"How?” – Rev. Tony Romaine – 12/20/2020
Each week during Advent, we have been journeying through questions like When, What, and Who and now today we arrive at How. By the way, as a bit of foreshadowing and selfish plugging for Christmas Eve service; Thursday we will delve into the question of Where. But as for today, as we come to the fourth Sunday of Advent and speak of God’s Love, we again must talk about the question of “How?” So to begin for today, let us hear a poem by St John of the Cross called, "If you want:”
"If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy, and say, 'I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.' Then, under the roof of your soul you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us. Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—the sacred womb in your soul, as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is God’s beloved servant never far. If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street pregnant with Light and sing …'"
We have all heard the Christmas stories time and again. We are all very familiar with how the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she is to bear a son and Mary asks, “But how can this be?” In fact, if you came to the Children’s Program, and are coming to the Christmas Eve service, you will have heard it three times just this year. But what we often paint over with eyes blinded to the immense wonder of it all, is the awe-inspiring answer to the question of “How?”
Because in this question, we not only get a sense of just what God is capable of, but we also can be witnesses to just how God plans on changing the world. So, we must handle the process of wondering how God’s Love can enter our world in the first place. Even Mary who is being visited by an angel of God is fully cognizant of her physical limitations and what she has and has not done herself. And so it is natural for her to ask of the angel, “How can this be?” Which is a beautiful moment that allows us to come along side of Mary and be with her in the surprise of that moment. I guarantee you if an angel of God appeared to any one of us, especially some of us, and said that we would bear a child of God and we would name him Jesus, I think surprise might be the first of many emotions, and “How can this be?” might be our most muted response.
And while the physicality is important because God incarnate is important, the moment we fail to align ourselves with the One who is vitally important for us, God Incarnate, then we fail to see the Divine in each and every one of us. For we are, as the poem “If You Want” spoke of, midwives of God Incarnate in our lives. Each of us has within us the God-spark of our creation, something perhaps that has lied dormant for many years or for all time, but I guarantee you is there inside you. God calling you to be the hands and feet of God to our world, God calling you to beget love as God begat us. God calling us to, and looking down upon us with, favor at the time of our birth and throughout our lives. And while we do not have the birth pangs that Mary must have been experiencing at such a late stage in her pregnancy; we have pains of another kind that we fail to act upon.
We feel the tug of the Holy Spirit calling us to be more loving to one another and we ignore it. We feel the kick of the words of Jesus Christ, our Savior, calling us to be more just and to work for a society in which all God’s children can be loved…and we ignore it. We are out of breath and need to slow down and sit with God, to be present with our Almighty, to bask in the warmth of Love that comes from on high, and we would rather keep busy and gain wealth, or fame, or prestige, or power, or what have you. Our lips, our hands should burst with love for one another; but instead, we focus on separation, difference, and whatever “I” can use to keep “you” in a place of lowliness. And in response, perhaps our question for today gets reversed and thrown back at us when God asks us, “How can this be?” How can a creation I have loved and favored and birthed turn away so easily.
The second action in the question of “How?” describes how God will enter our world, how God will change our world, and how God will forever bring Love once more into our world. This is the act of us responding as Mary did when she trusted in the angel’s message and answered, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary might have questioned the physical nature of the Immaculate Conception, but as soon as she was told how it would happen, her next moment was an act of faith and trust in God. This is the answer to “How?” in terms of God’s Love returning to our world. We also must be people of trust and faith that while God’s will and action and love may be beyond our human understanding, it is in us and within us to be the hands and feet of that love to our world. We, in essence, are the “how” that will carry out the mission that God began through Jesus Christ. We are how God blesses the world when we use our abilities and the aforementioned God spark within us to be actors of hope and peace and joy and love.
And when Mary cries out in her Magnificat that we heard Julie read today and says that God has shown strength and scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful and lifted the lowly, God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty, God has helped those who are God’s servants in remembrance of God’s promise of mercy and God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants forever; Mary is crying out in thanks to God for blessing her and the world with Jesus. But this cry of thankfulness at the magnificence of the Lord is an eternal cry to all generations to follow that we must be the ones who enact the “How?” and take the teachings and lessons and life of Jesus Christ and be that God Incarnate self we are to each other in our world.
