writing them to let them know how thankful he is for their support, for their love for him, and for their concern for him. Moreover, it is Paul’s imprisonment that will help to spread the Good News, because if people like the Philippians can spread the Gospel even when the fear of imprisonment, or as Paul continues to write about, death, does not stop them, then nothing can stop the love of Jesus Christ to reach all the ears of those who need to hear it.
In this manner, we too are being called to do exactly the same thing. We are being called to share Good News, joy, love, with a world that does not seem to know the definition of these things. We are being called to extend the hands and feet of God even if it means we will be punished for loving too much, thought to be weak for having joy in a hate-filled world, or extending the hand of care to those we do not even know even if it means that we will have to work beyond our fear and work into a place of trusting in God.
And we are being called to be unpopular in many ways. We are being called to counter the divide within our society, we are being called to love into the corners and across the borders. We are being called to bring the message of eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ in any way we can, however God is calling us, wherever God is calling us. And we are being called not just by God, or Jesus, or Paul, but our world is calling for us if we only stop to listen.
Which brings me to my final point that Paul closes his first chapter with. He calls the Philippians in verse 27 to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek word that Paul actually uses is πολιτεύεσθε or politeuesthe, which translates as “to live as citizens.” Paul is calling the Philippians to live as Greco-Roman-Christian citizens. Paul is calling the people of Philippi to live and act and be a part of their society so as to create the change their society needs. To extend the hands of love into the places where this garbled, dirty, crowded world of Roman society exists. To extend a helping hand to the widow that has been lost, to the hungry who has no food, to the stranger or immigrant who has no place to live, to the economically unable who has no income, and even to the upper stratum of society where the most love is needed in times of political and social chaos, like the days of Paul and Nero.
And again, I ask if this sounds familiar! It should, because our world is calling us to do just the same. Our city, state, country, world is calling us to be 21st Century Christians who have a First Century heart! What I mean by that is that we are being called once more to go and be the love this world needs, we are being called to be a beacon to the world that can shine light into the darkness, and we are being called to do so not as ascetics who will separate ourselves from the world, but as those citizen Christians who will work to create change from the inside out. That is why we are spending the next four weeks with Paul and Philippi, because we need to hear what he had to say to them, for he is speaking directly to us, now more than ever!
So let me end today by saying the very same thing Paul said to the church in Philippi, I thank God every time I remember you, I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, and I cannot wait for us to bring the Good News to our world once more, Amen!
 Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 149-150.
 Stark, 152.
 Stark, 156.
“Journey with Jonah, part II” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 27th, 2020
I think it is appropriate as we come back together today to conclude our journey with Jonah, that we begin with some name play. After all, the Book of Jonah is a satire and so the authors inserted purposeful names that we can have to guide us through! For instance, Jonah means “dove” and we all know what doves mean as metaphors. Doves stand for hope, for peace, for love; and as we will see Jonah portrays the exact opposite of these. Also, when Jonah is called, he is called the sin of Amittai. Well Amittai means “faith,” and we have already seen what little faith Jonah had/has and we will see again how that bears out. And so, for us to keep these concepts in mind the ideas of dovely hope, peace, and love; and the idea of faithfulness are important. For while Jonah, being the character he is, does not necessarily demonstrate these virtues in person, what we are presented with is that God is a God of hope, peace, and love; and God is forever faithful to all of creation!
So let us begin our final steps with Jonah as we journey into chapter 3. The word of God once again comes to Jonah, a second time (remember God has faith!) and calls Jonah to go and proclaim the message that God has for the people of Nineveh. Well Nineveh is a long walk from where the belly of the deep spit Jonah out and so Jonah now begins a pilgrimage of three days. Did you catch it here again? his walk across the desert and wilderness to reach Nineveh will take him three more days, three more days of dying to himself, or perhaps murmuring under his breath how mad he is at God; but nevertheless, three more days of journeying before he even gets to the city of Nineveh.
Important side note here: We are shown time and again that our ancestors had to journey in their faith, had to journey through the wilderness, had to journey along knowing that some destination was in store for them. And so it is for us that we must also journey; sometimes through storms on the sea, sometimes across wildernesses, but always with a goal in the end; the faith-filled end of our journey where God’s purpose will be revealed!
Let us not get too far ahead of ourselves here though, for Jonah reaches Nineveh and Nineveh is a massive city; three days journey across! I am sure I do not have to tell you that the ancient city of Nineveh was not 60 miles wide or even 30 miles wide, and so would not be a three-day journey. In fact, it was more like 3.5 miles wide; but what is more important here is the allegorical and representative number of 3. That God’s world was going to be completed in a city that was a journey from death to life, that the journey for Jonah was from death to life. That the city would be saved from death and given life through the complete tri-fold love of God.
And so, as Jonah enters the city, he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people immediately believed God, proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth. This must have been a people who were in need of God’s word, because Jonah only speaks a few words about Nineveh being overthrown and the people immediately knew it was a message from God. In fact it spread so fast and far that before Jonah could go more than a day’s walk news already reached the king and the entire city was ordered to fast, cover with sackcloth, and “cry mightily” to God. Everyone was told to repent of their evil ways and turn form the violence in their hearts in the hope that God might turn away his wrath. And when God saw how open-armed they embraced this prophecy; God indeed changed course and did not bring calamity upon Nineveh.
Wow, was Jonah a prophet or what! How many great prophets of past have gone into a city only one-third of the way, spoken a vague sentence about repentance that does not even mention the wrath of God, or God reigning down fire, or plagues and problems, or you name it…and the people immediately repent? This again is the satirical nature of this Book of Jonah, that Jonah tried to do the least possible thing, he tried to accomplish and please God in the least possible way, and yet, he ended up saving this entire city! What we don’t get until our next chapter is the reason why Jonah wanted to run away, the reason why Jonah gave the least amount of effort possible, and why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh at all.
