Building God's Garden: Tending to the Garden

 

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 (NRSV)

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

 

Somedays, I wonder why the church fathers decided to put the various letters in the cannon of the Bible. There are some of those minor Prophets and a few of the ones in the New Testament that you may just wonder about. However, I have no doubt in my mind why Paul’s letters to the Corinthians made the cut. Every time I read from them, I always have to ask myself, is he talking to the early church or to churches today? The letters to the Corinthians affirm my theory that people are people, for better or for worse, people are people, and they are going to act the way they always do. Paul is writing to the people in Corinth, after spending 18 months living with them, peaching and modeling how to live a life of salvation and holiness, how to be a community of believers. But of course, because people are people, things didn’t go so well after Paul left. Problems developed, factions developed, arguments and dissentions developed…yes, surprise surprise, in the church. So Paul writes them a letter to try to mediate and clarify some of the problems they tell him about. In chapter 3, Paul calls them out. He begins with a set of rhetorical questions, “When someone says, “I belong to Paul, and another says, I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? Basically he tells the church, “I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with one another and with God. Y’all are acting like a bunch of children! When you start taking sides—you show your selfishness/self-centeredness.” Where our scripture today begins, Paul is saying to them, why are you trying to rally around one leader?  Get over yourselves—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, no one person is better than another—we are all servants of Christ. We are carrying out our assignments given to us. And surprise, surprise, Paul uses an agricultural metaphor to explain-amazing how that fits just exactly into our sermon series! Nevertheless, Paul explains, I planted the seeds, Apollos watered, But---it is God who makes it grow! Us field hands can only do what we are told, we are powerless to make the seed come up and sprout. So really, is one job more important than the other, no, but the point of the matter is that it’s we all have to work together, because we are all serving God! That is what we are called to do.  

This is part of Paul’s overall argument—throughout the whole letter to the Corinthians. He goes back to the concern he stated initially in the letter—“I have a serious concern…you must get along with one another—you must build a life in common—mutual respect, care, nurture.” Do that by each using their particular gifts for the common good. An argument that Paul more fully develops later on in the letter, but even in our Scripture today, what Paul is trying to explain is that all body parts are useful and have a specific purpose. The problem Paul is addressing: the church body—the congregation—are still acting and judging things according to world standards. They are placing different values on different gifts, styles of leadership, and issues of conduct. They believe that only one way, only one person could possibly be right, and so jealous quarrels start occurring, people begin taking sides…Nope that’s no apart of our cultural rhetoric recently.

And Paul firmly corrects the people of Corinth—you are acting like children. Clearly as human beings, and especially as human beings in the church, we just haven’t quite figured out how to get along. 

The concept Paul is trying to once again convey to them is that being the body of Christ/life in common is one in which there is cooperation, one with a common purpose. Why?—because we all should have one mutual goal—building the kingdom of God. The work of God is just too big for any one person to do alone. Does that mean that there will always be agreement on how that is to be done?  How we go about building the kingdom? Of course not. We all have strategies of how we would like to build God’s garden. Some have methods that have been used before and worked, so let’s do those again, some will see new techniques developed and want to experiment with those. Others would like to plant thinks that are hardy and can withstand the elements, other will want to grow delicate but beautiful things. And so instead of working cooperatively, to cultivate God’s garden, we become embroiled in battles, “This is my church and I don’t want my church to be destroyed.” We all want to be sure that no one else interferes with our little patch of the garden and that things are done just precisely our way. And you know what, there are going to be disagreements along the way. Church broke into various paths traditions: Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant. And even within each individual churches. I suspect there were disagreements at times at Cann. But the reality is, that we can disagree but still cooperate (get along)—even collaborate and when we do so we can begin to see new growth and new life in the church.

While I was in Jerusalem, we visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where Christians claim Jesus was crucified and buried. Now since this would be a holy site for all branches of Christianity, but instead of cooperatively working to care for this holy site, they have literally subdivided the church into their own areas: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox and so forth. Each church has their own chapel space and as visitors you walk through each space, with their own very distinct looks, and priests guarding it. Although it is a beautiful and holy space, it is sad place as well, a representation of how sometimes we fail at collaborating and being the church together.  

What Paul is telling his readers, both then and now, is that the whole field belongs to God, we are merely field hands, called to work together to bring in the eschatological harvest: that is the hope of what is to come. So in our garden some will need to plant, others will need to water, some will need to till the ground, others will weed, and eventually there will be those who will reap the bounty, but all of this work needs to be done, and it will be oh so much better if we do it together!