Because this is the only way God’s Love which we are reminded of every Christmas, which we celebrate and remember this time of year, which we long for in our lives, will ever happen. God has chosen us to be the answer to the great question of “How?” Not because God cannot do it by God’s self, but because God chose for us to have the free will to either enact God’s will in the world and share love, or turn from our Incarnate God-spark and let the light fade. This places us as the ones with agency; again, we must be the “How!”
And so just as St John of the Cross reminds us, “If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy, and say, ‘I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.’” If you want you will see the “how?” of God’s love Incarnate within you as “under the roof of your soul you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever.” If you want you have within you the “how?” to change the world as God “grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”
Yes, dear pilgrim, the “how?” is within you, within your “sacred womb in your soul.” For indeed, “God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is God’s beloved servant never far.” So, if you want, God has already given you the “how,” God is calling you to the “how,” and when you answer and embrace the love that God burst forth into our world with that Christmas so long ago, you dear pilgrim live into the “how” God gave. For the Lord is with you, the Holy Spirit is within you, and the Most High loves you. May we then all answer just as Mary did and proclaim, we are the “how,” Amen!
 St John of the Cross, “If You Want,” From Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.
Rev. Tony Romaine
As we continue our journey through the Advent season this year and we explore the great questions which we are all taught from an early age, Who, What, Why, When, Where, and perhaps even How; today we reach the question of “What?” Specifically, what peace we should focus on during Advent. But because we should always have a definition to work from, according to Merriam Webster’s (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peace) dictionary, the definition of peace is:
See, the peace that we are being called to is a physical peace, but it is also a mental state where we can be happy and joyful and content; indeed peace-filled. At the same time, the peace that we are being called to as Christians is not a passive peace in which we merely wait for God’s eternal reign to come and then there will be peace. No, our peace must be one where we actively engage in our world and decide to be the peacemakers, just as Jesus came to teach us. Thus, our peace calls us to be discontent with the ills of our world and to work for change. So, as we further define the “what” the peace of Advent, of God, of Jesus Christ is calling us to, let us dive into exploring the concepts of content and discontent.
Peace is a state of being content when we realize and recognize that our God is always with us and we are going to be okay. Just as the hymn we sang a few minutes ago reminds us, we are to take comfort in God. Peace is a state of contentment when we listen to Scriptures like 2 Peter that tell us how God is playing the long game and our years amongst all of God’s creation is like a drop in the bucket. Peace is also knowing that even though I am only one of seven billion people God knows me and every part of me and longs for the best for me.
Peace is also knowing that because of free will, some things of our world are going to happen which are not within my control. Peace is being content in how God made me, how God uses me, and the future God has planned for me. And being content is also trusting and being at peace with not knowing every little bit of my future. Peace is content when we have bad days or good days, when things go our way or do not go our way. We are content when we do as the Psalmist asks of us and turn our hearts toward God and then we will be at peace.
And yet in order to truly define the “what” of what God’s peace is calling us to, we must also be discontent. In a very basic way, we must be discontent when others cannot live at peace; or be content themselves. We are called by the life and teachings of Jesus to be discontent when society does not allow others to live in peace. We are called by the life and teachings of Jesus to be discontent when the laws of our world do not allow for peace. We are called to be discontent when others cannot live into who God made them to be, where God made them to be, what God made them to be. We must be discontent when the love that God longs for all God’s children is held back from all God’s children. We are called to be discontent when the peace that we enjoy cannot be enjoyed by all the world. We are called to be discontent when there are still those in this world who do not know of the love of God. We must be discontent until that one fine day when all will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and washed in the waters of eternal glory.
See, the “what” of peace is indeed one of being content and discontent. And yet there is another part to our “what” for today too; the great question that we must all ask ourselves, “What does God’s peace look like for me?” Yet, I would ask another question too, “In what ways must I move from being content to being discontent and from being discontent to being content?” Or in other words, “What is it I need to do less of to live into God’s peace, and what do I need to do more of to bring about God’s peace?”
This is the true “what” that our God is calling us to during the Advent season. We are a people who have been, and still are, on an extra-ordinary journey this year. We have had to experience things in one year that the world has not seen for a hundred years. And in this season where we remember that God burst forth into the world to bring about peace, we are ourselves wondering what peace truly looks like or even means. But in this manner, we must be reminded that for the Lord one day is indeed like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. And so, while we are waiting for the peace which comes through Christ to come once again, we must believe in the “what” that God’s peace will bring about.
