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"A Heartless Prophet"
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Sermon - 7/22/2018
 
Ezra 9:1-4
“A Heartless Prophet”
July 22, 2018
 
 
            “Zeal” isn’t a word that we hear very often.  Occasionally, you do hear somebody called a “zealot”, which usually comes across as criticism, if not even an insult.  “When it comes to exercise, she’s something of a zealot.”  “He takes his dislike of messiness to the point of being a zealot for shelving and cabinets.”  “They were zealots for Bernie Sanders and for Ted Cruz, and haven’t spoken in years.”
 
            Zeal itself is not a bad thing, though.  Whole-hearted devotion to God is something I aim for, and urge you to do the same. 
 
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:37, 40]
 
The Wesleyan Movement has always insisted that a big part of the Christian life is to nurture that zeal for holiness, that zeal for God, that puts all of life into God’s hands.  John Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer”, that we often use at New Year’s, leaves no loopholes.
 
“Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
            put me to doing, put me to suffering,
            let me be employed for you, or set aside for you,
            let me be full, let me be empty,
            let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
            yield all to your pleasure and disposal.”
 
            Many people living in Judea at the time of Jesus’ ministry sought to develop that kind of devotion.  For them, says Reza Aslan,
 
“Zeal implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master-to serve any human master at all-and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God. To be zealous for the Lord was to walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old, men and women who tolerated no partner to God, who would bow to no king save the King of the World, and who dealt ruthlessly with idolatry and with those who transgressed God‘s law. The very land of Israel was claimed through zeal, for it was the zealous warriors of God who cleansed it of all the foreigners and idolaters, just as God demanded. ‘whoever sacrifices to any god but the Lord alone shall be utterly annihilated’ (Exodus 22:20).”[1]
 
One of those “zealous warriors of God” was a man named Ezra, sometimes called Ezra the Scribe, and we read his memoirs just like they did.  But when we read them, it doesn’t sound quite as heroic.  In fact, there’s a kind of tragedy involved in how he went about things because he did great harm as he tried to do great good.
 
            To summarize the background: when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and most of the survivors were carried off to Babylon as prisoners, there were a handful who were not considered worth the trouble or who had run for the hills just in time and they slowly began to build up life again among the ruins.  These were like the folks we see in our day who survived the bombings in Iraq and Syria and who came out of their cellars shell-shocked and starving when ISIS was scattered.  Their children grew up among the ruins and, as happens, when they came of age they began to marry.  But the people they married were not necessarily Jewish, since they had been greatly reduced and ethnically cleansed.
 
            After decades passed, Nehemiah led a party of exiles and their children back from Babylon and they began to rebuild Jerusalem.  Some of the survivors (not all) welcomed them back and slowly the city walls began to rise again, and the Temple would also be restored.  At some point, another outsider came from Babylon: Ezra the Scribe, who brought with him scrolls that he called the Book of the Law (basically an early edition of the Hebrew Scriptures, with at least the Torah, the first five books, and possibly more). 
 
           He was welcomed, too, at least at first, because when these books were read out publicly, people heard the voice of God speaking to them in their words.  They restored their sense of purpose.  They talked about God’s formation of and care for a people, from the start of time, and gave them a place within his eternal plan.  Hearing it, people broke down and cried, so deeply were they touched.
 
           Then something happened.  Ezra himself tells it this way:
 
“After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”  [Ezra 9:1-4]
 
After that, he gave and enforced an ultimatum.  Anyone who had entered into a mixed marriage could either divorce his wife and renounce any children, or else be cut off from the people of Israel forever, shunned and outcast.  And, yes, he did follow through.
 
            Before we condemn him utterly ourselves, let me point something out that we don’t like to discuss.  We don’t see too many people marrying Hittites and Perizzites these days, but we do see Christians marrying someone who has no faith at all or who, for some reason, has renounced all religion.  Garrison Keilor used to refer to them as people who attend the Church of the Brunch, whose Sunday mornings revolve around pancakes and eggs.  It takes courage and persistence for the believing partner to continue to worship regularly.  It becomes even harder when there are children, and they reach the age where it is natural to test the parental limits, and they start saying, “Why do I have to go to church?  None of my friends go to church.  Even Mom doesn’t go.”  At the same time they get the message from their sports coaches, “If you want to be part of this, you have to be at every game.  We have a tournament every Sunday starting at 9:00.”  Those go together a lot of the time, and prey on the adolescent fear of being left out. 
 