And here we go, the chapter we have been waiting for, the conclusion to our journey with Jonah! So, Jonah goes on this trial from death to life and brings the message of repentance to Nineveh and the city is saved and the first thing we hear in chapter four is that this displeased Jonah! In fact Jonah says to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Wow! Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he wanted the Ninevites, the Assyrians, to die. Who, in terms of the historical significance of this account, were until the Babylonians come along, the most hated people that Israel would know. Nineveh being an Assyrian city was the prime number one enemy of Judah and Israel. This is why Jonah ran away, this is why Jonah only went into the city one day, and this is why Jonah now asks for God to kill him…he is angry that the Ninevites were saved by God. He was trying to run away all this time for he knew that God was merciful and just and would turn away calamity if the Ninevites indeed repented.
And when God confronts Jonah about this, Jonah sulks outside the city and makes a booth for himself to watch over Nineveh, perhaps still hoping that God will bring wrath and flame upon these non-Israelite people. But as Jonah is sulking outside the city, God decides to hammer home the point once more, and appointed a bush to give Jonah shade from the noonday sun, which made Jonah happy. But the next day when God made the bush wither away and die, Jonah was angry and asked to be killed again…needless to say, Jonah is a great satirical character who is over-the-top dramatic! God again confronts Jonah asking if it is right for him to be angry. And when Jonah, like a child throwing a temper-tantrum responds, we get the moral of the entire story when we hear God say to Jonah:
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
God is concerned about all creation; whether they are smart enough to know their right hand from their left or not, whether they are animals or not, whether they are Israelites, Ninevites, Jews, Greek, American, or not. And if there is hope for Nineveh, there is hope for anyone…even Jonah!
Here is the moral for us in our world. How stubborn are we when it comes to who we think should be given God’s love? Who do we pray for God to hold back grace and love from? Who do we actively delineate and hate and put in the category of “other?” Who in our lives do we consider like Jonah considered the Assyrians; the enemy, the hated, the despised, the ones that if God wiped them from the earth, we would consider that a good thing?
And yet, God loves all creation! God will save anyone who repents and turns toward God! God longs for all the children to run toward and be embraced by their Creator! God is not in the business of killing, murdering, destroying, and damning. God is, as Jonah himself acknowledged and we would too if we only trusted, “merciful, slow to anger, loving, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Thus, we can find ourselves in so many parts of this narrative. We are the person running away from the life lived in love God is calling us to; a life where we love all God’s people, even those who are not of our denomination, faith, country, political party, gender, skin-color, you name it. We are the prophet who is being called to spread the Good News and is running away because God’s wisdom seems foolish to our human minds. We are the person in need of dying to our own desires and wishes so that we may fulfill God’s call to the world. We are the city who needs saving and the people who are longing to hear God’s Word. We are the prophet who has voice, who has power, who has privilege and yet we hold back our love, we hold back our wealth, we hold back the knowledge to save others because we do not want to lose our ivory towers or our white palaces. And we are the people who praise God when good things happen to us and bad things happen to our enemies, instead of praying that God would save us all.
And in this respect and all the others that we have mentioned during this journey, this makes Jonah indeed the greatest prophet of all. Yes, he saved a city of over 120,000 people and animals to boot, but his greatest act is the mirror he holds up to our faces. This is why Jonah is placed among the prophetic books, this is why we must not forget the lesson of God’s hope, peace, and love in the dove called Jonah. This is why we must not forget that God is eternally faithful in the son of Amittai and us. This is why we need to hear Jonah now more than ever. That we might heal our broken ways, that we could die to the sins of segregation, separation, schism and fear, that we could love as God loves, hope as God hopes, and live as God calls us to live. And in this respect, our journey with Jonah is indeed not ending, but just beginning, Amen!
“Journey with Jonah, part I” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 20th, 2020
Our journey with Jonah must begin with a little context because Jonah is unlike any of the other prophetic books we encounter, and yet is smack dab in between Obadiah and Micah in biblical order. All of the other prophetic books are written as prophesy that the called prophets would give to the world, and subsequently ours. Jonah actually only speaks one sentence of prophesy to Nineveh and is perhaps the most successful prophet in the history of the known world for the whole town repents and is saved; not something that can be said for Isaiah, Jeremiah, or the other prophets who wrote volumes of prophesy. Instead, Jonah is written more as a biography or historical account than prophesy. And so, one must ponder what the reason is to include it in the prophetic part of our Biblical canon. The reason being that Jonah does end up being quite prophetic, is that the prophesy comes through the life lived and the actions which occur as a mirror for us to reflect on our lives in turn.
In this vein, Jonah is then written as satire, a Biblical adventure in overwhelming odds, a character who does not want anything to do with any of it, and as Conrad Hyers states in his book, And God Created Laughter, “a comic portrayal of the Biblical theme of human wisdom and divine foolishness.” By the way, if you are struggling with understanding satire, that last phrase is satire in writing, for it is humanity who thinks themselves wise and God’s ways foolish; while the truth is the reverse.
So, with a little context, we can now begin our Journey with Jonah! Jonah begins as most prophetic books do, with a call from God. God speaks to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” And like so many prophets do at first, Jonah does not immediately answer. But Jonah takes it even further, he tries to escape God and escape the call that God is placing on his heart. Not only that, but he tries to escape to the farthest possible place he could go, Tarshish, which most scholars agree is a reference to a port in Spain all the way cross the Mediterranean Sea.
There are underlying themes here, which are important for us to bring up, as they will surface again and again as we journey with Jonah. One is the fact that Jonah is forgetting that the God he worships is not just the God of the physical land of Israel, but is the God of every time and place and people. God is the creator of all the lands and seas, and so, if Jonah thinks he can escape God by running off to the farthest away place he knows then he is vastly mistaken. For as it says in Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Which again alludes to concept of how we often think that our human wisdom is greater than God’s and that we can indeed outrun God.
