Sunday, December 18, 2016

Vision of Love



Isaiah 7:10-16
10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 1:1-18
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

For four Sundays at the close of autumn, the church watches and waits for God's coming. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, we seek a vision of what the world should be like, will be like, when the light of God shines on all people. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, our eyes shimmer with the light that shines in the darkness.

King Ahaz of Judah is terrified. He's staring down the armies of Syria and Ephraim, who have invaded the kingdom of Judah to remove him from the throne and set up a king who will support their goals. Judah doesn't have the strength to stand again either nation, much less both together! The Syrians and Ephraimites have brought Judah to a crisis point, and Judah's king is terrified.

He's so gripped by fear that he cannot get out of it. Even his faith has been enslaved by his fear. When God whispers in the king's ear, offering him a sign to strengthen his faith, Ahaz reacts in fear. "The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test." It's like he found a way to give the right reason for doing the wrong thing. God has drawn close to him and is offering him comfort, no matter how huge the sign needs to be. Ahaz backs away. He cannot accept the closeness of the LORD, and his terrified eyes cannot see reassuring signs. His fear has enslaved his faith, so he finds a way to refuse the grace of God in his theology. "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test."

Of course God is not the least bit bothered by Ahaz's refusal. God loves Judah too much to leave his people alone, even when they reject grace. The prophet stands in to give the sign that Ahaz did not request, the sign that God promised, the sign that Ahaz rejected. God sends his prophet Isaiah anyway.

The love of our LORD is so great that we do not get to refuse it. It’s just not an option. God’s love is certain. We cannot earn it, we cannot lose it, we can neither accept it nor refuse it. The love of God is an absolute truth for those whom he has chosen. Even Ahaz, the ruler of Judah who is ruled by fear, is powerless to stop the loving promise of his LORD.

For four Sundays at the close of autumn, the church watches and waits for God to enter history. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, we seek a vision of how the world will be renewed in the presence of the LORD. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, our eyes shimmer with reflection of the love of God for creation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Matthew traces Jesus’s origins to Abraham, the beginning of the covenant. Luke announces his ancestry as far as Adam, the beginning of humanity. But John goes all the way back to the beginning, the beginning of everything. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” The poetry revolving around the Word and the narrative introducing John are quilted together so that we can see beyond our fear, so that we can grasp theology in one hand and history in the other, and see that the LORD is indeed at work in the world.

The Word does the work of creation, and is the expression of God’s unending love. In a despairing world, so full of fear and so quick to anger, I find comfort in the truth that both our beginning and our end are held in the light of the LORD, even if our in-betweens lead us through darkness.

Because the vision of love that is passed through John shows us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” No matter how tightly we close our eyes to God’s vision of love, no matter how trapped in darkness we are, the light still shines. What’s more, that light is not closeted away in heaven, it’s in the world, chasing the darkness away even when we refuse to follow it.

Ahaz is stuck in darkness. He only has eyes for a vision of fear, but the vision of love that he rejected is given to him anyway. Just as John testified to the light, so Isaiah testifies to God’s continuing love for Judah. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The sign is given, a sign of hope for the future. The sign points towards God’s love, and the presence of God in our midst. Ahaz’s fears may not be chased away, but God’s graciously loves anyway.

For four Sundays at the close of Autumn, the church celebrates the first season of its year. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, we seek a vision of light as the days grow darker. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, our eyes shimmer with love as our fears are made irrelevant by God’s grace.

Although we connect this Isaiah passage with the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Isaiah also pointed to a more immediate relief for Judah. The sieges of Ephraim and Syria would come to an end. The invasion and attacks would cease in the time it took a young woman to give birth and raise her child to choose the good and reject the evil. “He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” The intervention of the LORD is close at hand, and will be accomplished even before an unborn child can start to be responsible. Even in spite of the fear that has enslaved Ahaz’s faith, the continuing love of the LORD is as sure as the love of that young woman for her child.

The child doesn’t get a choice, and neither do the people of God. The vision of love we have been given is the love of a mother who will not forsake her nursing child. And even if we reject the vision, as Ahaz did, God’s grace and love are still given to us. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

We do not get to choose darkness, because the LORD has chosen us for light…

who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

For four Sundays at the close of autumn, the church watches and waits for the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, we seek a vision of love that will not let us go. For four Sundays at the close of autumn, our eyes shimmer as God the only Son makes the LORD known to us.

We have had our four Sundays, Behold, the king of glory waits; the savior of the world is here.

