Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Ancient One Year B, Christ the King, Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14, John 18:33-37,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Jesus taught us to pray, “Abba”, “Father”.
In contrast to the Jewish way of referring to God, as we find in many of the Jewish blessings, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe” “Father” evokes an image of intimacy and caring, and also, of course, an understanding that we are indeed God’s children, hence able to call him “Father”.
Many people, me included, have pointed out that “Abba” was a more intimate, familial term than the formal “Father”.
After doing a bit of research, I found out that in the Aramaic language that Jesus would have spoken, there was only one term for father and that was “Abba”.  It was both the intimate address of a child to their father, as in “Daddy” but also the more respectful address as “Father”. 
But in either case, there was a clear shift in emphasis from the phrase “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”  It was a shift away from the holy, awesome, all powerful and fearful God who wreaked havoc in the Old Testament, to one who loves, cares, and is as intimate and close to us as an earthly Father.
This is a wonderful image of God that Jesus gives us, and in most cases, probably the image that we have in our minds when we offer our prayers to him.
And yet, there is the other side, the other reality that also must remain.  God is not just a good friend in whom we can confide.
God is, was, and always will be “King of the Universe”.
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
These words from Daniel do not suggest a ‘dearest daddy’ image for God, not at all.
Holy, Awe inspiring, even terrifying in a good way.
Isaiah also had a vision of the heavenly throne, which is recorded for us in the sixth chapter:
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings:with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
3 And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said:"Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"
And again in Revelation we have the image of God’s throne:
At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty- four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty- four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
"Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come."
I find myself wondering about that day when I die and enter into the heavens.
What will I find?
What will the experience be like?
One of the images that many people have is they look forward to meeting Jesus, often in a very pastoral and placid setting, and Jesus reaching out to take their hand in a warm and loving way. 
But then another image is that as we enter heaven, we will approach the throne, walking amids all of the thousands of heavenly beings, to stand before the almighty.  Fear and trepidation is what I imagine when I think of walking through the heavenly sanctuary toward the throne of God.
What is it?
I’d like for you to consider the experience of our own nation.
One of the things I remember about George Bush, when he ran for the presidency is that he impressed the American people as the candidate that they could most imagine ‘sitting down and having a beer with’—ironic because Bush did not drink.
There was a warmth about George Bush.
He and Laura conveyed a friendliness that was highly attractive to people.
The defining moment of his presidency came when he stood on the rubble of the twin towers, speaking to the crowds, and someone shouted out “we can’t hear you”, to which he responded “We can hear you?”
Someone who not only cared, but was a listener, and one you’d be delighted to have as a neighbor.
And yet, he was President, and as such commanded the most lethal military force the world has ever seen as was evident when he order the attacks on both Afghanistan and Iraq.
You only have to watch the friendship he established with Michelle Obama to conclude George Bush is genuinely a nice man, a compassionate man, a friendly man.
Yes, but, the city of Bagdad was lit up at night by the awe inspiring display of military might he commanded.
The point that I’m trying to illustrate is that sometimes love and might are wed together.
And if we believe the Bible, they certainly are in the person of God.
Yes, Jesus reveals to us the marvelous love and compassion of our God.
Yet, this God, our God, also is the King of the Universe.
And both of those images are important.
If we are terrified because of our sin, we need desparately to know that God loves and forgives us.
Yet if we are overwhelmed by the evil in the world, we need to be reassured that God is God, and God’s will will prevail, and that we need not fear the chaos of the world around us because God will one day defeat every force of evil.
Jesus stood before Pilot, on trial.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilot asked.
Pilot understood government.
Pilot understood Kings.
The Romans were quite accomplished in such matters.
What Pilot didn’t understand was Jesus.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
What is incomprehensible for Pilot is to imagine a King, willing to stand there and be sentenced to death for the sake of his people.
Kings don’t do that.
That’s why Kings have armies.
But Christ was different.
In his suffering, death and resurrection Christ destroyed the power of death, and opened the gates of heaven for all of us.
Will it be a fearful experience to walk up the aisle of the heavenly sanctuary to stand before the Lord our God?
It might be terrifying if we had to do it alone.
But I’d rather imagine we will not be alone.
Christ will be by our side.
All of the faithful who have gone before us will be cheering us on.
And those loved ones who have themselves just recently made that walk, will be there to offer their own encouragement and hope.
And then, as we stand before the throne of God, the Ancient One who spoke the world into being with a word, will with that same word make us anew.
See, I am making all things new.
The first things have passed away.
“I will be your God, and you will be my child.”
And with those words, eternity will begin.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