Nevertheless, Jonah does board a ship and begins his voyage to flee from where God is calling him. As the boat was journeying, a great storm comes up and all the “pagan” sailors on board begin praying to their gods. Jonah sleeping soundly in the hull of the ship is awoken to pray to his God too and perhaps the calamity will end. Ultimately, they cast lots and it falls on Jonah to explain why everything is happening. At this point, Jonah says that he worships the Lord who made the sea and all the lands and the sailors get even more worried, for now they know that this man they took on as cargo is fleeing the presence of God and even these “pagans” knew better than to do that.
Jonah, being prophetic, remember God did speak directly to him, then knows that what the sailors must do is to toss him over the side of the boat and into the sea in order to make the storm stop. But an interesting thing happens, the “pagan” sailors, the sailors who were not of the God of Israel, who have already tossed cargo over and are at the brink of dying in the sea, try to row back to dry land to drop Jonah off instead of tossing him into the brink. And when they could not, they pray out loud for mercy as they throw Jonah to his seeming death, because they knew it was not right to kill another. Foreigners who had their own gods knew more about the moral right not to kill innocents than Jonah did, ahem foreshadowing! But here we reach the point where Jonah is now thrown into the sea and a large fish or whale or whatever suits your imagination swallows Jonah up.
Before we move any further, let us make some connections for our day and age and let us ask the prophetic questions that we are being presented with in this first chapter of Jonah. What are we fleeing from right now? What is it that we are ignoring and trying to run away from? What are we failing to do and thinking that our own human wisdom can keep us from God’s sight, or our own human technology and advancements can keep us from being seen? What is it that in this moment, today, we are being called to cry out for God; what wickedness are we being called to speak God’s truth to?
We all have our own personal answers, but here is what God is always calling us to do: Spread the message of love throughout the world! Spread the message of repentance and forgiveness! Spread the message of God’s hope that no matter what and no matter where God is present and is part of our lives and will be forever! Spread the message that God never leaves us, even when we might want to be left alone, and God is always by our side!
And if we are honest about our world right now, do we see a world filled with hope? Do we see a people who are loving their neighbors? Do we see a world which cares so much for one another that everyone is willing to do what they must to protect one another? If we are honest with ourselves, our answers to these questions present us with a wake-up call from God who is saying to our broken and divisive world, “ENOUGH!” Now is the time we are called to love again as in days of old. Now is the time we are called to imagine a world where no one is longing for the hope we have in Jesus. Now is the time we are being called to stop running away from God and start running towards God. Now is the time we are being thrown into the sea, being tossed about, and have been swallowed by the large fish. And now is the time we learn why!
Which brings us to our next part of Jonah, chapter 2. There is an interesting thought I had about the idea of Jonah being in the belly of the large fish for three days and three nights; this is the amount of time according to Israelite ways that would mean someone was truly dead. Someone was officially dead after they had died for three days and three nights. And this part of historical Scriptural language is important, which is why Jesus when he died was dead for…you got it three days and three nights! The idea is that we must truly die to something in order for God to resurrect us to something new.
In Jonah’s case, as we will see, Jonah had to die to himself and his selfish ways in order to truly understand what he was being called to do and still fights it till the end. I present this point right now as we begin this chapter which is a prayer from Jonah from the belly of the fish, or what I deem to be the depths of darkness and death, because as we journey through this, think to yourself, what is it that I need to die to in order to truly repent and turn toward God? What is it in my life that I am holding onto so tightly and will not let go of thinking that my own human understanding is better than God’s wisdom? What is my belief that is not in line with God’s teaching that is preventing me from truly living my life? For as we will see Jonah must almost die in order to be reborn!
This is not an easy process though, and Jonah makes it even more difficult because he is the adequate representation of ourselves; a stubborn human! But as he is in the belly of Sheol, which is the dark gray area we can think of as death, he cries out to God and God hears him. Jonah is not done though being a stubborn human, for he initially blames God for throwing him into this place. He blames God for calling him and casting him into the sea. He blames God for his lot in life and wonders when he will ever look upon God’s holy temple, perhaps meaning Israel, ever again. And as his life was slowly fading, it seems like he is awoken to the fact that he must indeed do what God is calling him to, and go to Nineveh. For at that moment, Jonah says that deliverance belongs to the Lord and the deep spits Jonah back out onto dry land, Israel, once more!
Jonah at this point is still not fully convicted, and we should not think that this death and rebirth has completed the process of opening his eyes to what God has in store for him, Nineveh, and the world, but as with most things in life; and especially, our life lived in faith…it is a journey. This brings us to the end of chapter 2 and I cannot wait to continue this journey with Jonah with you next Sunday! Until then, spend this week thinking about where God is calling you, to whom God is calling you, what you need to let go of, and how God is speaking in your life. God Bless, Amen!
“Proclaim Love” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 6th, 2020
Some of you already know this story because I am sure I have shared it in small groups before; but it is a good one, so bear with me. When I was little, I grew up in an area of Winona, MN that was close to train tracks and the river and industrial areas with trucks and everything. Well, my mother used to tell me that I was not to play on the train tracks or near the factories and all that dangerous stuff. Inevitably, one day I came home from doing the exact opposite and playing where I was not supposed to and she told me, “I know you were playing on the train tracks and you are in big trouble!” I was astonished because I was all alone and no one saw me or could have called and let her know. So, naturally I asked, “How did you know?!” And she told me something that would forever change my ability to contradict my mother for years to come, as she said “Jesus told me!” And while I did not comprehend what this truly meant until I was much older, it was in that moment I realized I would never be able to get away with anything ever again, for Jesus was there watching over me!
