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12:25:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1629 words  
Categories: Trinity

Called, Claimed, Sent

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
October 28, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-9
Psalm 126
Acts 8:1b-8
Matthew 28:16-20

O God, we’re stuck in the middle of a swing state, with too many people telling us their version of the truth. That’s why, more than ever, we need to hear from you. Because your Word is truth. It’s your Word that identifies us. It’s your Word that gives us our story. It’s your Word that sets us straight and sends us on our way. So we’re here today in your presence to listen. Send your Spirit. Help us to hear. Amen.

Isaiah 6 again. What can I say? There’s so much here. The holiness of God. The availability of the servant of God. The truth about God’s grace. That last one is what I want to build off of today. Last Sunday I said the truth about God’s grace is that with God sinful people are claimed as a church, a holy people, holy to the Lord. Not holy because of who we are. But holy because of who God is. I want to say more about that today. I need to say more about that today.

Olentangy Church, we are holy. That’s the truth about grace. We are holy. Now maybe we don’t feel especially holy. We have our sins after all. Personal sins and sins we share. Sinful pride. Selfish anger. Grudges and greed. To name a few. So we don’t feel especially holy. But we are holy. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is. And also because of what God does. God calls us. God claims us. And God sends us. That makes us holy.

Isaiah was a prophet because the Lord called him. Matthew was an apostle because Jesus called him. You and I are Christians, and we are a church, because the Holy Spirit calls us. Maybe you don’t feel especially called. Isaiah had a vision, a vision that put him smack in the middle of the throne room of Almighty God. Matthew had Jesus stand right in front him and say, Follow me. The young church had the Holy Spirit’s fire.

What do we have, most of us? Probably nothing spectacular. Probably something completely ordinary, completely ordinary yet more than we realize. Here’s a fact: We are here together right now in the presence of God because God has brought us here. In other words, God has called us. Whatever the means. Whatever the circumstances. However extraordinary. However run-of-the-mill. That’s how it works. That’s how it works that you and I and all of us are Christians. And that’s how it works that we’re together as a church. God has called us. And that makes us holy.

Not only does God call us, he also claims us. When Isaiah finds himself in the throne room of God, he about comes undone. He’s not fit to be there. But an angel touches a burning coal to his lips to purify him.

It was the same with Matthew. Matthew kept company with other tax collectors and with sinners. But when Jesus came to dinner, some of his holiness rubbed off on them.

And it’s the same with you and me. Like all people, we have a sin problem. We’re not fit to be near to God. Not until Jesus carries our uncleanness away.

Now for all of us, whether three thousand years ago or yesterday, this cleansing has a purpose. The Apostle Paul says, You are not your own. In our tradition, we take that as a point of comfort (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1). But it’s also a point of obligation. Here’s the whole saying: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The general principle is this: Through the cross, God has laid claim to us. And so we owe to God honor, worship, and obedience.

And that obedience takes one common form. We see it in Isaiah. We see it in Matthew. And we see it in the young church whose story is told in the book of Acts. To be holy is to be called by God. To be holy is to be claimed by God. And to be holy is to be sent by God.

The Lord told Isaiah, Go! Isaiah had a mission. He had a word to speak. A word for Israel. A word from the Lord. So the Lord called Isaiah. The Lord laid claim to Isaiah. And the Lord sent Isaiah. Isaiah truly was a prophet, a holy prophet of the Lord.

Then there’s Matthew. He too was called and claimed. And with the other apostles, he was sent. Go, Jesus said. Make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them. Teach them. Do it all, knowing that I will be with you every step of the way (cp. Matthew 28:19-20).

Jesus even laid out an itinerary for them: You will be my witnesses, he said, in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). But something happened. The young church got stuck in Jerusalem.

It’s almost like the story of Babel. The problem at Babel was the unwillingness of human beings to spread out and fill the earth as God had commanded. It was a common language that helped them stay together. So God introduced some confusion, and they started moving.

At Pentecost, the Spirit undid that confusion. But then, instead of following the itinerary Jesus gave them, the young church stayed put in Jerusalem. It took an outbreak of persecution to push them out of the city. The persecution was hard. But the church had been sent. And now the church was going!

What about us? Are we sent, too? Of course we are! The church everywhere is sent. Now I know it’s discouraging for us lately. We’ve been losing members and not adding members. We get here on Sunday morning, look around, and there aren’t very many of us. Maybe it wouldn’t be so obvious if we put the chairs back the old way. But that wouldn’t change the reality.