We must trust in God and whatever our days hold and we will indeed be in a state of tranquility or quiet. We must work for peace in the communities we live in, within the families we are a part of, within the places we call home and the places we go. For then we will all be able to join in the peace that is provided for by law or custom. Not the laws of the state per se, but the Eternal Commandments to love God and love one another.
You must be happy when you look in the mirror and see the wonderful creation God made in you, when you see the places God has led you, when you see how God works in and through you and then you indeed will be at peace, free from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.
And when you see that others around you cannot live in this way, when you see how divided our world is and how hate-filled some corners of creation are; extend a hand, make a call, speak out in your corner and work for God’s love to shine. For then we will all be at peace and be able to live in harmony in personal relations.
And when all seems lost, or the world seems too big to change, or life seems to be spinning out of control, or you just cannot look in the mirror for the sins you hold onto hold you back; remember the One who came who baptizes with Holy Spirit, remember the One who came to be the Peace of our world, remember the One who came to forgive you and to be your stillness in the storm, your peace and calm; the One who came to remind you just how loved you are, and be content that God was so discontent with the world that He sent Jesus to bring about peace. What an amazing “what” of peace that is, Amen!
Rev. Tony Romaine
As we journey through the Advent season this year, I want to take us on an exploration of the great questions which we are all taught from an early age, Who, What, Why, When, Where, and perhaps even How. Each week we will tackle another one of these basic questions in response to our Advent season. For today, we are going to discuss when…So let us begin!
I remember my Grandpa telling me a story comparing how things are done in Minnesota and how things are done in California. He told me, “Back in MN if you took your car into the repair shop and asked for when they would have it back to you, if they told you ‘Next Wednesday,’ it meant you could go in the next Wednesday and pick it up. But here in CA, when I take the car into the repair shop and they tell me ‘Next Wednesday,’ that could indeed be next Wednesday, or it could be Thursday, or Friday, or the following Wednesday.” I think of this story often when I think about how different time is to different people in different places.
The million-dollar question of “when” is one that is near and dear to my heart, for it was a question that led me down my path of calling in ministry and my complete trust in God. And trust is the concept which most aligns with our questions of when, for we do not know the time and date of when it will happen, but we must trust in that it will.
But what is this “when” we refer to? Well, for the ancient Israelites, the “when’s” they were wondering were many, just like ours. When will we be saved from this Egyptian slavery? When will we be saved from this wandering in the wilderness? When will we be saved from the Assyrians and the Babylonians? When will the promised Savior come? Often times, our ancestors were so focused on asking questions and doubting their current situation, that they failed to heed the warnings of the prophets or listen and follow the Word of God. Instead of remaining present in their lives and working, worshipping, and being the love of God to one another, they often would ignore their call to love God and love one another and instead pine after their “when’s.”
Moreover, when times were bad, they would call on God to save them and blame God if it did not happen. And when times were good, they thought that they themselves could prolong and procure those good times and so failed in their thankfulness to God. Thus, when the ultimate Savior did come, they were expecting the “when” they thought was right and what was going to happen and were blind to the actual coming of the Lord into their lives.
I don’t know about you, but hearing this very brief generalization of the Old and New Testaments up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection makes me ponder about my own life. It seems to me like there might be a few lessons we need to learn about asking the question of “when.”
First lesson of when:
Second Lesson of When:
Third lesson of when:
See, this Advent, as in the past, we are being called to trust in the when which we do not know. We are being called to live into a light that we must trust will burst forth into our lives once again at a time yet to be determined. We are being told to be ready, for we do not know the hour or the day, but we must be prepared. But it seems just like our ancestors of old, our “when’s” are piling up again. For instance:
But if I can be so bold, let me offer what I feel might be God’s response to some of these questions of when. Because I truly feel and believe that if we were all to reflect on these, we know the answers in our hearts. So here we go:
And while we can only speculate the answers to all these “when’s,” if we are honest with ourselves, we do know one thing that we often forget; the waiting, the hoping, the time of anticipation is a moment for us to embrace one another in God’s love and share our love with the world.
Okay, if you were following along, you realize there is one of our “when” questions I did not answer: When will Jesus come again to heal our broken world? This one I do not presume to even postulate about, as we can never be sure. But this is what Advent is all about, and why we begin our Advent season with the Sunday of Hope; we must trust and believe in our God who does not abandon us, who does not ever leave us, who longs for us to put everything we have and give everything we have to God, and we must hope in a future we cannot even imagine nor have any idea of when it will come. Advent is all about trusting and believing in that our God of Love will provide, our God of Love is real, and Our God of Love will indeed come again.