So what does this have to do with proclaiming love, or with our Gospel passage about reproving a fellow worshipper? Well, in this Gospel passage that is seemingly a lesson on conflict management, we hear the ways in which we are called to confront and be present with others and how Jesus is there watching over us in those moments. We know this because God tells us in Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” We know this because Jesus tells us in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And we know this because we are reminded by Paul that “any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” God does not want us to forever remain wicked, lost, broken, and quarreling. God longs for us to come together, to confront wickedness, to reconcile if at all possible, to forgive, and to do all of this through the love of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the lesson we can extrapolate for our community and our world is that we must proclaim love and conflict within our congregation and community in order to make sure that no one is outside of the holy law of God, that no one is disparaged or going counter to the community, and that whatever we bind on earth or loose on earth will be the same in heaven. Which means that the ultimate goal of this confrontation is not to make sure I am right and you are wrong, it is not to shun or shame, it is to correct, reprove, and repent, as we heal and forgive and become stronger through working through our conflicts, not burying them and letting them fester and rot.
Moreover, the way we go about this though is where we find our purpose for proclaiming love. Because, the purpose for confrontation is not to win an argument or to make sure everyone knows who is, or is not, smarter; rather, the tool we are called to use to confront one another is love. Not wickedness which leads us down paths of jealousy, greed, or earthly desires. But God’s love which we experience through reconciliation and forgiveness. Which is why we get the concept of wherever two or three gather in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there; and when we gather in Jesus’ name, when we gather and call ourselves Christians, we must do so in love.
This is so very important for us to understand in our broken world today. That when we gather and call ourselves Christians, when we use the adjective of our Lord’s name, we must do so as if Jesus is present. How differently would we treat our neighbors if we knew Jesus was standing right there? How differently would we talk to one another and hold one another if we knew Jesus was right there with us? How much wonderful could our world be if when we were in the middle of confrontation whether we are calling someone else out or we ourselves are being called out if we knew Jesus was right there with us?
The truth is our world would be a completely different place because of the eternal love of God that would be constantly on our mind. We would not want to disappoint Jesus standing there and be reproved by our Savior for not loving enough would we! We would not want to use words that we know are foul and offensive because our Savior is right there with us! We would purposefully seek to listen and understand one another for we know that is what Jesus calls us to and He is right there! We would love one another so much more for we know that our Savior is Love Incarnate and he is right there!
So why are we so wicked Israel? Why must we die? We have every piece of information we need to proclaim love. We have all the lessons of Jesus we need to go out and treat one another with respect, as if Jesus were right there with us. We even get the lessons and instructions of how to approach someone who has wronged us and work toward forgiveness. And yet, we are still wicked and stray from proclaiming love to one another, to holding one another in love.
We focus on the law and how the law says we must treat one another and we forget that the fulfillment of the law is love. We focus on what sexuality someone is, what nationality someone is, what color someone is, what gender someone is, what religion someone is, what “you name it” someone is; and we lift up commandments as examples of laws they are breaking. Or worse yet, we create laws to make them stumble and fall.
And all along, we are the wicked ones preventing love from being proclaimed. We are the ones who need to be brought up on charges of not loving enough. We are the ones who need to be reminded of how much we are loved and that love is not just for us. We need to be reminded that Jesus is right there longing for us to proclaim love.
Nothing, no law, no rule, no nothing at all is more important than this. No “yes, but what about this…” No, “well Jesus meant this…” No, “well historically this means this…” Nothing is more important than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Not because the law is not important and should not be followed. Rather, through loving our neighbors, through proclaiming love to one another, through loving someone so much as to confront wickedness with love; the law is fulfilled, God’s law of love is fulfilled.
And when all seems lost and the world seems bleak, and we do not know how we should do this or what we should do; or if we even have the power and ability to do any proclaiming of love, we get this great verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans,
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Hear those words in your heart: the armor of light, the love of Jesus, the proclamation to the world that wickedness and hate and evil and violence and darkness is not what will conquer us; but light and forgiveness and mercy and love.
I shared that memory of my mother using Jesus as my protector and guardian (and apparent tattle-teller!) at the beginning of today because the truth is that Jesus is not only with us whenever two or three are gathered, but is with us all the time and every where we go. God is always with us and that is why we can put on the armor of light. It does not have to be our strength, our spirit, our armor; it is God’s Holy Spirit in and through us proclaiming love, it is the love of Jesus Christ poured out for us that pours through us. And when we turn away from wickedness, when we turn toward our God, that light shines on us and we see anew like a fresh morning sun. So, let us fulfill all of God’s laws. Let us turn from darkness, let us confront the wickedness within and without, and let us bind one another in the proclamation of God’s love, of the grace of Jesus Christ, and in the light of the Holy Spirit; as we gather forever in the presence of Jesus, let us be fulfilled in proclaiming love. For Jesus is with us, always and forever, Amen!
“Great is Your Faith!” – Rev. Tony Romaine – August 9th, 2020
According to Webster’s Dictionary, faith can be defined as: allegiance to duty or a person, loyalty, fidelity to one’s promises, sincerity of intentions, belief and trust in and loyalty to God, belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion, or something that is believed with especially strong convictions. But sometimes we can get bogged down in definitions, so, I also looked up some quotes about faith to possibly help us digest it a little more:
“Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”
“I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed.”
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain, that someone could stake their life on it a thousand times.”
“It is a mistake to equate knowledge of God with mere information, it is also a mistake to think of faith as a desperate leap in the dark. Christian faith and life are inseparable from reliable knowledge of the character and purpose of God.”
Perhaps that helps a little more, with the wisdom of others guiding our thoughts, but because we are also denominational in our beliefs and we belong to the UCC and the UMC, here is how we define faith according to our denominations:
United Church of Christ Statement of Faith
We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify: God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death. God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles. In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator. God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.
UMC Basics of Faith
Our Christian Beliefs: God
God, who is one, is revealed in three distinct persons.
Our Christian Beliefs: Jesus
We believe in the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. God became human in Jesus of Nazareth; and his life, death and resurrection demonstrate God's redeeming love.
Our Christian Beliefs: The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is God's present activity in our midst. When we sense God's leading, God's challenge, or God's support or comfort, it's the Holy Spirit at work.