We’ve been sent. But try as we might, we’ve never seen much fruit. We’re like the planters in Psalm 126. They’ve come back from exile. That was their dream. But reality hasn’t measured up to memory. So there was sadness, even despair.

Don’t we know it?! We remember better times. There used to be more of us here. More old-timers. More young families. Graduate students. What happened? Some of us remember great plans and new approaches. We remember how they didn’t work so well. We remember the discouragement. And we haven’t gotten over it.

We know that we’re sent. We know that every church is sent. We know that every Christian is sent. We know that we have good news. We know a God who is worthy of worship. We know a God who has come in the flesh to put the whole world right. We know a God who is not far off, but very near to us. We know a God who claims us in baptism. We know a God who meets us in prayer. We know a God who speaks to us through the Word. We know a God who gives himself to us at the Table. We walk with this God. We love this God. This God loves us.

So we have something to share. But we don’t know how to share it. Or we don’t know who to share it with.

Something special happens here on Sunday mornings. I can’t explain it. But it’s real. God is here. God is with us. Just like the old hymn says, God himself is with us. And the Holy Spirit is among us. The Spirit helps us to pray. The Spirit carries our prayers into the presence of the Father. The Spirit binds us together, despite our frustrations and disagreements and disappointments.

And along with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus is here. We can’t explain it. We don’t need to explain it. But when Jesus said, This is my body and This is my blood, he meant it. It’s not The bread reminds you of my body and The cup reminds you of my blood. No. Somehow, through the bread and the cup, Jesus is here giving himself to us. Giving himself to us again and again and again. Giving himself to us without fail. Giving himself to us because he has called us. Because he has claimed us. And because he sends us. And because we need strength for the journey, the strength of his flesh and blood, for whatever way we may have to go.

My friend Harry Winters says that we ought to be begging the Holy Spirit to send people here on Sunday mornings. He’s right. That should be our prayer, our constant prayer. Because we want others to meet the Jesus we have met. Because we want them to meet the Jesus who meets us here every Sunday. Because something happens here that is more real than all the so-called reality of life. Because right here, in this place and at this time, the space between heaven and earth is bridged a little bit. Just enough so we can get a glimpse, like Isaiah, of the Lord who is high and lofty. Get a glimpse of the Lord who says, You’re mine! Get a glimpse of the Lord who comes to us in flesh and blood. Get a glimpse of the Lord who sends us as an embodiment of his Good News. Which is what we are together. Sunday after Sunday. And wherever we go.

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


11:47:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1683 words  
Categories: Trinity

The Truth about Grace

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
October 21, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 32
Acts 11:5-10
Matthew 9:9-13

Lord Jesus, come and help us. You know what we carry around with us wherever we go. You know the weight of it. You know how it presses us down. You know how it gives us a short fuse. But you’ve already dealt with all of it. Help us to believe that. Help us to trust that. Help us to rest in your grace. Amen.

Yes, we’re still on Isaiah 6. This makes three Sundays in a row. But we’re not stuck in a rut. It’s just that there’s a lot here, a lot here that is really striking.

There’s the awesome holiness of God, a holiness that inspires us to worship. And not just us. All the inhabitants of heaven, too. We hear the seraphs praising God. And all the vast universe. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). And every creature on earth. Whales and winds, fire and fog, birds and bats—all of them praise the Lord (cf. Psalm 148:7ff.). Because the Lord is holy. That was two weeks ago.

Also in Isaiah 6, there’s the availability of the prophet himself. When there’s a task at hand, when God needs someone to go, Isaiah makes himself available. Well, I’m here. I’ll go. And we see this imitated again and again. Even in our own midst, we have people who make themselves available to the Lord Jesus. People who have a servant heart. That was last Sunday.

And now today, there’s one more place to focus. There’s the little dialogue in the middle of the passage between Isaiah and one of the seraphs. A little dialogue and a little action.

It begins when Isaiah takes stock of where he is, takes stock of what’s going on right in front of him. His first reaction is shock. Woe is me! he says. And no wonder. What is he doing—what is anyone doing—in the throne room of Almighty God? That’s no place for a human being to be! That’s not something a human being can see! But there he is. And he starts to fall apart. Woe is me!

