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01:47:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1741 words  
Categories: Pentecost 2013


Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
June 16, 2013

O God, you told Abraham to count the stars. But they were beyond his arithmetic. Though he couldn’t see the smallest fraction of them. Your love is like that. We can’t measure it. We see only the edge of it. But it grips us firmly, a holy promise.

As we worship you today, as we listen to your Word, as we come to your Table, stir us up to praise you for your love. To reflect your love back to you, to one another, and to our neighbors. Until like Abraham, we are a blessing, too. Amen.

Scripture Readings
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3


What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?  —Psalm 116:12

Today’s Gospel reading tells a story about hospitality. Which is not an unusual subject in the Middle East. Where for a long, long time hospitality has been a cultural cornerstone.

On the one hand, today’s Gospel story is about missing hospitality. Because Simon the Pharisee failed to show hospitality, basic hospitality, to Jesus. Even though Jesus was his invited guest.

It was expected that a guest would be greeted warmly. With a kiss of welcome. With water to cleanse and soothe travel-weary feet. And with oil to bring a shine to the face. A shine that would anticipate the joy of time spent together. But Simon failed on all three counts. He had invited Jesus, but he didn’t really welcome him. In effect, as soon as he said “Hello” to Jesus, he started to show him the door.

If that’s how Simon treated an invited guest, you can imagine his attitude toward a party-crasher. Never mind a party-crasher with a “reputation.” His attitude, no surprise, was one of scorn. He knew that woman. He knew the kind of woman she was. (Everybody knows the kind of woman she is. How can Jesus not know the kind of woman she is? Some prophet! He doesn’t even recognize it when he’s face to face with serious sin!)

Jesus, of course, knew very well what kind of woman she was. She was the kind of woman who showed generous hospitality and great love. Unlike Simon, the woman washed Jesus’ feet, using her tears for water and her hair for a towel. Unlike Simon, the woman lavished kisses on Jesus, on his feet. Also unlike Simon, the woman poured perfumed oil on Jesus, on his feet.

The woman was overcome with emotion. As she stood behind Jesus, tears began to flood her eyes and to pour down her cheeks and drip from her chin, falling onto Jesus’ feet until they were drenched with . . . with what? With her sorrow? No. With her joy! And with her love!

Jesus knew what kind of woman she was. She was a woman who had been forgiven. Forgiven and made whole. Sometimes healing power flowed from Jesus, flowed automatically to people who touched him, to people who even got near him. Something like that seems to have happened here. The woman was forgiven already, before she ever touched Jesus.

We can tell because, as soon as she gets near Jesus, she is overwhelmed. Something has changed for her. Maybe her neighbors still look at her with scorn. Maybe Simon is about to throw her out of his house and to call Stanley Steemer to disinfect the place. But something has changed. Because Jesus has no scorn for her. No. He welcomes her. He loves her. And she loves him in return. It’s a deep love. A love that wells up from within her. A love that expresses itself with tears and with kisses and with perfume.

Jesus has a question for his inhospitable host. While the woman is expressing herself, and while the host is looking at her with scorn, Jesus asks him, Simon, who do you think makes the best advertisement for forgiveness? Someone who was forgiven a little bit, or someone who was forgiven a lot? Even inhospitable Simon knows the answer. Someone who was forgiven a lot.

We don’t know what sins the unnamed woman was forgiven. And that’s fine. It doesn’t matter what her sins were. It doesn’t matter what led her neighbors to scorn her. What led them to deny her basic kindness and respect. Whatever it was, she was forgiven. And because she was forgiven, she loved. She loved Jesus. And I would imagine she loved her neighbors, too. Loved them in a way she probably didn’t before. Not with the way they treated her. Whatever the reasons were.

It’s probably good that we don’t know the reasons. Because then we can see ourselves in the woman. And that’s not a far-fetched thing to do. Because any one of us could be counted out, too. Counted out, scorned, and excluded, if certain people found out certain things about us. Or maybe they already have found out. And maybe we know how that feels.

But Jesus doesn’t count us out. That’s the main thing. Jesus doesn’t count us out. Jesus doesn’t look at us with scorn. Jesus doesn’t exclude us. No matter who we are. No matter how dark our thoughts get sometimes. No matter how selfish our desires. No matter how foolish our decisions And certainly no matter what the neighbors say!

You don’t think you can come up with a sin that’s bigger than God’s grace, do you? God has already forgiven us for executing his Son. Is there a sin greater than that, some sin that he would hold against us forever? Hardly.

In fact, the worst thing we ever did, which was to have our own part in the death of the Son of God—the worst thing we ever did, by God’s grace, winds up being the best thing that ever happened to us. As Paul the Apostle puts it, the Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself up for me (Galatians 2:20). He died so we can live. He was counted out so we could be counted in. He was excluded so we could be included. He made himself nothing so he could give us everything.

And there’s only way we can respond to that kind of love. The love the Father had when he sent his Son; the love Jesus had when he died for us—the only way we can respond to that kind of love is with all the love we can muster.