Alleluia, Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Vision of Joy

Vision of Joy from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 35:1-10
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, 
the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 
2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 
3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." 
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 
7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 
8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 
9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 
10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 11:2-9
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah a was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 4Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 
9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  10This is the one about whom it is written, 
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' 

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Vision of Peace



Vision of Peace from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 11:1-10
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
4But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall pit its hand on the adder’s den.
9The will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Vision of Hope

Vision of Hope from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Isaiah 2:1-5
1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrated for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nations, neither shall they learn war anymore.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 24:36-44
36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The News These Days


Joel 2:21-27
21Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!
22Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and the vine give their full yield.
23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.
24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Luke 24:36-48

36While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Christian's Ability

A Christian's Ability from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Psalm 67
1To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
3Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth. Selah
5Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the people praise you.

6The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Acts 11:19-30
19Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

27At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God. When folks find out that I'm a pastor, the first thing they ask is "how big is your church." The second most common question I get is "how're the church's finances." My favorite answer for that one (so far) is "We are living off the generosity of previous generations."

We're running a deficit budget, and have been since 2004. That was the last time contributions exceeded our budget. And yet the saints who formed and formatted this church have left us with resources to bridge this time of famine. We are living off the generosity of previous generations. Our own history helps us to bridge the gap between our ability and our calling. The ways we will build up and reach out to the world, the ways we proclaim the gospel, will also be shaped by our history. Each generation of the faithful find new ways to express the ancient truths we have inherited since the infancy of the Church.

In the days and weeks that followed the church's birth at Pentecost, the group of joyful worshippers began to look like a threat to those who insisted on the old ways. So they took one of the early leaders, Stephen, and executed him. People fled the persecution, and some of them ended up, as our Acts story tells us, in Antioch.

The church starts to grow there too, but not only among the Jews. "...among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming to them the Lord Jesus." The gospel begins to spread to people with a different cultural background, trained in Greek Philosophy instead of the law and the prophets. The church begins to grow and flourish there too!

"News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabus to Antioch." When I read this, I imagine rumors getting back to the establish church, and they have got to find out what these crazy Hellenist converts are up to.

I wonder how our 21st century American Church would fall on the ears of the church in Jerusalem. I wonder what that would think of the ways we express the truths we've inherited. How would rumors about the infant church in Antioch compare to the testimonies and news reports about American Christians in 2016? What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?

A week and a half ago, a black church in Mississippi was burned and vandalized with a message connecting the action with a particular candidate. That candidate's campaign condemned the arson and vandalism. Yet around the country for the past four days there have been thousands of similar acts, mostly on a smaller scale but no less motivated by hate. What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?

The stories I see tell me about swastikas painted and drawn on people's doors and walls. The stories I read show me 4th grade latinos in a school cafeteria backed into a corner by threats from their classmates. The stories I hear relate threats of sexual assault towards women, as though that has ever been okay. One woman was told to remove her head covering or she would be set on fire. What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?

For the record, I don't think any of this is about party affiliation. Hate is not a conservative value any more than it is a progressive position. Romans 3 tells me that I, just like everybody else, "sin [and] fall short of the glory of God." But these things are happening all around our country, even in our own state. So if Barnabus had come here, with all these hateful things spinning out, what would he see?

I believe he would still find the grace of God. I believe he would see Christians take up their crosses to stand next to those who are most vulnerable. I believe he would see expressions of love for our neighbors who are different than us. I believe he would see a  Church that is re-energized for its mission, having slumbered so long in its privilege.

After all, "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians." It was when the church expanded beyond its comfort zone that it was identified with Christ. It was when the gospel started to spread to other cultures that we were seen as originating from and belonging to Christ Jesus.

When we begin with, and belong to Christ, then a Christian’s ability is rooted in who Jesus is. Scripture tells us that though he was of the form of God, he didn’t regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. When we call ourselves Christians, that our source material. Our Christian ability is a reflection of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who stood with the meek, with the poor, with the outcast and with sinners.

A Christian’s ability shows the grace of God by standing with the vulnerable, by loving those who are hated, by preaching good news in opposition to bad ________. A Christian’s ability is to worship God, when idols are thrust in our faces. A Christian’s ability is to grow in faith when we are told we are powerless. A Christian’s ability is to show God’s love to everyone, especially to those who have been shown hate.

It was in Antioch where we were first called Christians. We still belong to Jesus, our beginning is in the Lord. We are called to share the grace we have been given with those who need it most.

If Barnabus had come here, he would see the grace of God in the ways the church opposes the resurgent racism and misogyny that has been exposed in recent days. He would see the ways that the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have loved and supported one another even though not everyone agrees on every issue.