And no wonder. I am a man of unclean lips, he says. And my people have unclean lips. Unclean lips? What’s that supposed to mean? Later on Isaiah indicts his people for speaking lies, for making empty arguments, for failing to call out for justice (cf. Isaiah 59:3-4). Zephaniah says that people with pure lips use them to call on the Lord (cf. Zephaniah 3:9). So unclean lips have something twisted about them. They speak crooked words. Or maybe they’re just deformed, not good enough, never good enough. Something you look at and feel pity. Or maybe something you look at and quickly turn away. You can’t help it. It’s a natural reaction.

To be unclean was to be unfit to get anywhere near the presence of God. To be unclean was to be unfit to get anywhere near holy things. To be unclean was to be unfit to go out in public. Uncleanness could be because you didn’t measure up to a standard. Pigs were unclean because they don’t chew the cud. Clams were unclean because they don’t swim. In a similar way, handicapped people were excluded from holy places because they didn’t fit the picture of what a whole person is supposed to look like.

What’s more, you could appear to be clean and fit outwardly. But that wasn’t the whole story. You could get contaminated by touching something unclean. You could be contaminated by a bodily discharge. For all kinds of reasons, you could be unfit to get anywhere near to God.

And, yes of course, there is sin. And that may be what Isaiah has in mind here when he talks about himself and his people. That’s how he starts his book:

Sinful nation, people weighed down with crimes,
evildoing offspring, corrupt children!
They have abandoned the Lord,
despised the holy one of Israel;
they turned their backs on God.  (Isaiah 1:4)

I wonder if we know what that’s about. Sometimes I think we’re kind of polarized. On the one hand, some of us have an overactive sense of guilt and shame. We’re constantly aware of our shortcomings. The mean things we say. The selfish things we do. How we forget about God. And, on the other hand, some of us are hardly aware of our faults. We’re decent people after all. It’s not like we’ve ever killed anyone! And we may have looked, but we’ve never committed adultery. That’s why half the stuff in a Sunday morning prayer of confession doesn’t apply to us.

Okay, time for a reality check. We’re all sinners. We’re all unclean. We’re all unfit to be near to God. If we’re honest, if we take the time to really think about it, to have a close look at ourselves, then we’re going to see some disturbing things, things that will make us say, Woe is me!

Sometimes having an overactive sense of guilt and shame is a way for us to stay on the surface. A way for us to focus on minor infractions, while failing to notice a major crack in the foundation. Is it possible that we pay attention to all our infractions because we don’t trust the grace of God? Don’t trust that God really has forgiven us? That there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ?

And sometimes being self-assured, being confident that we’re not so bad, is also a way for us to stay on the surface. A way for us to ignore what would totally undo us if we let ourselves have a look. Because with us too, there’s a major crack in the foundation. We too don’t trust in the grace of God. And because we don’t trust in the grace of God, we haven’t come clean to God about what’s lying there inside us. An addiction. A bitter spirit. A fear so paralyzing that we exhaust ourselves trying to cover it up.

We’re all sinners. We’re all broken. We all have physical defects. We all have emotional defects. We all have intellectual defects. We all have moral and ethical defects. We’re all unclean. We really don’t belong in the presence of God. There’s no real place for us there.
But the seraph takes a live coal from the altar fire. He carries it over to Isaiah and touches the prophet’s lips. There you go, he says. You’re clean now! No guilt to undo you. No sin to separate you from God.

It’s grace. Grace that transforms reality. Grace that makes room for the unacceptable.

Nobody could have expected Jesus to call Matthew to be a disciple. And nobody could have expected Jesus to celebrate with a dinner party at Matthew’s house. Nobody could have expected that, because Matthew was an outsider. He was despised. He was a collaborator, taking advantage of his own people. And then there were his friends. His friends were just as bad. More tax collectors. More people who had been branded as sinners. Unclean! Unfit for good company. Unfit to be among the people of God. Unfit to be near anything holy.

But Jesus had other ideas. He had come for the broken. So the broken didn’t need to be afraid. He had come for sinners. So sinners didn’t need to stay away. It was grace. And here’s something important about grace. The truth about brokenness and sin never can exceed the truth about grace. That’s worth repeating: The truth about brokenness and sin never can exceed the truth about grace.