Our Christian Beliefs: Human Beings
Genesis 1:27 asserts that we've been made in the image of the Creator. Like God we have the capacity to love and care, to communicate, and to create.
Our Christian Beliefs: The Church
The church is the body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s life and ministry in the world today.
Our Christian Beliefs: The Bible
We believe that the Bible is the primary authority for our faith and practice.
Our Christian Beliefs: God’s Reign
The kingdom or reign of God is both a present reality and future hope.
So now armed with all of this wonderful knowledge and with definitions galore, we should easily be able to understand, talk about, and know how great our faith is, right?! Well, if you are like me, you realize it is not so simple and that is what indeed is the Greatness of our faith. Faith is absolutely something that we can define and add thoughts to and put on paper. And certainly, a faith that is not able to reason and describe why it is that we believe a certain way, is a faith without legs to stand upon.
However, there is also part of our faith which is inherently indescribable. Like in Isaiah when we hear God speaking through the prophet asking us if we were there at the moment of creation; asking us if it was us who directed the Holy Spirit; asking us if it was us who instilled all knowledge. Faith is trusting in our God enough to say, “You know what, I could not possibly know all the ‘ins and outs’ of creation, for I am not the Creator, I was not there at the moment the universe was made, and I am certainly not all-knowing.” Faith is being able to abandon myself to trust in God that there is a plan and reason that is beyond my understanding at work for good in our world. Faith is trusting that God has us, and made us, amidst all this splendor for a particular reason in our own unique way to become part of the Great Mosaic which is God’s and God’s alone. This leads us to a deeper level of faith in which we understand how we are one person weaved together in and among a multitude of God’s Creation.
But in order to better understand this part of our great faith, we need our reading from James where we hear about favoritism. Faith is trusting that God does not have favorites. Well, let me tweak that just a little, God does have favorites; it is just that we are all God’s favorites! Faith is believing and trusting that I, as we previously covered, do not have all the answers and cannot possibly know why each and every one of us were made. But if I am God’s favorite, then so are you; and if you are God’s favorite, so am I!
And if we are all God’s favorites then who among us will perish? Who among us should be persecuted? Who among us should be denied basic human rights? Who among us, God’s chosen people, God’s favorites, should not be allowed to live a dignified life? Who among us should be hungry, poor, homeless, or forgotten? You and I both know the answers to these questions, and they are convicting. And this is why we get the wonderful lesson at the end of this passage from James that reminds us we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and not show partiality. Why? Because indeed we know the answers to the previous questions, and we are all God’s favorite!
Which leads us to our Gospel passage for today and indeed what a great faith means. A great faith means that I am enough, you are enough, and our God loves us. A great faith is willing to take risks to approach God and ask for the very things we need. A great faith is trusting that I indeed am one of God’s chosen, one of God’s favorites and that when I approach and kneel before my God, God will see my faith and heal me, hold me, and love me. A great faith is willing to argue and debate and trust in our God. A great faith is willing to kneel before Our Savior and be fed by the scraps or by the loaf itself. A great faith is trusting that even when we think we are beyond salvation; Jesus’ grace extends to us all. A great faith is saying, “Lord help me,” then trusting, hoping, and believing that help will come. And a great faith is knowing; not just thinking, not just saying, not just doing out of habit; but actually knowing in the depths of our soul and believing in every level of our being, that whatever this world may throw at us, our end is infinitely eternal in Christ Jesus.
Ultimately, what we see is that faith is easy to define but more difficult to live. Faith is a journey which does not end until that one fine day when our faith is rewarded. And the greatness of our faith is not so much in how we define it for others, but how we live it out in our lives. Faith in the Greatness of God, faith in the greatness of our neighbors, faith in the Greatness of the Grace of Christ, faith in the presence of the Holy Spirit…Great is Your Faith, Amen!
“Invitation to Abundant Life” – Rev. Tony Romaine – August 2nd, 2020
In my NRSV Bible, the heading for the Isaiah Reading we heard today is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.” And as I was reflecting this week on my message, I came across a troubling statistic. Food insecurity for U.S. households last week reached its highest reported level since the Census Bureau started tracking the data in May, with almost 30 million Americans reporting that they did not had enough to eat at some point in the week leading up to July 21st. 30 million Americans, that is almost ten percent of our entire population who reported not having enough to eat.
But let’s whittle that number down a little, if we took ten percent of MN’s population, that would be roughly 500,000 people in MN alone. But maybe this is still too large to think about, so let’s take Little Falls. Ten percent of our population is just short of 900 people, can you imagine that 900 people in our community statistically do not know where their next meal is coming from! But let’s take this one step farther…Our church membership. Ten percent of our church membership is about 20 people. Which begs the question, what is our invitation to abundant life?
The abundant life that we are being called to is not solely about what we have to eat, as we hear in our Isaiah Scripture, but also includes where we are being called. We are being called to come to a place where we can have milk and bread and cup and not have to pay anything. We are being called to come to the fount of eternal life and to know that there is no price for what we are about to imbibe, only that we must trust, believe, and live as those forgiven and freed. That is the abundant life that we are being called to; but you and I know there is more don’t we!
We are not just being called to trust and believe in the abundant life, but we are being called to live an abundant life. However, to live that abundant life, we must follow in the footsteps of Jesus and that is what brings us to our Gospel message today of the loaves and fish. All too often, when people think of this miracle, they remember the multiplication and how Jesus turned five loaves and two fish into enough food for 5,000 people and then some. And while this is definitely miraculous and not something your run-of-the-mill prophet would be able to accomplish, there is something deeper at work in this passage.
At the beginning we hear the words, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The “this” Jesus heard was the death of John the Baptist. Jesus was obviously affected by the news and wanted some time to process the loss of his close friend and baptizer. But as he was trying to get away, as he was trying to seclude and reflect, the crowds came because they knew where he was. And so, as Jesus often did, instead of turning away and going farther into hiding, Jesus went ashore and healed the sick and cared for their needs. Moreover, not just that he came ashore, he had compassion for them. Jesus knew they needed something that only he could offer, something that only he could bring them…abundant life!