That’s what the unnamed woman did. She loved Jesus the best way she could. She poured out everything she had on him. She risked ridicule and scorn by showing up at Simon’s house. She flooded Jesus with the offering of her heart—her tears, in other words. And she poured out on his feet the sweet fragrance of her most valuable possession.

That’s the kind of love the love of God elicits from us in return. A risk-everything love. A give-everything love. The kind of love that expresses itself in worship and prayer. The kind of love that expresses itself in obedience. The kind of love that expresses itself in generosity and hospitality.

The Catechism reminds us that a centerpiece of our faith is giving thanks to God because of what he’s done for us through Jesus. What we learn from the unnamed woman and from Jesus’ response to her is that the truest thanks is the deepest love. A love that welcomes. A love that blesses. That’s gratitude.

Then what? Forgiven. Overflowing with love. Like the unnamed woman, the scandalous woman. Then what? Is that all there is to say? Or is there another possibility? Could we maybe find ourselves somewhere else in the story?

Do you think maybe sometimes, at least, we play the role of Simon the Pharisee? Like him, not ready to show hospitality to a “sinner.” Maybe even being a little iffy in our hospitality to Jesus. Because Jesus doesn’t conform to our high standards. Because Jesus gets a little too clingy with the wrong kind of people.

Who would we maybe not welcome here to be part of us? Or who would we welcome, but not exactly with open arms or with a generous handshake or a genuine hug? Are there people we look down our noses at? Because they don’t have enough education or enough money. Because their sexual orientation doesn’t match ours. Because they have a problem with alcohol.

It’s a constant theme in the ministry of Jesus. He keeps welcoming all the wrong people. All the people who don’t measure up. All the people who have a past—or maybe even a present. And the gatekeepers, like Simon the Pharisee, the gatekeepers in all their uprightness protest.

Somehow I have the notion that if we are not pushing the envelope, if we are not ruffling feathers by the kind of people we welcome, by the kind of people we love, if we are not causing howls of protest—even from fellow Christians . . . especially from fellow Christians—then maybe we’re not following Jesus as closely as we think.

I’ve mentioned here before a church out in San Francisco. On the communion table there, the carving doesn’t say, In Remembrance of Me. Or, Do This in Remembrance of Me. Instead it says, He ate with sinners. He ate with sinners. That was an accusation against Jesus. But we know better.

And if Jesus ate with sinners, I suppose we should, too. And not just theoretical, respectable sinners, like us. (We’re all sinners, you know! That’s what we say. But we don’t really believe it. Not if we look down our noses at today’s real “sinners.”) No. If we’re going to be following Jesus, then we should be more than ready to eat with and to pray with the kind of people who are counted out these days, counted out and shoved to the sidelines. Whether by synodical decisions or by social prejudices. Whether by racism and fear or by greed. Counting in the counted out. That’s the way of Jesus.

It’s wonderful that Jesus welcomes us to his Table. And if we’re truly grateful for that, then it’s going to show. It’s going to show not just in how we worship and in how we pray. It’s also going to show in who we spend time with, in who we eat with.

“Sinners.” Eating with sinners. That’s gratitude for you.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


07:52:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2060 words  
Categories: Pentecost 2013

Life after Death

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
June 9, 2013

Lord Jesus, it’s easy for us to forget how close you are to us. That we’re always in your presence. That you are always speaking to us, always shining a light in front of us. That you are always leading us, always setting a table before us, when our enemies would rather we stumble in the dark and go hungry. Touch us today by your grace. Let your voice whisper in our ear. Let your hand reach out to serve us. We don’t deserve it, not any of it. But let it be so. For the sake of your kingdom and your glory, let it be so. Amen.

Scripture Readings
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
Luke 7:11-17

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
[O Lord,] who praises you from the grave?  Psalm 6:5

Charles Lampert was dead. His friends wanted to make sure of it. So, one at a time, they entered the funeral chapel. Gideon examined Lampert closely, to see if he looked like a corpse. Tex held a mirror to Lampert’s nose, to see if he was still breathing. Scobie stuck a pin in Lampert’s hand, to see if he would jump. But Charles Lampert was dead.

It sounds gruesome. But it’s a funny scene, actually. From a funny movie. One of our family favorites. Charade. From 1963. It’s a funny scene partly because the strangest things happen at funerals. Take that funeral in long-ago Galilee, the one just outside the village of Nain.

It’s a funny scene, actually. Nain is hardly metropolitan Columbus. There’s no Outer Belt. And there’s no rush hour. But Luke depicts a first-century traffic jam. First, out of the village of Nain, comes a funeral procession. There’s the body, arranged on a bier, being carried by several men. Then there’s the grieving mother. (Already she had lost her husband. Now she has lost her only son.) And following behind is a large crowd. Some them joining in the wailing. Others clucking their tongues, wondering what will become of the mother. Because now she has no one to look after her.

So we have the funeral crowd, pouring out of the village, heading toward the cemetery. And at the same time, there’s another crowd. Coming down the same road. They’ve already passed the cemetery. Now they’re heading toward the village. Jesus is leading this crowd, with his disciples close by him.

