Author Archives: Mark Trotter

Mark Trotter ~ Night Moves

The hymn we have just sung, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” is based on the Old Testament lesson read for us this morning. It was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley was a prolific writer of hymns. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns. He put the great affirmations of our Christian belief, and particularly those that John Wesley felt were important, and put them into hymns. Other Christian traditions recite their faith with a creed. The Methodists have always sung their faith with hymns, Wesley’s hymns.

Isaac Watts, perhaps the greatest hymn writer ever, was a contemporary of Charles Wesley. He said that this was Wesley’s finest hymn. It was also John Wesley’s favorite. There is a wonderful story associated with this hymn. Two weeks after Charles Wesley died, John was preaching in London. In his sermon he read out the first line of this hymn. When he came to the phrase, “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee,” he thought of his brother, Charles, who had gone before him to the other shore, and was now in heaven. He stopped, and put his hands over his face, and wept. The whole congregation wept with him as they remembered Charles, the great hymn writer of the Methodist movement. This hymn is one of his best.

It is a wonderful hymn, and it is Wesley’s words that I want us to look at this morning. He tells in this hymn the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the stranger at the River Jabbok. Last week we looked at the story of “Jacob’s Ladder,” as it is called, the dream that Jacob had at Bethel, where God gave him the blessing that he had struggled so hard to achieve all of his life. In order to get that blessing Jacob deceived his twin brother, Esau, and lied to his father, Isaac. We saw also in that story that his name “Jacob” means “the striver,” and how all of his life he had struggled and was driven from the moment of his birth. In fact, even before his birth, the story of Jacob says, when he was in the womb, he and his twin brother, Esau, struggled and competed, fought to be number one. When they were born, Jacob was holding on to Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob, “The Striver.”

As this text begins he has everything he has ever wanted and more. Which is the pattern with “Jacobs,” they often succeed in this life, and sometimes spectacularly. Just as often, they will lose it all, and then get it back again.

We wish the story were written differently because Jacob is not the most admirable character. His character is not the most exemplary. We wish these biblical stories were written in a way to say that that kind of behavior does not prosper. But the Bible is honest, always honest, always realistic about our human life. The fact about life is that “Jacobs” generally get what they want, and they will use any means available to get it. They don’t always break the law, but they will stretch it, push it as far as they can.

Jacob’s main offense was against his brother Esau. He tricked him. But Esau was a fool, and a fool and his birthright are soon parted. Jacob knew what Esau’s weakness was. “Jacobs” go after that, manipulate it, use it in order to get their own gain. And it worked. But Esau is now angry. He swears revenge against his brother Jacob. Jacob flees.

The first night of his flight, you remember, he has that wonderful dream at Bethel, where God blesses him and says, “I will be with you wherever you go…and I will not leave you until I have done for you what I have promised.” With that blessing he goes to Padan-Aram, to his mother’s ancestral home. There he continues to prosper.

We are not looking at that story this year in the cycle, but it is the third story in the cycle. It’s a wonderful story where Jacob meets his equal, his future father-in-law, a man named Laban, who is as devious and has as questionable a character as Jacob does. The story of Jacob and Laban is sort of the Olympic Games of dirty tricks. They are both world-class tricksters. Jacob wins that contest, too.

Jacob leaves Padan-Aram a wealthy man with two wives, Leah and Rachel, who are Laban’s daughters. He has eleven children as he leaves (he will have one more son), and heads for home. He leaves with most of Laban’s cattle and sheep, and his servants as well, all of which he has won from his father-in-law.

He is on his way home now to be reconciled with Esau, his brother. He has experienced what so many people experience who are tremendously successful. I notice this about them. They have the talent, cleverness, skill, energy and determination to compete and win in any area of life. They end up with all of the rewards of that striving, and, indeed, fit the image of success in our culture.

But after they have gained everything, they begin to think about all that they have lost, especially the relationships they have sacrificed in order to gain material reward. At a certain point in their lives, usually middle age, but if they are tremendously successful, it comes earlier than that, after they have gained the whole world, they long for a relationship, usually with one person, more than anything else. Reconciliation, that is what they want, with that person from whom they are estranged: a sibling, a parent, or a former spouse, or a friend, someone they haven’t spoken to for years.

Jacob is like that as our text begins this morning. He is going home to get the one thing that he lost and now wants more than anything else, reconciliation with his brother.

The caravan carrying all of his possessions, and his family, comes to the River Jabbok. On the far side of the river is Esau’s land. He sends scouts ahead as peace envoys, to meet Esau and to ask Esau if Jacob can come into his land. When the scouts return, they tell Jacob that Esau is heading for the river with four hundred troops. Jacob divides his family and his possessions into groups, and sends them in different directions so that if Esau attacks, some will survive. Then he sends his cattle and his sheep with some servants across the river to meet Esau once again, to offer him peace offerings.

Now Jacob is all alone, at the River Jabbok. “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.”

Perhaps he remembered that night, a long time ago, at the beginning of his exile, when he saw the ladder to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending, and God speaking to him, reassuring him, and blessing him. He longed now to have that same experience again. He wanted from God a sign, a blessing, an assurance, that everything is going to be okay, that the charmed life he has lived up to this time is going to continue, and God will be with him and bless all that he has done. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” That is what he wants, that peace.

Instead, out of the darkness, a stranger jumps him, throws him to the ground. These two bodies struggle in the darkness against each other. All night long they wrestle. The strength of the stranger is terrible. Jacob, the mightiest, the cleverest of men, is having difficulty holding his own. Who is this stranger who has come to him out of the night?

Just before dawn, Jacob starts to win. At least it seems that way. He holds the stranger in a grip. The stranger holds to him. The stranger then strikes him in the hip, dislocates his hip. From that Jacob will limp the rest of his life. The stranger says, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” Jacob says, “Bless me, and I will let you go.”

Now we know what Jacob knows, that this stranger he is wrestling is God. He is wrestling with God. It may be a stranger, it may be a man, it may be an angel, we don’t know. But Jacob knows who it really is. Jacob is at last wrestling with God, holding on now in desperation, crying to God, “Bless me. Give me a blessing.”

The stranger says, “What is your name?” “My name is Jacob.”

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and mortals, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asks the stranger, “What is your name?” He would not answer, for to know somebody’s name is to know all there is to know about him, and God remains a mystery. We do not know all about God. So Jacob does not learn anymore about God from this encounter than he knew before. Nothing has changed, except Jacob. Jacob has changed. Jacob is no longer Jacob, “the striver.” He is now “Israel,” the one who has striven with God, and is changed.

This is an incredible story. It is one of the richest stories in the Bible, and one of the richest stories in the treasury of human literature. For Jews, Jacob is the father of the race. His new name, “Israel,” is their name. His sons, he has twelve sons, will be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, so this is the story of the origin of the Jewish people. All Jews are sons and daughters of Jacob. This is Israel’s story.

But it is also our story. This is every man’s and every woman’s story. You can see yourself in this story. These stories are called “archetypes,” where you can see yourself in the story, and where you can read the story to learn about yourself.

When I came back to this story of Jacob wrestling the stranger at the River Jabbok, I saw something that I had never noticed before. That is, Jacob is like Prometheus, in the Greek myth. Prometheus stole the fire from heaven and brought it down to human beings so that we could be like gods.

The meaning of the Promethean myth is that there is something in us that wants to be like God. There is something in us that will not be content with the limitations that are placed upon all human beings. There is something in us as human beings, in fact, that causes us to try to transcend these limitations.

The Olympics originated in ancient Greece, in the land of Prometheus. They were religious festivals, really, held in honor of the gods on Olympus. That is why they were called the Olympian games. In the contests the athletes strove for perfection. They tried to be the best that it is humanly possible to be. In fact, they even tried to transcend human limitations with athletic achievements.