            Ezra was right about what can happen.  He was wrong, as both history and our gut reactions tell us, about the solution.  Family separation does not do anyone any good.  The gospels, written centuries later, point out over and over that the Jews and the Samaritans held onto deep distrust and even hatred for one another.  Guess where a lot of it began.  Guess what happened to the people whose connections were sliced off at the time of Ezra?  Maybe part of the Good Samaritan’s motivation in helping a wounded traveler was to be able to say to himself how clearly he and his people were better than the Jewish priests and Levites who had rejected his ancestors and now, concerned with the same religious purity, could leave a bleeding man at the side of the road.
 
           The apostle Paul took a different view.  He said that if there is a believer in the household, that person could be like a missionary stationed right there. 
 
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” [I Corinthians 7:14]
 
Nobody said that would be easy, but very little about marriage is simple or clear-cut.  In practical terms, one of his great helpers was Timothy, whom Paul says came to faith through his mother and grandmother.  (In other words, don’t rule out the beneficial influence of meddlesome grandparents, either.)
           
            In Ezra’s day, somebody wrote down a story already old at that time, yet one that we still read.  It’s about a Jewish woman who had lived abroad for many years but was forced back to her hometown by poverty following the death of her husband and her two sons.  One of her daughters-in-law wouldn’t leave her and it happened that when they got back to Israelite territory and sought out what was left of her family there, one of this woman’s relatives took a shine to this foreigner who had tagged along from the land of Moab.  Eventually the two hooked up and then married and had children.  Her name – this foreign woman – was Ruth.  Her husband, whom Ezra would have cut off from Israel for marrying her, was named Boaz.  They lived in a town called Bethlehem, from which Ezra would have banished them.  They had a son whose name was Obed, whom Ezra would have barred from among the people of God.  Obed’s son was Jesse, the Bible tells us [Ruth 4:22] and Jesse’s son was David.
 

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2014), 40-41.
"Brace Yourselves"
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Sermon - 5/17/15
Acts 1:1-11
“Brace Yourselves”
May 17, 2015
 
 
            Rehoboth United Methodist Church, in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, closed a few years ago after a life of about one hundred and sixty years.  It had the largest parsonage in the conference, with seven bedrooms on three floors, and I’m glad that friends of mine bought it and live there now.  The church building has been bought and sold a couple of times since then and I’m not altogether certain who now owns it, but when I was familiar with the place it had some interesting aspects.
 
            One was a sign that had been put up in the 1840’s, when the church was recently organized, that had hung at the back of the sanctuary since then.  It listed rules of behavior, with the word “Rules” in big letters across the top that you couldn’t miss.  I don’t remember them all, but one said that if you needed to talk you should go outside and not disturb everybody else.  My favorite said not to spit on the floor.  You could use the spittoons.  That tells me a little bit about what the people and the place were like before the Civil War.  Yuk!
 
            Another aspect of the building was a curved railing that ran along the back of the sanctuary that enclosed a space about two feet deep by a good thirty feet long.  I’m not sure when it was installed, but it was to save space for chauffeurs to stand while their employers were in church.  It came from a later era.  Somewhere in between those two, Rehoboth had been the place where Grover Cleveland spent his Sunday mornings whenever he was in Philadelphia, both before and after his election.  A century after that, the narthex was being used to register people for LIHEAP energy assistance and the Sunday School room was a clothing closet.
 
            Take a person from the first stage of the church’s life, spitting tobacco juice on the sanctuary floor.  Would he (and I’m hoping it was a “he”) be comfortable with the presidential entourage forty years later?  I doubt it.
 
            Take the wife of one of the mill owners, whose driver carried her Bible for her and held her fur coat while she prayed a few years after Cleveland was gone.  Would she have felt at home in the same place sixty years after her own hey-day, in the hallway amidst the unemployed?  I doubt that, too.
 
            At each and every turn, however, the gospel was proclaimed, and all of this in one place, all of it in the life of one congregation!  No stage of it did not present a challenge, and no stage of it would have been entirely welcomed by anyone.  That was life, however – the life of a local church, and during that time Rehoboth did a great job reaching out to the people of the city and proclaiming the gospel to them in the way and in the terms that was best suited for them at that time.  Souls were saved and lives were changed and a lot of good was done.
 
            It could never have happened, though, if they had got stuck on how things had used to be, which is a great trap to beware, and has been since the earliest days.  Luke talks about how Jesus appeared to his disciples following his Resurrection, and how it raised hopes among some of them that he was going to bring back the good old days, the way they had been before centuries and centuries of warring empires had rolled across Palestine and left so many of the Jews as exiles in foreign lands and others as a subjugated people clustered around Jerusalem.
 
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” [Acts 1:6]
 
Who could blame them?  Who would not want things put back in order after centuries of chaos?  Who would not want to see their own national pride restored?  Here was their chance.  “It’s morning in Judea!” 
 
