Seeking the Lost

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September 11, 2016
Luke 15:1-10

There was something off about today’s Gospel lesson. It just didn’t seem quite complete; like there was something “missing”. Which is ironic because it included two stories about people looking for something they had lost- the shepherd looking for his lost sheep and the woman looking for her lost coin. For some reason, it just seems like there should be something else. Anyone else feel like this? Anyone else think that something was missing from the Gospel lesson?

What is missing from these stories of seeking the lost is that there is supposed to be one more story; one more parable about the importance of seeking the lost. The “missing” story just happens to be my favorite parable of all that Jesus shares. Perhaps my favorite story in all of Scripture, the Parable of the Lost Son (aka the Prodigal Son). There are three parables about seeking the lost in this chapter of Luke; the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Yet, the lectionary only gives us two of the three.

I guess it makes sense. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are a whole lot shorter than the parable of the lost son. The former are only ten verses total. While the parable of the lost son is 21 verses by itself. The stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin are pretty simple, especially when compared to the lost son. But they still belong together. They still have the same basic pattern. 1) Someone loses something. 2) They don’t stop searching and seeking, they don’t rest, until they find what they had lost.  3) When they do get back what they had lost there is great rejoicing and much celebrating.

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

“Let us eat and celebrate, for this son of my was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

These three stories belong together because they show the importance of seeking the lost. They belong together because they show the joy that comes when the lost are found. Joy in heaven and joy on earth. But in some ways, I guess it is good that they are separated in our lectionary readings. Certainly the length of the parable of the lost son makes it necessary to separate it. If we read all of Luke 15 in one service, we would hardly have time for much else. It’s also good because it allows us to focus more on the lost sheep and the lost coin. If we kept them all together, the lost sheep and lost coin would likely be lost all over again.

If we considered all three of these parables together, our focus would naturally be on the lost son because it is just so relatable. We can easily see ourselves as the lost son, or as his older brother. We know where we are in this story. We know who we are in this story. With the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin, they are a little bit harder. We don’t always know where we are supposed to find ourselves in them. We don’t always know who we are supposed to be in them. Are we represented by the lost sheep and the lost coin? Lost and afraid, waiting to be found? Or are we the “friends and neighbors” called to rejoice and celebrate when the lost are indeed found? Or are we the ones who are supposed to be seeking the lost?

To tell the truth, I don’t much feel like a sheep. Though there are some days I wonder. And some days I wander. I have no idea what a coin feels like. Does a coin even have feelings? Certainly, I enjoy any opportunity to rejoice and celebrate. Although it seems a little bit over the top to celebrate finding one sheep, especially when ninety-nine others were put at risk just to find the one that was lost. It seems downright stupid to rejoice and celebrate finding one lousy coin; the celebration probably costs more than the coin was worth.

So I guess that means that we are supposed to see ourselves as the ones looking; as the ones searching; as the ones seeking the lost. However I can’t help but think that is supposed to be God’s job, not ours. Certainly Jesus is identified in other places in scripture as a Shepherd. And the Father in the story of the Lost Son presents us with a picture of what we want, and expect, God to be like. There is nothing wrong with God being the woman who searches for her lost coin. Even though we most often think of God as a man, God is not a man. So we overlook the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. We can’t identify with them. We can’t figure out who we are supposed to be in them or what we are supposed to do because of them.

Today, instead of overlooking these parables, perhaps if we take a closer look at them, it will all become much clearer. We can see how we are supposed to identify with them, who we are supposed to be in them, and what are are supposed to do because of them. Jesus makes this clear from the very beginning as he says: “Which one of you, having one hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost? ”

Which one of you? Which one of you who are hearing this parable? Jesus is making the assumption that the answer would not be that none of us would do that; that it’s crazy to leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one; that it’s pointless to search for one coin when you have nine others. Jesus is assuming that everyone who hears these parables would not hesitate to leave the ninety-nine and search for the one. They would not hesitate to forget that they have nine more coins and focus on the one lost coin. Jesus is making this assumption because that is what he would do and that is what he does. Jesus is making this assumption because that is what God does. Jesus is making this assumption because that is what he expects us to do.

We don’t like that. We don’t like that Jesus expects this of us. It is so much easier for us to be the ones who are lost. It is so much easier for us to sit back and wait to be found. We would rather that God do God’s job and seek the lost. We would rather that God let us do our job and be the lost. But that’s not what these parables are about.

Certainly there are times when we are lost, there are times when we need to be found. But we can’t always be the lost, we can’t always need to be found. As followers of Jesus, we acknowledge that we were lost and have already been found. And we accept that it is up to us to seek others who are lost. It is up to us to search for those who need to be found. It is not solely God’s job, it is not only up to God to seek the lost. It is our job, too.