And in this manner, I feel like God is working on repairing something; perhaps us. And when in hope we ask for a date of completion, in the most California way possible we do not really know our “when.” So, I guess it’s best we just prepare ourselves for whenever Wednesday comes and live into God’s Eternal Hope, Amen!
Rev. Tony Romaine
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” And while this quote could apply to so many aspects of our current stormy sea filled world, I want to apply it to something that we all too often take for granted…grace.
Our Gospel passage today is one of those difficult ones that preachers sometimes just pass over or use but don’t really delve into. But for us today, I think it is vitally important that we wade into these troubled waters and try our hand at these rough seas. There are many things troubling us about this particular passage that perhaps prevent us from grasping what Jesus is trying to teach. In fact, we read this parable and we ask ourselves, where is the grace in here Jesus? Why are you telling us this parable? We are left feeling like the love and grace we have been promised through Jesus, which is not dependent on our actions or on our abilities is missing and we feel like this is just a passage to skip over because it does not agree with our pre-dispositions or likings. Well, because the most difficult times can sometimes offer us the greatest perspective, let us work through this convicting passage and see what sailors we might become.
First there is the language of master and servant. We do not like to be referred to as servants, or if you read other translations, slaves; especially in reference to our relationship with God. This is why I describe it as a convicting passage, because we are indeed servants. Yes, we have free will and we can choose and make decisions, but we are servants to the choices we make. For instance, if we choose to buy fancy things, live opulently, or have a lot of debt, we are servants to the loans we have. If we ignore our family and friends so we can be on our phone or watch tv, then we are servants to our selfishness. If we would rather hold back our love and our ability to care for one another because we fear others, or subscribe to the hate-filled vitriol of some parts of our society; we are servants to the worst parts of ourselves. If we use religion to divide people and not allow for God’s grace to shine upon all God’s children or God’s love to reach everyone; then we are servants to humanity’s god, not the Almighty God.
In this manner, we create masters for ourselves that entrap and ensnare us in a servitude which only seeks to harm, not free us. See, here is the interesting part of this Master/servant parable; I think we understand that God is the Master and we are the servant, but what we often miss about this relationship is that God is a Master who ultimately frees us. We have encapsulated ourselves in a world of sin, and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are forever freed; which is where grace comes in. Yes, we are servants of our God, if you must use that language. But that service is one that leads to freedom; one where the choices we make open us up to healing, love, and one that brings talent upon talent of reward. Speaking of which, leads us into the next part that troubles people about our parable for today; the talents.
Before we get into the theology, we must tackle the immense amount of what a talent was worth. A talent was equal to 6,000 denarii; a denarius was equal to one day’s wages. So, one talent is equal to 6,000 days of work. To make math easy, let’s just say there were 300 working days in a year, and that puts one talent at the equal of 20 years of work. Now that we have some tangible measures for what a talent was worth, we can see that giving someone five talents would equal 100 years of work, two talents 40 years of work, and obviously the one talent as we have already discussed, 20 years of work. Now think of how much you make in one year and multiply it accordingly…pretty amazing!
Regardless, though of the worth, the sticking point for us in this Gospel passage is the way the Master rewards when he returns. He rewards those who invested the talents with more talents and scolds the one who did not invest wisely, takes his talent away, and casts him into the vast “outer darkness.” Why, because this servant was so afraid of his Master that he did not want to do anything with the talent except give it back un-changed.
But the talents in this parable represent so much more than money. The talents represent our lives and God’s grace. The very fact that we live and breathe are one of the greatest gifts of all time. If you have never thought about all of the intricacies of what makes your body work, (even on those days you might feel like it isn’t working!) then you really should stop and ponder at creation. And while I could sermonize for a long time about the wonders of our humanity, these talents that are given to the servants represent the myriad ways in which God has created us to use our gifts for the world.
What if instead of talents, we said that the Master gave each servant certain gifts? One received five different gifts of their being, one received two, and the last received one. Each one an individual, each one with gifts all their own. The parable then opens up to being called to take the very things which create us uniquely ourselves and multiply them upon the world. That we would use the God-spark of creativity, humanity, function, and action that God breathes into us at our creation and multiply it upon the world. Not for our own benefit, but for the glory of God, not for our growth, but for the good of the world.