Theologian, Shirley Guthrie says, “Christian hope for the world is hope that God will overcome inhuman and unjust social, political, and economic structures.”[i] This is a hope for the future, for “the justice, freedom, and peace of the kingdom of God will not [fully] come within history as the result of human efforts; it will come at the end of history as the result of what only God can and will do.”[ii] Yet as Christians living in that liminal time, “we know that we move…towards [this] fulfillment - toward the genuinely full human life that God willed for all human beings from the beginning, which God is at work here and now to restore and renew, and which God will finally give to everyone.”[iii]

God will not leave this world the way it is, rather, God will come and restore creation. God did so in Christ and God will do so again. So we wait, but in that waiting, we don’t let the garden get over grown, we don’t let plants die, but we care called to be faithful to God in the world. We are called to continue building and planting God’s kingdom in our midst together.

The Belhar confession, recently adopted in our confessions of faith, says, “that unity is…both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain… that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:

 in that we love one another;

 that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another;

that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;

that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind;

have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope;

and together [we] come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;

together [we] are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;

together [we] know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.

 

Leaving these church doors today, we step back into a nation and world that’s divided. We can choose to perpetuate the division, divisiveness, and fears through cruelty and willful ignorance...Or, we can choose to perpetuate the work and ministry of Christ through spreading love, truth, and peace. The choice is yours, friends. But, I believe you know what to do. Because, I believe that the Creator created you with unique gifts and talents that you’ll live fully into as we collectively work toward completing God’s re-creation each day.

Like the prophet Isaiah says, as Christians we are called to do this: Build. Plant. Labor. For it is in this rhythm of doing, we will start to embody the hope we yearn for: pursuing justice, showing mercy, loving kindly, and do what it right to be unified. Whenever the world starts to feel unstable, we should fall back into this rhythm of work. Build. Plant. Labor. Day by day, week by week, and before long we become hope we’ve been practicing. As Christians we are not called to “practice what we preach” rather it’s that we become what we practice. We are called to bring pieces of God’s kingdom to our midst, by being a unified and collaborative body. So if we Build. Plant. Labor, we do it not individually, but collectively. And when we do, we do so knowing who is our Great Gardner: the One who gives us growth, who nourishes us and sustains us. Then we will become known as people who trust radically in a good and gracious God. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

[i] Shirely Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 375.

[ii] Ibid, 375.

[iii] Ibid, 378. 

Building God's Garden: Scattering Seeds

 

Matthew 13:1-9 (NRSV)

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

 

Last week we talked about our soil production: how good soil is cultivated through the building up of the soil with organic compounds, in the church we see this most clearly though the saints of past and present. This week we begin to think about planting our seeds. In modern day planting, especially when it comes to things like commercial farming, gardening is a science. Farmers know the precise depth and distance apart seeds need in order to ensure optimal results. Even in our own gardens, the plants and seeds that we pick up from Lowes, Plant Park or Kenyon Bailey, they come with specific directions on the depth and distance apart on how best to plant your squash, lettuce, pansies, or whatever is going in your gardens. Things are controlled and specific because they are proven and tested to succeed.

            In our text today, we see the farmer sowing the seeds in the ancient way of sowing seeds, scattering them broadly. “In hand sowing, you would have some seeds that would fly or carry further than others and you would get some seeds that would broadcast and sow on different parts of land, some scattering on the hard ground or path. Unlike when you row plant.”[i] It may seem like an inefficient way to plant, causing the seeds to scatter in random areas, but the farmer doesn’t seem to worry all that much where his toss may land the potential crop.

If we look at the seeds and where they scatter based on our story, we might want to take more precaution than the farmer did sowing the seeds. Maybe the sower should have invested more time into precise row planting, carefully measuring depth, distance and quantity to maximize growth potential. We may view the sower to be reckless, wasting of resources, time, energy and even potential crop through the method of scattering. Really, there is no way of guaranteeing good optimal results. And we have resorted in becoming a culture that is driven by results. We want to know that what we do, where we invest (both time or money) will achieve success. If something is too risky, very rarely do we even try.  