It is our job as Christians to leave behind the righteous who need no repentance and go search for those who need to be found. It is our calling as followers of Jesus to help bring joy to the angels of God, as we seek the lost and find sinners who are ready to repent. The only thing that is “missing” from our Gospel lesson today is us. The only thing missing is our willingness to be who God has created us to be, our willingness to do what Jesus calls us to do.

“Which one of you…?” Jesus asks. Which one of us? The answer should be all of us. All of us should be ready and willing to go after the lost until they are found. All of us should be ready and willing to search carefully until we find all that are lost. All of us should be ready and willing to rejoice and celebrate as we seek and find God’s lost children. It’s not up to God. It’s not up to me. It’s up to all of us.

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Life or Death; the Choice is Ours

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Life or Death; the Choice is Ours
September 4, 2016

Our weekly Book Club at Fries Moravian is just about finished with our current book. For most of the summer, we have been reading Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, written by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Even though she is an ordained Lutheran pastor, a lot of people would say that she is one of the “wrong people.” At least she would seem that way when judged solely by her appearance. Nadia definitely doesn’t look like a pastor. Even when she is wearing her clergy collar, she wears it with sleeveless shirts so everyone can see her muscular arms, which are covered with tattoos.

Despite her appearance and her rough language (she definitely uses language that I wouldn’t use in church), despite her not looking like we expect a pastor to look or writing like we would expect a pastor write, we have all really enjoyed the book. It has inspired some very good discussion and offered some wonderful insights into our lives as Christians. Even though sometimes we still find ourselves talking about how she looks.

A few weeks ago, as we were talking about all of the tattoos that she has, one of the members of the group said something along the lines of never being able to imagine a pastor with tattoos. It was not at all judgmental, it was more of a statement about how much things have changed over the years in the world and in the church. Hearing it, though, I couldn’t resist pointing out that I have a tattoo myself.

I was honestly surprised that it hadn’t been noticed before. It is pretty visible, if not obvious. My tattoo is right on the side of my left wrist and I got it on July 22, 2015; Kelly’s birthday. And she has one too, on the side of her foot. We went together to get them to celebrate her birthday last year. I never EVER thought I would get a tattoo. And there was even less chance that Kelly would get one. But it just seemed like the right thing for us to do.

Our tattoos are both semi-colons and they represent the importance of not putting a period where God puts a semi-colon. A period signals an ending while a semi-colon is just a pause. Whenever a writer uses a semi-colon, it is a reminder to stop and pause, to take in and reflect upon everything that is going on. As God is writing the story of our lives, he only uses a period once, on the day our life is meant to come to an end. But God uses semi-colons a lot. Because as God’s children, our lives are a continuing story. A story that requires us to pause every once in awhile; to reflect on where we are and where we have been and where we want to go; to reflect on who we are, who we have been and who we want to be. A semi-colon is a reminder to take time for that pause and that reflection.

Lots of people have semi-colon tattoos to reinforce that reminder to stop and pause. Kelly and I got the idea to get our tattoos from Project Semicolon , which creates awareness of this need to pause by the use of the symbol of the semi-colon. The Project Semicolon website describes it as a “movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.”

As many of you know, Kelly struggles with depression and we have both had family members who have suffered from addictions. So I decided (and amazingly Kelly agreed) that we should get semi-colon tattoos to remind each other, and everyone who sees them, of the importance of not putting a period where God puts a semi-colon; as a reminder of the importance of maintaining faith and hope; as a reminder of the importance of choosing life. It is a choice that we all face; to choose life over death.

As we read in Deuteronomy, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” So there it is. Life and death, blessings and curses are set before us. And the choice is ours. Certainly, for many people, it is very much a literal choice between life and death. Mental illness, depression, addictions, often lead the sufferer to consider taking their own life. They are unable to see life and blessings as belonging together. They see life as a curse, for them and for those that love them. They feel that the best way, the only way, to end that curse is to end their life.

In 2014, more than 41,000 Americans chose to end their life. They chose death over life. That means, on average, 112 people each day make this choice for death over life. Some people believe it to be the “unforgivable sin.” I don’t believe that it is up to us to decide or determine what sins are forgivable and which are not. But it is up to us to help bring those numbers down. It is up to us to help EVERYONE choose life.

It is up to the church to be the place where those who are struggling with this choice, who are suffering so greatly from illness of body, mind and spirit that they are contemplating choosing death over life; it is up to the church to help them find ways to choose life. It takes more than simply telling them to pray more or read the Bible more. The church needs to be a place where these struggles can be talked about; safely, openly, freely. The church needs to be a place where these struggles can be addressed. Not with judgement or condemnation or exclusion; but with love and compassion and inclusion.

