Not Fade Away (2013)

Because I got the call to preach at the last minute, I dug through the “sermons and devotionals” folder on my hard drive and found two earlier occasions when I spoke on Palm Sunday. This is basically my 2009 sermon, with a few tweaks and a paragraph lifted from my 2002 sermon.

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
Palm Sunday – March 23, 2013

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,

19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”

19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 2005, I made my second short-term mission trip to Kenya. On my first trip the year before, we’d been working in the Kibera slums right outside Nairobi. But on this trip, we were working in a place called Ndonyo, in southwestern Kenya. It was a six-or-eight-hour drive for our team, which was riding in two weather-beaten vans.
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Sacrifices with shouts of joy

Concord UMC
February 24, 2013

Psalm 27 (NRSV)
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.

27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!


(Concord had special music today, featuring Jonathan and his daughter Corinna Lingle of Trinity UMC, and they were wonderful.)

The first verse of the 27th Psalm is one of the most beautiful in the Bible: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Of whom shall we be afraid? Of what shall we be afraid?
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Normally, I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and had every intention of doing so this time. People don’t always expect guest speakers to follow the lectionary, but I find it a great discipline, one which forces me to look at the scripture rather than sticking to stories or themes with which I’m comfortable. When I went to look up the week’s passages on the web site, however, I looked at the wrong date — a special mid-week observance rather than what were supposed to be the Sunday passages. By the time I realized my mistake, I’d already started working on the sermon, and — with Rev. Nan Zoller’s permission — I went ahead with it.

Concord UMC
Feb. 3, 2013

Luke 2:22-40 (CEB)

22When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, 30 because my eyes have seen your salvation. 31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
33His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshiped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Our Bible passage begins with Joseph, Mary and Jesus heading to Jerusalem, a trip of about six miles from Bethlehem.

There’s a reference to ritual cleansing – and many Bible versions refer to “their” ritual cleansing. That pronoun is a little bit of an evasion. The first reason for the family to go to Jerusalem was specifically for Mary to be ritually cleansed. Under Jewish law, childbirth made a woman ritually unclean – for 40 days if the child was a boy, and 80 days if the child was a girl. (This was, of course, a very patriarchal society, a society where men had a lot more value than women.) During that time, women couldn’t participate in any religious ceremonies or services.
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The Faith of “Yes”

Concord UMC
October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In today’s Gospel passage, a man asks Jesus about the key to eternal life. The man is enthusiastic; the Bible describes him as running up and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. He calls Jesus “good teacher,” and Jesus immediately corrects him.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. “Only God is good.”
Of course, we understand Jesus to be a part of the divine Trinity, “of one Being with the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed. But Jesus had not fully revealed that aspect yet, and perhaps Jesus sensed, and was trying to explore, that this man was fascinated by teachers. Continue reading

Artificial light

Concord UMC
October 7, 2012

Psalm 8 (CEB)
For the music leader. According to the Gittith. A psalm of David.

LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!
You made your glory higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
you have laid a strong foundation
because of your foes,
in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
4 what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
7 all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
8 the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!

I go to church with a man named Billy Hix. Actually, I go to church with two men whose names sound like “Billy Hix.” Billy H-I-C-K-S is a retired bank president, while Billy H-I-X is a teacher at Motlow State Community College. It’s that second Billy, Billy H-I-X, I want to talk about.
Billy H-I-X teaches computer sciences at Motlow, but his real passion is talking about, and teaching about, space. He’s worked with organizations like NASA and the National Space Foundation to help teachers use space to get kids passionate about science and mathematics. In the era in which both Billy and I grew up, every little boy wanted to be an astronaut. Today, though, more kids need to be given that little nudge into careers in science or mathematics. Experts use the acronym STEM for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the four subject areas that we as a country have to excel at if we’re to remain competitive in an international market.
Billy consults with teachers, and he conducts STEM day camps during the summer at which kids learn about science with hands-on experiments and with field trips to the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Billy has also been a United Methodist lay speaker, and I don’t think he’d mind me repeating something he used once in a program at our church.
It was a unique message; he used various astronomical photos to convey to us the size of God, with Psalm 19:1 as his scripture. Like Psalm 8, our Lectionary passage for this morning, Psalm 19 uses the heavens – the sky – as evidence of God’s majesty. Continue reading