End of the World, or Birth Pangs? Year B, Pentecost 25, Mark 13.1-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
When I was in fourth grade we lived in Irene, a sleepy little farming community in the southeast corner of South Dakota.  We had just moved there from Wyoming.
One of the first people to befriend me was Claire Fagerhaug, one of the local farm boys.
I frequently went out to the Fagerhaug’s and had the opportunity to experience farm life, first hand.
One Sunday afternoon, Claire’s parents, Connie and Helmer, took the two of us with them for a visit with their relatives in Sioux Falls, a big outing.
While we were there, we went with the relatives to a church meeting that Sunday afternoon, an old fashioned “revival” in a small white church.  I remember sitting there, on a hot Sunday afternoon while the preacher went on and on.
He was preaching at great length about the end times, and how the signs were all around us about the end of the world, and we needed to be prepared.
That was in 1966, our nation had just been through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and were heavily engaged in the Vietnam War.
At home the cultural revolution of the Sixties was well underway, with anti-war protests, drugs, and a sexual revolution stimulated in part by the invention of “the Pill” a few years before.
The civil rights movement was tearing our country apart.
John Kennedy had just recently been assassinated.
I find it interesting now, that often we look back on the fifties and sixties as being the Golden Age of the American experience, and forget what an incredibly difficult time that it was.
One thing was obvious—Change was in the air.
Well, on that sultry Sunday afternoon, in that little white church in Sioux Falls, the ‘evangelist’ went on and on about how all these things were signs that the world was coming to an end, and sooner rather than later.
When we got back to the farm that evening, I was troubled.
I asked Connie, my Sunday school teacher, about the end of the world and what that preacher had to say.  Her response is one of the most important things I have ever heard, before or since, regarding my own faith convictions.
“I don’t worry much about the end of the world”, she said.  “As far as I’m concerned, when I die the world will come to an end for me, and nothing else really matters.”
History is dotted, throughout the ages, with times of epic transformation which inevitably brought great suffering on the part of many people.
For the people of Israel there was the captivity and slavery in the land of Egypt, followed by the Exodus and journey to the promised land.
Then, things began to unravel.
First, the Kingdom was divided following the death of Solomon.
Then in 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was destroyed and the people dispersed.
In 687 the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire and the people went into exile and slavery once again.
A generation later they were able to return to Palestine and begin the long process of rebuilding.
But the subsequent centuries brought major wars and conquests, with Israel being ruled by one foreign power after another.
At the time of Jesus, of course, it was the Roman Empire that ruled Israel.
Looming on the horizon was the most disastrous event to affect the Jewish people since the birth of their nation.
One leader after another would arise in Israel, claiming to be the Messiah, and leading a rebellion against the rule of the Roman Empire.  They all failed to restore Israel’s independence.
What they did, was provoke the Roman Empire to anger.
What happened next was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and finally, the obliteration of the nation of Israel and dispersal of its people all over the face of the earth.
This period of time when the Jewish people lived outside of Israel, around the world, was called the Diaspora, and continued until 1947, and even up to our own day.
World War II brought the Holocaust; by far the most tragic of all Israel’s suffering.
For the Christians, the experience was different.
Following the time of Christ and after Christians and Jews separated and parted ways, the Christian began to be persecuted by the Roman Empire.
They were crucified.
They were fed to the lions in the coliseum.
They were brutally killed by the gladiators.