The church needs to be a place of the “Semi-Colon.” The place where people can come to pause; and reflect on where they are and where they have been and where they want to go; and reflect on who they are, who they have been and who they want to be. The church needs to be the place where people can not only come to pause and reflect, but also the place where they can come to be reminded. Reminded that they are they beloved children of God; reminded that they are created in God’s image; reminded that they are loved unconditionally. The church needs to be a place where the choice that is set before, the choice between life and death and blessings and curses, becomes much easier to make.

This is a place that we all need. Whether we suffer from a mental illness or not, whether or not we struggle to choose physical life over death, we are all still faced with that choice. Each and every day we are faced with the choice between life or death, blessings or curses. Even when we are not faced with the choice of whether physically live or die, we are faced with the choice of what kind of life we will live. Will we choose a life of blessings or a life of curses?

This may seem like a ridiculous question. Of course we would all choose a life of blessings. But while we may think that we (and everyone else) would choose a life of blessings over curses; our actual lives, our true choices, tell a different story. We far too often choose curses over blessings, or we just choose to focus on our curses and not our blessings. Whenever we complain about what we don’t have rather than rejoice in what we do have, we are not choosing the life God has created us to live. Whenever we allow our fear and anxiety rather than our hope and faith to guide us, we are not choosing the life God wants us to have. Whenever we judge and exclude others rather than love and welcome them, we are not choosing the life that God calls us to live.

The church does indeed need to be a “semi-colon place.” It needs to be a place where we pause and consider our choices, and resolve to choose blessings over curses. The church needs to be the place where we choose the life that God has created for us rather than the lives we create for ourselves. The church needs to be the place where we choose hope and faith, where we choose to be loving and welcoming.

The church needs to be a place where we can all pause; and reflect on where we are, where we have been, and where we want to go; reflect on who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be. The church needs to be THE place where we can choose life; where we can choose to live a blessed and abundant life; where we can choose to share our blessings and our abundance with those in need. The church, the Moravian Church, THIS church, needs to be this place. And, sadly, right now, it’s not that place.

We are not choosing life, we are not choosing blessing. We are complaining about all that we don’t have, rather than rejoicing in all that we do have. We are being guided by our fear and anxiety, rather than our hope and faith. We are judging and excluding, rather than loving and welcoming. As long as this continues, we are choosing curses over blessings, we are choosing death over life.

Brothers and Sisters, it is time to choose life. It is time to choose blessing. It is time to choose hope and faith. It is time to choose love. God has set the choice before us. It is up to us to make it. So let us choose life and let us choose to be the people that God has created us to be; people of faith and love and hope. So let us choose blessings and let us choose to be the people that the world needs us to be. Let us make our church the place that God created it to be and that the world needs it to be; a place of life and a place of love.

Amen

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Yesterday, Today, Forever

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Yesterday, Today, Forever
August 28, 2016

Last Tuesday morning, for some inexplicable reason, Kelly and I woke up really early. We were at the beach, on vacation, yet for some reason we both were awake. Even as the sun was rising. I hate that. On one of the rare and few days that we could sleep in- no dog to take out, no child to get ready for school, no work to get dressed for,no reason at all for either of us to be awake- yet we both were.

Knowing that going back to sleep just wasn’t going to happen, I got out of bed to put the coffee on. As I did, I looked out over the water and saw at least one good reason to be awake at that disappointing hour. The early morning sky was incredible. The rising sun was creating beautiful colors in the clouds- pink and red, orange and yellow. Everything was bright and beautiful. I grabbed the camera and headed down to the beach, hoping to get some pictures of the sun rising over the ocean and at least get some good out of being up so early.

It didn’t take me more than 10 minutes to get dressed, get the camera and walk the 3 blocks from the condo to the ocean. But by the time I got there, it was over. The beautiful colors were gone. The sun had risen high enough in the sky that the pink and red and orange and yellow had been replaced by plain old bright light. The day had begun. It was disappointing because I had really hoped to get some spectacular pictures of that glorious sunrise. But I had just missed it.

Things had changed just enough that what I was hoping to see was gone. Things had changed just enough that what I was expecting to find was not there anymore. Things had changed just enough that what I went looking for couldn’t be found. Change is like that. It happens quickly, yet subtly. We can’t see it, but it happens right before our eyes. We know it is happening and we know that there is nothing we can do to stop it. I would have loved to have stopped that sunrise, for just a few minutes, to give myself time to get to where I wanted to be. So that I could do what I wanted to do but, of course, that was impossible.