Get off the boat

First United Methodist Church Shelbyville
Galilean Service
Sept. 16, 2012 – Barton Springs Recreation Area, Normandy Reservoir

Matthew 4:18-22 (CEB)

18As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

In Jesus’ day, your life was defined, in large part, by where you lived and what you did for a living. Today, you read these statistics about how the average person changes jobs five times of the course of their life, and many of us have lived in more than one place in our lives. But back then, if you were born into a family of fishermen on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, there was a good chance that you were going to live your entire life as a fisherman on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. And you probably thought that was a good thing, a sign of security and stability.
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Mercy overrules judgment

Goose Pond UMC
September 9, 2012

Today’s Bible reading comes from the Lectionary, and I’m going to read from the Common English Bible, which you may have noticed is now being used in some of the United Methodist Sunday School literature. I’m still getting to know the Common English Bible, but I like it so far – it’s an accurate translation, based on the work of scholars from a number of denominations, but it’s written in a very readable, easy-to-understand manner.
James 2:1-17 (CEB)

1My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? 8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker.
12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

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Stewardship and provision

Ransom UMC
July 29, 2012

John 6:1-21 (Common English Bible)
6 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberius Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.
5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.
7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.
14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.
16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.

2 Kings 4:42-44 (CEB)
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God some bread from the early produce—twenty loaves of barley bread and fresh grain from his bag. Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat.”
43 His servant said, “How can I feed one hundred men with this?”
Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat! This is what the LORD says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers.’” 44 So the servant gave the food to them. They ate and had leftovers, in agreement with the LORD ’s word.

The London Olympic games began this weekend, and of course they’ve been in the planning stages for many years. There’s a 2009 report you can find on the Internet about food service at the games. The London Olympic organizing committee expects to serve more than 14 million meals at 40 different locations over the course of the Olympics and the Paralympics which follow them.
In the Olympic Village alone, the organizers expect to need 25,000 loaves of bread, 260 tons of potatoes, more than 92 tons of seafood, 35 tons of poultry, more than 112 tons of meat, almost 20,000 gallons of milk, 21 tons of eggs, 24 tons of cheese and more than 370 tons of fruit and vegetables. Continue reading

Setting the standard

First UMC Shelbyville
July 15, 2012

Amos 7:7-15 (NRSV)
7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.

7:8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;

7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

7:10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.

7:11 For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'”

7:12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;