The strangest thing happens when the two crowds come together.  Jesus sizes up the situation. Then he tells the grieving mother not to cry! Don’t cry, he says. Don’t cry? That seems like a heartless thing to say at a funeral. Heartless, except for what he says next. After touching the bier, Jesus says to the corpse, Young man, get up! Young man, get up. And he did! I love how Luke puts it: The dead man sat up. That’s what Charles Lampert’s friends half expected. That the dead man would sit up. But dead people don’t sit up. Not unless Jesus is around.

Jesus happened to be on his way to the village of Nain on that sad day. And he turned that sad day inside out. A newly childless widow went from despair to delight. And the colliding crowds reached a single conclusion: God has come to help his people. In other words, Everything we’ve been hoping for, everything we’ve been praying for—it’s starting to happen right in front of us! And they praised God. And they spread the news about Jesus.

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. Centuries before, when Elijah the prophet was around, another widow received her only son back from the dead. Back from the dead before there was even talk about a funeral. Amazing.

Now it could be, from what the Hebrew says, that her son was only mostly dead. And you may have heard that there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all the way dead. Yet even if he was only mostly dead, he was on his way to becoming all the way dead. But through Elijah, the process of death and dying was reversed. Through Elijah, the Lord amazed the newly childless widow. And not for the first time.

Elijah had met the widow months earlier. Drought had gripped the region. Despair was out in full force. The widow was about to prepare a last meal for her son and herself. Then they would lie down next to each other and die. Months of hunger finally sealing their fate.

But Elijah asked her to prepare the meal for him instead. Feed me, he said, and you will find out that the Lord will feed you. And the Lord will keep feeding you. Maybe it took faith. Maybe it took desperation. But the woman took the last bit of flour she had, and the last bit of oil, and she baked a loaf of bread. Not for her son. Not for herself. For Elijah.

And why would she listen to Elijah? Can you imagine what he looked like? What he smelled like? What he acted like? He had been living in the middle of nowhere. Drinking from a muddy brook. And for food he was depending on whatever the ravens would regurgitate into his mouth. I imagine him more than a little disheveled and wild-eyed. And he is the one who asks the woman for her last bit of food.

And she gives it to him. Perhaps thinking that she and her son were just about dead any way. But maybe thinking this man, the man of God, this prophet, was worth taking a chance on, worth wasting her last penny on.

Turns out she was right. Because when she returned home, she found her flour jar still had flour in it. And her oil jug still had oil in it. Not a lot. Not enough for a week’s worth of food. But enough for today’s bread. And the next morning, there was enough flour and oil for that day’s bread. And the same thing happened the next day and the next. Her containers never overflowed. But they never ran out either. She found she always had enough. And that was enough for her to begin to trust in the Lord.

But then her son died. And all she could figure was that the Lord was punishing her for some reason. All she could figure was that the Lord was not a safe presence. That the Lord could not be counted on.

Elijah was beside himself. As far as he was concerned, the widow didn’t deserve this new agony, this deepest agony. And he let the Lord know about it! And he pleaded with the Lord to show mercy. And that’s how the woman got her son back. And that’s how she came to know the truth about God. Because the Lord amazed her. Amazed her with mercy. And did it before anything strange could happen at her son’s funeral.

In 1897, there were serious concerns about Mark Twain’s health. It wasn’t time to plan a funeral, though. And Twain famously responded by saying that the report of his death was an exaggeration. Eventually Twain did die. We all do. But not yet.

We have been facing some challenging times as a church. These last years have been wonderful. We have seen some extraordinary things. How wonderful to baptize Xu Songbo and Mikhail Popov! How wonderful to marry Norma Grubb and Pete Fenton! But at the same time, these last years have been heart-wrenchingly difficult. How sad to have to say farewell to Songbo, to the Tsais, and to others who moved away. How sad to have to say a final farewell to Mikhail, to Roger, to Joan, and to Mark. How sad to be removing chairs from this room, so it won’t feel so empty to us.

But look, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath shows us what amazing things God can do, things that completely outstrip our expectations and imaginations. Bread that never runs out! Life after death, not eventually, but right now! And the story of Jesus and the widow of Nain shows us what can happen when God is with us and when God shows mercy. Things no one could have expected. Things no one could have imagined. Things no one could have hoped for. Or dreamed of.

Since last Sunday, I’ve been lost in thought. Thinking about campus ministry and a partnership between us and the Coalition for Christian Outreach. Thinking about what it would cost. (How much time and energy? How much money?) Thinking about the uncertainty of it. (Who of us can predict what God will do? Who of us can predict whether God will open up the floodgates of blessing?)

But I’ve also been thinking about the two widows. The widow in Zarephath took a chance. She held nothing back. Not her honesty. Not her fear. Not her last bit of food. Not her disappointment. Not her amazement.

Maybe that story is in the Bible just to show us that God was present in Elijah. That God really was the animating force behind the words and deeds of Elijah. Maybe. Probably. But maybe that story is in there, too, to encourage later generations, to encourage us, to be willing to take a chance on God. To be willing to risk everything. To put it all on the line and to see what God will do.

(It occurs to me that Jesus doesn’t tell the rich young man, Sell some of what you have, sell your extra, but hang on to enough for your basic needs—sell some of what you have and give to the poor. No, he tells the young man to sell everything!)