Furthermore, we should not be afraid of the reaction of our God. We should not be afraid to come back to God and say, “I tried and tried and tried, but I could not multiply this gift or these gifts.” For as we see in the parable, it is better to have tried to do something than to quiver in fear and not use any of the gifts at all. And when these talents equate to our God-given gifts and abilities, if we cower in fear of God and do not do anything because we are afraid that we might fail or we might tarnish the gift given to us; well then, we are not truly living at all!
For while this parable ends in what seems like a mean-spirited, vengeful way of a Master who was unhappy because he did not receive return on investment; it is more so a direct reminder that we are created for a purpose and when we ignore or fail to act out of fear, it is not just the Master who throws us into outer darkness but we who do it to ourselves.
So where does God’s grace come in you might be asking right now. What does grace have to do with this very troubling passage. The talents in this parable also represent God’s grace. We are all given another greatest gift of all time as part of our creation; that our sins are forgiven through the Grace of Jesus Christ, of God Incarnate. And this gift is so valuable that its worth is more than one, two, or five talents. Its worth is immeasurable because it is a gift which takes us from our human bondage in sin and frees us to life ever-lasting. Its worth is immeasurable because it allows us to take the Master’s gift and invest it in others, invest it in ourselves, invest it in the world to spread the Good News of God’s Love everywhere. Its worth is immeasurable, because if you are like me you would have a lot to be worried about come judgment day if our God was truly an eye-for-an-eye vengeful Master. But thankfully our God, while being awesome and perhaps scary from time-to-time, is also a God who longs for us to be eternally freed to life eternal in God’s glory; otherwise we never would have received Jesus, and we certainly would not have the Holy Spirit.
And so, we can cower in fear and take the gift of God’s grace and just hide it away and not even invest it for ourselves. We can think that God is just a mean kid with a magnifying glass and we are the ant hill. We can put all our cares and troubles on God and say if there really was a God then why would all this be happening. We can think all we want about the gifts God has or has not given us and tremble in our own self-servitude.
Or, we can receive the gifts our Master gives and believe that we are given them for a purpose. We can take the gifts, the talents, the grace, and share them with a world that might not even know there are gifts to be had. And we can prepare ourselves and be awake for when the Master returns and not cower and hide because we think we know what that will look like, but live, be free, and trust in that our God, Our Master, will return and we want to boast in love and grace.
Could Jesus just have said all this clearly, absolutely! But this parable is coming at the end of Matthew’s Gospel right after he has been warning the disciples and people to stay awake, and right before he will be captured, tried, crucified, and resurrected. So, Jesus wants the people and his disciples to be ready, for their Master is about to leave and the seas are going to get quite rough. Also remember, even the disciples who followed Jesus did not fully understand or believe all the time, this is why Jesus spoke in parables, so that those who were blind would see and those who thought they could see would be made blind.
So what makes us think we would be able to trust in God’s gifts for us if they were clearly laid out for us? We look at our lives now and we long for days of yore. We long for those days when our churches were full, our chairs were full, our budgets growing, our talents and abilities many, our days filled with social outings or get-togethers. We think that the past was better because things were simpler and life was not as complicated. Or we look at the pandemic we are in the midst of and wonder why this happened to us now; perhaps wondering what our future holds or if we will even survive…And we take the very talents that we have been given; our God-given abilities and God’s Grace, and we discount them because we think we know what our lives should look like instead of what they are and the ways God is using us amidst our struggles.
I get it, this Gospel passage today is not an easy one, our lives right now are not easy. But remember, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” We are being called right now by God to invest even more in the gifts we have been given. We are being called right now by God to re-focus our talents and treasures for the goodness and love of God to shine into our world. We are being called right now, to be the grace for one another, to offer love to one another, and to have faith that God loves us so much that we are not alone and we can get through anything if we just trust and believe in our Master. If we think beyond our past and imagine a future, when Jesus will return once more and take inventory of how we used our God-given abilities, of how we lived into the Grace which He paid such a heavy price for us to have, when Jesus will return and save us once more if we would just put on the “breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope in our salvation.”
Why is this so important for us to cover? Why must we go through this difficult parable just to learn this lesson? Because God has entrusted us with all the world. The very first verse of this parable tells us that we are entrusted with all God’s property and all creation. We are entrusted with taking God’s gifts and God’s grace and making an investment. One which bears each other up in encouragement, one that seeks to share and engage with our world, and one that we cannot neglect. Moreover, because we live in a world that has not yet completely seen all the greatness of our gifts; it means we must sail the stormy seas of uncertainty, of fear, and of doubt and we must be willing to float our ship filled with all the talents God has given us to share our Master’s grace with the world.