When Peter was invited to the home of Cornelius, he went. He went and he shared the Good News with Cornelius and his entire household. But Peter knew better than to do that. Cornelius was a Gentile. Worse still, he was a Roman centurion. He had no part in the people of God. He had no right to share in the Good News. He and his whole kind were outcast. Unclean. Not fit for holy things. Not at all.
But Peter had a vision. And the vision changed everything for him. Don’t call unclean what God has made clean (cf. Acts 11:9). That’s what the vision said. That was earth-shaking.

We tend to think of labels as unchangeable. A leopard can’t change its spots. People never change. We are what we are. But God relabels people. God re-identifies people. There are no fixed categories. Every category can be overturned. With God the unclean becomes clean, the impure becomes pure, the unholy becomes holy. With God the sinner is made righteous. With God sinful people are claimed as a church, a holy people, holy to the Lord. Not holy because of who we are. But holy because of who God is.

This is grace. And the truth about brokenness and sin never can exceed the truth about grace.

Grace is good news: Isaiah, you’re clean! Matthew, you’re clean! Peter, they’re clean! You’re clean, too. Do you believe it? Do you trust God to make you clean? Do you trust the grace of God?

Go ahead. Take a chance. Let go of all your anxious record-keeping. Forget about keeping track of every failure. You don’t need to do that. God doesn’t!

Or forget about the bluster. Forget about the self-assurance. Take a chance. Own up to how damaged you really are. Own up to the ache in your heart, the hurt that never goes away. Own up to the twist in your soul, the ugliness that for years you have refused to look at because of what it says about you.

Take a chance. Trust in God. Trust in God’s grace.

Because the truth about your brokenness and sin never can exceed the truth about God’s grace. The truth about your brokenness and sin never can exceed the truth about God’s grace. That’s the good news. Just ask Isaiah. Just ask Matthew. Just ask Peter. Just ask Jesus.

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


01:23:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2069 words  
Categories: Trinity

Well, I'm Here

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
October 14, 2012

For an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-4,8
Psalm 145
Matthew 4:18-22

Good and just and kind God, we come to you today because we have heard your voice. Out of all the other voices in the world, we have heard your voice calling us here. So we have come to praise you, to confess you, to come clean before you. And the amazing thing is that we think we are coming to you and the whole time you are coming to us. You come to us by the Holy Spirit. You come to us by the Word. You come to us by the bread and the cup of the Table. You come to us by the faces that we see in the room this morning, by the eyes that meet our eyes, by the love that fills this family and this place.

God, if we haven’t seen it already, if we can’t tell that you’re here, make it clear to us as we continue. Speak to us through the Word. Reach our senses by the Sacrament. Touch our hearts and our arms by the fellowship. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

I had other plans for this morning’s sermon. I was going to preach about the providence of God. Maybe I’ll do that next Sunday. But not today. My plans for today got derailed. It happened Wednesday evening, right here, during prayers.

We listened to Isaiah 6. Then we sat quietly to wonder about it. I wasn’t surprised by the way my wondering went. Not at first. I started off by picturing the seraphs. Flying about. Calling to one another. Shouting the praise of God. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord! Isaiah says he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, a very high throne. And those seraphs were all around the Lord.

I wondered how big those seraphs were. I had always pictured them being about our size. Maybe a little bigger. But I wondered if maybe they were about the size of Tinker Bell in Disney’s Peter Pan. Then I figured that even if they were as big as we are, that in comparison to the Lord, they would be tiny. Maybe about mosquito-size. After all, there’s no temple that can fit the Lord on the inside. The whole earth can’t fit the Lord on the inside. Even the entire universe can’t fit the Lord on the inside. So even if they’re really big, those seraphs must appear tiny!

Then I wondered about what Isaiah heard the Lord say. The first part of it. Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? I knew who the I was. That was the Lord, the one sitting on the throne. But who was the us? Maybe that was the Lord and the seraphs together. Maybe. Or maybe this was one of those Old Testament hints about the Trinity, a hint about the complex unity of God. I wondered Wednesday night. I still wonder about that one.

But that’s not where my wondering stayed. No. My thoughts moved to Isaiah’s answer. I heard the prophet speak. And I knew what he said. And I knew what he meant. I had known it for a long time. I could picture it. The prophet hears the question from the throne: Whom shall I send? And immediately the prophet rises up to say boldly, Here am I! Send me! In other words, I’m ready for this! Let’s do it!

But something happened on Wednesday evening. Something happened, and I heard the prophet’s words differently. I didn’t hear a bold stance. I didn’t see a courageous volunteer. I saw someone who heard the question from the throne. Someone who looked around. Someone who realized what was going on. Someone who said, Well, I’m here. I’ll go.