That has always been the spirit of the Olympics. Even today, young people, some very young, fourteen year old girls, pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to achieve perfection in what they do. You notice they are scored against the standard of perfection. They are judged by whether or not they come up to a standard of perfection. It is just part of being human to strive for that excellence, to try and be as great as you can be.

You see the same thing in the story of Creation in Genesis. No sooner are Adam and Eve created as human beings than they start to be something more than human beings. It happened immediately. The same day as the Creation, they strive to be more than human beings, to transcend the limits that God has placed upon them. They try to be like God. God gives them the rules of the Garden of Eden. He says they can do anything they want, except eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for that property belongs to God alone.

So what do they do? Immediately they do what Prometheus did, only it’s an apple this time, and not fire. But it is the same thing. They tried to be like God. They were punished, like Prometheus. They were exiled from Paradise; Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus. Adam blames Eve, “She made me do it!” Eve blames the serpent, “He beguiled me!” But they are both to blame. It is both their fault.

But in another sense, it is not their fault. If seeking to be the greatest that we can be is part of what it means to be human, then we are going to try to reach as high as we can. In fact, that’s the part of human achievement that we celebrate. It is the way we raise our children. We tell our children, “You be whoever you want to be. You climb as high as you can.” That’s what it means to be a fully realized human being. To know that you have within you unlimited possibility. To be successful in life is to be a person who has striven to achieve all that is possible for them to be.

That is what Jacob did all his life. Then he came up against the limitation at the River Jabbok, and he wrestled with God. Like Prometheus, he was defying the gods. Like Adam and Eve, he was disobeying God. He tried to do that. Jacob tried to defeat God. Only Jacob’s story is different. Jacob loses. He finally accepts his humility, and asks for God’s blessing.

The meaning of the Jacob story is that our human limitation is not a condemnation. God has not created us to strive for the highest only to frustrate us. God has created us for relationship with him. We don’t have to storm heaven to get a blessing, all we have to do is confess who we are, and God will come to us.

The word for that moment in Christian piety is “surrender.” In this story we can see what surrender really means. It means confessing that the one thing that you cannot get by yourself is God’s grace. That surrender is not the end of your life. Jacob discovered that. It was the beginning of his new life. God did not destroy Jacob. God checked him, then checkmated him, and then held-on to Jacob until he could admit who he really was, and surrender. Surrender is not the end of life. Surrender to God is the way to begin your life.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a contemporary Greek writer, tells a story. A young man visited a monk on one of those islands on the Aegean Sea, those islands that come out of the ocean like a big rock.

The monks had built their cells on the face of the rock, lived there alone. A young man climbed up to the cell of the monk and asked, “Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?”

The monk answered, “Not anymore. I have grown old, and the devil has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.”

“With God?”, the man asked, “You wrestle with God? Do you hope to win?”

“No,” he said, “I hope to lose.”

Mark Trotter ~ How to Be a Blessing

I love the story of a man who bought a new Alfa Romeo, the luxury Italian sports car, and wanted to do something to celebrate his purchase. So he went to the Catholic priest, and said, “Father, will you bless my Alfa Romeo?” The priest said, “Yes, but what’s an Alfa Romeo?” The young man said, “Never mind, you wouldn’t appreciate the significance of this purchase in my life.” So he went to an Episcopal priest, and said, “Father, I’ve just bought an Alfa Romeo. Will you bless it for me?” He said, “Yes, but what’s an Alfa Romeo?” He went to a Methodist minister, and said, “I’ve just bought an Alfa Romeo. Will you bless it?” The minister said, “Wow! An Alfa Romeo! What a terrific car. I’ve always wanted to ride in one. Will you give me a ride? And by the way…what’s a blessing?”

We Methodists don’t know very much about these liturgical acts, but I think I know what a blessing is. I’ve been called upon to give one a number of times. We ask God to bless certain things, and by doing that we hope that some good will come from it. If it’s an object, that the object will fulfill its purpose. If it’s a person, that they will succeed, have a joyful life, and be fulfilled.

As a matter of fact I’ve administered a lot of blessings in my vocation as a minister. I’ve blessed marriages. I do that all the time. I’ve blessed new buildings. I’ve blessed recently purchased homes for people. I’ve blessed people going on a journey. I bless meals all the time. We have a ritual in the Book of Worship for blessing animals. I’ve never done that, but I’ve blessed clubs, I’ve blessed conventions, conferences, councils. I’ve blessed graduating seniors. I blessed the opening day of Little League one year. I wanted to throw out the first ball, but the mayor got to do that. I’ve even blessed boats. The hitch there is that I get to go fishing on the boat that I bless.

All these blessings are formalized acts of the church, they are liturgical acts through which we pray that God will prosper the object or the person, bringing to them happiness or success, and joy to their lives. But in our lesson from the First Letter of Peter, I want you to see the word is used there, but it’s a little different. It says we are to be the blessing.

“Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

There it is. We are to be a blessing to other people. This is not about asking God to bless something, this is about you blessing someone. “For to this you have been called.”

The passage, of course, has reference to Jesus’ teaching, “Do not return evil for evil; but on the contrary love your enemies, be good to those who hate you. Bless and do not curse those who do evil to you.” Paul, in his letter to the Romans, paraphrased it, “Bless those that persecute you. Bless and do not curse them.” I Peter summarizes the same teachings by saying, “Do not return evil for evil; but bless, to this you were called.” Over and over again in the New Testament we are called to be a blessing. That’s our calling as Christians, to bless and not to curse.

And in case you think that those are two old-fashioned words from a superstitious age when we were not so enlightened as we are today, let me tell you how powerful those two things are in our life even today.

The truth of the matter is that we find out who we are from other people. As John Updike said, “We get our bearings daily from other people.” You tell someone over and over again that they are a failure, or that they won’t amount to very much, and pretty soon they’ll begin to act that way. Do you know what you’ve done to them when you do that? You’ve cursed them. You haven’t uttered any voodoo, you haven’t stuck pins in a doll, or anything like that. But you have just as effectively put a curse upon them. You tell a little child that it’s not going to amount to very much, or you compare children with others invidiously, that’s a curse too. They’ll grow up thinking they don’t amount to very much. They’ll probably do some dumb thing when they grow older, just to prove the curse that was put upon them.

On the other hand, you tell somebody that they are made in the image of God, that God loves them, and they have great potential, that they can even fail and it doesn’t matter because we all make mistakes, because you have it within you. You can tell them this, to do better because you are a child of God, so keep on trying. And the chances are they will keep on trying, and eventually succeed in their life. So you have given a blessing to them when you do that.

Or you tell a child that they are unique, there’s nobody else just like them, and therefore what they have to offer in this life is unlike what anybody else can offer, no matter what it is, and it will be celebrated and received as a gift because it has come from you. It won’t be valued in relation to other people’s talents or gifts. You do that, especially to a child, and you bless them. And they will be blessed, and their life will blossom.

I heard about a little boy who was in preschool. The practice of the teacher in the preschool was to award the little children for whatever they did, to recognize some achievement by giving them an award. The award was a great big star on their clothing. The little boy came home from preschool, a big star on his shirt. His mother said, “What did you do to earn that star?” He said, “I’m the best rester!” That teacher blessed that little child.

We are all made in the image of God. And there is a wonderful life that is waiting for each one of us. But in large part, we receive that life from other people, in the sense that other people tell us who we are and what we’re worth. That’s why Peter says, “Bless, don’t curse, for to this you were called.”