Therefore, we see that an invitation to abundant life includes more than feeding, it includes compassion, it includes sacrifice, it includes recognizing the needs of others and being willing to go ashore and help them whether sick or dying or whatever it may be. An invitation to abundant life is one that not only covers the basic needs of food and health, but covers the internal needs of caring for someone. Feeding people and clothing people is one thing, but actually doing it out of a heart of care, of a place of empathy, of a place where you recognize that this is an area where your call to Jesus’ ministry can have affect; that is abundant life.
And here is the integral part to our abundant life. Our life can only truly be abundant if it is shared with other people. Are we saved, yes. Are we forgiven and freed, absolutely. But think about what the word abundance means, think about what it means to have or live or be in abundance. Here is a good exercise, repeat after me, abbondanza…this is Italian for abundance. Now I argue you cannot say abbondanza without a spark of joy, without somewhat of a smile, without a sense that your life is filled in some different way. Sure, you can mildly say it, but the meaning changes to just be a word; you miss out on the true meaning of it without the joyful utterance of abbondanza.
Okay, enough Italian for one sermon! But I use this exercise to demonstrate that sometimes we have to use words not just say them. Just like we have to live an abundant life, not just exist. And in order to truly live into an abundance, in order to truly have abundance, in order to truly experience what God is calling us through the prophet Isaiah into, we have to share our abundance with others. But just in case you still don’t believe me, hear these words again from Isaiah, “See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.”
See, God has called you to an abundant life. You are invited to abundance, and you are to witness to the people. Not so that nations will bow down in fear of our mighty military. Not so that nations will bow down to worship at the altar of our economy. But so that nations see how we are a people who have compassion for one another and want to have part of that dream. Nations will come to us and want to be like us, because our God is not some distant ethereal other, but is living and breathing in the work of our hands and feet. Nations will want to come to be a part of us because they will see that the abundant life we live is one where all people are welcomed to the table. And nations will come and want to be with us, people will want to come and worship with us, because they will know that here they will find baskets filled with bread and fish who are compassionate and share in the abundant life.
This abundance does not come without struggle, for we all have unsettled wrestling matches that prevent us from fully experiencing the abundance. We have all been there wrestling with God out of anger, fear, or mistrust. We have all experienced at one time or another a loss of abundance, a loss of life, a loss of trust. But in that moment when we were injured, hurt, seemingly left all alone…what brought us back? An invitation to abundant living! A loved one who would not let us go. A friend who knew just what to say, or knew to say nothing at all. A stranger who stepped outside their comfort zone to be with us. Or God in the form of some sort of angel or another, stepping in to rescue us from despair and give us the bread and fish we needed.
Abundant living is not necessarily pain-free living; but compassionate, caring; loving and sharing, in this life Jesus has called us to live. Abundant living is being in the boat in the middle of the lake reflecting on our pain and sorrow, and yet noticing that there are others who need our help. Abundant living is multiplying God’s eternal love for us to the world so that they may too live abundantly.
You may not be able to help 30 million people, or 500,000 people, or 900 people, or even 20 people…but you and I both know you are thinking of one right now! And if that one person is the only one you invite into abundant living today, tomorrow, this week…then that is one more than yesterday or last week. One more to reduce the statistic, one more to multiply the loaves and fish, one more opportunity for you to live into your invitation to abundant life!
How often have we come to Jesus, come to God and said, “I don’t have enough, I cannot possibly do x,y,or, z!” How many times have we approached our church as a building and said, “We are just a little church, what can we possibly do?” How many times have we gone to God and said, “I am just one-person, what difference can I make?” My friends, we are the loaves and fish, we are the living and breathing bread of life that Jesus has blessed and multiplied. We are the fish that are meant to be shared. We are the disciples of Jesus whom he sends to feed the nations. And when we go forth and follow in Jesus’ footsteps, when we come ashore and tend to the needy, when we actually have compassion for our fellow brothers and sisters who need us the most; that is when all will be fed, none will go away hungry, and God’s invitation to abundant life glorified. So let us RSVP our invitation to abundant living with compassionate hearts, open arms, and baskets filled and ready to share, Amen!
“What Would You Ask For?” – Rev. Tony Romaine – July 26th, 2020
Knowing all this, what would you ask for?
“Future Glory” – Rev. Tony Romaine – July 19th , 2020
We hear for our Gospel Message today, a parable that is all about judgment, all about good and evil, all about the wheat and the weeds. We hear Jesus tell the disciples that the seeds that are planted are what bring up either the wheat or the weeds. Jesus even goes so far in explanation of the parable to the disciples to let them know that those who are sinners and evil doers will be cast into the fire and terrible things will happen to us. We hear this Gospel passage and it should be no wonder to anyone why so many grow up with a faith based in fear. We hear these words of separating the sinners and the non-sinners and it is no wonder that when people commit sins, they fear the “wrath of the Lord.”
And to be completely honest with you, this parable has always made me uncomfortable, because it is difficult for me to hear Jesus; the One who was sent to die for us all, tell the disciples that some will be given glory in heaven and others will perish in hell. Now, side note here, Biblically this parable only shows up in Matthew, so the other three Gospel writers perhaps were of the same mind as me, but Matthew thought it important to include to really hammer home our responsibility to sow good seeds!
And yet, to say that some are guaranteed life everlasting and others are not has led to many on earth prejudging other people based on what a group that is currently in power thinks is holy or just. This can lead to persecution of fellow Christians or those of other religions, based on the idea that the “us” is predestined for greatness and we have the correct Scripture and teachings; while the “them” are pagans or heretics or others who are not correct, do not worship properly, and are destined to the fires. Even Jesus himself was a victim of a sect of religious leaders who wanted to remain true to their Scripture, their traditions, their teachings, and yes, perhaps their power.