It doesn’t make sense, does it, for us to hold back, to hedge our bets, to play it safe, when it comes to God? To trust in God, but also in our own management of our resources? To trust in God, but also in our own good judgment? Doesn’t the Catechism label that idolatry?

Not that we always should go off into foolishness. But doesn’t the Bible say something somewhere about being fools for Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10)? When does that time get here? When is the time for us to let go of everything? To let go of everything, and to take a chance on God?

(God didn’t hold back when it came to loving us. He gave his only Son for us. What more could he give? And he is giving a kingdom to us . . . How could we hold back?)

As I said, I’ve been thinking about the two widows. What’s fascinating about the widow of Nain, is that she doesn’t say or do a thing in the story. Jesus isn’t responding to her faith. Jesus isn’t answering her pleas. It’s just that Jesus looks at her, sees her sorrow, and transforms it into joy.

That is the God we serve. A God who has sent his Son to give us life, abundant life. Life beyond our dreams and expectations. A God who—watch out now—a God who may pour out blessing at any moment, even at a funeral. A God worthy of our hopes and dreams and then some.

And here’s a final thing. Notice that in both of these stories, the blessing is unleashed where God is present. Notice that, and never ever forget that God is present with us. That Jesus has promised us his presence. That God is with us in the Word, the Word that keeps speaking to us. And that God is with us at the Table.

And on this Table, there is enough bread for us every Sunday. And that bread never runs out. Instead it is always just what we need to take our next steps, and to take them in faith. So we take our steps to the Table. And then, after we’re nourished at the Table, nourished so we can respond to the challenge of the Word—then we take our next steps. From here. Down the path of faith and risk. Wherever the Lord would lead us. Whether it’s to our own funeral or to an amazing new life. Life that rises even after death.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


10:31:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1868 words  
Categories: Pentecost 2013


Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
June 2, 2013

O God, for some time now you have been preparing us for today. Preparing our minds to think and our imaginations to dream. Preparing our hearts to love. Preparing our spirits to commune with you. You have been preparing us for these Scriptures. And you have been preparing us for a sermon that took shape slowly and with some struggle. You have been preparing us to listen for your voice. Preparing us to think your thoughts after you. And you have been preparing us to be a family, to be sisters and brothers who love each other deeply and who are always ready to welcome everyone you adopt into the family. Maybe when we leave this place, we’ll go back into the world and hear those voices that tell us only to think about ourselves. But we can’t just think about ourselves. Because you have made us for each other. How wonderful is that! Thank you. Thank you so much. Amen.

Scripture Readings
1 Kings 18:20-39
Psalm 115
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10


Whom have I in heaven but you?
And having you I desire nothing upon earth.  —Psalm 73 

Pity those poor prophets of Baal. Though the deck was stacked in their favor. They had no competition to speak of. Queen Jezebel had taken care of that. Of all the prophets of the Lord, only Elijah was left. That put the odds at 450 to 1 in favor of the prophets of Baal. It was a stacked deck. And they were going to need it. Because lately things had not been going well for those prophets of Baal. Not where Elijah was concerned.

Elijah had announced a drought. Since then, for two and a half years, not a drop of rain in Israel. The ground had turned to dust. Despite the prayers and sacrifices of the priests, despite the promises of the prophets, Baal had failed to send rain. Every word those poor prophets of Baal spoke proved hollow. So they were going to need a stacked deck. Even with the odds in their favor. Even at 450 to 1.

It was a simple question really. A question to be settled on Mt. Carmel. A question of wood and flesh and fire. A question of which “god” would send fire to ignite the wood and burn up the flesh of an offering. That was the contest.

And uneven as things appeared, Elijah gave an extra advantage to the prophets of Baal, when he said they could go first. That meant they could choose the best bull for the offering and the driest wood for the fire. And it meant they could take all the time they needed to prepare the altar. And to prepare themselves. What would they do? What would they say? How would they arrange themselves, all 450 of them?

With the altar prepared, they prayed. But nothing happened. They danced. But nothing happened. Then they cut themselves, pouring out their own blood, hoping to trigger a sympathetic response from Baal. But still nothing happened. And all the while, Elijah made a mockery of their god:

Maybe he’s thinking.
Maybe he’s busy.
Maybe he’s taking a trip.
Maybe he’s asleep.  (cp. 1 Kings 18:27)

For all their efforts, the prophets of Baal came up empty. Baal did not answer them. Not with words. Not with fire. And certainly not with rain.

Now it was Elijah’s turn. First, he rebuilt the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. He used twelve stones, because he would be calling on the God of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then came the wood for the fire. Then the bull itself. And around the rebuilt altar, he dug a trench. Everything was ready.

But before Elijah prayed, he had the people pour water over the altar. Not a little water. Lots of water. Enough water to wash the bull. Enough water to drench the wood. Enough water to fill the trench and turn it into a miniature moat.

Wait a minute! Where did all that water come from? No rain for two and a half years! And Elijah has water to waste? Baal hasn’t been able to send a drop, a single drop. But the prophet of the Lord, the only one—he has water to waste? Oh, this is not going to be a fair contest. Stacked deck or not, the prophets of Baal, even at 450 to 1—they don’t stand a chance.