Perhaps this morning we have been woken by the waters splashing us in the face; by a parable which convicts us and causes us to look in the mirror; by our Savior who longs for us to be ready when He comes again. Good, now let us untie the ropes of our false masters, dip our oars into the waters which hold God’s gifts, and cast off all that would hold us back from investing in God’s grace. We have been summoned, now we must believe, now we must have faith, now we must hope and sail steadfast into our world filled with God’s love and grace, Amen
“First United Church of Philippi, part IV”
Rev. Tony Romaine—November 1st, 2020
I’m going to leave these ruins of the church in Philippi up throughout this message today, because I truly want us to focus on what these ruins have to say for us. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, as we conclude our four-part series going through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, let us be reminded that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and to our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that we should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that we must be active Christian citizens. With this in mind, let us hear what our final chapter has to say on these two principles:
What matters most:
But Paul also wants us to be good Christian Citizens so we must:
Now let us return to the ruins of Philippi:
Why show these ruins of what is left of the church in Philippi? We focus on the ruins of Philippi as a demonstration that while stones may crumble and fall, our call to be what God calls us to be lives on! Which begs the questions that Paul longs for us to focus on again and again:
So, are we indeed focusing on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable?” Or are we focusing on the importance of a building, of worshipping a place rather than, being the people; of worshipping the church instead of being the church? Are we focusing on being good Christian citizens living our lives in unity and focused on the mission of the Gospel of Christ? Are we sharing and preparing for the day when Christ will come again? Are we active in our communities and helping the people we live in and around to know we are Christians by the actions we take and the words we use. Do we vote, volunteer, or stay in touch with one another? Are we there for one another when it truly matters most? Are we there for strangers when it truly matters most?
And if we want our church to remain vibrant, if we long for our church that has been filled with saints for hundreds of years to remain filled with future saints, then we must not be tied to a building, a place, or anything of the flesh; but must place our trust in where and how and what God is calling us to in the future. If that is at 1000 First Street SE in Little Falls, MN for centuries to come then that is awesome and great. But if it is somewhere else, something else, we must trust that as the old hymn says, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people!”
And for any who doubt that we can make it through COVID-19, or that our church can remain vibrant in our ever-changing world. I say look again at these ruins of the church in Philippi, ruins that have been like this for thousands of years. The church is long gone, but what about Christianity…did that survive; of course! And think about our church, First United Church of Little Falls: Fifty years ago there wasn’t even a church where we are now; and yet, here we are!
So how come and how can Christianity survive these things? What is Paul calling us to take with us? Christianity survives when we partake in the same way the ancient church practiced. That we reach out in charity, that we a part of our community, that we help the widows, the downcast, the downtrodden, the poor amongst us. That we are dedicated not just to ourselves, but we are dedicated to our place in the world. That we believe in the promise, and have faith in, eternal life through Christ Jesus. Yes, it takes money; yes, it sometimes takes empires and governments. But more so, Christianity survives through the love that we share with one another. Inside a building or outside in the world, within our homes or through a letter, in person or through a phone call; love can be shared in so many ways.
There’s an old quote that says, “A good lawyer never asks a question to which they do not already know the answer.” And in many ways, a pastor goes through a sermon series with the same mind; that the conclusion is known at the onset and the objective ever-present. Admittedly, I purposely had us walk through Philippians not for selfish gain or to make my job easier, but so that we could see and hear this example of a church being called to focus and unity. I chose this particular time in our season to go through the four chapters of Philippians and conclude the Sunday before our Tuesday elections and to end on All Saints Sunday.
And while the why might be now known, but let me prattle on just for fun. All throughout our last four weeks together, Paul has been asking us and urging us, directing us, and being a living example for us of needing to focus on what matters most. And in case I have not done a very good job of clearly stating what we should focus on; what matters most in our journey with one another, as church, as people, as Christians is that we stand firm in our love of God and our love of one another.
Furthermore, Paul urges us to be a united Christianity where our collective voices do not have to agree on every part of our existence. But that we could set aside differences, live into what makes us unique; and at the same time, be united under the all-inspiring, umbrella of Jesus’ love. But within this call, we are also called to be active Christian citizens within our world; taking the love God has for us and sharing it with our world; taking the love God gave to us through Jesus and sharing that message with the world. Using our hands and feet and voices to be the love of Christ to our world.