I believe, if Barnabas had come here, he would see that our history positions us to proclaim the gospel in a divisive world. We were born in reconciliation of two split churches. We engaged with the challenges that formed us, and we wrestle with tough stuff even now. We are living of the generosity of previous generations, but we are also following their example every time we choose to work together in building up and reaching out. If Barnabas had come to the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, he would see the grace of God, and rejoice.

But Barnabas wouldn't stop with "Good job, I’ll leave you alone now.”

When he saw the grace of God in the community that was beginning at Antioch, "he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion." Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion. That is the charge that we have inherited from previous generations, and it will carry us much farther than any funding. "Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion."

A Christian's ability to remain generous in the face of famine is the test of their faith. A Christian's ability to show love when all we see is hate is the test of their faith. A Christian's ability to see the grace of God without ignoring the injustice around them, that's a prophetic faith.

This community of faith has the ability to show what it means to be Christian by every movement of our lives. We have the Christian ability to put our faith into action, to be transformed by the good news of God that set us free from bondage to sin and death. We have the ability to be a prophetic community already built into our history, bringing reconciliation by means of the grace of God.

Last Sunday, I talked about tithing, how it's a celebratory feast meant to teach us to be in awe of God's holiness. Next Sunday, we will offer our pledge cards during the service as a challenge to ourselves in building up and reaching out. As for today, I exhort you with the words of Barnabus: "Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion." God has given us what we need to keep building up and reaching out during this famine. We have inherited ancient truths which are woven into the fabric of our identity.

It is not for us to wait out the famine, each of us, according to our Christian ability, are going to put our faith into action, and with the gifts God has given us and the generosity we have inherited, we will answer God’s call, we will worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone. We will act our our faith by building up and reaching out.

And God’s call is extended now. So why wait? Our hope, after all, is built on Jesus. So let our Christian ability stand on the rock of our salvation, answer God’s call no matter where the Lord has put us, remaining faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, until we stand before God’s throne at last. Amen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Building Up, Reaching Out

Building Up, Reaching Out from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Ephesians 4:11-16
11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Deuteronomy 14:22-29
22Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field 23In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always 24But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; 26spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. 

28Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chosen Grace




Matthew 20:1-16
1“For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into he vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So again they went. 5When he went out and found others standing around; he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ’These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Romans 3:19-26
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silvered, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

21But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

499 years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg Germany. It was not a revolutionary act, it was a public notice of an academic debate concerning repentance and the role of the church in the life of individual christians.

The debate didn’t stay academic for long.

Riding on the back of a new technology called the “Printing Press,” the questions and challenges raised by that german monk spread throughout Europe and became known as the Protestant Reformation, one of several reformations to happen during that time period.

A French Lawyer named John Calvin read Luther’s work, and began asking his own questions, and eventually moved to Switzerland where he took his ideas about reverent worship, powerful preaching, and emphasis on the sovereignty of God with him.

Calvin and Luther, and the other reformers, men and women from all over the world, put theology back into the hands of the people. They taught and wrote prolifically, and their ideas spread around the globe. Belief was no longer handed down from high-ranking church people, instead it was drawn out of scripture and pushed out into the lives of the newly-emerging Protestant Christians.

As you may have guessed, I was never the kid who asked “When are we ever going to use this?” in history classes. I saved that question for math.

I’m the fourth out of five Joseph William Tabers, and I’m married to a historian. History is personal to me. The stories I see there help me understand who I am. They give me a picture of who this congregation is, and how our heritage will shape our response to the future God has provided us. Our heritage is a gift from God, who has chosen grace for us time and time again.

Christianity started off as a part of Judaism, and then grew to include gentile believers as well. That ended up being kind of a crunchy process. When Paul writes to the Romans, he's writing to a church that is divided, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are struggling with their different ways of being the Church.

For Jewish Christians, adherence to the covenant was still greatly important. And their long history as God's covenant people was a source of pride. They had the law and the prophets, which point to Christ. They had the heritage to point to. A celebration of all the great things that God had done for them in the past.

Gentile Christians on the other hand, had a different heritage. Their’s was just beginning to bloom. They came from all kinds of backgrounds, some of them were quite wealthy, but they were willing to challenge parts of the Old covenant. They didn’t feel beholden to all the ancient laws and customs, and were willing to let go of the traditions that had become stale and lifeless, instead focusing on the ways the Spirit was guiding the covenant community here and now. Rather than high priests and levites, they put the stories of Christ into the hands of the people, devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the reading of scripture, and to prayer.

Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn't let either group off the hook. The first chapter of Romans lays out the failures of the nations to recognize their creator, instead making idols for themselves. They worshipped creation, rather than the creator. Or they found ways to project themselves out into the heavens so that the gods were super-humans. The LORD was not impressed.