It is the same thinking in the church, we are results driven, this program works because 20 people show up regularly, that ministry was a failure because it did not bring in young people, that event was a success because much of the community came out and participated, the church is dying because the pews are not filled. Right? We look at the life and work of the church and we try to quantify what goes on to then make a call as to whether or not something is successful. And too often when looking into new or different opportunities in the church, we are anxious to do something new, untested, unproven to work. We are too caught up with failure to even try: why waste good seed if it might not grow? Why should we try a new or different service, how will we know that people will even come? Why should we partner in that ministry with that church, we should be doing our own thing to get people interested in us? We need to just stick with what we know and what we do right, we don’t have enough people or resources to make that happen. Too often in the church we stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work.

And then there are lots of times when sowing does not lead to reaping. It even happened to Jesus, he was rejected by his own community, he was a persona non grata with the Pharisees, and the disciples didn’t always have a great grasp on what he was doing. Jesus was consistently encountering hostility, a plethora of people who disregarded his message and ministry and mission, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to extravagantly sow seeds.

Despite some of the lofty sounding promises in the Bible, we just can’t always count on results, no matter how hard you try. Often times we end up sowing and weeping and sowing some more. We can find ourselves in the place where we are sowing but not reaping, or not reaping to our expectations. And the very expectation that our faithful sowing of seeds ought to lead to reaping a harvest leads to resentment and bitterness when the results fail to appear.

However, in our parable today, the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly even in the least promising places. The sower doesn’t take into account what types of soil he scatters the seed on. The sower doesn’t take into account the history of growth in that area, or use methods that have produced results in previous years. The sower isn’t effected by history, or failure, or fear, but rather, scatters with confidence and faith, that there will be fruitful growth. That is what God, our great Sower, does as well. God has seed to spare and like to see what can grow where it not supposed to grow. God is yearning for us to be extravagant in our sowing, to not worry always about planting with precise measurement, rather be open to letting things go, and seeing what becomes fruitful and bountiful.

In my education on gardening this week, I learned about volunteer plants. Those are the plants that sprout in unexpected places, sometimes in the compost pile, in another garden bed, or in a seemingly random area. These volunteer plants crop up where they’ll have the best chance to survive and reproduce, if they are allowed to grow. And from research and talking with some of y’alls volunteer plant experiences, when allowed to grow, can produce the tastier, prettier, or more fruitful crop than what you intentionally planted.

I read this week that when John Wesley came to North America, he absolutely failed in parish ministry (which is what he intended to do in the first place). How might you ask? Well he fell in love with a woman in his congregation who didn’t love him back and eventually kicked him out of the church. But after being booted from his congregation he continued on in other means of ministry and ended up creating the first English hymnal in American colonies, and he started the first Sunday School. So though his intended crop failed (and might I add completely and utterly failed), these two volunteer crops, or crops that were part of scattered seeds, became very fruitful. So what are or could be volunteer plant opportunities, wild ideas that someone chose to take a risk and grow, right here in our church, in our community?

What are we willing to try planting, and risk that it doesn’t take growth, or takes only a little growth, but then dies out? Or perhaps takes growth and flourishes? What are we willing to risk in order for something else to voluntarily crop up?

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”[ii] The sign of a dying church, is a church that fails to continue to sow seeds. That chooses to not take risks, and does not allow for new growth to occur. So the challenge for the church is to actually being willing to continue to sow the seeds, to be extravagant in our sowing, being willing to risk failure, and still continue to on planting. As the living church, we should never be done sowing the seeds. This parable functions for us as both an exhortation and encouragement, to keep on pressing forward. As Jesus told His disciples, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8). If we are called to live and plant our seeds in good soil we do so through how we live our lives, how we interact in our community as a church family and how we serve others in our midst. When we are willing to be more open and generous in our seed planting, sometimes unsuspecting growth can happen.

So may our prayer be to not be discouraged when we do not see the reaping of our labor, or when our seeds scatter and do not bear fruit. May we continue to be persistent, tend to our soil, and be extravagant in our sowing. May we never be done with sowing the seeds and pass on our principles. And may we always hope for the Kingdom of God to thrive in our midst. And may it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Modern Parable, Sower.