Their demise became mere ‘sport’ for the Roman Empire.
They were blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome.
Epic times.
Times of great suffering.
Times of violent change.
Such is how the history of human kind has been written throughout the ages.
One of the facts of history, is that when faced with these cataclysmic events, each generation feared that the world was coming to an end.
The prophets warned of it, such as Daniel in our Old Testament.
So did the apostle Paul, and especially, John, in the book of Revelation.
Martin Luther saw the events of his time, where among other things, the plague was devastating Europe, as signs of the end of times.
And in modern times, people such as John Darby and his disciples, such people as Hal Lindsey who wrote the “Late, Great, Planet Earth”, and even more recently, Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins in their “Left Behind” series have speculated about the end of times.
One of the things Connie Fagerhaug also told me that night back in Irene, SD was this:
That at the end of chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark from which today’s lesson is taken, Jesus says:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
Anyone who tells you that they know what is happening, and that they have some great insight into the “end of the world” needs to listen to these words of Jesus.
Jesus himself, speaking about the calamity that is looming for the Christians and Jewish people, says “no one knows”, he doesn’t even know, when it will come—“ONLY THE FATHER.”
“Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
When we hear these words of Jesus what can we know?
What do we make of it all?
And when there are a whole lot of Christians predicting the end of the world, what do we have to say?
OK.  So first of all, let’s do a reality check.
We do not live at a time of epic conflict and great human suffering. 
We live at a time of relative peace and prosperity. 
Sure, we’ve been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those ‘wars’ have been minor skirmishes compared with other conflicts.
And if the Dow Industrial Average drops a few points, that does not signal the end of the world.
Yes there are natural disasters like the fires in California, but that’s a bit different than the ‘end of the world’. 
There have been tragic events such as the murder of those people at the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburg, but that’s a far cry from the Holocaust.
We live in good times, in large part, peaceful times.  We plan for our retirement.  We enjoy our families. 
Rome is not burning!  Christians are not being crucified.
There’s one other thing I want to say today, and that is an insight into the nature of history.
Conflict, in and of itself, does not signal the end, nor does a personal crisis such as many of us face from time to time.
Rather this type of strife is actually the motor that drives change and history and opens up the door to the future.
Jesus recognizes this when he says that “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Birth pangs.
Suffering that precedes new life.
That’s a different picture than predicting the end of the world.
Throughout the history of the world there have been times of upheaval and human suffering.
And each of us, experience conflict and challenges in our life.
This does not mean that the world is coming to an end.
What the Bible tells us—
What history tells us—
                Is simply that ‘the times, they are a changing’.
But as difficult as change can be to accept, we can face the reality of change in our lives, and the transformation of the world around us, confident that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.
Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Change.  But not the end of the world, just the dawn of a new age.
As horrible as World War II was, we’re still here.  The world changed.  It didn’t end.
Likewise, we face difficulties in our own lives.  And change is hard.  But even death is not the end.
Through conflict, turmoil, and change the future unfolds before us. 
And through it all, God is and always shall be the author and giver of life.
So do not be afraid.
God’s still in charge.
And God’s love endures forever.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Art of Generosity Year B, Pentecost 24, 1 Kings 17.8-16, Mark 12.38-44