Change can’t be prevented. Nothing stays the same. The earth spins, the sun rises and the sun sets. Life moves on. And we don’t like that. We don’t like change. We want things to stay the same or even to go back to how they were when things were good. The “good old days” that never were as good as we would like to think they were. Change is scary, and it is inevitable. Change is unavoidable, and it is necessary. Change is constant, and it is unstoppable. The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. Nothing stays the same yesterday, today, or forever. Nothing that is except for Jesus Christ. As Hebrews tells us “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

In a world of constant, unavoidable, inevitable change it is comforting to hear that. It is comforting to know that in the face of great change one thing stays the same. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus hasn’t changed in the past. Jesus isn’t changing in the present. Jesus won’t change in the future. And that’s good. It is comforting to have this one constant in our lives.

Yet, at the same time, it is also scary. It’s not scary to know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. But it is scary when we take that to mean that we should be the same yesterday and today and forever. It is scary when we use those words to assume that the ways we understand Jesus should remain the same yesterday and today and forever. It is scary when we take the comfort of knowing that Jesus hasn’t changed, isn’t changing and won’t change and use it to justify holding on to the past, to create anxiety in the present, and to fear the future.

Yet this is what many of us do. It is what many of us understand it to mean. And so we do hold on to what we had, to who we were. We are worried about what is going on around us. We are afraid of what will happen. We take those words that are meant to provide us with comfort in the face of change- scary, unavoidable, constant change- and we use them as an admonition to AVOID change, to resist change, to do everything we can to prevent change.

If Jesus stays the same, then so should we. If Jesus stays the same, then so should his people. If Jesus doesn’t change, then neither should his church. And this is simply wrong and it totally misses the point. The message that Hebrews is trying to convey, the point that is being made, is not that change should be avoided. But it is about how change should be embraced.

Our world is changing, our lives are changing, our church is changing. And that’s okay. It’s okay as long as we remember that our God is not changing. It’s okay as long as we remember that our Jesus is not changing. Change is okay because Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. Change is okay because the Lord is our helper. We can change, we should change, we need to change. We need to look at ourselves, at our lives, at our world, at our church. We need to look at all the ways that we try to hold on to the past. We need to look at all the ways we are anxious in the present. We need to look at all the ways we fear the future

We need to look at all of these and see how they are harming us, how they are preventing us from being who God has created us to be, how they are stopping us from becoming who God has called us to be. We need to stop fearing change and start to anticipate it. We need to stop resisting change and start to appreciate it. We need to stop avoiding change and start to embrace it.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Our unchanging Lord and Savior needs us to share his constant grace with this constantly changing world. Our unchanging Lord and Savior needs us to share his sustained mercy in this mercilessly changing world. Our unchanging Lord and Savior needs us to share his unconditional love in this continuously changing world. So we can’t be afraid to change. We can’t resist change. We must embrace it to share the unchanging grace, mercy, and love of our unchanging God with this rapidly changing world.

Jesus’ love is revealed in our love. Jesus’ mercy is revealed in our mercy. Jesus’ grace is revealed in our grace. So let our grace abound, let our mercy flow, let our love continue. Then this changing world will see, this changing world will know, this changing world will believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Amen

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Moravian Pentecost

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August 14, 2016
Moravian Pentecost

Yesterday, Zach and I went to part of the celebration of Salem’s 250th Anniversary. It was in 1766 that the Moravians began building the village of Salem. Yesterday was community day in Old Salem, all of the buildings were open and tours were free. The Salem Congregation offered a number of different opportunities for worship and I was blessed to lead one of the 4 worship services held throughout the day in Home Moravian Church.

Zach and I got there a little bit early so we walked around to see all that was going on. As we were walking up Main Street, Zach said, “This is what heaven must be like.”

“Why?” I responded.

Zach replied “Because it seems like it was touched by God.”

I never cease to be amazed by the faith and wisdom of children. Walking around the streets of Salem, it does seem like it has been touched by God. And as we gather for worship today we are remembering another time when the Moravians were touched by God.

It was August of 1727 and the Moravian community in Herrnhut, Germany was in trouble. After years of persecution and being driving out of their homeland, the remnant of the Unity of the Brethren (the church started in 1457 by followers of the teachings of Jan Hus) finally found refuge. In 1722, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a German nobleman and a student of the Pietist movement, welcomed the Moravians and allowed them to build a village on his land. Over the next 5 years, the village of Herrnhut became a place of religious freedom, where they welcomed many people of many different religious backgrounds.

