Shall we remain
blind?

Jesus said to the Pharisees: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”

Our Old Testament reading lays it all out there. Amos is drawing a very clear picture of Israel’s complacency, laziness, arrogance, and blindness. They were too busy enjoying themselves, believing they had it all – and they failed to see the collapse that was all around them. Jesus picks up this theme in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Jesus points to the ways we can be complacent, lazy, arrogant, and blind. In illustrating the way one man failed to see what was right in front of him, Jesus reminds us that we can miss what is right in front of us. Even nature, in the form of dogs, recognizes what man could not see. This is a warning – in each age we must be awake.

We have been truly blessed here in Schenectady. Our members are faithful and generous. Everyone works together to raise up the Name of Jesus. The Gospel is proclaimed and we live it. We have a very high PNU membership rate. Yet we must redouble our efforts. Awake and aware, we must lead people to Christ and his Church.

The organizers of our Church, men and women, clergy and lay, came together because their eyes were open. They didn’t just sit in their pews blindly coughing up pennies and nickels while being accused of every evil and threatened with hell. They saw the hatred of evil pastors. They saw the power of greed and the exercise of iron-fisted rule. They saw hypocrisy. They didn’t ignore it and took action – organizing a pristine Church on the model of the early Church. Eleven years later and still on alert, they saw persecution and injustice. They took action – founding Spójnia. In this day and age we must remain diligent and awake doing what is needed.

Our world and our country are faced with tremendous challenges. Yet too many eyes and ears are closed as they were in Israel. We stretch comfortably on couches, eat rich food, listen to improvisations, drink wine in excess, and anoint ourselves with the best perfumes and lotions. As people of faith we must wake the world to God’s justice and truth.

Tragically, our Church is facing dire times. National Church dues amount to $2.15 a week, yet thousands have decided the Church is not worth it. Heaven forbid they go up to $3 a week! The PNU cannot get people to join together. As Amos warned Israel: the road ahead will be captivity and disgrace. Will that be our fate? We have much to do. Eyes open and resolute it is time to rise again. Let us lead the way to salvation.

He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.

Why do we do certain things in life? We go to school to get an education. We go to work to make money. We go to the gym to improve our health. We go to the mall to shop for clothes and the grocery store to buy food. We go to parks, games, and the theater for fun.

But church? Why come here? Why get up early on one of our few off-days? Why go through the hassle of dressing up and the getting ready? Why go to the trouble of finding a parking space nearby? Why go to church?

If we’ve ever found ourselves wondering about that little question, we’re not alone. Surveys tell us that as many as 79% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, yet only 20% of Americans attend church regularly. I guess some people look at going to church as a bother—an unnecessary burden to be avoided or only a place for baptisms and funerals. Others see it as sort of like punching a spiritual clock or earning brownie points with their Maker.

But to someone who understands church and what it’s really all about, going to church can be the most spiritually fulfilling, inspiring thing we do all week. It lifts us up higher if we are high and helps us stand if we are down.

The Book of Acts tells the story of how the church got started. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, he sent the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples. They went out and began preaching Jesus—the only way who gave us the Good News. Millions listened, thousands believed. Then at the end of Acts 2, we find a short snapshot of what life was like in the early church: All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals, and to prayer… And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had… And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. I would love to be in a church like this! Wouldn’t you?

Churches are springing up. There is a longing. In every place, in small broken down and big fancy buildings people are being lifted up. God is on the move for those who say yes to Jesus – who invest the time to believe the promises of the All Powerful God. Church is the community of God – where we are pulled up higher, where we will do justice, experience victory, and find true peace. Church isn’t a destination; it’s something we become. When we understand what it means to be the Church, we discover our life’s true purpose—to be a member of His family, magnify His glory, mature in His image, be a minister of His mercy, and to be a missionary of His grace. Be lifted up, lift up all. Now is the time.

Relationship
changed!

I, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment; I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother.

Today we encounter Paul’s shortest letter. It is a letter to his friend and co-worker Philemon and his family. This letter is only one chapter containing twenty-five short verses.

Generally any letter from Paul deals with a crisis at hand. In this case the crisis is neither doctrinal nor a confused morality. Philemon and the fellow Christians that meet at his house seem to have their faith on straight. This letter is about one man and his relationship to another. Philemon’s slave Onesimus had run away, perhaps guilty of theft in the process. Onesimus ran off and found Paul in Rome. They had likely met during Paul’s stay with Philemon. Paul brought Onesimus to knowledge of and faith in Jesus. Onesimus spent time helping and serving Paul during his imprisonment in Rome. Now Paul was sending Onesimus back as a changed man.

Paul knew that in sending Onesimus back, Philmon would have to confront the reality of his faith. Paul’s lesson here, his teaching of the Gospel, is focused on getting relationships straight. For Paul, the essential fruit of the Gospel is transformed relationships. Who was Onesimus now – and how was Philemon supposed to relate to him?