That is in the ninth verse. In the preceding verse he suggests the way that we can do that, the way we can be a blessing. He lists these things: have unity of spirit, sympathy and love of everyone, and then these two phrases, a tender heart and a humble mind. It’s those last two qualities I want to look at this morning. I am certain that if we can gain those two, then we will be a blessing to everybody.

First, a tender heart. The Greek word can also mean “compassionate.” It’s the capacity to feel what other people are feeling, to put yourself in another person’s place, to get inside another person’s life so that you know what they’re going through. That’s what it means to be tender-hearted.

Some years ago you may remember there was a movie called The Elephant Man. It was the story of an Englishman born with a terrible disease that caused his body to be deformed, especially his face. It was a true story. His family abandoned him when he was just a boy. They sold him to a circus. The circus put him in the freak show and advertised him as, “The Elephant Man.”

One day he escaped from the circus and made his way to London. And there as he was wandering the streets a sensitive physician found him and sheltered him in his quarters. And there the doctor and the viewer of the movie could see that inside this man there was a most precious and beautiful soul. It was a wonderful irony that teaches us so much about life, that although the exterior may be distorted, even ugly, inside of each one of us there is a precious soul, the image of God, remarkably preserved as innocence inside of this man. The public couldn’t see that, the public wasn’t interested in seeing that. The public looked only to the exterior, to the deformity, to the ugliness. But inside, there was such beauty and innocence in the soul of this man.

In one striking scene he is walking through the streets of London with a hood over his head, as he always had whenever he went outside, so people couldn’t see his face. Somebody pulled the hood off, then a crowd gathered. He began to run. The crowd chased him through the streets until they cornered him in a subway station lavatory among the urinals, taunting him, beating him. He cried out, “I am a human being!”

There is something in each one of us that cries out, “I am a human being, a child of God! Treat me that way.” And I ask you, are not we, as Christians, the ones who are called to treat everyone that way, the ones who are called to be tender-hearted, compassionate, to feel what other people feel, to get inside other people’s lives so you know what they have to endure, what they put up with. To this, we are called.

There is a term people use sometimes, “bleeding hearts.” It is used pejoratively. To call somebody a bleeding heart is not to compliment them. It usually means that you say they’re weak, not tough, they’re irrelevant or naive. The crowd calls for vengeance, for retribution, for violence, and somebody speaks up and says, “I think we ought to love our neighbor, I think we ought to forgive and be merciful.” And they say, “You’re just a bleeding heart.”

But what they may not know, those who use “bleeding heart” as a term of derision, is that the source of “bleeding heart” is Catholic piety. It’s a picture of Jesus, you’ve probably seen it, with a heart on his tunic, a drop of blood coming from it. It’s maudlin art, it’s propaganda art really. But it serves its purpose, which is to reveal Jesus our Lord as tender-hearted. So tender-hearted he didn’t condemn anybody. He didn’t regard the external reality of anybody’s life. He looked at what was inside of everybody, the image of God inside of every one.

He saw not only the way people are now, he saw the way they are supposed to become. He didn’t look only on what we have done, but he looked on what we can be. And he treated us, therefore, as people with potential because we are loved by God. We can become that, he believed, if only we knew who we are. And he came to tell us who we are. Not only with his words, but with his deeds, his deeds of tender compassion. And that’s how we’re supposed to be, to be tender-hearted, and thus to be a blessing.

The second characteristic Peter lifts up is a humble mind. I imagine some of you have several candidates for the “Humble Mind Award.” But humble mind is not what you’re thinking. The Bible means something else by a humble mind. It’s reminiscent of what Paul wrote to the Philippians. “Have this mind in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, humbled himself, took on the form of a servant, took on our flesh to be with us.” Have this mind in you, a humble mind, which you saw in Christ Jesus. Which means if you seek to follow Christ, you will seek to be humble the way Christ was humble, who manifested humility by identifying with us, becoming like us, feeling our pain and our sorrow, even to the extent of taking our place, bearing the cross for us.

Some of you have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who opposed Hitler and joined the Resistance against Hitler in Germany, and was arrested and imprisoned, and executed just a few days before the Americans liberated his prison. When Jean and I were in Germany a couple of years ago we discovered on the map the name of this town, Flossenberg. I recognized it as the name of the prison where he was executed. We went there. It is clear over against the eastern border of Germany. It’s just a small town. They’ve made a memorial out of the prison camp. There in that prison camp, Bonhoeffer and the other leaders of the underground resistance, Admiral Canaris, Stauffenberg and the others, were executed. It was an emotional visit for us. For my life as a young man had been shaped by reading the life of Bonhoeffer, and his writings.

Some of his writings are obscure. He writes in the traditional German ponderous theological style. But he produced some of the most helpful tools in Christian ethics. And here is one of them. He made the distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate.” The ultimate is the last, the final stage of history, the Kingdom of God. The penultimate is the next to the last. We live in the penultimate time. When the ultimate comes, then all things are going to come together. It’s what Paul meant when he said to the Corinthians, “Then we will see clearly.” When the ultimate comes, we’re going to have all the answers. When the ultimate comes, all evil will be gone and good will triumph. When the ultimate comes, God is going to wipe away tears from everybody’s eyes. That’s the way it’s going to be in the ultimate. But we’re not there yet.

And Bonhoeffer said it’s the temptation of Christians to approach other people as if we were there, to think that everything is clear to them, and that there are easy answers to hard questions. There are those Christians who do that, who go into situations where people are suffering and give easy, glib answers to the hard questions of life, who use pious language to explain terrible tragedies. They’re the people who tell people who are suffering that it is God’s will that this terrible thing has happened.

Fred Craddock tells of the time that he went home for his mother’s funeral. His sister had taken care of their mother the last years of her life, and the death was hard for the sister. They had the funeral, and after the service friends brought food to the house for a reception. Everybody was there. One woman came to his sister, and said something pious, like, “She’s better off now in heaven,” impervious to the emptiness that a loss creates in another person’s life. His sister didn’t say anything, but Craddock went up to the woman, and said, “It’s obvious you have never lost your mother.”

To be a Christian means to have a humble mind. It means to realize that this is not the ultimate time, this is not the time when everything is clear to everybody, when there is no more pain and sorrow. This is not the time when all tears are wiped away. This is the penultimate time. This is the time before the end, when we do not see all things clearly. There are hard questions for which there are no answers, pain which doesn’t make any sense at all, terrible things that happen in our lives we don’t understand.

That’s what it’s like to live in the penultimate time, in the time before the Kingdom comes. And that’s the world that Jesus came into. He didn’t give us some passport into a perfect life. He came to be here with us in this life, humbled himself to be with us, left the ultimate behind, became like us, lived the kind of life that we must live under the very conditions that we must live it.

Jesus did not come to give us answers. He came to give us himself. And Bonhoeffer says that that’s what it means to live in the penultimate as a Christian, to live in it the way Jesus did. It means that we are to join others in their suffering, to try and understand what other people have to put up with in their lives.

It may mean simply going over to their home and making them a pot of tea. Or visit them in the hospital, or write a note, or make a phone call. It doesn’t take much. You really don’t have to say anything. Religious slogans so often reveal the distance between you and that person who is suffering. You may have ascended into the ultimate, but they are still living in the penultimate. You may think that you have all the answers. You may think that you’ve got it all together now. But to them, all that cheap answers do is illustrate how lonely they are.

What suffering people understand is not answers but incarnation, presence, being with them. They understand you leaving the safe world of certainty and dwelling where the sufferer must live. The way Jesus did, who “did not count his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and took on the form of a servant.”

Tony Campolo told of the time he went to a funeral for a man named Kilpatrick. His mother had been after him since he was a boy always to go to funerals. He knew this man Kilpatrick, and so he went to his funeral. He arrived at the funeral home, went into the chapel, and nobody was there. He sat down and waited for people to come in, and no one came in. So he went up to the front, to the open casket, and looked in. That was not Kilpatrick in there. He was in the wrong place, or the wrong time. It was the wrong funeral.