God's covenant people don't come off any better in the second chapter of Romans. Their heritage is carried by the law and the prophets, but their history is full of them ignoring both. They, of all people, should have known better. The Almighty was disappointed.

We have great moments in our heritage, but we’ve also go two millennia of unimpressive disappointment to our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s easy to keep the idea at arms length and then not change our hearts and lives to reflect what we say we believe. We profess faith, but we practice broken relationships.

We celebrate the Protestant Reformation, but we forget the 30 years war, where Christians rampaged across Europe killing everyone who was the “wrong” kind of Christian. “Whatever our ancestry…it has distinguished itself principally by its resolute sinfulness and rebellion against God.”

God has still chosen grace. None of our mess can overwrite God's sovereign freedom to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. God has chosen to be generous with us.

God has chosen to be generous with us. That's our heritage.

We can cite historical events. We can share fun stories about Sunday School classes gone by. We can recite theology that has withstood centuries of human experience.

But the center point of Presbyterian Heritage is that God has chosen grace.

We are vineyard workers who have slacked off all day, pretending to look for work, but ignoring the calls to go to the vineyard.

And yet when the day is done, we are still given the full day’s wage, as a gift. We have been given grace as a gift, not because of our earning or because of a special heritage, or because we said the magic prayer and now God is obligated to save us. We have been given grace simply because God has chosen to be generous with us.

Most of the time, we try and haggle our way into a transaction with God. “Dear God, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday and quit doing thus-and-such if you’ll just give me this one thing. Then I’ll never bother you again.”

“Dear God, I’ve tried my hardest, but I really need your help. I’ve carried it as far as I can, but now I need you to take it just the next little piece.”

“I go to church every Sunday, I give ten percent of everything to the poor. Surely I deserve…”

“I confess that I believe in Jesus. Now God, save me from punishment.”

Those are all transactions, the early workers vain attempts to gain the upper hand over the vineyard owner. They are our attempts to create God in our own image, with our imagined justice, ignoring the ways God has revealed himself to us over and over again. These transactions seek to write our own law, or to convince ourselves that we have kept the main parts of the law. 

But in spite of all our transactional struggling, it’s not enough. “Even total fulfillment of the law would not have been sufficient. That is not the way to a restored relationship with the creator.”

We can’t earn it. We can bargain or badger our way into the gift of our generous God. God has chosen grace, and chosen us for it. And as Romans reminds us, there’s not distinction, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And yet God is more concerned with being generous than leaving us to what we deserve.

God has chosen to be generous to the undeserving, and to give all of us an equal share in the grace of God.

I wonder what would happen if we trusted our God to be generous. I wonder what would happen if we stopped stumbling over ourselves and were able to change our hearts and lives to reflect God’s generosity, rather than our desire for self-reliance.

I wonder what would happen if we saw God’s grace as a gift, instead of as a reward.

I think our heritage would propel us forward with a kind of grateful energy. I think we would engage with our community, both here in Lowell and Gaston County, and our sister churches around Western North Carolina.

Perhaps we would practice the faith we protest and let God’s generosity flow through us.

Because although our heritage includes a church split, it also includes reconciliation. Although our heritage includes division and struggle, it also includes growth in faith. Although our heritage includes getting it wrong, it also includes finding ways to make it right.

Our Presbyterian Heritage isn’t about costumes or sayings or famous people we can call part of our club. Our Presbyterian Heritage is that God has chosen grace as a gift, seen most clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose heritage includes a shameful death, but also a glorious resurrection.


Brothers and sisters, we’re going to go out into a world that needs healing. We’re going out into a world that is beaten down with bad news. Let’s put our heritage to good use and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s trust in the good news that God has chosen grace.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Even Silence



Luke 18:9-14
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 
10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 65
1For the music leader. A psalm of David. A song.
God of Zion, to you even silence is praise. Promises made to you are kept-
2You listen to prayer - and all living things come to you.
3When wrongdoings become too much for me, you forgive our sins.
4How happy is the one you choose to bring close, the one who lives in your courtyards! We are filled full by the goodness of your house, by the holiness of your temple.
5In your righteousness you answer us, by your awesome deeds, God of our salvation - you who are the security of all the far edges of the earth, even the distant seas;
6You establish the mountains by your strength; you are dressed in raw power;
7You calm the roaring seas; calm the roaring wakes, calm the noise of the nations.
8Those who dwell on the far edges stand in awe of your acts. You make the gateways of morning and evening sing for joy.
9You visit the earth and make it abundant, enriching it greatly by God's stream, full of water. You provide people with grain because this is what you've decided.
10Drenching the earth's furrows, leveling its ridges, you soften it with rain showers; you bless its growth.
11You crown the year with your goodness; your paths overflow with rich food.
12Even the desert pastures drip with it, and the hills are dressed in pure joy.
13The meadowlands are covered with flocks, the valleys decked out in grain - they shout for joy; they break out in song!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fear, Respect, Justice.