Philemon and Onesimus were both to learn that being a Christian means being transformed and being part of a new relationship between oneself, God, the rest of humanity, and the world.

Faith in Jesus is to bring change to our lives. It is not just an interior thing, but also an exterior one. They way we relate and interact with others is to demonstrate our faith – faith truly lived. This changed relationship often stands at odds with the surrounding secular order. Philemon could easily and rightly have Onesimus killed in dozens of horrible ways for even the slightest of offenses, much less running away. Thus the social conflict that emerges from being Christian in an anti-God world. Paul focuses on this interpersonal conflict and the way we must revise and reform our relationships. How will our relationships be changed despite the world’s rules? How will Philemon react? Will Christ or the world rule our relationships?

Paul reminds Philemon of his encounter with the Jesus. So we must be reminded. The strength of our life in Jesus is tested in relationship. In daily crises let Jesus change our lives and our way of relationship.

Who is at the head
of the line?

“And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

The people of Israel believed themselves to be at the head of the line As long as a Jewish person kept the whole Law they were assured entry into the world to come. Others could only enter the world to come if they observed the seven laws that God gave to Noah – the Noahide commandments. However, Christians are excluded as idolaters because we accept the fact that Jesus is God. We cannot be in line for heaven.

Isaiah tells Israel something very important, in fact something shocking – the gentiles will be brought into the glory of God. In fact, some of these unclean people who do not even observe the Noahide commandments will be made priests of God. They will be in line too. Jesus fulfills Isaiah in telling those who thought they were in line that they may well have no place unless they enter through the narrow gate. God’s salvation in Jesus has destroyed preconceived notions. Something much greater is required for salvation.

No one will get into the line for heaven unless they strive to do so. Entering the narrow gate requires strength and a resolute attitude. I will live as Jesus lived. I will follow Him alone. What matters is where we are in our living. Jesus advises us to set aside preconceived notions as to who is righteous and saved. We need to see differently and to take up the challenge of living the life God has designed.

We tend to still live with preconceived notions. Some of our notions have few consequences while others impact our eternal well-being. Some may think that they can earn their way to heaven (by keeping the old Law or by checking things off a holy to-do list). Some think there is no hell or eternal punishment and everyone is going to heaven (common sense – why bother believing in Jesus, belonging to His family, or coming to church if it doesn’t matter). It isn’t that easy. There are consequences for unbelief and for refusing Christ. There is a negative result for walking past the narrow gate.

Jesus broke down every preconceived notion of God and showed us the reality of His loving Father. He challenges us to leave behind self-assuredness. He asks us to take the road that leads to the line. To get there means to live as Jesus did, not as we wish and to take Jesus very seriously. We are to be deeply concerned – not about who is in line but whether we are assuming or striving through the harder gate.

Run, compete, and
do not quit.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

One thing you learn in Olympic competitions is that you never look back or across at you opponent during a race. You don’t do it on the track or in the pool. Doing so slows you down, it takes those few milliseconds off your timing and you end up losing.

In the world of sports, particularly like Olympic wrestling, if you are in great pain or can’t take it any more you can tap out. When someone taps out, they are surrendering to their opponent. They are throwing in the towel, they are giving up, and they are quitting the fight. They are saying you win, its over, I’m done, it’s finished.

These competitions are nothing compared to the battle Jesus waged on a daily basis. The writer of Hebrews tells us that if we are struggling and thinking about throwing in the towel, look at Jesus as the greatest example of someone who didn’t quit when the battle was hot, and his foes multiplied.

When we are faced with struggles we need to realize that throughout Scripture we see examples of people who tapped out. Adam and Eve had only one chance at tapping out to temptation – and they took that road. Noah did it with alcohol. Abraham did it out of fear. David did it when he gave into lust. Judas decided money was more important than God. Peter thought denial was the better choice. The crowd found Jesus’ word too hard and quit.

All though history and in our lives we tap out. The record of humanity is a horrible record of failure and tapping out.

But that isn’t the only the thing the Bible, or history, or our lives tell us. From Adam and Eve forward, right alongside every tap out and failure, God gave us His promise: Help is on the way. That promise of help was fulfilled in Jesus. Know that even before trouble comes, help is already worked out.

The thing about Jesus is His humanity. We can really be like Him. We can live as He lived. Look at all He faced and He didn’t tap out. The writer of Hebrews tells us He didn’t tap out even in taking up His cross.

Those who believe in Jesus, who follow Him – His saints too – the great cloud of witnesses figured that out. They too, once they found Him, refused to tap out. It is because of the joy we have – the great promise – that we must run without looking back and wrestle without tapping out.

Prepare, expect and
live it out.