He turned to leave, and just then an old woman walked up to him and took his hand. She said, “You were his friend, weren’t you.” And not knowing what to do, he lied. He said, “Yes, he was a very good man. Everybody liked him.” She said, “Sit here with me.” The preacher came in and read the service. After it was over he went with the woman in the limousine to the cemetery. He stood there with her by the graveside. As the casket was lowered into the grave he took a flower and placed it on the casket as it was being lowered. On the ride back to the funeral home he confessed to the woman, “I want to be your friend. And I can’t be your friend unless I tell you the truth. I’m afraid I have to tell you that I really didn’t know your husband. I came to his funeral by accident.” The woman paid no attention to what he said. She just said this. “You’ll never, ever, ever know how much your being here has meant to me.”

A tender heart, and a humble mind, like we saw in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself to be with us. To this we are called.

Mark Trotter ~ A Fool and His Money

It is a familiar scene in courtrooms, families arguing over an estate. It is an especially ugly scene when dividing the inheritance divides the family. That is the scene that opens our text for this morning, the gospel lesson from Luke.

A man came up to Jesus, and said, “Make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” The request was crass and boorish, but probably not uncommon, for Jesus was known as a Rabbi. In fact, in this passage, he is addressed as Rabbi: “Teacher, make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” Rabbis could settle these disputes because the laws were part of the religious scriptures. The Rabbis were experts in the scriptures, so they were often called upon to interpret the law and to make a decision in a dispute between two people.

That is what is happening here. According to the text he is also addressing a large crowd. At the beginning of the twelfth chapter, it says that there were thousands there, “stepping on one another.” Which means, it was something of a unruly crowd, as well. And there is one man in the crowd, shouting at Jesus, interrupting his sermon (I can tell you preachers don’t like that), saying, “Make my brother shape up.”

Jesus’ annoyance is obvious. He replies, “Who made me a divider over you?” Then instead of adjudicating the case, he lectures the plaintiff, “Beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

When he said that, you could hear a gasp over the thousands who were gathered there. For Jesus, with these words, has challenged a fundamental assumption of that society. Everyone believed that a person’s life was measured by the abundance of his or her possessions, because the abundance of possessions was seen to be a sign of God’s favor on your life. Their reasoning was, if you are right with God, then God will be good to you, you will be rich, and you will prosper in all areas of life. If you die separated from God, if you are a sinner, then you will be poor, and you will suffer calamity in your life.

That is how they read scripture. They could point to chapter and verse. They could say, here it is, right here in Deuteronomy, where God says, “I will make a covenant with you. If you will obey my laws and live righteous lives, then I will give you this good land, and you will live in it and your descendants will live in it, and you will prosper. But if you disobey my law, and do not live righteous lives, and chase after other gods, then you will be punished, and your days in this land will be few.”

That is a narrow and literal reading of Deuteronomy. A reading, incidentally, that was challenged by all of the prophets in the Old Testament, who said that righteousness does not result in personal wealth; righteousness results in social justice. If a society is righteous, if the citizens of a society are righteous, the result of that will be a moral society, not necessarily personal wealth.

The equation of wealth and righteousness was also taken on in the Old Testament by the Book of Job. A tale about a rich man who was righteous altogether, zealous in morality, loved his neighbors, exemplary citizen, devoutly religious, and he ended up suffering the most devastating tragedies in his life, and in the lives of his family, beginning with the elimination of his wealth.

So the assumption that wealth is the reward for righteousness was wrong. But it was very popular and very persistent. Even into Jesus’ time it was still the popular theology of the people. Jesus, therefore, attacked it with all the fury of the prophets. Like the prophets, he used exaggeration, hyperbole, to get their attention, saying, “Blessed are the poor.” That is just the opposite of what everybody believed. Everybody believed that you were blessed if you were rich. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”

A rich man came to him. This is at the end of the Gospel of Luke. “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That in itself was shocking, a rich man asking for the meaning of life? The assumption was that the rich man had found the meaning of life. That’s why he was rich. He had found it. Jesus, with even greater irony, now tells him, “Go obey the commandments, if you want to find this life.” Of course, the man’s reply is what we would expect, he has obeyed all the commandments, even from the time of his youth.

So here is a man who is righteous, who has the evidence to prove it, he is wealthy, and still he is separated from God. He does not know God. That society would have said, that is impossible.

But then comes the coup de grace, “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor.” It is the most shocking way to say it. It is designed to get their attention. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Now our text. There was a rich man, who had more than enough possessions to guarantee his comfort. The obvious conclusion was this is a righteous man, this is a man who has been blessed by God. In fact, he must be very righteous, because his blessings just keep coming. No matter what he does, all these wonderful things keep happening to him, making him richer and richer. He must be doing something right in his life. The man, in order to insure his future, or as the parable puts it, so he can “eat, drink, and be merry,” into an indefinite future, builds more barns so that he can store his surplus wealth.

That night, the parable says, ironically, the night that he completed building his barns, he died. God came to him, and said, “Fool! Tonight your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose are they now?” He died just as he finished preparing for his future. Jesus told these parables to shock people, to get them thinking about the way they were living, the priorities in their life.

Luke put them in his gospel for us, so that we would take account, too, think about your life, about all that you have, about what you are doing with your life. He wants you to think as you hear this parable, maybe that could be me. He wants you to ask, what have I sacrificed in order to gain wealth? What values have I devalued because I value possessions most? What immorality have I condoned in order to get wealthy? What have I not given to my family in order that I might give them material things?

Luke wants to get you thinking. He wants you to think about what really constitutes the “good life,” and to ask yourself, have I been seeking that, or have I postponed it until I have enough? Then I will take care of those matters, that’s next. But today I have to secure my future. Someday I will spend more time with my family. Someday I’ll sit down and say to my loved ones what I have always wanted to say to them. Someday I’ll sit down and listen to them, to find out who they are and what they have to say to me. Someday I’ll do that, when I have enough time, when I’ve got it made.

“You are a fool!”, says Jesus. Someday you may hear the voice of God speaking to you. Well, maybe not the voice of God, not directly, but maybe the voice of a doctor who tells you what you thought you would never, ever hear.

The man was just 29 years old. It was in the newspaper some time ago. He was married, and had three kids. All three kids were under five years of age. He is an attorney in Illinois. One day he woke up with a headache. As the day went on, it got more painful. Then he had difficulty seeing. Then he had difficulty walking. He went to the doctor. The doctor said, “You have a brain tumor that will require special surgery right away. If you survive the surgery, then there could be a critical time of recovery for about a year. If you survive that, then each year after that you can be more assured of a full recovery.” He made it through the surgery. He made it through that first year. Then he had this interview. A reporter asked him, “Have you learned anything through this?” He said, “Your life is on loan.”

That is the message of this parable. The obvious point of the parable, the one that everybody seems to get, is that we can’t take our possessions with us. We are going to leave our possessions behind. “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” But that is not the main point of the parable. The main point of the parable is that your life is on loan, too. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.”

Incidentally, the Greek word translated “required of you” can also be translated as “a payment due.” That is the real point of the parable. Not just your possessions, but your life belongs to God. That is the classical, Christian understanding of our lives. We are sojourners here, pilgrims, travelers. In the beautiful words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Here on earth have we no continuing place.” We are here for a short time. We are supposed to use that time in order to live responsibly as stewards of the gifts that God has given to us. Christians have always believed that. We are just travelers, passing through, so make the most of it.