A brief prayer by Elijah, and it’s all over. The bull is gone. The wood is gone. Even the stones are gone. And the water is gone, too. It was fire from heaven. Fire from the Lord. And all the people announced the contest winner: The Lord is God! The Lord is God! (cf. v. 39).

But the contest itself wasn’t the point. The contest was only the means to an end. There was never any doubt about the contest and how it would turn out. No, the point at issue was the people. The question was never, Who is god? The question was always, Where is Israel going to put its trust? The contest was a dope-slap to the side of Israel’s head. A slap they royally deserved. Because apparently they had forgotten what Moses had told them: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).

The Lord alone is our God. The people had forgotten that. So, before the contest got under way, Elijah put this to the people: How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is god, follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him (v. 21).

Not that the people had rejected the Lord. Not outright. It’s that they were hedging their bets. In addition to the Lord, they were also clinging to Baal. In case the Lord didn’t come through the way they expected. And just in case Baal didn’t work out, they continued to hang on to the Lord. To play it safe.

But Elijah told them that “both/and” was not an option. They could not serve both the Lord and Baal. They had to choose. Make up your minds! he said. You can’t have it both ways. Either the Lord is God or the Lord is not God. There’s no middle ground.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, we say that it’s not an option for us to trust something else instead of or alongside of God (cp. Q&A 95). We sang it earlier this morning. We trust in Christ alone. Anything else or anything more is idolatry.

Here’s where I got stuck writing this sermon. That’s what I told the guys at Men’s Breakfast yesterday. I told them I wasn’t sure about our idols. What is it that we trust in alongside of God or instead of God? I asked them to help me understand. It was a good conversation, I think.

We talked about how we trust in ourselves. For example, we trust in our own hard work, our own careful stewardship, and our own wise decisions to prepare a nest egg big enough to give us a decent retirement. And, of course, we do have to work hard. We do have to be good stewards. And we do have to be wise.

But what if I trust in what I can do to get ready for retirement more than I trust in God? What if I think it depends so much on my effort, that I become stingy? What if I give up on generosity? What if I won’t even think about pitching in to help fund a bold campus ministry effort, because I need to stick to my plan and to save every penny for the rainy day I know is coming?

During the conversation, we talked about how we trust in our own efforts when things are going well. But when things turn sour, when things get desperate—that’s when we start to lean on God. Then, if God gets us through the tough times, we go right back to thinking, It’s okay, God. I’ve got this covered.

You know, the main idea behind the Sabbath was trust. Keeping the Sabbath meant taking one day completely off from work every week. Not just from your day job. But from any kind of work. Trusting in God to give you enough time during the rest of the week to earn a living and to take care of other business. That was the Sabbath.

But these days we’re tempted, maybe even forced, to be switched on 24/7. As if that’s the only way we’re ever going to make it in this world. (“The Chinese are coming. And they want our jobs.”) But to work seven days a week, whether for twenty-four hours a day or just eight—seven days a week is trusting in ourselves and not trusting in God.

My mind started to wander some yesterday morning. Yes, while the Men’s Breakfast conversation was still going on. (Sorry, guys!) I was thinking about trust. About how these days, there isn’t very much trust. We don’t trust in government. We don’t trust in big corporations. We don’t trust in unions. We don’t trust in Wall Street. We don’t trust in public schools.

But that’s not the whole picture. For example, at breakfast we also talked about how we might trust in our children. Trust in our children to look after our interests, should the time come when we can’t do it ourselves. That’s not idolatry, is it? I don’t think so. What do you think? It seems to me that, when we trust in our children this way, that we are, in fact, trusting in God. Because God has blessed us with those children. And we all are bound together with love.

That’s how it is with the church, don’t you think? God gives us each other. We are bound together in love. That means we can trust in each other. At Men’s Breakfast that trust means we can talk about our struggles. Talk about them and expect to be heard. Talk about them and expect to be loved.

Is it idolatry for us to trust in each other as we wrestle with hard questions, as we struggle with pain in our relationships? Idolatry? I sure don’t think so. When we trust in each other, we’re trusting in God. Because God has given us to each other.

Now maybe that’s an ideal picture. But it’s not that ideal. All we have to do is to keep loving each other. Because when we love each other, we can trust in each other. And I think that’s what God has in mind for us. Not that we trust in God, but in no one and nothing else. Rather that we trust both in God and in one another.

I think that’s biblical. I also think it puts a heavy responsibility on all of us to be worthy of trust. But it really can’t be any other way, can it? Because the church is the body of Christ. We are the ongoing embodiment on earth of the One who says, Trust in God. Trust also in me (cf. John 14:1 CEB). That’s “both/and.”