[ii] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/seeds.htm

Building God's Garden: Fertile Soil

 

Ephesians 1:11-23 (NRSV)

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

 

This week we begin a new sermon series which will help us focus on stewardship. Now while often times we think of stewardship as strictly giving money to the church (and I won’t deny that is an end result in this series), I want us to begin to think about why we invest into the church, and into the building of what is ultimately another year of ministry. This year I want us to think about the church like the of building a garden. Even though I have dabbled into the world of gardening this year, I will still hold fast to the fact that I am a black thumb (who currently is trying not to kill a mum). Actually Dave said, when I went to buy my latest living plant, “Are you taking that plant home to then put it on hospice.” Yes, he has no faith in my gardening stills. Nevertheless, I don’t want to worry you y’all, because over the course of the next four weeks, I want us to examine the things needed for optimal growth in a garden, and specifically, God’s garden of the church.

The first thing that we must start with in ensuring a beautiful and fruitful garden is the soil. Before planting anything we must begin with the soil. Now what I have learned from research (and good help from those of you who are master gardeners) is that soil-building is important to help improve the quality of the soil. This means adding layers of compost, topsoil and other organic materials to the soils to help produce soil that is healthy and fruitful.   

            Likewise, if we are looking at the church, we look to the ground base of what the church is made from to help us identify what the church is today and where the church is headed. All of the continued growth and fruitfulness of the church is dependent upon what type of soil we plant in. Thankfully, our faith soil is composed of a mixture of elements that produce healthy growth.

At the heart of our faith, that which fills and provides nurture the church’s soil, what our scripture today is telling us is that of the power of Christ in our lives. Scripture says, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Christ’s sovereignty is not just for these days only but for all eternity. It was power bestowed upon him by God for God’s purpose. It is the reason to which Christ appeared on earth, Christ died and Christ rose again from the dead, so that the purposes of God could be fulfilled. And that power is what gives us strength to be Christians in this day and in the days to come. As Christians we are the power of Christ at work in the midst of the world. We are the hands and feet of Christ; we are the doers. Christ is entirely present, fully present in the church and in the world. Christ gave his entire self for the church. Christ gave his entire self for the world.

The church then, as Paul know is it, is made up of those who chose to hope in Christ; who chose to hear the word of truth, who chose to believe. In the early church, all Christians were called saints, literally meaning “holy ones,” because they were consecrated to God by the death and resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. These are the saints of God in both the past, in the present and in the future, those who choose to continue to seek ways to unify the body of Christ, to provide us hope. That is what the church is supposed to be, a place in which also are products of a tradition of unwavering discipleship. There are the faithful communities where we were helped to receive, open, and explore the gift of faith—to trust in God’s grace and boldly live into our discipleship. Those are our saints, whether they are present with us now, or they are ones who have left their earthly home, they are part of the make-up of our soil. Who provide the nourishment that leads to healthy growth.       

             At my Alma Mater, Pat Neff Hall, is in the center of campus, where the President’s office resides. On the outside of the building, in large letters is carved, “The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers.” Our faith has its roots in the past making it reliable and proven so there is not only preservation but also the means for innovation in the spreading and living out the faith which we have been given.

There are those faithful communities where we were helped to receive, open, and explore the gift of faith—to trust in God’s grace and boldly live into our discipleship. I can remember Miss Debbie, who taught my 3 and 4 year old class the songs of our faith I still sing today. The staffs at Camp Loma Linda, Buffalo Gap, and countless Vacation Bible Schools where I learned the books of the Bible, studied the life and ministry of Jesus. Pastors like David Hyers, who began to help me understand what it meant to ask questions but not always know the answers, and to go through dry periods in one’s faith, and God’s never-ending love and presence in that desert.

You sit here today with your own stories, with your own active, living faith that was nurtured, shaped, guided by not only your family but also the community of faith who learned from their ancestors, who learned from their ancestors…and so on.  One generation helping the next claim their faith for themselves and put feet on it. Generation to generation understood well that faith is to be guarded so that it is not corrupted or diluted, but also must be nurtured, made alive and shared. We all owe a debt to those faithful folks. However, we cannot rest on the laurels of those who came before.  That would deny the truth and the commitment of the faith they nurtured and the fruit of their visions.

It is not just what has happened in the past, that can keep the church soil fertile, but also those who do the work to tend to the soil now are just as vital. And that is what is critical, we have to continue to maintain and tend to the soil. If we just leave soil alone, do nothing to it, it can erode, and the microorganisms that keep soil fertile die. Just as a gardener must continually provide means upon which to prevent erosion, we also have a diving commission—perhaps even a duty—to continue to dream visions for God’s kingdom and to bring them to reality.  The gift of faith we each are given is not stagnate. We are in this together and it’s not somebody else’s responsibility. Each and every one of us carries responsibility to dream, to vision, to boldly enact the faith we have received. And we come together in the gathered community to live and encourage and seek ways to live faithfully.