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Two widows.
Two examples of generosity and grace.
But first a little background to the lesson from Kings.
These were not good times in Israel.  King Ahab had just married Jesebel, a foreigner, and then had served and worshipped their God, Baal. 
Things were so bad that it is recorded that “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  And considering how sinful the Kings who had gone before him were, Ahab must have been particularly evil.
In response, Elijah commanded according to the word of the Lord, that the rain and dew stop, except by his word.  And so a great famine came upon the land.
During the famine, God provided for his servant, Elijah.
The first thing he did was to command the ravens to take care of Elijah as he camped out in a wadi, or ravine, east of the Jordan.
The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
Then God sent Elijah to Zarephath where he had commanded a widow to take care of him.
What we find out is that this widow has next to nothing, in fact, she is so destitute because of the famine, that she is preparing to bake the last cake so that she and her son might eat it, and then die.
At first Elijah’s request of her seems cruel.
“Go, do as you have said, but first make me a little cake of it, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.”
But then he offers to her a promise:
The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth."
There are two things I like for you to consider about this story:
First, that when God calls us to do something, God also provides the means for us to do it.
The Bible states that God had commanded this widow to feed Elijah, and in order that she might do so, God saw to it that her food never ran out.
And the second thing is that it takes faith, a profound trust in God, to believe the promise.
Not only that, but it takes faith to believe that God does in fact have a purpose, a mission, for us to fulfill.
I would rather imagine that this widow had a few choice thoughts when she heard Elijah’s command.
“I have nothing.  How can I feed you as well?”
But God had a purpose for her, and so, provided her the means to do as he commanded.
Does God have a purpose for us as a congregation?
And if so, will God provide?
We believe that we have a purpose.  And we constantly remind ourselves of what that purpose is.
You know it.  Say it with me.
God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.”
If we truly believe that, then we are faced with a question of faith.
Do we trust that God will provide us with the means to fulfill that purpose as God did so for the widow of Zarephath?
Today we are having a congregational meeting.
Last year, as we adopted our budget, we shared that our congregation had enough in reserve to cover a projected deficit for about three more years.
I kind of regret that statement, because it is eerily similar to the widow’s statement.  It’s as though we said that we have just a little left in the jar, which we will use up, and then die as a congregation.
In fact, one of you stated following the meeting that at least you knew now, how much longer we could hold on.
Well, this is the thing.
We have gone about our business of welcoming, loving, and serving.
The Gospel is preached.  A warm welcome is offered.  We care for others.
And as we are able, we serve, doing things like making quilts to send around the world to those in need.
And today, at our meeting, we will report to you that rather than having used up the reserves ‘in the jar’, we have more than we had last year.
The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Has God provided for us as he did for the widow and Elijah?
That’s a question of faith.
And it requires a response of faith.
The widow of Zarephath acted in faith.  She did as Elijah instructed her even though conventional wisdom would have said that there simply was not enough.
In this matter, I’m going to commend you for your faithful response.
We are not receiving support from other congregations or the synod.  We are entirely dependent on you and what you faithfully offer each Sunday.
And because of your faithfulness, and the grace of God, the jar is not empty.
That, more than anything else, is for me a sign that God continues to have a purpose for our congregation.
And so we will continue to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.
And God will continue to provide for us that we might fulfill that purpose.
I should probably leave it at that, but I will risk saying one more thing, and that is a warning.
If we are not faithful to that purpose, if we no longer “welcome, love, and serve all”, then the jar of meal may be expended.
It is simply a fact that when congregations die, it is most often the result of having failed to remain faithful to the purpose that God gave them.  And one of the most common failures is that they turned inward.  They became more concerned about their own survival than their purpose.
Imagine, for example, if the widow had told Elijah that there wasn’t enough for him.  If she had did what she had planned, and baked the last cake for her son and then, waited to die.
Well, that’s what many congregations do, and the result is predictable.  If all you want to do is bake your last cake and die, God will let you.
But if you recognize that God has a purpose for you and this congregation, God will provide the means to fulfill that purpose.
Now, I’d like to share a few comments about the widow in the Gospel lesson, whose generosity is noted by Jesus.
This particular widow, gave a penny, all that she had, as an offering to the Lord.
My experience is a bit different, but the generosity of people is much the same.
Over the course of my ministry one of the statements that has been made time and time again, usually by people of great means, is “Pastor, we can’t do that because we have so many people on fixed incomes that just can’t afford any more.”
And the truth was that the most generous people in all of the congregations I have served were those people on fixed incomes.
Just saying.  .  .
There are a couple of practical reasons for this.  People on fixed income aren’t raising families, often have paid off their mortgages, and in many cases have reached a point in their lives that they are content with what they already have.
Add to that the fact that many of these people, precisely because they are on fixed incomes, budget well and include their offerings in their budgets, and what you have is a recipe for faithful stewardship.
One final note:
Sometimes those of apparently meager means have much to offer and their generosity is overwhelming.
Two women come to mind that I want to acknowledge today.
Eleanor Moody and Joy O’Donnell.
Eleanor was a bookkeeper at the local lumber company in Sandpoint.  Never married.  No family.
She was thrifty, and a character.  One of the memories I have of Eleanor is that she had pet skunks.  Actually, the skunks were wild, it’s just she feed them on her back porch.  That was Eleanor.
She served as the Church Treasurer for years, maintaining hand written ledgers.
Her property, located in Ponderay, was sold when she had to go into assisted living.  But because of its potential for commercial development it brought a good price.
After she died, the totality of her estate was given to the congregation and established the congregation’s endowment.
Joy O’Donnell was a teacher in Sandpoint throughout her life.  She too was single.
When I visited her in her home on Euclid Street, she asked if I would like to live there.  It was her way of informing me that the congregation was the sole beneficiary of her estate.
When she died, a scholarship fund was established to support young people in our congregation.
And also, because we had these gifts in our endowment fund, nearly half a million dollars, we were able to build Luther Park, an assisted living facility.
Their legacy lives on.
Two elderly women, with generous hearts, shaping the world to come.
God had a purpose for them.
And they were faithful to that purpose.
Do you believe that God has a purpose for your life, and for the life of this congregation?
And if so, will we trust in God to provide the means to accomplish the purpose to which he has called us.
That, to me, is the question of faith that we answer with our lives, each and every day.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Everybody wants to go to Heaven But nobody wants to die Year B, All Saints Sunday, Revelation 21.1-6a