7:13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

7:14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,

7:15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Le Grand K has a problem.
Le Grand K is a cylinder made of platinum and iridium which is kept in carefully-controlled conditions in a vault outside Paris, France. Every 40 years or so, it is taken out of its vault, carefully washed with alcohol, and then weighed – although maybe it’s not quite accurate to say that Le Grand K is weighed. That’s because weighing something means comparing it to a standard, and Le Grand K is supposed to be the standard by which everything else is weighed – Le Grand K is intended to be the official definition of the kilogram, the unit of weight in the metric system, used by most of the world and by scientists in every country.
The trouble is that, in 1988, the last time it was taken out and examined, it was lighter than its 80 official replicas – by the difference of a grain of sand. Experts aren’t sure what has happened. Perhaps the replicas, which are handled more often, have picked up mass somehow. Or perhaps Le Grand K has lost it somehow.
Other units of measurement are now designed to be compared to physical constants. There used to be a rod, similar to Le Grand K, which was the official length of one meter. But now, one meter is defined as the distance light travels in 1 / 299,792,458th of a second in a vacuum. That’s something that can be measured and duplicated anywhere in the world that you have scientific equipment – provided we’re all in agreement about how long a second is.
But there hasn’t been a similar, reproducible way to define the kilogram yet – and there are other units of measurement based on the kilogram that are important to engineering and design.
As electronic circuitry becomes smaller and smaller, according to Mental Floss magazine, tiny variations in the official weight of a kilogram could be enough to cause problems.
God, however, has no problem setting a standard. God appeared to Amos holding a plumb line. Any builder knows what a plumb line is. It’s just a weight at the end of a string. Because of the pull of gravity, a plumb line always hangs straight up and down, and so you can use it as a reference for building something, or for judging something that’s already been built, to see if it’s absolutely vertical. In the days before bubble levels, a plumb line was especially important.
Amos lived in the day of the divided kingdom. After the time of David and Solomon, the land of Israel had split – there was the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos was from the southern kingdom, but God sent him to deliver a special word to the northern kingdom.
It’s perhaps appropriate that Amos would pop up in the lectionary this week, because Amos goes out of his way to identify himself as not being a professional prophet. He tells those who challenge him that he is simply a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Some translations use the word “shepherd” instead of “herdsman,” but the Hebrew word in Amos is not the same one translated “shepherd” in some other places in the scriptures, so some scholars think that the reference here is to cattle instead of sheep.
The sycamore fig tree, which grew in the Holy Land, had to be taken special care of. In order for the figs to mature correctly and produce good fruit for harvest, someone had to cut a little slit in each fig while it was still growing on the tree. So that’s what Amos was describing when he called himself a “dresser of sycamore trees.” When he wasn’t herding cattle, he was climbing sycamore trees to make those little slits in each individual fig.
In any case, Amos was a farmer, not a professional prophet, which means, as I like to think of it, that Amos was a lay speaker.
Now, in my travels as a lay speaker – and June and July have turned out to be a busy couple of months for me – I’m not usually too controversial, although I had Ed Perryman tell me a couple of weeks ago at Shiloh United Methodist that he was going to have to go home and soak his feet because I’d stepped on his toes. But Amos was given a message of challenge and condemnation, a harsh message that the people of the northern kingdom didn’t really want to hear, especially coming from one of those southerners.
The plumb line represented a standard – a standard that God had set for his people, but which the northern kingdom of Israel had failed to meet.
When I was at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry a couple of weeks ago, I was working with teenagers as part of the Summer Plus program. We tended to get through with our day earlier than the home repair folks, and so I’d be sitting in the lobby of Friends Cabin as the home repair teams started rolling back into camp.
On Monday, as the members of one team walked in, I asked them what they’d done that day, and they told me that they had to spend most of the morning undoing what another team had done two weeks earlier. Some windows had been installed at their site, and the point person at that site didn’t do it the way he’d been told to do it. The window headers were too small. They were supposed to be wider than the windows, and they weren’t. So the team that was there during my week had to pull those windows out, put in new headers and then put the windows back in.
God had a design for his chosen people, and in the days of Amos the northern kingdom was not living up to that design. They were not on the level; they were out of kilter compared to God’s plumb line.
When something is built that isn’t level and plumb, that isn’t up to code, the authorities have the right to demand that it be torn down. Just as the work crew at Mountain T.O.P. had to pull out those windows and start over again, when God calls something not up to standard God will cause or allow it to be torn down.
So, to what kind of standard was God holding the people of the northern kingdom? A standard of justice, and fair treatment of all. Earlier in the book of Amos, God says, “… [T]hey sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” That reference to “pushing the afflicted out of the way” has to do with more than just courtesy. The NIV translates it as “deny[ing] justice to the oppressed.”
In the cities of Amos’ day, the gate of the city was where you went to publicly air your complaints against your neighbor, or to formalize agreements with your neighbor. In the book of Ruth, the gate of the city is where Boaz went to establish his claim to redeem Ruth and her family’s property. The gate of the city served as a sort of courthouse. It was a place where you were in full public view, and where everything you did could be judged, not only by the authorities, but by your fellow citizens.
If you were pushing the afflicted out of the way at the gate, it meant you were somehow preventing them from getting access to justice. It would be as if you deliberately kept someone away from the courthouse at the time their case was to be heard.
The theme of justice for the poor and oppressed runs throughout the book of Amos.
In the western world, the symbol of justice is a woman, wearing a blindfold and carrying a set of scales – which ties in nicely with our theme of standards and measurement. I remember as a child I think the first place I ever saw the figure of justice was the opening credits of “Perry Mason” reruns. The blindfold means that justice is blind – it doesn’t recognize any special parties, and isn’t supposed to favor those of wealth, privilege or position. The scales are meant to be an objective standard – that type of balance scale either balances or it doesn’t. It’s a scientific measurement, not a matter of preference.
Justice requires that we set aside our personal preferences and interests and connections, and ensure that everyone gets fair treatment.
The Bible is very protective of the poor. There are numerous verses in both testaments calling on God’s people to treat the poor both fairly and compassionately.
In our modern age, though, we’ve learned to defend ourselves from taking responsibility for the poor by making excuses and generalizations. It must be their fault that they’re poor. After all, I heard about someone who was abusing the system and taking advantage of our generosity, so that must mean that everyone is crooked, and that means I don’t have to worry about helping anyone. Pretty convenient, huh?
But that doesn’t meet God’s standard. God’s standard is for justice; each person is to be treated fairly, according to his own merits. And each person is to be treated with love and compassion. God treats us with both justice and compassion – for which we can all be glad; if God treated us only with justice, we would be in a poor position indeed. As Clint Eastwood said in the movie “Unforgiven,” “We’ve all got it coming.”
Treating our fellow man with something less than justice and compassion fails to line up with God’s plumb line.
And that means that we, as Christians, need to be involved, both in individual acts of compassion and in making sure that our society is a place that treats people fairly and justly, regardless of their income.
In “A Christmas Carol,” when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge compliments his old partner by calling him a good businessman.