You may think this is not something that we ourselves would do, but we judge people every day. It is just a matter of degree as to how far judgment goes. This is the danger in predestination…people are not willing to let God be the judge, they want to guarantee their after-life, they want to guarantee their salvation, and they will do it at whatever cost; blindly separating the wheat and the weeds, whether they know which is which. And this very parable verifies for some people the theological ideas of predestination and God’s predetermination of who is “in” and who is “out.”
See, predestination is great when we are the predestined wheat, but not so much if one is a predestined weed. Indeed, we only like to hear about our lives being predetermined when things work out well. And yet, part of me truly believes that my life is planned and God does have a purpose for me; that my life is not just left up to the whims of the world, but that there is a path laid out for me at my birth and there is indeed a Future Glory for me.
So, the million-dollar question is: how do we know if we are wheat or weeds? Here is where we must turn to our Genesis passage about Jacob. What we did not hear today because it would have made the Scripture readings quite long is where Jacob has been or what he has been doing before he laid his head down upon the place which becomes known as Beth-el; the House of God. Jacob is fleeing when he goes to sleep and dreams. Before this moment, Jacob withheld food from his brother in order to steal his brother’s birthright. Before this moment, Jacob dressed up and tricked his father into giving Jacob his brother’s blessing. And Jacob is now on the run and between his homeland and his uncle’s place in Haran. Jacob, if left to our worldly judgment, would not be designated as a nice person or one who is truly holy. Jacob is most definitely a sinner who was jealous of his brother’s birth position, regardless of family ties. And yet, we hear within Jacob’s dream these words:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
How could this be, we might ask? How could God promise all of this to this sinner, who has done nothing to present himself as worthy of such a gift? How could God reward someone who is a trickster, a liar, and a manipulator? And in that moment, we see what is at the heart of what Paul tells us in Romans when he says:
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Those whom God has predestined; God does not forget. Those whom God has planted as wheat; God does not let wither into weeds. Those whom God has loved from the very beginning; God does not allow to be thrown into the fire with the weeds of the evil one. For we may not know how or what is the right thing to do all the time, we may even do the exact opposite of what God wants for us to do; but God does not abandon us, God does not forget us, and God certainly will not allow us to be lost for time immemorial. God is with us, God will keep us, and God will be with us wherever we go!
This is the hope we get to have when it comes to predestination; the belief that we are of the wheat, that we have been sowed among the good seeds, that from birth we are guaranteed life eternal with our God, with our Creator; and that no sin, no lie, no part of our fractured human lives can indeed separate us from the love God has for us. That as Paul once again reminds us:
24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
That is our Future Glory! That we are part of the good seed sown at the beginning of time, that our seed will indeed grow into wheat, and that indeed we are saved. Are there wheat and weeds, that is up to God to know and decide. But I, in my fully sinful state as a humanoid fleshly being, am given hope through the story of Jacob and the blessing God rains down upon him and reminds him of in his dream. For if Jacob, this trickster, liar, cheater, and scaredy-cat can be part of the predestined love of God, then so can my soul, which has also sinned, be forgiven and saved!
We are so similar to Jacob in many respects. I do not know about you, but if it were left up to me, I would not consider my life one of complete holiness. If salvation were left up to me to decide, I honestly sometimes would not count myself as wheat. There are moments in my life where I have done things, said things, or acted in ways which would not be considered saintly at all. Indeed, if judgement were left up to me about my soul, I might just place myself among the weeds. But thanks be to God, judgment is not up to me; thanks be to God salvation is not up to me; thanks be to God the place I was planted was in the eternal spring of life where I am sown as the wheat forever and ever, regardless of how many sins might weigh me down like weeds.
Because here is what we might miss if we read our Gospel parable too quickly, and why I am glad the disciples asked for further explanation…Jesus is the sower of the wheat. Meaning, we are planted by the One who indeed came to forgive all sins. We are planted by the One who loves beyond love. We are planted by God Incarnate to grow and mature and be ready for harvest when the day of judgment comes. And we are not forgotten when we sin, we are not left to die when we sin, we are not left to run afraid into the darkness when our lives go awry; for Jesus himself planted us and nothing can change that destiny.
Perhaps I will be all wrong, and perhaps when it comes to predestination my thoughts are incorrect, but here is what I know about future glory for certain; there is nothing I can do to guarantee what Jesus has already sown into the fabric of my being. There is nothing I can do to alter the love God has for me and for my created state. And while hearing the parable of the wheat and the weeds may scare me as I consider my life; it should only do so to remind me that I indeed am of the wheat and must begin to live my life accordingly.
That is the promise of our Gospel passage, that is the hope in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and that is why God comes to Jacob in his dream. To remind us of our future glory, to remind us we are God’s, and to remind us indeed that God is with us, God will keep us wherever we go, and God will bring us back to the land of salvation when God is done with what God has promised us. Now is the moment we get to wake up and dream God’s dream for our life. Now is the moment we get to live into our Future Glory, Amen!
“Rooted in the Word” – Rev. Tony Romaine – July 12th , 2020
When I was a child, my parents taught me that I needed to be really careful with the words I used. They taught me that unlike words on the page, once I uttered something, I could not take it back. And while this lesson was lost on me more times than I care to mention, it has stuck with me to this day as a tool to calm my tongue and truly think before I speak. Because words matter!
Rooted in the Word
Words matter so much that God tells us through the prophet Isaiah that God’s word sent out will not return empty, but will accomplish what God’s purpose is for the world. But how do we know what are the correct words or how and what we should say? Indeed this is the quandary that has flummoxed people for thousands of years. So much so, that we have had holy wars and schisms and killed fellow Christians all in the name of what is right and what is wrong. And yet, none of us are God and none of us can truly know. Therefore, there must be something else we need.