John Bunyan made that idea a part of our consciousness in all of western civilization in his book, Pilgrim’s Progress. I understand that up until the 20th century, in most American homes you would find three books: the Bible, McGuffey’s Reader, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Everybody read it. It shaped our consciousness of who we are as human beings. Everybody read it.

Nobody reads it now. In fact, we no longer see ourselves as sojourners, pilgrims, or as travelers. We see ourselves as settlers now. No longer dependent on a power that is greater than ourselves for our life and for our sustenance, but independent, autonomous, free moral agents. From childhood we are told that our life is our own, and we are free to make up our minds about what is right and what is wrong, according to our own perspective.

Instead of uniting us as one people, one culture, with a story, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, in our time there is a spate of autobiographies, thousand of stories, not written necessarily by older people who have lived a long time and done great things, and now have wisdom to share with us all, but from people who have gained notoriety. That is the only qualification necessary now to write an autobiography, or have a biography written about you. People in their teens and twenties now are writing autobiographies that are filled with self-indulgence and self-congratulations, all reflecting the common assumption of our time, that this is my life, no one else’s, and I can do with it what I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.

Both assumptions are wrong, according to the Bible. The Bible continues to be an affront to us. It maintains what you do affects other people. Immediately, your family. Then, your friends and neighbors. Then, this society and the next generation. All are affected by what you do. What’s more, this is not your life. You belong to God. You bear God’s image, that’s the way the Bible describes it. You belong to God. If you call yourself Christian, not only do you bear the image of God, you have also been bought by the blood of Christ. You now belong to him. That is the meaning of your baptism. You belong to Christ.

The man who had the operation put it this way, “My life is on loan.” That helped him put his priorities in order. He said, “It has really strengthened our family, what’s happened to me. Now my wife and I are trying to raise our children to be happy, right now; to live each day, right now; because there are no guarantees. My message to people would be to accept each day as given to you as a gift from God. Because I lived for 28 years, and then one day I woke up with a headache. It was that sudden.”

The parable of the rich fool is a judgment parable. Jesus told judgment parables for one reason: to wake us up. Stop being foolish about these things. What is really important is life, life itself, the life that God has given to you as a gift. You may want a whole lot more. You may want to store up a whole lot of things. But you are a fool if you think you need these things. And you are doubly a fool if you sacrifice the present in order to get something else in the future.

It is common to call Luke, “the gospel for the poor.” There is so much evidence of this in the gospel itself. The poor are the heroes in the gospel, and we are to be concerned about the poor. It is here, after all, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” The beatitude in Matthew is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But Luke edits it, and says, “Blessed are the poor.” There is other evidence that Luke’s gospel is for the poor.

In spite of that, I have another theory. I believe that Luke wrote his gospel for the rich, to warn us about the foolishness that you hear about wealth. In his day the foolishness was to say that if you are wealthy, that means that you are living a righteous life, and have God’s blessing. In our day, wealth convinces people that they are independent and autonomous.

Wealth is dangerous because it can shield you from your mortality. If you were to live day by day, if you were to live hand to mouth, then you would be aware of the transitoriness of our lives. That is the real situation of our lives, we live from day to day. But if you can store up stuff for the future, then you can be seduced into believing that life is your own, and you can do with it what you please. If you really believe that, then you are a fool. So I think Jesus is really preaching to the rich, not to the poor.

Notice also, Jesus doesn’t condemn wealth. He just says, don’t trust it, don’t believe in it. Trust God, put your faith in God, be rich toward God. That is the way he puts it at the end of this passage. Then, use your wealth to do some good. Do some good for yourself, but especially do good for other people.

The lesson that he will teach in other places is that your life is not going to be judged by what you have, but by what you give. In another place he will say, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That is the basis for the whole understanding of Christian stewardship. We have a responsibility to use what God has given to us for God’s purposes. He talked about stewardship all the time, even in this chapter he talks about it. The chapter begins with the parable of the rich fool. It ends with the parable of the wise steward who is put over his master’s possessions. We are given what we have, to do good. And we are given a limited time in which to do it. That is the message of the parable. It is as if “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” but in the quality of his charity.

A minister in Columbus, Ohio, has a friend who works downtown. He is a shaker and mover in Columbus. The man was something of an enigma to this pastor, and as far as the church was concerned, the man ran hot and cold. But they were good friends, and had a grand relationship, got together often.

On this occasion they are together in the man’s office downtown. The man is looking out the window, and says, “Barry, you know I’ve kind of got it figured out. The Big Guy is going to ask us two questions when we get up to the gate. I am serious, now, I really mean this. First he is going to ask, ‘What did you do with what I gave you?’ And then he is going to ask, ‘Who did you do it for?'”

He was a man who finally woke up and saw that his life is “on loan,” and that we are stewards here. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” but in what he does with them.

Mark Trotter ~ The Heart Has Eyes

Our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Ephesians 1:1-14, is one of the majestic passages in the New Testament. It pictures Christ now Lord of the universe, and we, the people of faith, are the inheritors of the gift that he has given to us. Paul uses the most extravagant language to describe this. In fact, it is the language that was reserved for royalty, for the Caesars, used at national festivals, and royal celebrations. Paul intentionally co-opts this royal language to talk about Christ, now King of kings and Lord of lords. Listen again to this language.

God, who has raised Christ from the dead and seated him on his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him Lord over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

That is not ordinary language. That is cosmic language. But the most amazing thing of all in this passage is that the inheritance that we receive from Christ is resurrection. The power of God that elevated him into the heavens will raise us into his kingdom. “In Christ,” he wrote, “we have obtained this inheritance.”

Paul tells the Ephesians, “You will see this inheritance with the eyes of your heart.” That is such a lovely phrase, “the eyes of your heart.” It is reminiscent of Pascal’s, “The heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” Pascal, the great French mathematician in the 17th century, right at the start of the Enlightenment, realized that reason, which in those days people believed would be invincible, had a limited realm in which to rule. It was effective only with the senses. It can work with what the senses can give it, what can be seen. But it was helpless to probe the depth of the mystery that surrounds this life.

The mystery that surrounds us belongs to different modes of perception. That is why he said, “The heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” It is the heart that is able to see into that mystery. And it is why Paul said to the Ephesians, “I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your heart, so you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the power for us who believe.” You will know that inheritance through faith, through the eyes of your heart.

Laurence Stookey wrote, “Faith needs visual aids.” So the Church has provided images of heaven to help us to understand the inheritance awaiting us. In fact, the first churches, in places like Ephesus in present day Turkey, the place to which this letter was addressed by Paul, were constructed with domes to represent heaven. They would paint, or portray in mosaic tiles, the figure of Christ, now up in the heavens, ruling in the heavens. That image is called the “Pantocrator,” which is the Greek word for “Almighty.”

All around the edge of the dome, looking down on the worshipers below, would be the saints. The saints are the Christians who have received the inheritance and are now in the kingdom. The Eastern churches especially provided these visual aids to illustrate the triumph of the saints, the inheritance that we receive by Christ’s resurrection.

In the West the visual aids in the churches are generally of the human Jesus, particularly of the suffering Jesus. You go into so-called Western churches, particularly the old churches in Europe, your eye will be drawn not to the dome and to the exalted Christ, but to the altar, and to the crucified Christ. But in the Eastern churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches, such as Ephesus, to where this letter was addressed, it is the victorious Christ in heaven that you will see.

Back in 988, Vladimir I, the pagan king of old Russia, wanted to adopt a religion for his people. He sent envoys to visit Judaism, and Islam, and Christianity. In those days Christianity had already split into West and East, so he sent two emissaries to Christianity. One went to the Western church, the Roman church, as it was found in Germany. Then he sent another emissary to Constantinople, to St. Sophia’s Church, the Eastern Orthodox church. Those emissaries wrote this. “The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worshiped their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells here among men.”