“Business?” answers Marley. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
As Christians, charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence are our business as well.
While Amos places a special emphasis on justice, especially as it relates to the poor, he also calls out the leadership of the northern kingdom on its promiscuity and sexual sins.
“Father and son go in to the same girl,” God said to Amos, “so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.”
So the leaders of the northern kingdom are behaving in sexually immoral ways, and they’ve got the gall to do so while lying on garments taken from the common people, and they drink wine purchased with fines they imposed on the common people.
Amos has delivered a sharp rebuke to the people of the northern kingdom and to its king, Jeroboam, whom Amos prophesies will die by the sword.
Amos, by the way, hasn’t actually wandered into the heart of the northern kingdom to make this prophecy, despite the way Amaziah describes it to King Jeroboam. Instead, he’s crossed just over the border into Bethel, one of the southernmost cities in the northern kingdom.
Amaziah, a priest from Bethel and a part of the power structure – therefore, a part of the problems to which Amos has been referring – serves as the go-between, sending reports about Amos’s message to King Jeroboam. And Amaziah, somewhat indignantly, tries to convince Amos to go home to Judaea and cause problems there.
When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, and they’re not a native, it’s easy to dismiss them as an “outside agitator,” which of course is a distraction that says nothing whatsoever about the truth or falsehood of their message.
Amaziah tells Amos to stay away from Bethel and go prophesy someplace else. But Amos responds with that phrase I mentioned earlier – “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” In other words, Amos isn’t a full-time prophet, and he’s not prophesying just for the sake of prophesying or to fulfill some sort of image of himself. He’s there to deliver a very specific message in response to a specific command from God.
Sometimes, our service to God has to do with everything except God’s actual commands. We see ourselves as, if not prophets, then perhaps pillars of the church. Or we’re attracted to some particular type of service because of some reason that’s irrelevant at best and self-serving at worst. We’re active in the church, not because God has called us to a specific task, but because we want to feel warm and fuzzy, or because it’s a good way to meet customers, or because that’s what dear old grandma wanted us to do.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for tradition, and there’s something to be said for finding a place where you enjoy serving. But our own human concerns need to be secondary. The primary reason for us to serve is because God has called us.
How do we hear that call? There are some tasks to which God calls all of us through the scriptures. Then, there are some tasks to which God calls specific people at specific times, just as God called Amos from the southern kingdom to deliver a strong message to the people of the northern kingdom.
The common thread in both the demand for justice and Amos’s defense of his prophetic message is the call of God. God calls us to measure up to the divine standard – the divine plumb line. And God calls us, like Amos, to speak or act in particular ways in our pursuit of that divine standard. That requires that we be attentive to God’s word, however it comes to us – through the Bible, through others, or to that still, small voice of God.
If we do not listen to God, whatever we build will be out of plumb – not up to standard. And if what we build is not up to standard, sooner or later it will need to be demolished at the hand of the master craftsman.

A Thorn in the Flesh

Concord UMC
July 8, 2012

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (NRSV)
12:2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.

12:3 And I know that such a person – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows –

12:4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

12:5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.

12:6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,

12:7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.

12:8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,

12:9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

12:10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul begins our scripture passage today by referring to “a person in Christ” who was caught up into the third heaven.”
Most of the commentaries I found were in agreement that Paul was speaking about himself, and many of them believe that what he’s referring to was his experience on the road to Damascus, the confrontation with God that led to Paul’s conversion. Continue reading