            But Jesus pointed them away from that. 
 
He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” [Acts 1:7-8]
 
He was, in fact, preparing them to turn away not only from the past but also from the idea that their purpose would be tied to one place, however dear to them, or one culture, no matter how well it had nurtured their faith.  He told them they would be getting their marching orders shortly.
 
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
 
Jerusalem was a good place, sure.  Judea?  That was home.  Samaria?  That was more of a problem, because it was full of Samaritans.  As for the ends of the earth, that’s fine in theory, but there are some pretty scary folks out there, with some crazy ways of living and absolutely no understanding of God’s ways.  For that matter, you don’t have to go to East Japip to run into folks like that.  Even worse, sometimes they find you.  Bishop William Willimon was fond of talking about the days when he was pastor of a church in South Carolina that was full of odd characters.  As he put it, “We had a sign out front that said, ‘All Are Welcome,’ and people read it.” 
 
            Jesus knew it would not be easy.  He knows it isn’t easy for any of us to live among or work with people who have different customs or ways of life.  I have neighbors who live in their garage.  At first I thought it was just because they didn’t want to smoke inside the house.  But they cook there at least four times a week.  They sit there using their phones.  When guests come over, they entertain there.  They don’t just have folding chairs, either; they have a little table and a couple of chairs beside it and I’m waiting for a television to appear there now that it’s warmer.  This is all really minor in the great scale of things, but it aggravates me at times.  How do people live with those who may have bigger differences, whose priorities in life are totally different, who take no interest in things that matter greatly to you but focus on things that you consider of no importance at all, or maybe just totally silly?
 
            So Jesus didn’t just send the disciples out without one thing happening first. 
 
“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” [Acts 1:4]
 
This promise is the Holy Spirit.  He told them,
 
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” [Acts 1:8]
 
The power of the Holy Spirit would make it possible for them to do miracles wherever they went, and one of the great miracles has been that over time, wherever Jesus’ followers have gone into uncharted territory they have been able to share the good news about how God came to live among a small and oppressed people in an obscure part of the Middle East two thousand years ago and found only rejection and death, but that the power of his love and the strength of his righteousness was such that death itself couldn’t stop him, and he rose from the grave into life. To have found the way to get that across in all its fullness, that has been the Spirit at work.
 
            Wherever Jesus’ people have gone into uncharted places, and whenever change has come to them, slowly or suddenly, as a group, or in the changes that are part of every life, they have found that his Spirit has strengthened them to live with confidence that he is there, too, and has even gone before them.  Wherever Jesus’ people have headed into the unknown land that is the future itself, they have discovered that their fears about it have been unfounded because he has said,
 
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]
 
So brace yourself for whatever he has in mind next but know that it will be good.
 
 
Snowy Sunday Home Devotions - January 25, 2015
Category: From Our Pastor
This is an abreviated version of the worship service planned for Sunday, January 25, 2015.  There is a good possibility that the weather may prevent many people from attending church, but due caution need not prevent joining together in heart.  Please begin your devotions by offering a word of prayer for those whose needs are known to you and of thanks for the ways that God's grace is at work this morning.
 
INVITATION TO WORSHIP
 
Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, saying,
“The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
Jesus saw Andrew and James casting their nets into the sea, and said,
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”
The Kingdom is still at hand.
The invitation still stands.
Come and follow!
 
HYMN                                             “Lord of the Dance”                                                             
 
                                                                                                                                                           
PRAYER
There is so much, Lord Jesus, that we think is ours but which holds onto us instead.  Possessions, status, comfort, and familiarity each call to us and we listen closely.  You call to us, and we close our ears.  Forgive us for paying attention where we should not and failing to pay attention where we should, so that we may be truly free through you.  Amen.
               
EPISTLE LESSON                        I Corinthians 7:29-31  
 
“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
 
SERMON
 
or
 
 
HYMN FOR MEDITATION         “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”
 
PRAYER
God of warmth and sun, God of snow and cold, God of all: be with all those who find themselves closed in today and draw each one closer to you in the solitude and peace of winter.  Bless also those who every day finds unable to get around as they would like or limited by the circumstances of their lives.  Unite all people, far and near, in love of you as you have loved all freely and fully.  In Jesus’ name we ask this of you.  Amen.
 
BENEDICTION
 

 

From Our Missionary in Tanzania
Category: From Our Pastor

Below is a portion of a letter received from the missionary whom we help support in Tanzania.  The full letter is posted on the Missions bulletin board near the Chapel.  Imagine having an eleven-year-old daughter away at school who contracts malaria.  We have it so easy!

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Accept Tanzania United Methodist Church’s heartfelt greetings and gratitude for your consistent prayers including your financial support.