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


01:00:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1995 words  
Categories: Pentecost 2013


Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
May 26, 2013

O God, there’s so much we don’t understand about you and even about ourselves. But your Holy Spirit knows, knows the deep things. Surprise us again. Wake us from sleep. Shine a light into our darkness. Give us something to see, a little something. Something to light the way. Something to assure that we are on our way. And that our journey is toward you, always toward you. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
Luke 6:39-49


Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  —Psalm 23

Forever is a long time. So long that when we say forever, we don’t really mean it. When I say, I haven’t seen you in forever! you know not to take me literally. We use the word forever. But “forever” itself is beyond our grasp. We’re only human. And human beings don’t do forever.

We’re like that interstate highway bridge in Washington state that collapsed on Thursday evening. We wear down and wear out. Our knees protest in the morning. Our shoulders shout in the evening. And when the final darkness falls, we fall into it.

But suppose we could live forever. And I know, we don’t want to think about living forever. Not on this earth as it is, so filled with brokenness. And not in these bodies as they are, so prone to break down. But suppose we could live forever without wearing down, without wearing out. Suppose we could be young and healthy and strong and clear-headed forever. Suppose we could always have our whole future in front of us. How would that be? Would you be up for that? A life that goes on and on—a good life that goes on and on and on?

Thanks to medical technology, we’re living longer these days. We’re living into our eighties, into our nineties, and beyond. Not that those extra years are necessarily wonderful. They can be long and dim and disappointing, those last years of our lives.

But medical research is working on that, too. The goal is to slow down the aging process. Or even to stop it. So we can live forever without getting old. So we can live forever without wearing down and wearing out. What about that? Are you up for that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Maybe. But maybe not. I’ve been reading about immortality lately. And I’ve found out that my suspicions are right. That living forever is not all it’s cracked up to be.

On the one hand, forever is a long time. And it’s hard to imagine a long, forever life being a good life, being an interesting, engaging kind of life. Suppose you did find lots of interesting things to do, creative things. Do you think those things would stay interesting forever? Do you think they would never grow tired in a “been there, done that” sort of way?

Suppose about the same time that you starting doing those interesting things, a bird flew over to the Sahara Desert and plucked away one grain of sand. Suppose you kept doing those interesting things for ten thousand years, when the bird came back to the Sahara and plucked away another grain of sand. Suppose this process continued. You doing those interesting things, which have been losing their interest. And the bird coming every ten thousand years to pluck away a grain of sand from the Sahara.

Now, imagine how long it would take that bird to empty the Sahara of its sand, one grain at a time, with ten thousand years in between. And then realize that all that time—all that time for the bird to take away the sand, all that time while you’ve been doing those not-so-interesting-any-more things—realize that all that time has not even begun to make a dent in forever!

We all know about going on a long trip in the car. Inevitably somebody says, Are we there yet? On a road trip, we can say, A long ways to go yet. Then we can say, We’re halfway there. And then, We’re almost there. Until finally we can say, Here we are at last! But let millions and billions of years go by, let the bird keep plucking away grains of sand, one grain every ten thousand years, and by the time the Sahara is gone, we’re not even close to there yet! No closer than when we started. It’s a trip to nowhere that never ends.

How does that sound to you? To me it sounds awful. Forever is such a long time.

And then there’s the inhuman nature of forever. Forever is not remotely human. To be human is to be contingent, to be mortal. Death is an inescapable fact of our lives. Death is one of the main influences that makes us who we are. And not just the fear of death. Death gives a shape to our lives. To be human is to be born, to grow up, to make our contribution to the world, to step back while others come along behind us, and then finally to exit the stage. Human life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Anything else is not human. Not as we know it.

One of the reasons we grieve over those kids who died in Newtown, Connecticut, last December and the kids who died in Moore, Oklahoma, last week—we grieve because their lives had a beginning and an end, but not much of a middle at all. And that’s not right. Human life has a shape. And we know, we know in our gut, when that shape has been violated. And it is violated when young children die. And it would be violated if we were to live forever. Forever is not part of being human.

But don’t we believe in forever? Don’t we believe in eternal life? Doesn’t Paul the Apostle talk about the perishable putting on imperishability? Doesn’t he talk about the mortal putting on immortality? (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:53). Aren’t we going to live forever?

Yes, that is the biblical testimony. And I believe it. But . . . I believe it, but I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine living forever. Whether we’re talking about plucking harps and singing in a heavenly choir. Whether we’re talking about an energetic life of muscle and mind on a renewed earth. However it looks, I can’t imagine it. Forever. That’s such a long time. Too long a time. How can it not be boring? If not already during the first year, then by the five hundredth year, or by the millionth year. By which time we’re only getting started!

And how can it be human, really human, to live forever? To be human is to have death all around you. To be human is to have death in your future, your own death. So how can we live forever and still be us, still be human?

Did you ever wonder why there is sin in the world? Some people say that God could not make a world with no possibility for sin. That if we couldn’t sin, then we would be robots, lacking meaningful freedom. And God doesn’t want us to be robots. Because then our love and our obedience wouldn’t mean anything.

But haven’t we been taught that in eternity there will be no sin? How can that be? Wouldn’t we be robots then? Isn’t part of being human having the potential, at least the potential, to sin? We don’t know any other way to be human. And that’s one of the main points of the whole biblical story. That there is no other way humans have ever been, but to be capable of sin and actually to be sinners. So how can there be a time and a place where we are sinless? Won’t we stop being human then, really human?