Well, I’m here. How central this simple recognition is to the life and the mission of church!

Of course, that’s not how we’re used to hearing the story. That’s not how we’re used to picturing it. We’re used to the Great Man Theory of History. Under that theory, history is told by talking about the great leaders who shaped the course of events. So our history focuses on founding fathers, presidents, and generals. And also on captains of industry and technology.

I’ve seen churches do something similar. A church reaches a milestone. Say 50 years or 75 years or 100 years. So the church produces an anniversary book. In the book, the story of the church is told from the beginning to the present day. Usually the story follows only two tracks. One track is about building projects. The first church building and the parsonage. Expanding the church building. Adding a gymnasium. The other track is about all the pastors. Who they were. How long they stayed. What happened during their time at the church.

The Bible often tells its story the same way. In reference to great men. (And, yes, in the Bible, just like with so much history-telling, it’s almost always men.)

There are a number of problems with this kind of story-telling. One problem is that it leaves out too much of the real story. That’s why people loved the books of Studs Turkel. He told history by talking about ordinary people. About their struggles and their contributions. About the little things that add up to make us who we are.

Another problem with the great man focus is that it can leave us paralyzed, unable to act unless some great man comes along to lead us. But if we wait for someone else, the story won’t go anywhere. If we wait for some great man, for some inspired and inspiring leader, we may be waiting a long time. Waiting and going nowhere.

Jesus walked along by the shores of the lake in Galilee. He came across some fishermen. Were they great men? Were they men of destiny? There’s nothing in the story to make us think so. What was great about these men, if anything, is that they happened to be there and Jesus happened to call them.

It’s the like the explanation Moses gave to Israel in the book of Deuteronomy. He said, The Lord didn’t love you and choose you because you were great. As a matter of fact, you were nothing. No, the Lord loved you because he loved you! (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6f.). The Lord decided to love Israel. The Lord decided that the history of his world would center on Israel, a not-so-great nation with not-so-great men to lead it.

Sure, there are the stories about how great a king David was. Stories about how great a king Solomon was. But those stories were slanted. Those stories were told to ignite hope in a better future. Those stories said, Here’s what God did for us before. He will certainly do it again! But, truth be told, Israel was a lousy nation. And Israel’s kings, almost without exception, were lousy kings. And many of Israel’s prophets were lousy prophets. The focus of the stories is on the few good ones. But there were others. Lots of others.

So don’t imagine that Peter and Andrew and James and John were great men. That they were diamonds in the rough. That Jesus saw the underlying greatness in them and chose them for that reason. If anything, Jesus was aware of their underlying pettiness and their readiness to be bullies or to be cowards. But great men? I don’t think so.

And don’t go applying the great man label to Jesus either. The point with Jesus is not that he was a great man. Jesus was no general, for example. Sure, he said that he could have called 10,000 legions of angels to his defense. But he didn’t say he would be their commanding officer, planning their strategy.

Probably the truest thing to say about Peter and Andrew and James and John is also the truest thing to say about Isaiah, and maybe even the truest thing to say about Jesus. That is, they were available.

Some years ago, I preached on Jesus’ baptism. I suggested that Jesus really wasn’t aware of his own identity yet. And that when he came up out of the water and the voice from heaven spoke, it was a revelation to him. And what Jesus did was to make himself available to the task that was presented.

He was available, but he was not in control. No. Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. There he underwent a great test. There he was not in control. The devil tried to be in control. The devil tempted Jesus to take control. But Jesus knew only God was in control. And he made himself available to God right then and there, even in the midst of that great stress.

Isaiah certainly wasn’t in control. He heard the question. He recognized that he was there, that he himself was standing at the point of need. And he made himself available.

Apparently Woody Allen said that Eighty per cent of success is showing up. I don’t agree. Not when it comes to the call of the church and to the purposes of God. Not when it comes to Isaiah. And not when it comes to Peter and the others. They never had to show up. They were already there. All they had to do was to make themselves available. Make themselves available to be used by God. Make themselves available to serve God’s plan and God’s will.

The same thing goes for you and me. God has plans for the church. God has plans even for this little church. God wants us to embody the love of Jesus to one another and to the world around us. And doing that isn’t about waiting for some great man—or even some great woman!—to show up and lead the way. Doing what God wants is about recognizing that we’re here. That we’re already standing at the point of need. It’s about saying, Well, I’m here. I’ll go.