We have been blessed by the mission team visit from Vincent United Methodist Church (Greater NJ Annual Conference).  …Together with the local congregation members the team renovated the pre-school by painting it and removing the old roof and fixed a new one; they also painted the church house which accommodates people with needs, including widows and poor families.  Material costs and all labor charges were paid by the team.

Meanwhile, the Dar Es Salaam UMC women group which is very active, were so happy to receive from women of the team school supplies and sewing materials for their project.

The team was able to visit the ten Acres of land supposed to be purchased in Dar Es Salaam city in order to build the church their multi-projects.

Finally, they went to safari; and visited Mikumi National Park in Morogoro region.  The community, church members, children, friends, Kabaka and I all we are proud of that and we have been so blessed by this visitation and support.

The 2013 annual conference was held in Tarime district, Mara Region, which is northern part of Tanzania.  The district is bordered with Kenya.

Normally we use this meeting as an opportunity to teach the new leaders of the local churches.  Pastors, local pastor, observers and the lay delegates from all the churches and circuits attended the conference. …Our church theme was: “Stand up and Walk” (Acts 3:6).

Wilma (11) is our 6th and last daughter; born in 2002, she is now living in Lubumbashi, DR Congo.  She went there for school and started her secondary school first class on September this year.  …Just after two days of school this September 2013, Wilma was sick, she got Malaria and was admitted to the hospital, but we thank God that she is now recovering from malaria.  We usually talk with her and telling her, she is not with us just because of her education.  She often tells us her ambition to pursue her studies out of DR Congo and Tanzania.

In 1989 when the UMC was applying for Official Registration from the government of Tanzania, one of the condition and questions was: “is the church able to help and assist local people and community?”  The government was talking especially about education and health areas. …This is why in our meeting every year we remind the church authorities, from local church level and district level to establish schools and clinics, other projects as well.

We remember for the first time when we were sent in 1992 from DR Congo with our families to evangelize and planting UM church in Tanzania, it was not easy.  We started this work without support funds; the history is long but praise the Lord that from zero, today we talk different language.  We are moving and we have now a Provisional Annual Conference with 63 churches because of evangelization.  We do teachings and preaching to individual persons and groups of people in towns and villages through friends, relatives, people we know and the unknown.

One of the major obstacles we face is poverty.  Most people whom we are working with to start new churches are poor and are unable to purchase church properties and pay salaries for their pastors; this includes building projects such as clinics, schools and others.  It is at this level the church here fails to develop.

According to the First United Methodist church of Dar Es Salaam focus and according to the Annual Conference recommendations concerning evangelization, we have decided to invite different groups of singers in order to promote the growth of the church.  These singing groups attract a lot of people especially young to join the church; then we organize classes for beginners so that they can decide and confirm their membership.

…Peace and Grace of God be with you.

Yours in Jesus Name,

Rev. Mutwale Ntambo wa Mushidi

Blessing of the Animals
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Blog - September/October 2013

At 10:00 on Saturday morning, October 5, we’ll gather on the church lawn to celebrate “The Blessing of the Animals”.  This happens around the feast day of Francis of Assisi (October 4), because Francis was known for seeing God’s grace expressed in nature.  You’ll often see a garden statue of Francis with a bird on his shoulder or on his outstretched hand because of a story found in Thomas of Celano’s biography of Francis of Assisi.  According to that story, one day he addressed a mixed flock of birds that sat and listened patiently:

 “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”

            Francis was not the first holy person famed for care of God’s creatures.  The Irish hermit Kevin of Glendalough, who died in 613 (some say at the age of 120), was another.  One legend says that as he stretched out his arms in prayer one day a blackbird used his hand as a nest and laid an egg.  He remained patiently in that position until the egg hatched.  Another tale says how a boar who was being hunted saw Kevin at prayer beneath a tree and took refuge at his side.  When the pack of pursuing dogs caught up, they stopped and lay down, as if prostrate in prayer as well.

            People like these remind us to care, in our own way, for those non-human creatures who are part of our lives.  Those might be squirrels in the tree outside your window (although if they make their way into your attic, that’s not where they belong) or rabbits in the fields (although they can be a problem in the vegetable garden), but especially the animals that we actively invite into our homes as pets.  In caring for them, we express our reverence for their Creator.

            So consider bringing your pet to our service of thanksgiving for “all creatures great and small” that day, and inviting others to do the same.  (Pun intended: feel free to Tweet the news.)  Since we cannot assure the harmony among species brought by Kevin, we do ask everybody to use leashes or carriers.  If it rains, we’ll move into Fellowship Hall, though ducks and goldfish might want to stay outside.

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