Those different backgrounds meant different beliefs- different ideas, different customs, different practices. Those differences brought conflict. Then, as now, people don’t deal well with differences. We like conformity and uniformity. The conflict in Herrnhut played out in ugly ways. Arguments, enmity, antagonism led to discord, disunity, distrust. By early 1727, things were so bad that Zinzendorf was ready to put an end to the whole thing. But not without giving it one more try.

After a time of intense study of the Scriptures and devoted prayer, in May of 1727 the community came up with the Brotherly Agreement, which is a covenant of behavior for living in Christian community. We know it today as the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living. It still serves as our covenant for how we live and relate to one another

This “Brotherly Agreement” helped but it wasn’t quite enough. The discord, disunity, distrust were still there, they were still a threat to the community. They needed to have something more than words written on a piece of paper, something more than an agreement. The Moravians in Herrnhut needed to be changed. They needed a change of attitude, from an attitude of self to one for others. They needed a change of spirit, from a spirit of error to a spirit of truth. They needed a change of heart, from hearts of stone to hearts of love. And on August 13, 1727 they changed.

On this day, the fractured, hurting, broken community gathered for worship. They gathered together for prayer and praise. They gathered together to hear the Word. They gathered together to share the sacrament. They gathered together and something happened. It was not something that could be described or explained. I imagine that if you asked one of them about it, they would say: “I don’t really know what happened, but something did.”

The something that happened was that the Holy Spirit moved among them. The something that happened was that Jesus and his love became a reality. The something that happened was that they were touched by God. When this happens, you can’t describe it or explain it. But you know that it happens because from then on, things are different.

August 13, 1727 is known as the Moravian Pentecost. As the Day of Pentecost is the day that the church was born, August 13 is the day that the Moravian Church was reborn and renewed. Much of what we consider to be “Moravian” today trace their beginning to this renewal and rebirth. The lovefeast, the Daily Texts, the Prayer Watch, the mission outreach, all thrived because of what happened on August 13, 1727.

What happened was a change of attitude, from an attitude of self to one for others. What happened was a change of spirit, from a spirit of error to a spirit of truth. What happened was a change of heart, from hearts of stone to hearts of love. On August 13, 1727 the Moravian Church changed.

The most important lesson we can learn from our ancestors is that things can change, that we can change. The story of August 13 reminds us that change is necessary. It may not be welcome, but it is necessary. The story of August 13 reminds us that change is possible. It may not be easy, but it is possible. We are blessed that our Moravian ancestors saw this and allowed the Holy Spirit to change them.

Thank God they didn’t think: “We have been this way for years, we can’t change now.” Thank God they didn’t say: “I’m too old to change.” Thank God they didn’t believe: “It’s too much work to change. Let’s just move on.” The Moravians in 1727 were ready, they were open, and they were willing. God saw that and God did something about it. Attitudes of self became attitudes for others. The spirit of error became a spirit of truth. Hearts of stone became hearts of love.

As I said last week, the Moravian Church of 2016 is in a similar place to that of 1727. We have different ideas, different customs, different practices. These differences bring conflict because we don’t deal well with differences. We like conformity and uniformity. This conflict can, and does, play out in ugly ways. With arguments, enmity, and antagonism which lead discord, disunity, and distrust. We can’t let that continue to happen. We need to change.

We need to be ready. We need to be willing. We need to be open. We need the Holy Spirit. We need to be touched by God. We need love. We need the love that John writes about: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)

As we come to the table. As we receive these reminders of the love that God has for us, and the love that God calls us to have for one another. Let us ask God to touch our hearts.
Let us ask Jesus to forgive us. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to change us.

Amen

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By Faith or By Fear

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Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Like so many others, I watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday night. While it wasn’t as epic or memorable as it was 4 years ago, nothing will ever top the opening of the London Olympics, it was still entertaining. My favorite part is the Parade of Nations, when all of the athletes parade into the stadium. It was interesting that in this year’s parade, Tanzania was followed by the Czech Republic. Bob Costas had explained that since these games are in Rio, they were using the Portuguese alphabet (which is the language of Brazil) to determine the order that the different countries entered the stadium. I have never studied Portuguese, so I can only assume that in Portuguese somehow the letter T comes before C. As such, the athletes from Tanzania arrived right before those from the Czech Republic.