That no matter what happens to us, as we have seen happen to Paul in Philippians, whether that be imprisonment, unpopularity, loss of power or privilege, or even death itself; that no matter what, we would be people of the Good News, sharing the Good News, actively living into the love of Christ. That no matter who we came into contact with, they would know we are Christians and we are God’s love incarnate unto our world.
This is how we survive as a church; this is how we continue the memory of the saints in our lives, and this is how we remain vibrant and active into our future. For we are a people who know that what matters most is our love and we will not fail in letting our world know. This is why we are the First United Church of Little Falls, of Philippi, of the people called by God, saved by Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit; now and forevermore. We are stronger than a building, greater than our differences, and called to be the love our world needs now more than ever.
And so indeed, just as Paul closes at the end of Philippians, my sisters and brothers, let us go forth doing what matters most, living what matters most, and being good Christian citizens, and may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, Amen!
“First United Church of Philippi, part III”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 25th, 2020
As we continue our four-part series going through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, let us be reminded that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and to our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that we should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that we must be active Christian citizens. With this in mind, the tone of Paul’s letters so far have been fairly cordial and muted, with greetings, extensions of thanks, and directions for focus and purpose.
However, with this third chapter, Paul’s tone changes quite a bit. From what we can gather, there must have been some opponents of Paul’s church in Philippi or even division from within that were causing trouble and Paul needed to make sure this was addressed. The extent of the beginning of this third chapter thus deals with speaking out against false teachers and those who “mutilate” the flesh, i.e. circumcision, but do not actually follow the Spirit of God. Those who see circumcision as just another physical determination whether someone is holy or not, and so perform this ritual, yet do not actually follow the faith of Christ Jesus. As we hear Paul arguing that “confidence in the flesh” is not what matters, but that the Philippians have received the spiritual marks they need through worshipping in the Spirit of God and boasting in Christ Jesus.
Paul then goes on this diatribe that may seem self-serving, but is actually a verbose way of him trying to tell the Philippian church, and all of us, that if anyone were to be boastful and be someone who should know about how to keep holiness laws and rituals, it would be him. For he was once a Jew who brought gentiles or Judeo-Christians to be prosecuted and sometimes executed in the Sanhedrin or the Jewish court. Paul, when he was Saul, was an upright and holy Jew who followed all of the “righteous” ways of living and was “righteous under the law.”
And yet, when he was on the road to Damascus and Jesus appeared and blinded him and converted him right then and there to become one of the most important followers of Christ our world has ever known, Paul knew that at that moment everything leading up to that point was a loss. For everything before this point was a mirage. It was as if he was living a false life, it was as if he was following only the laws of the world and of the flesh and not truly listening or following the laws of the Spirit or the laws of God; who, if we truly listen, is calling us to more than the designations of what our flesh can demonstrate, calling us to be more than what we can say about one another, calling us to worship in ways which are beyond our human understanding, and calling us into being so much more than our current way, shape, or form. Calling us to truly focus on what matters most.
This is why Paul counts all of his pre-Jesus experience as loss, because the person he is now, is not just a person of the flesh, but one who has been saved by Christ and thus should live into this faith. Whereas, the person he was before was only concerned about how to separate and delineate, not bring together, call together, and live by faith. In this manner, Paul had to die to his old self, just as Christ died upon the Cross, in order to be brought into the new life which is the salvation Jesus gave to Paul and is the death that Paul talks about joining in which provides for a resurrection upon his death.
Paul reminds us that this goal of perfection and resurrection, which he freely admits he has not yet attained, will indeed not be accomplished until the day we die. This does not mean we do not pursue it; rather, we should be working and striving toward that perfection like an athlete, not living in the past which has faded away and we can never relive, but striving toward the future and the “heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.”
This “heavenly,” or “prize of the calling from above,” in the Greek, is such wonderful language, because once again we are being given this higher designation than the place where we currently stand. That Jesus is calling us upward, or maybe forward would be even better, to look beyond our past and current circumstances into a future which cannot yet be seen or experienced, but is one filled with a promise yet to come. This is something that Paul longs for the Philippians to be focused on, not the wayward teachings of the evildoers among them who instead seek to turn their attention to the earthly laws and rituals which will detract from the goal of unity and perfection.