 “As Christians, we are shaped by more than our own experiences; we are shaped by our hopes, by the future into which we are living and by the convictions in which we are living…Hope is best living within the hopeful community, in the company of saints both living and departed.”[i] That is why we have our visual reminder here for us today, pictures and names of saints in our lives, providing us the energy of hope to continue on building and growing the church triumphant.

“An old Hasidic tale tells of a disciple who asked his rabbi the meaning of community one evening, when they were all sitting around a fire. The rabbi sat in silence while the fire died down to a pile of glowing coals. Then he got up and took one coal out from the pile and set it apart on the stone hearth. It’s fire and warm soon died out. It is in the company of all the saints that we fin[ii]d our life and vitality as we seek to live as faithful bearing of the inheritance we have received.”

What we are reminded today is that fertile and fruitful gardening for God, is best done in community, we cannot do it alone ourselves. It is in community where we find comfort in our losses, courage for the daily struggles, and hope as we face the future together. We come together to dream our visions and then together plant and maintain growth for our dreams of today and for tomorrow, just like those before us planted their visions. The choir sang for us today, “Saints of God, wake the earth, stir the land with joyful noise. Rise and sing praise to God!…Saints of God, heed the call.” As Christians, as saints of God, we are called to take the ground upon which the church was built, and to nurture it, build upon it, and add what is needed to it, so that it will be fertile soil for what will be planted by the church of today and tomorrow. Saints of God, heed the call! Amen.

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, RCL C, p. 233.

[ii] Ibid, 233,235.

Thank God, I’m Not Like That Guy!

 

Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)

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

 

This morning’s text is one a particularly fascinating and poignant one for listeners both for the original listeners and for us today. One commentator I was reading this week, likened it to a fishing lure, bright and shiny, but with a sharp barb at the end. And I think that is the truth. This is one parable from Jesus, that listeners will end up calling to question their attitude towards others and ultimately their prayer life.

            The text begins by telling us who Jesus is speaking to, people who trusted in themselves that they were “righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Now Luke is not beating around the bush in setting up the scene, he is acknowledging that Jesus has a specific agenda for a set of individuals. Now if you believe yourself to be one who is righteous, that is, one who is morally good, free from guilt or sin, then there is probably no need for you to be in worship this morning. So I will happily let you get up and leave now, because this is a sermon for everyone else.

            The problem is that though we may not admit to being righteous, we might not be so bold enough to walk out the door this morning, we do deceive ourselves into believing that we are righteous, we think we are superior to one another. And I think that has a lot to do with our own culture. We have become more arrogant in believing we are better than others. We would rather put down others, than examine our own beings, “Thank God, I’m not like other people: who miss church because it is going to be a nice day at the beach; Thank God I’m not the person who rushes into worship 10 minutes late, and with their clothes disheveled; Thank God, I know what is right for the church; Thank God I’m here early every Sunday morning and  I pledge faithfully.” The problem is that we come into this space, believing that we have everything together, that we are somehow better than others, that because we have darkened the church doors every Sunday since we were born that we know everything that our faith is deeper, “more better” than others. We sit in worship with a self-congratulatory attitude, checking off the box of what it means to be Christian, and when we leave worship, we have not changed our attitude or actions one bit.

And what is worse, even when we leave the church we go on believing with that same attitude in our daily lives, “Thank God, I’m not like my co-worker; Thank God, I’m in the right social circle; Thank God I know what is right for my family, for my country, for my city; Thank God I’m not voting for that nasty woman, for that misogynistic man; Thank God I’m not my friend who is in the other political party who doesn’t understand God’s will for our nation. Thank God, I’m smarter, more well-informed, more socialized, and know what God’s will is for our nation, than those people!” Admit it, either we have heard people say this, or have said something similar ourselves.