A few weeks ago, N. made some announcements about how we’d like to know what sorts of ministries congregation members are engaged in. Not so we can hold people up as great men or great women or great kids. But so we can pray for each other. So we can have each other’s backs. I don’t know how many of you have talked to N. about this. Please do it!

But this morning, I want to single out some people, by name. I haven’t asked them. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because they are models to me. Models of the love of Jesus.

You all know that N. has been in the hospital for some time now. She’s not doing well. It doesn’t look like she’ll be coming home. I don’t know if you know this, but N. doesn’t have much family. So she’s alone in that hospital room most of the time.

But two people from this church family have been visiting her. Two people from this church family have been serving as N's advocates in the middle of all the muddle of modern medicine. And why have they been doing it? Because they’re great women? Because they’re bold people, the kind of people who rise up and put themselves forward and say, Follow me? No. They’re just two people who have found themselves standing right at the point of need. Two people who have said, Well, I’m here. Two people who have made themselves available to go and be the love of Christ to N.

Rather than leave you wondering. I’ll tell you. It’s NN. and NN. And again, it’s not that NN. and NN. are great. It’s that they have heard the need, they have seen where they are, and they have made themselves available. They have said, I’ll go.

I’m convinced that God wants each one of us to listen, to look around, to see where we’re standing. And when there’s a need, a need to show the love of Christ, not to wait on someone else, not to wait on a born leader. But to say to ourselves and to God, Well, I’m here. I’ll go. Who knows the history God will write when we make ourselves available?

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


08:23:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1258 words  
Categories: Trinity

Holy, Holy, Holy!

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
October 7, 2012

For an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Holy God, you call us together into your presence, and we come. We come empty, wanting to be filled, needing to be filled. We come because our life is in Jesus Christ. And because there’s nothing in this world that satisfies our need. Satisfy us now with your Word. With its truth. With its beauty. With its judgment. With its promise. Prepare us for the Eucharist, our most satisfying feast. And prepare us for a life of praise. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday in what we are calling the Trinity Season. It’s the time of year when our Sunday praise focuses on the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Holy Trinity is a foundational dogma of the church. Not doctrine. Dogma. Dogma is settled. With dogma, there’s no room for maneuver. If you believe only adult believers should be baptized, that’s not a problem. You’re still a Christian. Because baptism is just a matter of doctrine. It’s different with dogma. If you refuse to believe in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then you’re not a Christian. By definition. Because Christian faith is trinitarian faith.

Listen to the Athanasian Creed (it’s part of our confession):

We worship one God in trinity
and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
Anyone who does not keep [this faith]
whole and unbroken
will doubtless perish eternally.

That sounds serious. And it is.

In the first centuries, the church tried to grasp what the story of Jesus and the Spirit revealed about the nature of God. The church had its roots in Jewish monotheism. And Jewish monotheism was clear. There is one, and only one, god. Any other so-called god is at best a counterfeit and at worst a devil. But Jesus sent a shockwave through the world of Jewish monotheism. And the Holy Spirit added strong aftershocks.

How was the early Christian community to understand the divine presence? A Father in heaven, radiant with holiness. Yes! But also a Son, clothed in human flesh? And a Spirit, living among us? How could that fit with the old confession: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one?

Maybe the multiple gods of the pagans could serve as a model? But no. That would never do. The first chapter of the Bible had demoted the old gods of Egypt and Babylon. No sun-god in the Lord’s creation! And no moon-god! More recently, Jesus himself had triumphed over the gods of Rome, including Caesar himself. By his death and resurrection, Jesus alone, not Caesar, was declared to be the true Son of God.

So what did the church do? This. It expanded Jewish monotheism by insisting on a plurality to the oneness of God. And at the same time, it rejected pagan polytheism by insisting on the indivisible unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It gets complicated and even philosophical. But the heart of it is expressed in those few words from the Athanasian Creed:

We worship one God in trinity
and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.

And so we say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods, but only one God. And everything that makes God god is shared fully and equally by Father, Son, and Spirit. And so on and so forth. The Athanasian Creed adds details like that.