As a Moravian, I was interested to see that Tanzania, the country that is home to more Moravians than anywhere else in the world, preceded the Czech Republic, the country where the Moravian church was born. It was a very visual reminder of the great faith that the Moravians have shown over the last 559 years, ever since the followers of Jan Hus formed the Unity of the Brethren. Those first Moravians had great faith in the things that they hoped for; they showed great conviction in things that they couldn’t see. It was a faith that led them out of their homeland, to places that they had never seen, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Moravians had a faith like that of Abraham and Sarah. Now, Abraham and Sarah certainly weren’t leaving their homeland to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. They preceded Jesus by thousands of years. The writer of the book of Hebrews uses Abraham and Sarah as an example of faith. Faith that is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith that is seen in the lives of people like: Abel, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Faith that is seen in “Men who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women who received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:33-38)

This is the faith that is seen in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, who obeyed the call of God and left their home for a land they did not know, who looked forward to a city that they could not see. This is the faith that is seen in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, who trusted in God’s promise that they would have a son, even though Abraham was too old and Sarah was barren. This is the faith that gave birth to a people of God “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (Hebrews 11: 12)

The followers of Jan Hus are descendants of this faith. If someone today were to write a letter to the Moravians, similar to the letter to the Hebrews, the faith of our ancestors would serve as a great example for us. They, too, had “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”

By faith Jan Hus preached against the excesses and abuses of the church of his day. By faith the followers of Hus formed a new kind of church; a unity of the brethren who held faith, love and hope as their essentials. By faith Jan Amos Comenius prayed that a “hidden seed” of the unity’s faith would survive, despite the persistent persecution and almost complete extinction of the Moravians. By faith that hidden seed found refuge on the estate of Count Zinzendorf, along with religious refugees from all over Europe.

By faith the remnants of the Moravian church gathered on August 13, 1727 and allowed the Holy Spirit to renew them. By faith Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann left their home and set out as strangers to a strange land. By faith the Moravians shared the Gospel to the very ends of the earth. By faith the small group of followers of John Hus grew into a worldwide church, from the Czech Republic to Tanzania and hundreds of places in between.

All of this happened by the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. All of this happened by faith, something that seems to be in short supply in these days. We seem to be lacking in faith, we seem to not be sure of what we hope for, we seem to not have conviction in things we can’t see.

If someone were to write a letter, not to the Moravians of today, but about the Moravians of today, the faith of our ancestors could be replaced by our fear. Our fear of not getting what we hope for. Our fear of what we can’t see. Our fear of losing what we have. Our fear of losing who we are or who we have been.

By fear the Moravians held onto the past. By fear the Moravians failed to take risks. By fear the Moravians stayed as they were; instead of becoming who God was calling them to be, instead of becoming who God needed them to be, instead of becoming who the world needed them to be. If the Moravians had always been ruled by fear and not by faith, we would not be here today. Rather than being renewed and reborn in August 1727, the Moravian Church would have died. They would not have shared the gospel to the ends of the earth. They would have stayed there in their little village, afraid of losing what they had.

The Moravian Church in 2016 is in a similar place. Our future is far from certain. This week, Moravian leaders from around the world will gather for Unity Synod. There they will confront the things that threaten to divide us, that could potentially destroy us. Let us pray that they will act in faith and not out of fear. This week, Moravians around the world will remember August 13, 1727. As we celebrate that spiritual renewal of our church let us pray for a new spiritual renewal of our church. Let us pray that our faith will overcome our fears. Let us pray that our hope will outlast our doubts. Let us pray that our love will outlive our hate.

Brothers and Sisters, we don’t know what the future will hold; for our congregation, for our province, for our denomination. We don’t know what the future will hold; for our lives, for our nation, for our world. We don’t know what will happen. But we do know who will make it happen. We do know who is in charge. We do know who is in control. Let us put our faith in God. Let us place our hope in God. Let us live in the love of God. Let us live by faith, with the assurance of the things we hope for and the conviction of the things we can’t see. Let us live by faith and not by fear.

Amen.

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Rise Up!

Colossians 3:1-11

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This is our baptismal font. Like almost all of the “pulpit furniture” it is removable. We can clear out everything up here, the chairs, pews, lectern, even the pulpit itself and the communion table. Sometimes we do clear it all out; for weddings, Christmas, special services, or whenever we just need the extra room. We pick it up and move it out, then bring it all back for the next Sunday. Everything always ends up back where it belongs. Well, everything except for the baptismal font.

Somehow, the baptismal font doesn’t always make it back where it belongs. Sometimes it stays in the parlor, or in the hall closet. Usually it stays there until either someone notices that it’s missing or we actually need it for a baptism. Then we drag it back up to the front of the church. Until recently, the baptismal font had actually been out of the sanctuary for a long time. Maybe we moved it out for Good Friday? I don’t even remember. But it was gone until just a couple of weeks ago, when I got someone to help me find it and put it back where it belongs.