And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant in charge of all his property. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish the servant severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful.”

In an Ameritrades commercial a lazy husband is on the coach as his wife tells him to do one thing that day – establish an online investment account. He says, “Sure.” Then goes back to watching television. Finally he falls asleep only to wake up as his wife is pulling into the driveway. He jumps to his feet, rushes to the computer and opens an account in seconds. He jumps back on the coach as his wife walks in and asks: ‘Did you set up the account?’ His reply, ‘Of Course.’

It may be possible to wait till the last possible moment to establish an Ameritrades account, but there are some things that are far too important to take a chance on. It is like our athletes in Rio. To be ready to compete they had to train – years of training and lesser competitions just for this moment. They took no chances. So too for our relationship to God, we cannot wait and just take a chance on being ready. We must prepare ourselves and be ready for the moment – whether it be His calling us home or His glorious return. Would the loss of heaven be worth the risk of ignoring preparation?

Jesus spoke often of his return. There are over 260 chapters in the New Testament, and Christ return is mentioned at least 318 times.

In today’s gospel we find the first extended teaching on the Second Coming of Jesus and here He warns us to be ready. To prepare! Today we hear about three distinct characteristics of a “good waiter.” For us, waiting must not be a static state but a time of preparation, expectation, and faithfulness.

The first characteristic of a “good waiter” is preparation. As our athletes prepare not just their bodies but their equipment as well, we are reminded to “be dressed and ready.” Jesus’ servants are those who do not give in to the fatigue or frustration of waiting. Rather we are to keep ourselves joyfully ready no matter how long it takes.

The second characteristic of a “good waiter” is expectancy. No matter the time, Jesus’ servants have not given up on His return; have not said that it is so long that He’ll never come. The time of the Lord’s return is not our major concern. What is important is that we remain alert, expectant, and that we do not grow lazy in living our witness.

The third characteristic of a “good waiter” is faithfulness. The faithful one who stood ready is rewarded. The one who is not faithful is fearfully punished – that is Jesus promise. Too often we lose sight of that, as if heaven is a given no matter what. As with our athletes, the unprepared, the unfaithful, the one that doesn’t walk the walk will be really disappointed. Today is the day of salvation. It is the day for us to start living by preparing (prayer, worship, Scripture), expecting, and faithfully walking with Jesus.

What’s important
to us?

Brothers and sisters: If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.

Paul is advising the Colossians to be single-minded and to concentrate on the great gift they had received; something we all need to hear. We belong to Jesus. He is our treasure. He is greater than anything we could possibly acquire. We belong to heaven and Jesus deserves our total attention. Yet we get so distracted. That is what happened to the man who came to Jesus. The man wanted Jesus to resolve a family dispute over inheritance.

The man was not asking for advice. He wanted Jesus to stand on his side and “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” He wanted Jesus to get the money for him, but Jesus saw the true problem in his heart – it was his focus. The man made money his priority even though he was standing in the presence of God. He could have asked any question, he could have asked for anything – healing, life, understanding, and a heart for God.

Jesus uses the opportunity to teach about priorities and the danger of misplaced priorities; of losing focus.

Look at Jesus’ story of distraction. The farmer is a happy man – a rich man – with a great harvest. He likely felt blessed by God. He so enjoyed being successful and rich. Suddenly he is looking forward to more – “And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

In his happiness he lost focus. He allowed the good he received to consume him. The blessings now became the priority and he forgot the source of the blessing. Bigger barns and enjoying blessings were his “soul” goal.

For the farmer everything was fine and good until he is confronted by the reality of God’s dominion and his misplaced priorities. God takes account of our priorities and focus. “God said to him, ’You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.’”

God reset the farmer’s perspective. In his misdirected focus the farmer only made plans for this life but not for what is to come. God was in his life but he ignored Him.

These moments, this scripture, is an opportunity for us. We can rejoice in the blessings we have but must keep our eye on their source. Jesus wants us to see things in the right perspective. He gives us eternal riches that must always be accounted for and tended to first. God wants us to enjoy life with Him as our most important priority.

Be annoying to
God.

I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was arrested for his challenges to the leaders of Athens. His student, Plato, recorded Socrates defense in the “Apology,” essentially the speech given by Socrates in court. As Socrates speaks he tells of the life he had lead, who he was, and his duty.

Socrates uses metaphor and compares himself to a gadfly and the state of Athens to a sluggish horse: “as upon a great noble horse, which was somewhat sluggish because of its size, and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly.” The gadfly is irritating. Everyone wants to get rid of the gadfly, but by its constant buzzing and stinging it awakens the one being annoyed.
The gadfly gets attention. Socrates told the court and the people that his being a gadfly is a gift given to them by the gods.