Over the ages, we the church have confessed the Holy Trinity, prayed to the Holy Trinity, killed for and died for the Holy Trinity. We have theorized and sermonized, theologized and philosophized about the Holy Trinity. We have proclaimed the Holy Trinity and sung the Holy Trinity. And we have stumbled and bumbled around trying to describe or illustrate the Holy Trinity. Because, honestly, we are baffled by the Holy Trinity. Because we can’t get a firm grip on the one-ness and the three-ness of God. The images blur. And the arithmetic doesn’t add up. But that’s okay.

I said at the beginning that if you refuse to believe in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then you’re not a Christian. I used the word refuse on purpose. It’s a strong word. A strong word for a willful rejection of the dogma. A strong word for an unwillingness to knuckle under to the dogma. If you have that attitude toward the dogma of the Holy Trinity, then no, you’re not a Christian.

But it’s a different matter if you don’t have the Holy Trinity figured out. If the Trinity leaves you baffled and befuddled. If you have your moments when not a bit of it makes sense to you. That’s different.

Here’s why. When you come right down to it, at the center of our understanding of God, there is a deep, unfathomable mystery. In the early centuries, the church hammered out a description of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That description even included details about the relationships between the members of the Trinity.

So, for example, we the church say that the Son is of one substance with the Father. But that doesn’t mean we have penetrated to the essence of who God is. We also say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out what lies at the heart of the nature of God. We’re just guessing and approximating as best we can.

So rather than trying to parse the inner workings of the Trinity, let’s focus on worshiping the Trinity! That’s why we’re here. We’re here to be in God’s presence together.

With the Spirit among us, we draw near to the heavenly throne, a throne surrounded by chanting angels, who say, Holy, holy, holy! With the Spirit among us, we listen to the voice of God, who actually speaks to us through the reading of Scripture, and who speaks to us through something as homely and halting as a sermon. And with the Spirit among us, we respond to Jesus’ invitation. We come to meet him at his Table. And he actually comes to us. Through the bread and the cup, he is ours again.

This is why we come here Sunday after Sunday. We come here to meet together with God. We come here, hungry for God’s grace. We come here, expecting God’s grace. Because we need that grace. We need hope. We need mercy. We need forgiveness. We need a home and a family. We need to be loved. And we need to belong. We need that grace. And that grace is exactly what we get.

The grace of God is constant. And Sunday after Sunday we come together to receive that grace in a special way. Every Sunday is special. Every time we listen to the Word, it’s special. Every time we approach the Table, it’s special. Every time, it’s holy.

Holy, holy, holy! said the worshiping angels. The whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord. So we come to worship the Lord. We worship the Father, who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. We worship the Son, who willingly embodied the Father’s love. And we worship the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and among us. God be praised forever!

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


03:02:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1435 words  
Categories: Ordinary Time 2012, Psalms

Life by the Rules

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
September 16, 2012

Scripture Readings
Psalm 19
Mark 12:28-34

Loving God, come fill us up. Pour your grace into us to waken our spirits and to heal our souls. Jesus, satisfy our hunger and thirst for your presence. All we need is a word from you. Help us to hear it. And Holy Spirit, move among us and get us moving. Strengthen the foundation and build us up to be a holy people of God. Amen.

It’s that time of year again. Baseball is moving toward the playoffs. College football is well underway. Pro football has started—not so well for the Browns and the Bengals. And next month there may even be a hockey season.

Baseball, football, and hockey are different. But they’re all played according to a set of rules. Rules that tell players, officials, and fans how the game is supposed to be played. Rules that make sense out of the game.

But suppose there were no rules. What then? Could we call it baseball any more? Could we call it football? No rules? It would never work. Okay. Suppose there were rules, but they changed constantly. Suppose the rules even changed while the game was being played. What would that be like? What would that be like? Easy. It would be like calvinball.

You Calvin and Hobbes fans know that the little boy Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes play a constantly-evolving game called calvinball. In calvinball, you might forget to touch twenty-third base or you might find yourself all of sudden in an opposite zone. In calvinball, you’re never sure you’re heading the right way, and it’s impossible to figure out who’s winning. Because in calvinball, the rules are always changing. Still, it’s fun to watch, even if Calvin and Hobbes always do end up fighting.

Then there’s life. Life is not a game. Some days we may feel like we’re winning. Some years we may feel like we’re losing. But life is not a game. Not a game. But there are rules. There are rules.