It’s kind of sad that we so often don’t even notice when it’s gone. It’s sad because our baptismal font is a reminder of the beginning of our faith journey. At some point in our lives, almost all of us have received the waters of baptism. We have experienced baptism as the visible means of entry into the new covenant. Through our baptism, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are united with Christ and cleansed by his saving work, we enter into the fellowship of the church, and are called to a life of faith and willing obedience. When we are baptized into the death of Jesus, we are buried with him into death; so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glorious power of God Almighty, we too might be raised to live a new life.

The words from our Baptism liturgy remind us that baptism is important, some may call it essential. It is when we rise up from death into life. Our baptism signifies the death of our old life, our old self, our earthly self; and the birth of our new life, our new self, our Godly self. When we are baptized, we go down in the water alone and we rise up with Christ. We go down and we leave the old and rise up to the new. We set our minds on things that are above not on things that are of the earth.

Baptism is when we put to death whatever in us that is earthly; those desires of the flesh, like fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. It is where we stop following the old ways, stop living the old life, and start following the new way. After we are baptized we live a new life. At least we do in theory.

However since most of us were baptized as infants, and infants don’t engage in much fornication, impurity, passion or evil desire, ok, I guess that they can be pretty greedy, but otherwise there is not much about their old lives, their old ways, that needs to die. But adults, well, we are a different story.

It is fitting that we keep moving our baptismal font in and out of the sanctuary. It’s sad but it’s fitting. Because we ourselves keep moving in and out of our new lives, we keep moving away from and then back to our new selves, we keep moving back and forth between earthly and Godly. We rise up and seek the things that are above, then we fall back into the things that are down below. While some of those earthly things, fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, might not be much of a problem. Those other things that Paul writes about, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language; they are right down here with us when we fall back.

We know that we are falling back instead of rising up whenever abusive language replaces praise; whenever slander replaces truth; whenever malice replaces benevolence; wrath replaces kindness; whenever anger replaces joy. It is important that we keep our baptismal font before us. We need it to remind us that we have stripped off the old self, with its practices, and have clothed ourselves with our new self, in the image of our Creator. It reminds us that Christ is in us and in all.

This is a reminder that we all need. For far too often, especially lately, we have been falling down instead of rising up. We have not been seeking the things that are above, where Christ is. But we have been focused on the things that are below, where we are. We have been focused on what we want, what we need, what we desire. Rather than on what God wants for us, what God needs from us, who God desires us to be.

We have forgotten that we have died to our old ways, to our old selves. We have forgotten that we have been raised with Christ, we have been raised to new ways and to live new lives. And it shows. It shows in the way that we have failed to strip off our old selves and clothe ourselves with the new self. It shows in the extremes of anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language. It shows in our lack of joy, kindness, benevolence, truth, and praise. It shows in our doubt, our mistrust, our selfishness, our anxiety, our fear.

People look at us, and we look at ourselves, and do not see people who have been raised with Christ, who are seeking things that are above. Instead, they see people who are still dwelling below, clinging to our old lives and our old ways. It is time to for us once again strip off our old selves with our old practices, to die to our old ways. It is time for us to rise up into a new life and clothe ourselves in the image of our Creator.

We need our baptismal font. We need it to be right in front of us. We need it to remind us of who we are, and who we are called to be. We need it to remind us that we are baptized into Christ Jesus. We are baptized into his death. We are buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glorious power of God Almighty, we too might be raised to live a new life. We need our baptismal font to remind us that we have turned away from sin, evil, and selfishness in our thoughts, words, and actions; and that we intend to participate actively in Christ’s church, serving God all the days of our lives. We need this baptismal font to remind us to rise up and live, not alone, not on our own, not by ourselves or for ourselves. We need it to remind us that Christ lives in us. And that the life we live now, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave his life for us.

Brothers and Sisters, it is time to go down into the depths of the waters. It is time to confess our sins; our anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language. It is time to acknowledge our lack of joy, kindness, benevolence, truth, and praise. It is time to repent from our doubt, our mistrust, our selfishness, our anxiety, our fear. It is time for us to be forgiven for our sins, and to have our old lives and our old ways die.

Brothers and Sisters, it is time to RISE UP! to live a new life, where we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. It is time to RISE UP! to live a new life, a life filled with faith, with love, and with hope. It is time to RISE UP! to live a new life, a life where Christ is all and in all! It is time to RISE UP! to live a new life, a life turned away from sin, evil, and selfishness in our thoughts, words, and actions. It is time to RISE UP! to live a new life, a life that is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave his life for us. Brothers and Sisters, it is time to RISE UP!

Amen

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How Many Righteous?

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Then the Lord said: “How great the outcry against the Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their Sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not I will know.”