This leads into one of the most important points of this short chapter and again one of Paul’s over-arching principles for the church: the idea of Christian citizenship. It sometimes seems like Paul is being egotistical when he writes to the Philippians and commends them for acting like him or exhorts them to act like him. And while I can understand the obvious ego in these statements, what Paul is actually doing is calling a young church to follow his example of Christian citizenship. He is not saying, “Worship me,” he is saying, “Live like me, be a Christian like me,” “Follow Jesus like I have.” For if you do, that will mean that you oppose the enemies of the cross, you oppose those who would seek to leave people out of the church based on their dietary laws, their ability to be holy, or their pasts which do not dictate their futures.
It would mean that you would count as loss the laws which seek to keep people from truly experiencing the unity and love of Christ and that you would oppose those who seek only to satisfy their flesh and not live into the Holy Spirit. And if we follow where Paul is leading us, it will mean that we are Christian Citizens whose residence is heaven. Let me say that again because it means so much in our current day and age: Our citizenship is in heaven; we are Christian citizens of heaven! This exposes an important tangent implicit in this chapter that we need to explain and make clear:
It is not popular to say that our country does not matter or our city does not matter or our state does not matter; and in fact, I would argue that Paul is asking us to be active parts of all of those areas. But, if our duty to any entity whatsoever gets in the way of our ability to love as Christ loved us, if our worship ever becomes more focused on an earthly idol, person, or country and that prevents us from being able to welcome our brothers and sisters in unity, to live as Christian citizens of heaven and truly know what matters most in our lives; then that entity, person, or state is of the “evildoers.”
It may not be popular or easy, but the righteous way of living is to be in line with, and have faith in, Our Savior who takes all of the humbleness of our humanity and transforms it, the Greek word that Paul uses here in verse twenty-one actually means “will transform,” meaning that our bodies change and mold into Jesus’ through his sacrifice; so that our humbleness is glorified and made perfect through him. But to do this means we must think differently, act differently, and be different citizens than what some in our world may want us to be. Which is why Paul calls us at the beginning of chapter four and where we will go next week to “stand firm” in Jesus in this way…
What way is that you might ask again? The way that follows through on that Spirit moving through you right now! That you know how to act, talk, be, and love. That you know when Paul asks us to focus on what matters most; that you know what matters most. That when Paul calls us to be active Christian citizens, you know what it means to be a Christian citizen. That what we are being called to do is deny the flesh and live into the Spirit of God’s love in our world. That the earthly things so many desire of fame, fortune, pride, greed, jealousy, power, prestige, and popularity…that all these things whither and fall away, but our citizenship in heaven is eternal and will never falter.
This is what we are to safeguard against the evils of our world, this is why we are to turn away from the evildoers and false Christians who live counter to Jesus’ call. The false teachers and followers of Christ who do not live lives full of love for all God’s creation and love for all God’s people, but who focus instead on how they can divide the world to make themselves more populous and more popular…all the while, sullying the name of Jesus and using God’s name in vain as they promote and promulgate their own profane vanity.
And perhaps this hits close to home today, perhaps we are being called to be like Paul and count our old ways as loss as we look into the mirror and realize that we are sometimes the very people we detest. If that is so, I would say to us, let us lose it all for Christ then. Let us lay everything down for Jesus who is calling us to so much more than we could ever imagine. Let us press on toward that goal of the heavenly prize Paul talks about and declare once and for all that we are transformed into the glory of Christ and we will safeguard what matters most, protect our Christianity from falling into false hands, and be active Christian citizens who will call our world to be the earthly representation of love that is perfected in heaven.
And if we are afraid of losing it all, perhaps even our friends, family, or places of power and prestige…let us be reminded that losing it all for the glory of God so that our world would know the love of Jesus is not loss at all, but gain. For we are transformed in the process from all that we once hoarded in the flesh into all that we now gain in the Spirit. As we indeed possess heaven and live into all the gifts that the love of Jesus provides. Or as Paul ends our chapter for today and begins our chapter for next week with: the joy and crown of standing firm in the love of God; the joy, my beloved, of Jesus.
So let us indeed focus on living into the love of God that matters most; let us be living examples of citizens of heaven, Christian Citizenry whose hands and feet are filled with the hope, joy, and love; and let us indeed stand firm united in love, united in Jesus, those whom God loves and longs for, Amen!
“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!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.