            We have seduced ourselves into thinking we are a Pharisee, one who knows enough, and knows what to believe. I’ve heard it before and I will hear it again from people, “I know what there is to know about the Bible, I don’t need to study it. I’ve already done my fair share of service projects, of participating on session, on helping with xyz ministry, I don’t need to do anything anymore.” My friends, this is a very deceiving attitude. To believe we are finished with our faith, with our discipleship is a fallacy. It is to believe like the Pharisee one’s status before God is a result of your own actions. The Pharisee’s prayer is about what he is doing and has done, and he is arrogant and prideful because he has tried to exalt himself above others, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He is proud of his religious acts, has done exactly what knows to be true and therefore justifies himself. This judgement attitude that he lives out, is sadly, very much part of many Christian people’s behaviors. It is a pervasive issue in churches. But what Jesus warns us, is that the Pharisee is not the person we are to admire in this story.

            Instead Jesus is calling us to instead examine the tax collector. Now in biblical times, the tax collector was not a well-liked individual. They were seen as franchisee of a corrupt system that gouged the poor and enriched the wealthy. They were wealthy themselves, taking a cut of the monies they collected for the government. Tax collectors, in Jesus’ time were associated with shame. But here in Jesus’s parable, it is the one filled with shame, who is humble enough to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus say, he is the one who will go home justified, or who will go home proclaimed righteous. That is the real distinction, proclaiming your own righteousness, or having God proclaim your righteousness. To receive the latter, requires us to acknowledge our short-comings. It requires us to acknowledge that each and every person is full of flaws, have made mistakes (some more significant than others), yet who are still good and worthy people of God’s love.

Our parable today forces us to come into this space acknowledging that we are imperfect people. We are to come into worship not because we should, or because it is the thing to do on Sunday morning, but because we are in desperate need of a place in which we can say openly and honestly we don’t have things together, we are self-centered, we are lost, and need of a Savior. Every part of worship is not something to just go through the motions, to check off our list, but rather for us to posture ourselves in relationship to God.  And for that reason, we are to examine how we make our confession, for the sheer fact, that we are not righteous people. If we are first honest with who we are to ourselves, we can honestly come before God in a humble manner, more like the tax-collector. That is why Sunday, we take time to acknowledge our short-comings through the prayer of confession. It is a time that allows us to remember all that God has done for in Christ. It is the time in which we are confronted with the fact of God’s astonishing love and our own unworthiness of that love. When we speak aloud the prayer of confession, we are admitting to ourselves and to one another, once again, that we are broken individuals, that though we have tried to follow Christ, to live a life in love and service, we have come up short, we have failed. Yet in spite of our failures, we have a Savior who loved us, who sacrificed his life so that we can receive infinite grace and mercy from our God.

That is what the church is for, to be a sanctuary for imperfect people, for people who don’t have everything together, who make mistakes over and over again, but who are given unconditional love by God. We should be so bold as to say, we come into worship not as finished products, but as work in progresses, and some weeks we need a little extra work. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, “By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.  But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence.  It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” God’s love for us is so scandalous that he sent his son in to the world, to live among us unwise, powerless, low-life, and weak individuals and bring blessings to us. We are justified; we are given understanding and compassion, not because of what we have done, but what Christ has done. The life of the broken hearted is healed through the gift of grace.

Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, says that “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. This yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”[i]

Grace is given freely and wholeheartedly to God’s beloved, so there is no need for us to approach God with all that we have done right, instead, let be so bold and so vulnerable that we can admit we are imperfect people in desperate need of a God’s perfect love. Let us be so bold that we can be a sanctuary in which we expect not to know the right answers, or to criticize others for their thoughts, beliefs or actions. Rather, may we come together with authenticity and honesty and be able to say, “Have mercy on me” as well as “You are loved by God.”

 

[i] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

God-Breathed Words

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (NRSV)

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E. It’s the children’s song that was sung often in my home growing up. It was one of those songs I felt accomplished for being able to spell at a young age, but as I reflect on the song as an adult, it carries profound truths about what we believe about the Bible. The book that is for us, the words we stand firm for, the Bible, the Scriptures have deep and powerful meaning for Christians. In the Reformed tradition, we hold fast to the belief of sola scriptura, or Scripture Alone, that the Scriptures are the final authority in the matters of our faith and in practice of our faith. Reformer Martin Luther said, "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so."[i] Over the course of history in the church, we have looked to scripture for guidance, for setting up the principles of our faith, of our beliefs, what develops into who we are as Christians. But of course how we read and interpret the Scriptures radically varies. So I have been thinking this week about what makes scriptures sacred and also, how we interpret or are inspired by the Scriptures.