There are ordinary, everyday rules. The kind we learn by the time we’re out of kindergarten. Say please and thank you. Clean up your mess. Don’t hit. And the kind we learn from spouses and children and tax advisors. Take your shoes off. Don’t eat the last piece of banana bread. Keep receipts for all your itemized deductions. And there are rules of a higher order. Bedrock rules for life. Honor your father and your mother. Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Did you ever wonder why we have rules? Of course, there are bad rules. And sometimes there are too many rules or not enough rules. But at their best, rules make sense out of life. They help us to live life, even to live life together. Without rules, our own lives and our life together—whether as a church, as a city, or even as a society—without rules, our own lives and our life together would be as chaotic and aimless as a game of calvinball.

Good rules are good. Good rules are good for us. Some of those rules keep us from doing what we want to do. Keep off the grass. Obey the speed limit. Don’t engage in insider trading. Other rules make us do what we don’t want to do. Clean your room. Pay your taxes.

Rules can feel like a straightjacket. They limit our options. They take away our freedom of movement. True enough. But often enough, it’s for our own good. Suppose the rule says, Do not touch high voltage power lines! Am I going to argue?

Other rules are like roadmaps and street signs. They get us moving in the right direction. They let us know which way to turn.

Psalm 19, for its part, has a very positive take on the rules that come from God. The psalm gives those rules lots of different names: the law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the statutes of the Lord, the commandments of the Lord, the judgments of the Lord. Whatever the name, the psalm has nothing but good to say about those rules from God. They give life. They give light. The give joy. And they are much to be desired for gaining wisdom.

The psalm recognizes the ongoing trouble we have with sin. That’s what we usually think of when we think about God’s rules. And there is something to that. In fact, that’s the direction I expected this sermon to go in. But the psalm doesn’t regard the rules as primarily relating to sin. No. The psalm sees God’s rules as a pathway to abundant life.

Let me give you an example of how this can work out. When the scribe approaches Jesus to ask him what the most important commandment is, he’s talking about rules. And when Jesus answers the scribe, he gives him two rules. Love God and Love your neighbor. Keep that second rule in mind. Then recall what we saw in the Gospel a few weeks ago. Jesus said, I was in prison, and you came to me (cf. Matthew 25:36).

Here’s the example. For ten years now, Bill Lewis has been active in the Horizon prison ministry at the Marion Correctional Institution. For ten years, he has joined with other volunteers to meet faithfully with a group of inmates, a new group every year. Why has Bill been going to Marion? Because he has heard the gospel. Because he has heard Jesus laying down some rules for us. Love your neighbor, Jesus says. And visit prisoners.

Now it would be easy for us to imagine that Bill has been going to Marion with his heart and his arms and his mind full of wonderful treasures. And that he shares those treasures with the poor, empty souls in the prison. In other words, it would be easy for us to imagine that Bill has been going to Marion in order to be a blessing. Which is exactly what the church is called to be in the world.

There may be some truth to that, that Bill has been blessing. But just ask him, and he’ll tell you that he is the one who has been blessed. He’ll tell you that his life has been made better, made fuller. In unexpected ways. In unlooked for ways. Because he has been following the rules.
It’s as if the One who laid down the rules knows what’s good for us!

Suppose we make the two main rules, the ones Jesus gives to the scribe—to love God first of all and to love our neighbor as ourselves—suppose we make those two main rules the rules of our lives. Suppose we let them function, not like the momentary rules of calvinball—you know, rules you don’t really have to follow because they’re going to change any minute now and because you can always make up rules of your own—suppose we let those two main rules function as the roadmap for our lives, as the roadmap for our life together. I wonder what that would be like.

What are some ways that we can make loving God the center of our lives? What are some ways that we can make loving our neighbor the perimeter of our lives? And what if, as I suspect, those two main rules go together, so that when it comes to God and our neighbor, we’re not really loving the one unless we’re also loving the other?

Imagine God’s way for us, a way that keeps God and our neighbor both at the center and on the rim—imagine God’s way for us as a way not only for us to be a blessing—which is what we are called to be—but as the way God has designed for us to be blessed, for us to be filled up, as we go about our lives.

If we can imagine that, then why wouldn’t we be constantly on the lookout for ways to follow those two main rules? On the lookout for ways to love God first of all? On the lookout for ways to love our neighbor as ourselves? And why wouldn’t we go wherever those rules lead us, ready to be surprised by blessings from God?

I wonder. I wonder how we could embrace those two main rules. I wonder how we could make them our own. I think this should give us something to talk about for a while.

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

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