It seems like the answer to that question is Yes. We won’t be really human any more. Not human in the only way we know human to be. And it’s the same thing with living forever. If we start to live forever, then we won’t be really human any more. Not human in the only way we know human to be.

But here’s the thing, and it’s a mystery.  . . . that’s what Paul says (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51). A mystery. And he doesn’t mean it’s something spooky. He doesn’t mean it’s something that makes no sense. When he says it’s a mystery, he means it’s something we never knew before. But now God has made it known to us.

And if we remember what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15, then we know where and how God has made that mystery known. He has made it known in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul looks at the resurrection of Jesus. Then he says that our mortal bodies will put on immortality. He looks at the resurrection of Jesus. Then he says that our perishable bodies will put on imperishability. And if we remember what the resurrected body of Jesus was like—that he could suddenly appear in locked rooms and then reach over and grab something to eat—if we remember that, then we can begin to understand. Understand that in the end we will still be human, but we will be human in a new way.

The mystery Paul declares, the mystery revealed in Christ, is that we will all be changed (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51). We will be changed. And because of that, there will be a new way for us to be human. We will be changed. Because of that, we will have a new relationship to sin and to obedience and to love and to moral choice. We will be changed. And because of that, we will have a new relationship to time and to biological processes. Even a new relationship to boredom!

We will be changed in ways we can’t imagine. We can imagine a ten-thousand-year bird plucking away the Sahara one grain of sand at a time over the course of billions of years. But we can’t imagine what God has in store for us. And we can’t imagine how it will work. As the Scripture says:

What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived—
the things God has prepared for those who love him . . . 
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

We have no idea how it will work. But Jesus was changed. Changed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit through whom God raised him from death into a new life. Jesus was changed. And we will be changed too. Changed by the same Spirit.

Meanwhile, by faith we trust that what God has planned, that what God has already begun in raising Jesus from the dead, that what God is working in us already and will complete in us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit—by faith we trust that God will outstrip our little imaginations. That God will do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine (cf. Ephesians 3:20). By the power at work in us, the same power that he exercised when he raised Jesus from the dead to a new life, a changed life (cp. Ephesians 1:20).

Not all change is good. But God’s great change for us will be good, will be very good, very good indeed.

What will we be doing forever? Who knows? But at the very least, we will be in the presence of God, in the presence of the beauty and the glory of the Holy Trinity. Which is what we were made for from the very beginning. Which is to say that we will finally be everything God has made us to be. Which is to say that, at last and forever, we will finally be human, really human. Like Jesus.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


02:51:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1831 words  
Categories: Pentecost 2013

The Truth about the Spirit

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
May 19, 2013

Spirit of the Living God, we have prayed for your presence. Spirit of the Living God, we have welcomed your presence. But there are so many obstacles. Things get in our way. Ideas we’re not ready to examine. Attitudes we’re not ready to overturn. Lies that encircle us and drag us down. Spirit of the Living God, like a powerful storm front blow through us. Pick us up. Carry us away. Then put us down in a new place. There breathe life into us every day. And set us on fire with burning faith. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17


The [Holy City] does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gives it light,
and the Lamb is its lamp. Revelation 21:23

Certain places leave you in no doubt that you have arrived. On Sunday nights back around 1980, I used to drive Jan to college down in Rhode Island. Heading south on Route 146, there was a certain hill we would crest and all of a sudden there before us was the city of Providence, with the state capitol building shining over on the left. We would say something about the city’s sudden appearance every time.

Probably seven or eight years ago, Jan and I went to a dog trial in western Pennsylvania. Driving along on Interstate 376, we entered the Fort Pitt Tunnel. When we came out the other end, all of sudden there before us was the city of Pittsburgh, with PPG Place dominating the skyline. It was an astonishing transition. 

Before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait. Ten days later, without leaving the city, they arrived at a different place. And there was no doubt about it. 

For hundreds of years, there were prophets in Israel. Unpredictable and untamable people. People possessed by the Spirit of God. People who spoke for God. People who led Israel. Who encouraged Israel. Who rebuked Israel. People who prayed for Israel and agonized over Israel.

These prophets, these Spirit-possessed people, were a sign of God’s care and love for wayward Israel. Calling Israel back to God. Crying over Israel with the love of God. But these prophets were few and far between. They were the exception, not the norm.

So there arose within Israel the hope of a new day. A coming day. A day when God would pour out the Spirit not on a few people, but on many people. Even on the whole people. The prophet Joel dreamed of that day:

Afterward I will pour out my Spirit on all people;
your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit, in those days.
(Joel 2:28-29)

Unheard of! Never seen before! Beyond imagining! Yet Joel imagined it.

And on Pentecost Sunday two thousand years ago, the church witnessed it. They heard a great rushing wind. They saw tongues of fire. They spoke in languages they didn’t know. It was like a giant hallucination. People who watched it happen thought the disciples were on something. But they weren’t. They were possessed. Possessed by the Holy Spirit of God.