Faith needs visual aids, because the heart has eyes. The message of these churches is that heaven and earth are one. There is a continuum between this life and the next life. It is dramatically portrayed in the architecture, and in the art, and in the drama of worship, as the worshipers gather each week.

We who are the inheritors of what is called Western Christianity, especially Protestant thinking, are deprived of that – although many Protestants would not consider it a deprivation. My progenitors certainly would not have considered it that. They were proud that they had rid their church of “adornment.” That’s what they called it, “adornment.”

There was good reason for their protest. But there are also good reasons for providing art, and music, and the drama of worship to enlighten the eyes of the heart to see the faith.

Rollo May, the great psychologist, was visiting one of those Eastern Orthodox churches. It happened to be on Mt. Athos, in Greece, where all those monasteries are. He visited on Easter Eve a church in a monastery. He described it this way. “The only light was the light from the candles. The incense hung heavy in the air. At the end of the service the priest gave everybody three Easter eggs, with a veil decorating them. Then he said to each person, ‘Christos Anesti,’ Christ is Risen. Each person answered, ‘He is risen, indeed.'” In that church, with all its visual aids, all the drama of that, Rollo May, for the first time in his life, was moved to think about what he had just said, “He is risen indeed.” He thought, “What would it mean for the world if he is risen? What would it mean?”

The early Church knew what it would mean. It would mean that Jesus is Lord over all things, including death itself. And those who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life. They built churches and decorated them to enlighten the eyes of the heart to see what they believed.

But there was an unexpected consequence to this belief. If heaven is our goal, then this life has a purpose beyond itself. It is the beginning of a journey that ends beyond our sight. That means that what you do here makes a difference. As Jesus put it, “Do not therefore store up treasures on earth where moth and rust will destroy them, but build for yourself treasures in heaven.”

Which meant that what we do here on earth is of ultimate significance. A cup of cold water given to somebody who is thirsty is not just a little thing, it is celebrated in heaven. The repentance of a sinner, a person who turns his life around, not just a life change. It’s the reason for angels rejoicing. A sacrifice that is made here is not merely an act of generosity, it is hailed in heaven as a battle for good over evil. If heaven is our goal, then this life has ultimate significance. What we do here has ultimate meaning.

The final act of our life is on another stage. So blessedness, that’s what “beatitude” means, or happiness, is for those who do the right thing, even though they do not see the consequences. For there is a continuum between earth and heaven. The significance of what I do cannot be confined to this earth, to here and now. But it will be remembered then, and there. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now I know in part; then I will know fully.”

Extending the stage for moral behavior beyond our sight also give significance to the meaning of stewardship, what Jesus talked about consistently in his parables. He said that what we have now is here, given to us, not to spend, but to invest. Even if it is a widow’s mite, or a mustard seed, or even if it is just a single talent that we have, we are to see it not as ours alone, not just to spend, but to invest, to make sure something good is going to come of it, because (and this is the punch line of all the stewardship parables), someday we are going to give an accounting of our lives. Someday the full significance of all our deeds will be known to us and will be celebrated.

Karl Marx, and all others who are uncomfortable being lumped with Karl Marx, but who naively share his same materialism, believe that the doctrine of heaven is a panacea, that it is a religion for the weak, an opiate of the masses. But nothing could be more to the contrary. Nothing has stimulated human beings more to do good works and to try to make the world a better place than the belief that what I do here now is of ultimate significance.

Saints arose because people of faith need heroes. They need models of what it means to be faithful in this life. It is believed that the saints are now in heaven cheering us on. I like to think that it is like being at Qualcomm Stadium, 65,000 people there cheering. You are on the field. Or if you change the metaphor, you are on stage now. You are faced with a terrible decision, or you must endure some painful experience in your life, and you don’t want to face it. Or you must do something, or some decision you must make, or deed that you must do, that is going to make a difference in this battle between good and evil. Those who have gone before, those who have faced what you are facing now, or have faced much more than what you are facing now, they are up there, on their feet now, cheering you on, giving you courage to face what you must face.

O blest communion, fellowship divine! 
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; 
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

The Christian doctrine of heaven does not diminish this life, it enriches it and makes it more significant. Perhaps the greatest evidence can be found in that age in history where the saints were the most popular. In fact it was called the “Age of Saints,” when people named their children after the saints, hoping that their children would be like them. It was the Middle Ages. Barbara Tuchman wrote about those ages probably more eloquently than anybody else.

In one of her books she talks about the building of the cathedrals in the 13th century. She said it was one of humankind’s most astounding and audacious feats. In one century, 600 cathedrals, or major churches, were built in France alone. The cathedrals in England, the Cathedral at Salisbury, where the tallest spire was built in just 38 years. And the spire on the church in Germany at Freiburg, constructed entirely of filigree, out of stone, as if some supernatural spider had spun that web. In Sainte Chappelle, the chapel in Paris, where there is no visible support for the fifteen windows that swallow up the walls.

She described it as a period of incredible innovation and audacity. Many reasons are given for this accomplishment. Each discipline has its own reason. The political scientists say it was because the monarchies in those days provided a stable political environment. The economists say it was because of the rise of capitalism and the accumulation of surplus wealth. The engineers say it was because of the invention of the flying buttress and the ribbed vault.

That is all true. But that does not explain why it happened. Why it happened, she said, was because of belief. Belief about God. Belief about Christ. Belief about who we are. Belief about what we are supposed to do with our lives. Belief about why we are here. And belief about what awaits us in the end.

It was belief. In fact, it was this belief, this magisterial belief, “that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, has seated him at his right hand, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.”

And in Christ each one of us has received this inheritance. And with the eyes of our hearts we are able to see the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.

Mark Trotter ~ How to See the Future

There have been many interpretations over the years about what happens in the sacrament of Holy Communion. For instance, back in the Middle Ages, many pious Christians saw what happened here as a kind of magic. The faithful were sitting out in the nave, where you are sitting, and up here, what was called the “east wall” in gothic architecture, the priest faced the altar, his back to the people, reading the service in Latin, a language the people couldn’t understand. They knew, though, that a miracle was taking place up there. That is why they had come to church, to witness a miracle.

It happened when the priest lifted the host, and said in Latin, “this is my body given for you.” Hoc est corpus meum is the phrase in Latin. To the communicants, the priest, way up in the front, his back to them, mumbling hoc est corpus meum, sounded like “hocus pocus.” That is how we got that phrase into our language, “hocus pocus,” which means an incantation which will bring about some magic.

Protestant mumblings have also framed communion expectations. There is a wonderful story about a young boy attending a Presbyterian service in Scotland many years ago. At a certain point in the service the minister announced that during the singing of the hymn, the elders would bring the elements forward. The little boy thought the minister had said, “elephants.” All of a sudden he got real interested in the communion. He thought it was going to be like the last act of Aida. Needless to say, he was disappointed.

My favorite is a Methodist-related story. A little boy attends his first communion in a Methodist Church with his parents. The sacraments were served in the congregation, as we will do in this service, passing the trays with the little cups on them. The father holds the tray for his son to take a cup, then he takes one himself. He passes it on to the next person in the pew. The little boy, who was being allowed to participate in this adult ritual for the first time, did what he had seen adults do in another ritual he had observed, he touched his father’s glass, and said, “cheers!” Well the meaning of what we do here in Holy Communion is not captured by any of those anecdotes. It is not magic performed by a sorcerer. It is not a spectacular extravaganza with elephants. Nor is it a cocktail party conviviality, either.

To find out what it is that happens in the sacrament, we turn to the lesson for this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew’s account of the Last Supper.