            Paul is writing to Timothy and a group of early Christians who were struggling in their newly formed faith. Facing persecution, this group of believers are being encouraged by Paul to “continue in what [they] have learned and firmly believed” that is the Scriptures. What Paul tells them is that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Paul is reminding them to always go back to scripture, to allow scripture to help continue to form their faith and their reasoning. The letter was written for new Christians struggling to make sense of a new faith following Christ, in the midst of a world persecuting them for their beliefs. They needed something to ground them, and at the time they had a set of scriptures from their heritage. They didn’t know if that same scripture applied to a life following Christ. What Paul is telling them in this letter is that, the Scriptures are divinely inspired, go to them, allow them to help you and guide you.

So what does it mean for scripture to be divinely inspired? Scripture is divinely inspired not because of what it says, or who wrote it, or when or what circumstances it was written; rather, inspiration comes from whom we were given the scripture. Our passage today says, “All scripture is inspired by God.” In the Greek, the it is better translated, all scripture is God-breathed. Breath is the essence of life, what separates the living from the dead. So if scripture is God-breathed, scripture is living and living things have movement, thus scripture itself has movement. That movement comes from how we read and interpret the Scripture. Walter Brueggemann says that, “Interpretation is not the reiteration of the text. It is rather the movement of the text beyond itself in fresh ways, often ways never offered until this moment of utterance.”[ii] Every time that we open up the Bible, and read the Scriptures we are giving the Scriptures another opportunity to inspire and enlighten us.

Now some may believe that interpreting the Scriptures is only for those who have really studied the Scriptures, or who have some gift in reading the Scriptures, but the reality and what Paul, I think, is saying here is that all people are given the inspiration, given the opportunity to inhale the God-breathed Word and be filled with it. “Responsible interpretation requires and inevitably engages in imagination.”[iii] As long as we allow ourselves to use our imaginations, we all can be filled with the Word.

            The problem is that too often we want things simple, and easy to understand. We want our faith and our ethics to be simplified down to its root: don’t do this, do that instead. However, if we all are using our imaginations in interpreting scripture, and if scripture is a living document, then how you or I or the person down the street reads and understands the scripture can be different. How one interpreted scripture yesterday, or a year ago or 50 years ago might be different than how one reads scripture today, in this moment and in this space. That is what is so important about faithful reading of the Scriptures, I think we must allow ourselves to be influenced by the Breath of God, by the movement of time.

            For example, the words of Isaiah, “[The Lord] will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,” has more meaning of hope and as a prayer for people in times of war than in times of peace.

            There have been times when scripture has been used to create harm and damage. When Paul wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.,” this gave latitude for slavery, for inhumane treatment to groups of individuals in the past, but in the Western world today, do not.

            And there are still scriptures in when churches may disagree on the validity of the scripture, like the words from Paul that say, “Women be silent in church.” Some churches and people, still hold fast to this belief, not allowing women to hold biblical authority over men, while others….well, here I am in the pulpit today preaching to you all.

            So then we struggle with the authority of scripture, should all scripture have the last word, and each word in scripture hold the same value as the next word in scripture? There are some who would argue that every word, no matter how it is tied to it context, must be the last word, if not, faith itself is somehow challenged.[iv] And that is where we find ourselves yearning for simplicity, for the clear cut answers.

The problem is “we’ve often make the words of the Bible the last word in the sense that none of them can ever change…[but] nothing that is living is ever last. A living word is always a beginning word…even death is not the last word. That’s because God is a god of the living.”[v]

So when we think about Scripture it should not be the last word, but rather a lasting Word, a word that is living, breathing, full of life, so that every time we go to engage it, we discover a fresh new interpretation when we break open the Scriptures. It means we have to continually pursue the Scriptures in study, in conversation and critically examine how they are to be used in our daily lives. Though this then makes our faith and biblical interpretation that goes along with it, difficult. Not everyone can hack it. Many would rather just believe the scriptures are the last word and do what they say, because it is easier, and they want a faith that is simple. Well folks, faith is difficult, it is challenging, Jesus told us that whoever believes in me, must take up my cross and follow, and following the cross is difficult, it’s challenging. A life in Christ it is an ongoing movement, not a way to do and be finished, a way of daily living.