Paul almost gets us there in Romans when he speaks of how distraught he is about our flesh. How our flesh and bones do not submit to the law of God, but rather go after the humanly desires of their bidding. How we are weakened in our flesh and need the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ to save us from our wretchedness. This wretchedness of flesh is exactly that which pervades our words. We say things, and spit vitriol and hate toward our neighbor instead of loving them as we would want to be loved. We utter hurtful words which cause us to divide and grow farther apart from one another, rather than unite and live in peace as God desires. We use written word to make laws that demean and dehumanize our fellow Christians, our fellow humans, only so that our power and privilege remain intact. And we use words to ridicule and debase other people’s beliefs, religions, and essence; thinking that in some way, shape, or form, we are lifting up Christianity to where it should be. When in fact, we are lowering it to the depths of the sins of our flesh.
So what hope is there for us? Good soil is the answer. The good soil which we spoke about in the Children’s Message. The good soil we are remined of in the Gospel message for today. The good soil that when seeds are planted hold that seed, that Word of God, and allow it to take root and change the soil from nutritious dirt into the fruit that yields one hundred, sixty, or thirty-fold. Good soil rooted in the Word.
We must not be so rock hard in our beliefs and in our ways that all we are is a pile of stones. For when the Word of God from whomever is sowing it, falls upon those stony hearts of ours; it will not take root, it will not change us, it will just be there ever so briefly and then blow away in the wind.
We must not be filled with the thorns and the brambles of our world which seeks to choke us out on the greed of money, power, lust, and fame. We cannot take any of the treasures of this world with us, but the thorny soil longs for more and more and more and does not care what grasses it chokes out, does not care what flowers it destroys, does not care what fruit it consumes; all it wants is more earthly treasure. The thorny soil only longs after the world of this world and cannot see past their own desires to empathize and understand what pain they are causing others. When God’s Word lands in these soils, it is choked out for its call is too demanding, too expensive, too troubling, too convicting; and so, the thorns of the flesh choke out the Word of God’s love.
Instead, we must be good soil, note I did not say soil that always does good; but good soil. Good soil is aerated and open to be filled with oxygen and nutrients. It is open to ideas and discussions. It is not afraid of the seeds that may fall, but is ready to discern between which seeds to hang onto and which to get rid of.
Good soil is open to being watered and fed through the Holy Spirit. This may mean that the good soil gets washed out sometimes, that it drinks up more than it can imagine. But the good soil knows that God is in the rain and is thankful for the showers that come.
Good soil is sometimes in need of turning and raking and hoeing. It is not afraid to have its world turned upside down and over and over. For the good soil has faith that through the turning, through the jumble comes new life and the promise of a brighter future. Good soil is strong enough, deep enough, faithful enough to withstand the turmoil of life and trust that the seed planted by God’s Word will find its place within good soil. And good soil is open to when that Word of God is planted, to take it in and nurture it so that it may grow and foster a faith-filled fruit; a fruit rooted in the Word.
As I was reflecting and planning for this week, I kept coming back to the idea of us planting roots with the words we use. In our modern day and age of busyness and social media and technology, words seem to have lost some of their value. People spread false info, opinions, and hatred and pass it off as fact. People share their “knowledge” on an issue they in fact have no training in, or in which they have no actual experience. And people flippantly use words which spread hatred and harm and have real life consequences; words which give people permission to hurt innocents or systemically degrade fellow humans. And while some think they can innocently spit anonymous hatred throughout our world without damage to self, the truth is our soil is drying up as the winds of hypocrisy, jealousy, and evil eat away at our fruit.
It is time we once again become the good soil that God laid down all those years ago. It is time we once again root ourselves in God’s Word. Whether we find that in the Bible, the depths of our hearts, or the words of our prayers. It is time we simplify, and remember the commandments we are being called to enact; to love God as the ultimate planter of our soil, and to love each other as we would want to be loved; as the seed that the Sower has spread. It is time we aerate, water, nurture, and turn up our soils to produce the greatest of fruits. And it is time that our words we use with each other come from the depths of good soil and return through one another to our God in joy and peace; so that the mountains and hills will indeed burst forth before us, and song shall ring throughout the land as all the trees clap their hands in the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit.
Rooted in the Word
It matters that we are rooted in the Word of God, in the Word of Christ, in the Word of the Holy Spirit. And this might sound like a daunting task to go forth and be good soil. But if I asked you all to share the Good News with me right now, where would you start? If I asked you to tell me a story about God, what would you share? If I asked you to tell me what you know about God, what would you say? I doubt that you are going to go into the intricacies of temple worship, or tell me about ritualistic holiness problems, or even recite Paul verbatim or the priestly principles of Peter.
But what I know you can tell me are the stories of God’s love, of God’s Son, and of the Holy Spirit still working in and through our world; in and through you. We have always had the good soil within us, we have always been rooted in God’s Holy Word, we just need to listen, hear, understand, and nurture that Godly soil. We get so caught up in trying to say the right thing, do the right thing, be the right thing, that we actually bog ourselves down and take something so simple as sharing how we know of God’s love and we ensnare ourselves in complexity, only to lead to inaction.
God planted good soil within us so that the Word which is rooted deep within us could sprout and yield and grow unto the world. It is time for us to work our soil into good soil that is prepared for God’s Holy Word and for us to hear, understand, and put into action the seeds of love God planted in us through our creation. It is time for us to recognize that God’s Word has sprouted many fruits; fruits of different color, gender, nationality, race, creed, thought, and place. It is time for us to use our words to spread the seeds of the Holy Spirit that reside deep down inside our good soil and to indeed love our world into changing for the better. It is time for our soil, the good soil rooted in the Word, to yield its fruits of love upon our rocky, thorn-filled world. For God’s Word which resides within us does not return empty; but through the good soils of God’s creation, returns as the everlasting sign that can never be cut off. It is time for our good soil to sprout shoots of love and peace.
Good soils of God’s rooted Word, it is time, Amen!