All four gospels generally agree on what happened there. They all agree that Jesus was eating a Passover Meal with his disciples. The Passover Meal is a meal which commemorates the Exodus, the freedom from slavery in Egypt, God making the Jews a nation with a covenant to be their God. Every element in that meal has some symbolic reference to the event called the Exodus.

Jesus, in the middle of the meal, takes two of those elements, the bread and the wine, and gives them a new interpretation. He take the bread, breaks it, and says:

This is my body given for you. Later he took the cup, held it up, and said:

This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Then, he said one more thing: I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

That is about all that was remembered of that Last Supper. But that is the essence of the sacrament, those three sentences, the few words that he said. The rituals that have grown up about Holy Communion are simply adornments on those three sentences.

In those three sentences are to be found the two actions in the meal. There is a remembrance of the cross, “This is my body broken for you…this is my blood of the new covenant,” and there is an anticipation of the Kingdom, “I shall not drink of this cup again until I drink it anew with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”

First, a looking backwards, “This is my body broken for you.” That is a reminder of the cross. First we look back to what Jesus has done for us. In the old Methodist Church, the ritual used in the Church when I grew up, that was about all that happened. We looked back to the cross. In fact, that service used the term “memorial” to define what was going on. It said, “…this memorial of his precious death.” The ritual focused on the cross, and on our sins, looking backwards, remembering how Jesus paid for our sins upon the cross, and how we should appropriately feel sorrowful for that. It gave us ample opportunity throughout the service to feel sorrowful. The service began with a litany of confession using the Ten Commandments. Then it had a prayer of confession using the term, “our manifold sins and wickedness.” Then there was another prayer of confession, called the Prayer of Humble Access, which had this line in it, “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We called that the “crumby prayer.”

As if that were not enough, just before we received the sacrament itself, we sang the Agnus Dei, “O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” After all of that, I don’t think anyone who took the cup felt like saying, “cheers!” It was a different mood in that service. A penitential mood, and an introspective mood, focusing on me, me, me, and my sins.

The reason I believe that so many people back in those days would stay away from communion, and why it was celebrated so seldom, they would tell me, was because they didn’t understand it. But I don’t think that was it. I think the problem is, they did understand it. It communicated clearly what it was designed to communicate: that this is a remembrance, this is the memorial of the death of a man, and it our fault that it happened. The service never really got beyond that, “this is my body broken for you.” But Jesus said more than that at the Last Supper. He not only said to look back at the cross and remember, he said to look forward to the Kingdom and hope.

I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

There have been many revolutions in worship in the last part of this century. The most revolutionary was the discovery that in the early Church, communion was not only a looking back to the cross, it was a looking forward, anticipating the Kingdom. Not only a remembrance, but a service of hope and anticipation. Instead of just focusing alone on the cross, it really focused on the Kingdom, and Jesus’ promise that someday he would celebrate this meal with us, together with him, in his Kingdom.

The word that they used for the sacrament was, “Eucharist,” the Greek word which means “thanksgiving.” It was an entirely different mood from the observance that I remember, and perhaps you, too. In fact, we would never have called what we did in those days, a “celebration” or a “thanksgiving.” We called it an “observance.” We were observing the Last Supper.

The ritual we now use in the Methodist Church, in fact all of the churches today, Protestant and Catholic use essentially the same one, is the service where the sacrament is an anticipation of the Kingdom. That is to say, it is oriented to the future, and not to the past. And it is oriented to the future and not to the past to teach us to see our lives the same way. Christians are to look forward, not backwards.

But we have been trained differently. In fact, the whole weight of the wisdom of Western Civilization has taught us differently, told us we are products of the past. Therefore, there have always been wars, so there always will be wars. There has always been prejudice, there will always be prejudice. There has always been crime, there will always be crime. Something has happened in the past, therefore, it will always continue in the future. That is called “determinism.” Many people who believe that would be shocked if anybody told them, “You are a determinist.” And especially in America, because in America we are supposed to believe in freedom. We have the freedom to choose our own life. But practically speaking, that is what we are really determinists, especially when it comes to thinking about our own lives and understanding our own behavior.

Pop psychology has shaped us that way. My parents made me this way, or they did this to me, and that is the reason I am who I am today. Or I made that decision in the past, I made that mistake, I took that wrong turn, and that is why I am the way I am today. I can’t do anything about it. That is determinism. The belief that the past is what determines the present. You cannot call yourself a Christian, and believe that. Christians believe that the future is what is supposed to shape the present, not the past.

The relation between the cross and the Kingdom is just that. The cross is there to forgive the past, so you can put it behind you. You can forgive others, and put that behind you. You can be forgiven, and put that behind you, so that you can live the kind of life that God has planned for you in the future. As Christians we shape our lives not on what has happened to us, but on what is coming to us. We don’t look at what we have been. We look at what we can become. As the old Isaac Watts hymn put it: “We are marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion; We are marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.”

That is what is awaiting us. Jesus said: I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

That is why people who are oriented to the future are hopeful, they are courageous, they are ready to forgive and accept forgiveness in their own life. They are not chained to the past. They are ready to put the past behind them, and get on with a new life. They are looking at what Jesus said life should be like, and will be like, someday in the future, and trying to make the present look like that.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of that was in a movie that was so popular many years ago, Places In The Heart. It was set in Texas during the Depression. It is about a woman who is left a widow when her husband was killed by a drunken man. Now she must raise her children by herself. She must run the farm by herself. She must face all the pain in her life all by herself.

Her name is Mrs. Spaulding. That is the only name she is known by in the story. You wonder how she does it. Where does she get the courage, the strength, the faith, the hope and the love?

I know where she gets it. It is as plain as it can be, right there in the movie. But what amused me was that the critics who reviewed that movie, never saw it. Which is further proof to me that the Christian view of life is a unique way of seeing the world. They saw the movie in terms of a class struggle. They said that it was a struggle between the rich and the poor. Or, they saw it as a commentary on the plight of the small farm in America.

None of them liked the last scene. They said they should get rid of that last scene. Do you remember the last scene in the movie, Places in the Heart? Critics didn’t understand it. But you should understand it.

It was on a Sunday, in church. It was communion Sunday. The camera is first on the minister. He is reading First Corinthians 13, the chapter about faith, hope and love abiding, the eternal realities of the world. Then the camera shows the ushers passing the communion trays, with the little cups on them. The camera follows the plate as it moves down the aisle, each person passing it to their neighbor, saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”

And this is so powerfully wonderful. The camera moves up so you can see the faces of the people who are there. The first one is Mrs. Spaulding. Sitting next to her is her husband, the one who had been killed. He is there now, with his family. The camera moves to the next person in the pew. It is the man who killed him. Mr. Spaulding hands him the tray, and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” The man next to him is the black man, who helped the widow make the farm a success. He is there. Next to him is the banker, the one with the smooth manners that hides a cold heart. He is there. Next to him is the couple that are threatening to split apart because of infidelity in their relationship. They are there now, holding hands.

The critics said, “What is that? Why did they put that in the movie?” They didn’t get it.

But you and I get it. We know that what we do here in Holy Communion is look forward to that day when life will finally be the way God wants it to be. So we understand how Mrs. Spaulding is able to go forth victoriously, in spite of the terrible harshness of her life. And we can understand why she took in an outcast, and why she cared for the homeless, and why she had concern for the blind and the lame, and why she didn’t feel sorry for herself, in spite of what life had done to her. Because she had her eye on the future, not on the past; on what was coming, not on what had been.

We know, also, why that preacher read from First Corinthians 13. Because he speaks of what endures, what will be there at the end, “Everything else passes away; but faith, hope and love abide.” They’ll be there when Christ eats with us at his holy banquet.