Fear, Respect, Justice. from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Genesis 32:22-31
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of going as he wrestled with him 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, ”Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Luke 18:1-8
1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither eared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Remember and Remind

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

II Timothy 2:8-15

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us; 
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. 

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

It's anniversary weekend at the Revolutionary War battlefield where my wife works. The battle of Kings Mountain is credited by many historians as the first link in a chain of events that led to the British surrender at Yorktown.

Each year, in the midst of coordinating volunteers and organizing school groups, the park staff host a wreath-laying ceremony. Groups of descendants of those who fought in the battle gather to remember the significance of the battle, and their own family's participation in history.

For many people, memory is a source of pride. We remember our history in a way that connects us to those who have gone before, and to those around us. Ask me some time about my family history and watch me stand a little straighter as I remember where I come from. Ask me some time about the history of the Presbyterian Church and hear my confidence as I remember the winding path of our theological ancestors.

Our memory can be a source of pride. Who we were when we did great things continues today. The way we remember shapes who we are.

But then we throw Jesus into the mix, and everything changes.

Most of us here grew up in the church, and we certainly all grew up in a culture that is heavily influenced by Christianity. So it may be difficult for us to remember a time before we heard about Jesus. Most Presbyterians don’t have a born-again, the-old-life-has-passed-away moment. And even if we can remember that moment of repentance and turning towards God, that’s not the end of our story, and we continue to grow in faith from there. Our experience tends more of growing discipleship than a climatic life-changing moment.

But when we “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David,” we look at the world differently. We remember differently. Suddenly, pride may not describe it anymore…

We remember that the greatest king of Israel, David, had Uriah the Hittite killed so that David’s adultery might remain undiscovered. We remember his daughter Tamar, and the disaster and terror of what David allowed to happen to her.

We remember what people have done throughout human history because they feared death, injustice born of self-preservation that kept people in slavery. We remember awful reactions to perceived threats that offend the holiness of God. We remember that we too, are sinners. We have inherited patterns of behavior that invite God’s wrath, and that we will repeat those patterns ourselves, and most likely pass them on.

But Christian memory is also the source of Christian hope. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David - that is my gospel.”

We remember the good news, that we have hope. We remember that God is involved in human history, working through the Davids of the world even though they deserve condemnation. We remember that God is involved in history binding up the brokenhearted, comforting the afflicted, and challenging us to do better, to be better. We remember that even when we fail to practice the faith we profess, God refuses to give up on us, just as he did not abandon David. We remember, and we have hope.

We remember the good news that death is not the end of our story. We remember that we do not have to choose to do the wrong thing in the name of self-preservation. We remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither sin nor death defines us anymore. We are the ones whom God loves, whom he calls to deeper, more complete relationship with him. We remember, and we have hope.

We remember Jesus Christ, a human being who showed us what that meant. We remember that “only human” is an expression of limitation, but also a confession that we are created in the image of God. We remember that God became a human being so that we would be restored the kind of relationship God wants for us. We remember that Jesus Christ was offered as a sacrifice to liberate us from sin and death for all time. We remember that Jesus is Lord, and that all authority on heaven and earth belongs to him, and we are his brothers and sisters, his friends. We remember, and we have hope.

Christian hope is born out of Christian memory. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” Our memory shapes who we are. The grace of God transforms us in our inmost hearts, and leads to a transformation of our actions as well.

After all, when we remember our hope, when we remember the grace we have received, how can we not run back in gratitude to lay ourselves at the feet of Jesus? How can we not offer ourselves as servants of God in thankfulness and hope? How can we not find ways to participate in building God’s kingdom?

We will still suffer hardship, maybe “even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” Remembering Jesus Christ causes us to look at the world differently, to remember differently. That’s going to cause some friction, even among communities of faith. Even though we all remember our core truths, even though we work to remind one another of the sure sayings of our faith, we will often come to different conclusions, and we may practice our faith in different ways.

But God does not choose such a variety of disciples by accident. Conflict is not always a bad thing, sometimes it serves as a reminder that no single human perspective can hold the fullness of God, and that the greatness of the Holy One of Israel challenges us to continue our discipleship and our journey in faith along side one another, and alongside Jesus.