As we meet Abraham again, God in His presence is about to go off and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham becomes a gadfly to God. He is annoying, and he keeps at it. Five times he ask the Lord: What if there are only…

Similarly, by parable, Jesus tells us that this is perfectly fine. He tells us that the Father is open and accepting of our coming to Him in prayer and petition, even if we begin thinking we are annoying: he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.

One of the hardest things we face in life is asking for the things we need. It is like taking the last piece of chicken or the last chocolate. We are afraid to grab after it and claim it. We hesitate to ask for a raise at work or for affection from someone we care about. We may feel unworthy, overly self-deprecating, or too shy. In the end we feel unworthy – how much more with God. He won’t hear or listen to me, who am I?

Abraham too was a little afraid, but he did press on. Jesus reassures us that we are perfectly right to press on, to be persistent, to be a gadfly to God. We are God’s adopted children. We are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Jesus, God Himself, encourages us to approach the Throne of Grace, to storm heaven, to pray. Not just that, but we are to pray with confidence and persistence. St. Paul reminds us: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Yes, it is God’s will that we be those gadflies. The Father is not apart or immune from His children, which we are in Jesus. He will not hand us a rock or a snake. He will give that which we seek and ask for persistently and with faith. Let us keep at it.

God
visits!

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.”

There is so much symbolism in these few words of scripture.

This is one of those moments where an Old Testament encounter foreshadows the truth of the Holy Trinity revealed in Jesus. That is something great in and of itself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to Abraham’s camp and God is revealed as He is.

God is acting as if He is passing through. Abraham feels the presence of God and extends hospitality. He asks nothing more than that the Lord stay awhile. We can certainly understand and connect with that. We want God present and active in our lives. Lord, just stay with me awhile. Take hold of me. Abraham states it in words we might use: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.”

The terebinth of Mamre is a large oak tree. Terebinth is translated oak. We know that is where Abraham established his camp. The oak – symbolic of strength, courage and power – the most powerful of all trees, the mighty oak stands strong through all things. We desire God as our strength. Hold me up Lord, support me, and guide me through al things.

Abraham had their feet washed. He ran to Sarah and asked her to prepare bread. He had a servant prepare meat. He ran to fetch curds and milk – Abraham brought both fresh milk (probably from the camels) and sour milk (from the sheep – which is particularly refreshing in a hot climate), and this with the cakes and the calf made a stately meal. With noble courtesy he waited on them under the tree while they ate. We want to serve God in our charity towards others and through our worship.

This is most particularly a beautiful, heartwarming, and comforting encounter between man and God. Very appropriate for the season too; Abraham was trying to catch a little rest and coolness as the day grew hotter. Suddenly God was there, at Abraham’s doorstep. Key to us is God’s desire to encounter and be with us; to refresh us. Our God visits His people – not through weird visions and a Jesus with rays beaming out of Him – but in a very real way. He is with us in our homes, on the road, in good times and tragedy. He is not, as the song states, ‘looking on from a distance.’ Rather, God is revealed, present and active, strong and supportive, alive in all we serve. Not far. Here as He is!

Where is
God?

“For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

This week we experienced great joys at the annual Kurs encampment for the Church’s youth and children. We grew in faith and knowledge of the Lord. We focused our reverence on God alone.

This week we experienced great sadness at the prejudice that still exists in our country – the great American sin or as author and Christian activist Jim Wallis titles his book – America’s Original Sin. This week we also experienced great shock as one man decided to fight violence with violence, who took up the cause of hatred and wrought death instead of peace, reconciliation and life.

It is easy to see God at work when young hearts are opened, when barriers are broken down, when a person comes to the realization that God is with them. But, when we look at divided cultures and gridlocked power structures that fail to end systemic sin or worse yet, encourage sin and death, we feel that God is far from us.

That is the problem with expecting that we can “feel” God’s intervention. Sure, it is easy in good or joyous times to feel God. It might even be possible in times of tragedy; we run to the Lord to feel His comfort. But what about times such as these where we are hammered day-by-day with evil? What about times when our leaders and those with responsibility fail to stop and root out evil, or worse yet, condone it?

If we were to rely on feelings we would be tossed about like little boats on the sea. Up and down, He’s there; He’s not there. I don’t know. Moses got that. He knew that God had been with Israel through their exodus, before the enemy, in time of famine, thirst, sickness, and death. He had been there when Israel turned its back and ran away, even when they completely failed to trust in the Lord. Moses saw with eyes that had been taught by faith. It took him awhile, but he finally got it.

Like Moses we must build and renew our faith trust. Faith trust tells us that God is with us, not up in the sky, nor across the sea. No, very near to us. Faith trust tells us that He will answer us. With faith trust we will not loose heart in confronting evil. With faith trust we are secure even in the face of certain death. With faith trust we will see God act mightily in our life. Don’t just hope that we might feel His presence. Know He is here.