The Lord was angry with Sodom and Gomorrah. He had heard of their sins and he was ready to deal with them accordingly. Yet Abraham stepped in and tried to save them. He asked the Lord to spare them if they could find fifty righteous people there, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. And the Lord said, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” But not even ten righteous people were found and the cities were destroyed with fire and brimstone.

Today Sodom and Gomorrah are synonymous with great sin and harsh judgement. While there are many disputes over the exact nature of their sins, the fact is that whatever their sins were, they consumed everyone who lived there. Both cities paid the price because not even ten righteous people could be found among them.

Today it is easy for us to dismiss Sodom and Gomorrah, to see it just as a story of people gone wild, who turned so far from God that they were beyond redemption. It’s easy for us to hear the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as simply something that happened a long time ago in a place that was far, far away. We can look at what happened to them and think that was then but this is now. Thinking like that makes it easy for us to look at them with great relief that we are not like them; to think that their sins are so much greater and graver than ours. But are we really that different?

Imagine if the story began like this… then the Lord said: “How great the outcry against the United States and how very grave their Sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not I will know.” How grave is the sin of the United States that the Lord will find when he comes? Who are the righteous that might save our nation? I think that we can all agree that the sins of our nation are much greater and graver than ours. We aren’t like the rest of the country.

Then the Lord said: “How great the outcry against North Carolina and how very grave their Sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not I will know.” How grave is the sin of North Carolina that the Lord will find when he comes? Who are the righteous that might save our state? We can also agree that the sins of our state as a whole are greater and graver than our sins. We aren’t like the rest of our state.

Then the Lord said: “How great the outcry against Winston-Salem and how very grave their Sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not I will know.” How grave is the sin of Winston-Salem that the Lord will find when he comes? Who are the righteous that might save our city? This is hitting closer to home. But we can still look around and see that the sins of our city are greater and graver than our own sins. We aren’t really like those around us.

Then the Lord said: “How great the outcry against Fries Memorial Moravian and how very grave their Sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not I will know.” How grave is the sin of Fries Memorial Moravian that the Lord will find when he comes? Who are the righteous that might save our church? That might save us? This really brings it home, to a time not so long ago and to a place not so far away.

We can’t really hear this and think that it doesn’t apply to us, any of this. We are Sodom and Gomorrah. We are the United States. We are North Carolina. We are Winston-Salem. We are Fries Memorial Moravian Church. We have our sins- our nation, our state, our city, even our church. It doesn’t matter if our sins don’t seem to be as grave as those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sin is sin is sin is sin. We are all guilty of sinning. We are all sinners.

As sinners, we all do things that move us further away from God. God doesn’t move away from us but we move away from God. We move away from God, we sin, every time we do something that hurts ourselves. We sin every time we do something that hurts others. We sin every time we fail to love God with our heart, soul, strength, mind. We sin every time we fail to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We sin every time we fail to feed the hungry or give water to the thirsty. We sin every time we fail to welcome the stranger or clothe the naked. We sin every time we fail to care for the sick or visit the prisoner.

We are sinners. The outcry against us is great. Our sins are grave. God sees them and God sees us. God knows them and God knows us. So where are the righteous who will save us? How many will it take? Fifty? Forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Do we have enough righteousness among us to save us?

Sadly, the answer is no.

No, we don’t have enough righteousness among us to save us. No, we don’t have enough righteousness to save ourselves, to save each other. It doesn’t matter how righteous we feel. It doesn’t matter how righteous we think we are. For we aren’t, and never will be, righteous enough. We don’t have, and never will have, enough righteousness among us. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t save our church. We can’t save our city. We can’t save our state or our country. We can’t save our world.

Fortunately, we don’t have to.

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13-14

There is only one who can save us. There is only one who is righteous enough. There is only one that we need. Yes, the outcry against us is great. Yes, our sins are grave. But it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. Because the record against us has been erased, set aside, nailed to the cross. We are forgiven by the death of Jesus. We are free from the burden of our sins. We are alive, together with him.

Jesus has done his part. He has become the righteousness we need. He has saved us from our sins. Now it is up to us. It is up to us to continue the good work he began. It is up to us to bring about the kingdom of God. It is up to us to love as he loves. It is up to us to forgive us he forgives. It is up to us to serve as he serves. So let’s do it.

There is no reason for us to judge, ourselves or each other. There is no reason for us to condemn, ourselves or each other. All of our sins are grave. All of our sins are forgiven. So let us put them behind us, leaving them where Jesus left them, nailed to the cross. With our sins forgotten us, let us go forward to love. With our sins forgiven, let us go forward to forgive. With our sins behind us, let us go forward to serve.

How many righteous are there to be found among us? There is only one, but that one is enough.

Amen

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