And here’s what’s important. Not that something flashy happened that Sunday. Not the flames that burned without setting people’s heads on fire. Not the undoing of Babel, with people understanding each other. No, what’s important is the presence of the Spirit to empower the church, to empower the church’s witness.

That’s why they were in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a dangerous place for them to be. But Jesus told them to stay there. So they did. Jerusalem was a dangerous place for them to be. But Jesus told them to wait. So they did. He told them to wait for power. He told them to wait for the Spirit. Then they would be witnesses. Then they would tell the world what they had seen and heard. Then they would announce the Kingdom of God. Then they would embody the Kingdom of God.

Now the power had come. Now the Spirit had made a home with them. Now they had arrived. Without taking a step, they had arrived at a new place. They were still in Jerusalem. But at the same time, they had come to a destination beyond Jerusalem.

Before he left them, Jesus told his disciples that they would do greater work than the work he had done. Greater work than the work he had done. What did he mean by that? Well, I don’t think he meant that his disciples would perform more wondrous signs than he had. The Book of Acts records the wondrous signs that were done by the Apostles and others. But nothing they did outstripped what Jesus had done. I don’t think the church has ever outstripped what Jesus did. So Jesus must have had something else in mind.

I think what he had in mind was the scope of his disciples’ work and witness. I think what he had in mind was the scope of the church’s work and witness. You may remember Jesus saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. By and large, that’s where he confined his work. His work of announcing the Kingdom. His work of embodying the Kingdom. The disciples, on the other hand, would take their witness farther than Jesus ever did—to Jerusalem, to Judea and all Samaria . . . And the church has taken that witness to the ends of the earth. It’s in that sense, I think, that the disciples and the church have done greater work than what Jesus did.

And again, it’s not about wondrous signs. Not wondrous signs, but a wonderful sign. Here’s what I mean. Those oddball, Spirit-possessed prophets of long ago, always calling and cajoling—they were a sign, a sign of God’s care and love for his wayward people Israel. In the same way, the church, the Spirit-possessed people of God, people who announce the Kingdom and embody the Kingdom—the church is a sign of God’s care and love for his wayward world.

 That’s who we are. And that’s how people come to know the Gospel. That’s how people come to have faith. That’s how people discover hope.

In a recent sermon, I made the point that God chooses his people not merely to bless them, but so that his people can be a blessing. That’s why God pours out his Spirit. Not just so a select group of people can have an amazing connection with God. Not so they can have God living among them and living in them. (Which is very true, by the way.) No, God pours out his Spirit on the church, filling us with faith, hope, and love—as a way of continually pouring out his love for the world.

Which means that you and I are in a different place. A different place altogether. Because of the Holy Spirit. And there’s no doubt that we are there. Or do you maybe doubt that the Spirit of God is in you? Does that seem far-fetched? Maybe too superstitious? Or maybe too unlikely, given the evidence of your own heart and life? You know, the unspiritual desires that possess you from time to time. The unholy words that pass your lips.

Well, let me ask you this: Are there signs of faith, hope, and love in you? Some time last week did you put someone else’s needs and desires ahead of your own? That’s love. And how do you approach life in this world? Do you figure that trouble and sorrow have the last word, maybe even the only word? Or do you look forward to a better day, if not soon, then some day, by God’s grace some day? That’s hope.

But the big one is faith. Faith. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead? And that’s a really improbable thing to believe, you know. Because it’s not about wonder-working. It’s not about believing in a dead person come back to life. It’s not about believing simply that a long time ago Jesus walked out of his tomb. That’s easy to believe. Because it’s not about now.

But to really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead—and that’s the heart of faith—to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is to believe that right now, already we live in a world that is being made all over again. To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is to believe that God is already building a new creation and that the first installment of that new creation is Jesus, resurrected Jesus.

And that’s not a simple thing to believe. And that’s not an easy thing to trust. Because it goes against so much of the evidence that’s available to us every day that nothing ever changes, that people continue to do despicable things, unimaginable things—whether in Cleveland or in Syria, or in Ancaster, Ontario.

In the face of all that sort of thing, if you can still believe, if you can trust, that God’s great rebuilding project has started . . . Well, that’s faith.

And there’s only one way to get that kind of faith. And that’s to have the Holy Spirit plant it in you. To have the Holy Spirit come to live in you. And if the Spirit of God is living in you and if the Spirit of God is living in us, then we have the power not only to announce the Kingdom, but to embody it. To embody it with love that gets us out of ourselves. To embody it with hope that pushes back the darkness and despair. And to embody it with faith, faith that keeps us living forward into God’s tomorrow, instead of trapping us in the misery and sorrow of yesterday and today.

Now, of course, we’re still waiting for what we hope for. We’re still waiting to reach our destination in the heavenly city, whose architect and builder is God. But because Jesus climbed the hill called Golgotha to surrender his life in this old world, and because by the Spirit we climb that hill with him, climb that hill by our discipleship, climb that hill by remembering him at the Table—because we climb that hill with Jesus by the Spirit, we can see before us not Pittsburgh, not Providence. We can see before us a holy city and a new creation. And we can see the Spirit of God moving about, the creative breath of God’s new creation. And because we can see that, we know we will get there. And not only us. Because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32).

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

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