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
One of the most ominous thoughts that has  come to me since dad died last year, the last of Karla and my parents, is that I have now edged closer to the head of the line.
And I’m now aware that the next deaths in my family will now start to touch my generation. 
One of the songs I listen to is by Alison Krauss, written by Loretta Lynn:
“Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die
Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die

So, I long for the day when I'll have new birth
Still I love the livin' here on Earth
Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die

When Jesus lived here on this Earth
He knew his father's plan
He knew that he must give his life
To save the soul of man

When Judas had betrayed him
His father heard him cry
He was brave until his death
But he didn't wanna die

Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die
Lord, I wanna go to Heaven
But I don't wanna die

So, I long for the day when I'll have new birth
Still, I love the livin' here on Earth
Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die

Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die.”
The journey of life is an interesting one as recorded in the Bible, and one that doesn’t quite fit into our preconceived notions.
It’s a journey from the wilderness to the City.
It begins in the Garden, and ends with the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
It begins in solitude, and ends in community.
It begins with Adam walking through the Garden alone with God, and it ends with the nations of the world gathered in together into this city of gold.
One of the things that has struck me over the years is how often our vision of heaven is more about returning to the Garden of Eden, and not about entering the City of God.
The notable exception to that is that all of us hope that those we love will be gathered there waiting for us.
One of the most common beliefs about heaven is that St. Peter will be guarding the gate and letting us in.
In contrast to that, Revelation states that “Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” Which is to say, no locked gates at all.
One of the most interesting differences I’ve discovered between the Orthodox Church and the Church in the West, is that the Orthodox Church believes that all people will be in the presence of God in the afterlife, which will be heavenly for those who love God, but experienced as judgment for those who do not.
One of the most incredible images of this City of God is its sheer size.  Fifteen hundred miles square and high. 
We probably should not take that literally, but what it implies is that heaven is greater than the entire known world at that time.
And then there is the promise that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
Or as Isaiah said:  “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”
One of the reasons that we are more prone to embrace the concept of the Garden of Eden as heavenly than we are the City of God, is that for us in this life the City often represents a place of conflict between peoples.  We lock the doors in the city.  We are frightened by all the people. 
In contrast to that, the Garden of Eden seems like such a serene place.  Peaceful.  Restfull.  Not the hustle and bustle of the large city.
And yet it is God’s intent that a vast multitude of people shall gather together in celebration in this City of God, the New Jerusalem.
And, if there is anything at all to learn from this, it’s that we will not be alone.
This takes us back to the beginning, to Creation, when God said “It is not good that the man should be alone;”.  .  .
Revelation ends with an invitation and a promise:
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
We live in troubling times,
but before we rush to the conclusion that the world has ‘gone to hell’, it is good to remember that this life has always been a struggle.
The Bible introduces us to this struggle of human existence when Cain murdered his brother Able.
And at the time of the writing of the book of Revelation Christians were being fed to the lions in the Coliseum for the sheer entertainment of it.
And it hasn’t gotten much better.
My brother recently lamented that his belief that the world was becoming a better place was being challenged by events such as the slaughter of those eleven Jews in Pittsburg. 
Numerous times in recent years, here in our country where we have long experienced religious freedom, people have been gunned down while in worship.
Some are telling us that we need to have plans in place as a congregation to respond to an active shooter in our  midst, and perhaps even go so far as to have someone who is armed to defend us in the event of an attack.
Does God have no answer?
Well, yes, God does have an answer, and it is twofold.
Jesus gave us the new commandment we should love one another as his first loved us.
And the greatest commandment is like it, that we should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.
These commandments to love one another are not random edicts of our God.
Think of it this way:
If we are going to spend all eternity with all these people in the City of God, we’d better learn to love them, for if we don’t it will be hell.  On the other hand, nothing is more heavenly than to be with the one’s we love forever.
And God’s second response to the evil in the evil in the world is the promise that one day “They 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.”
This commandment and promise come together in heaven, for heaven begins when love reigns.
What that means for us is that we don’t have to die to experience heaven—we just need to love.
Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die.
Well, we don’t have to die.
That’s the secret.
The incredible secret.
If we will but love one another, we will experience heaven now.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
This is vision of heaven in Revelation.
But it also says in John 1 “And 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.”
God is already with us.  We need not wait.  Love's reign has begun.

These last few weeks, there has been a theme running through my sermons.
“Will you love my people?”
That is the question I asked two weeks ago.
Last week I spoke of the new covenant:
 “I am your God.
I Love you.
Now, Love me with all your heart, mind, and strength.
And love each other.”
An interesting thing happened, that I don’t know what to make of.
As I wrote about love, loving all people, and loving as we have first been loved, the readership of my sermons online dropped way off.
When I post my sermons online, typically about 200 people read them.
Last week only twenty nine did.
I would have thought that a message of love would have been more popular.
Is that why this world seems so far from being heavenly?
Because we simply are adverse to the notion of loving all God’s people?
We live in an age when hate and fear seem to be better motivators for people.
And yet the promise is this:  that in the end it will be love that endures.