That is what makes us different, we Christians, because of this meal. We are different because we look to the future, the way life someday will be. We let that future determine the way life will be now.

Mark Trotter ~ Get Up and Go

Consider today Matthew 2: 1-12.

Matthew borrowed heavily from the Old Testament, especially from the prophet, Isaiah. That may come as a word of comfort to writers, and especially to preachers, who borrow heavily from other sources and hope nobody finds out about it. You can get in trouble doing that. In some places it is called “plagiarism.” It is at the least embarrassing, and perhaps even expensive, if the material you borrowed has been copyrighted. But in Matthew’s case, borrowing is not felonious, it is felicitous. Matthew, along with the other New Testament writers, believed that if you want to understand what God is doing now and here, then you look at what God was doing then and there, and it will be the same. Matthew turned back to the time when God revealed himself to the Jews, back to the prophets, to Isaiah, to the prophet who wrote to the Jews when they were in captivity in Babylon. He came across this passage in the 60th chapter of Isaiah.”Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”Matthew said, that is what happened at Christmas. The light came into the darkness of our world, and the light was the glory of God’s presence with us.

When Isaiah wrote these words the Jews were in captivity, being held hostage in Babylon. Cyrus, from Persia, came down from the north and besieged Babylon, defeated the Babylonians, and then freed political prisoners, including the Jews. He told the Jews, “You can go home now.” The Jews just sat there like caged animals who all of a sudden find the door to their cages open. They have been so habituated to confinement that they don’t know what to do, so they just stay there. After Cyrus had defeated Babylon and said to the Jews, “You all go home now,” many of them just stayed right where they were.

Many of them, in fact, had bought property in Babylon. Perhaps you can understand that, for Babylon was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with its hanging gardens and all that. Being held captive in Babylon would be something like being trapped in La Jolla for a while. They thought, we’re not going to get out of this, so we might as well make the most of it, get comfortable. Then Cyrus came. Isaiah said, “Cyrus was sent by God to set us free. Now get up and get going.” Only he put it poetically:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Later in the 60th chapter Isaiah predicts that the nations will come and marvel at the glory and greatness of the new Jerusalem. He said if you rebuild the city, all these nations will come to you to celebrate what God has done for you. They will bring you royal tribute, as was the custom when a new king was crowned. Kings from all over the world will come to you, or send their representatives, and will bring gifts to you. Isaiah writes this in the later part of the 60th chapter.

“The abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (that is a reference to nations bringing these royal tributes to the new city and to the king that sits on the throne).

“A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.”

Then, listen to this.

“They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

Matthew, when he read that, remembered the report of wise men coming from various parts of the world, bringing gifts to the Christ child. He said it was like Isaiah, bringing gold and frankincense. Only Matthew said they also brought myrrh, as we sang in the hymn. Myrrh was used in preparation for the burial of the dead, a reminder that this child will die for the sins of the world.

Matthew decided to make the story of the three wise men a part of his nativity story, and included it as the conclusion of the story. He wanted this to happen: when people read the story of Bethlehem, they will hear the story of Babylon, and how God freed the Jews from captivity, and know that what has happened in Jesus Christ is just like that. Once again, light has come into the darkness, and people who have been in darkness, or in bondage, are now free to begin a new life.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

You are supposed to understand what happened at Bethlehem by remembering what happened in Babylon. The door is open now for a whole new future for you. You are free now. Get up and go. Why do you sit there so despondently in the shadows of your old world? You are free now. You have a glorious future ahead of you. All of us do.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

What is most significant about this passage is that it is in the form of a command: “arise, shine.” It’s a command. How can Isaiah do that? How can you order somebody to start a new life?

We live in a time when the wisdom of the day tells us that we are the product of our past, or of our environment, or our genes, some kind of destiny placed upon us, and we can’t do anything about it. In that kind of world therapy consists of accepting who you are. Sometimes that is all right, it needs to be said. But sometimes it sounds an awful lot like “settling down in Babylon.” We may not have the life we want now. Things may have happened to make us feel that we are stuck where we are. But do you know what happens? When you live with anything for a while, it doesn’t seem so bad. Especially when you are asked to change, because then you can see the advantage of even being in bondage. At least you know what to expect. At least your life is familiar to you.

Richard Rohr, in a brilliant analysis, says that what has happened to us is that “the subjective self has become the objective truth.” What a terrific analysis. We are told that what is most real about us is our internal life, our feelings. Our feelings become the objective truth, the only reality there is.

Christian faith stands strongly over against that, and says that the most important fact about your life is not what has happened to you in the past, and not the way you are right now. The most important fact about your life is what God is offering you. God has given you the future. God has given you a new life. But you’ve got to get up, and move toward it.

For most of us, that is going to take a lot of discipline. It’s not fashionable to talk about discipline. It is going to take discipline to change a lifetime of habits, and to begin a new life. But in a time in which the subjective self is the definition of reality, we will do pretty much what we feel like doing, and feel good about it. But to have discipline in your life is to say, what is real for me as a person of faith, is not the way I am now, but the way I know I can become.

A student was crossing the campus of a college on a cold, rainy day, raining cats and dogs. He saw the college president walking across the campus. The student asked the president what he was doing out so early on a rainy Sunday morning. The president said, “I’m going to church.” The student asked, “What made you decide to go to a church on a day like this?” The president said, “I didn’t decide to go to church today. I made the decision many years ago.”

What discipline means is that you will do those things that you should do even if you don’t feel like doing them. People say you ought to be honest about your feelings. I believe that. Your feelings are a part of you, and you ought to take your feelings seriously. But there is more to you than your feelings. There are also your hopes, your aspirations, your dreams, your visions, your responsibilities and your obligations, and there is now, because of the gospel proclaimed to you, a new life that is being offered to you. That is a part of your life, too. You ought to be as honest about those things as you are about your feelings. It is like John Wesley, who went to Peter Bohler and complained he couldn’t preach grace because he said he had never experienced it. Bohler told him, “Preach it until you do experience it.”

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Do it even if you don’t feel like it, even if you don’t believe, or can’t imagine, that the promise that is offered can come to you. Get up and follow it anyway, because you are a person of faith, and you believe that what is real is not only the way you feel now, but the promise offered to you in Jesus Christ. So “arise, and shine.”

It is offered to you in grace. That is what Wesley discovered. But the paradox of the Christian life is, you won’t receive what is given to you unless you get up and go get it. That is what Wesley did. He followed Bohler’s advice. In a few weeks he experienced grace by preaching it, by seeking it. It changed his life. It turned him around.

That is probably why he left as a legacy for us Methodists this definition of the Christian life. He said the Christian life is “growing in grace.” Being a Christian, according to Wesley, is not just sitting in grace. It is “growing in grace,” doing something about your life. It is a mixture of grace, what God has given to us, and our own initiative and discipline, what we should be doing with our own lives. Wesley called it “sanctification.” What it really is, is hearing the command, “arise, and shine,” and getting up and going.

As a part of that spiritual discipline, Wesley wrote a service called, “The Renewal of the Covenant.” It calls us to remember the promise that God has given to us, and pledge ourselves to live the kind of life that would realize that promise in our own lives. He got the service originally from the Puritans in England and placed it on New Year’s Eve. He thought a renewal of the covenant at New Year’s Eve, a watch night service, would be the most appropriate place for it. Later it was also used on the first Sunday as an opportunity for us to remember what God has done for us, and to pledge our lives in response to grow in grace.

His brother, Charles Wesley, wrote the hymn which we will use to conclude this service:

Come, let us use the grace divine,

And all with one accord,

In a perpetual covenant

Join ourselves to Christ the Lord.

Take the opportunity to join Methodists over 250 years who get up and go renew the covenant with the Lord.