            Paul was reminding Timothy and these early Christians, the Word of God is alive and moving, and you are called to take those words and use them to interpret and to live out your faith, not just recite them and be done with it. And that is what we are called to do as well. I remember when I first received my very first Bible, the Pastor told us to use the Bible, to mark in it, to highlight it, to not be afraid to “mess it up.” For this perfectionist it seemed like an odd request, but now I get it, the more we allow the Word to be read, to be thought about and discussed, and questioned and used, the more wear and tear the Bible will experience. The Word of God, is not the last Word, it is the lasting Word, the Word upon which we stand alone. The B-I-B-L-E, is the living Word. May we be brave and willing enough to continue to give life to Scriptures today and for the days to come. And may it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.

[ii] Walter Bruggemann, Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection, Struggling With Scripture, 16.

[iii] Ibid. 17.

[iv] Brian Blount, The Last Word on Biblical Authority, Struggling with Scripture, 67.

[v] Ibid., 57. 

The Church Being the Church in the World

2 Timothy 1:1-14 (NRSV)

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

2 To Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

 

I am going to do something a little different for our sermon this morning. On this World Communion Sunday, I want to remind us of our that the thing that connects us together, even though we have different views, different experiences, different stories, the thing that brings binds us is that we all serve and honor the same God.

So I have collected stories published in the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook—stories of our partners and co-workers around the world and how they see God at work in their communities. Some of these stories will sound very foreign and yet we know that it is the same God at work in a variety of ways. I hope these stories will help us celebrate the diversity of ways in which God works. Some of the stories will sound very ordinary—stories that could happen (and do happen) just down the road from us. I hope these stories help us celebrate the ordinary ways Christians around the world are seeking to be faithful to the same God that we know here.

 (See the full stories and many more at: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/October-26/)

You Belong in Philly:

            “YOU BELONG HERE NO MATTER WHAT,” reads the sign outside Broad Street Ministry in the heart of Philadelphia—a city where deep poverty and rapid gentrification exist side by side. The sign’s bright green lettering is one of the first things people notice when walking by the church’s arched façade…

I’ve learned that this ministry practices radical hospitality by providing an expansive range of social services throughout the week to some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Guests arrive daily to share a restaurant-quality meal at a linen-lined table, obtain clothes and personal care items, participate in the therapeutic arts program, and access many other stabilizing services.

Whether from homelessness, violence, or abuse, each guest is experiencing some form of trauma, which calls for thoughtful care. With attention to the whole person, Broad Street strives not only to meet guests’ basic needs, but also to develop a sense of community, hope, and self-empowerment. No matter how many people pass through the doors, Broad Street commits to serving each person, never running out of food or compassion. Although the outside world may meet guests with scarcity and disgust, at Broad Street each person receives assurance there is always enough—enough food, enough time, and enough care.

From the seven meals Broad Street serves to guests throughout the week to the one shared in worship, the message is the same: “You belong here. No matter what.” The invitation to belonging is one we never extend alone, but offer through Jesus, who has already prepared a place for each person. Because Jesus, who experienced suffering as well as joy, graciously invites us to the table, we are empowered to welcome one another. Trusting that Jesus is already at work in the world around us, we are free to participate in it without fear of failure or resistance to change.[i]

 

The DREEAM:

            “Let’s rock the DREAAM House.” Those are the words coming from 10 excited five-year-old boys participating in the DREAAM Summer Pre -K Academy. The DREAAM House is a community-school partnership significantly funded by First Presbyterian Church of Champaign and Southeastern Illinois Presbytery.

“It was created to reach, teach and invest in African-American boys at risk,” said Tracy D. Dace, a member of First Presbyterian and developer of the pre-K program. “Guided by the principles of social justice and educational best practices, the DREAAM Team designed a summer program to intervene and increase kindergarten readiness in the areas of math, reading, social/emotional learning and school expectations.”

The summer program runs for four weeks at an elementary school in Champaign, a small urban community wrestling with a number of issues, including juvenile delinquency, poor school outcomes and gun violence. But it is also the site of a major public research university, a number of social service providers and an active faith-based community.

Dace developed a vision for reaching boys at an early age in an effort to address the growing problem of academic underachievement. However, he adds that the program involves much more than just learning the basics. In addition to getting an early start on education, the boys also take field trips and learn about expected social and emotional behavior. The program was officially launched last summer…While it’s still too early to determine the long-term impact of the program, initial reports from local schools have been positive. Dace says teachers report significant progress among some of the DREAAM House participants.

“When I see the boys in the community or at school, they are excited about DREAAM and ask when they can go back again or what we are doing next time at the DREAAM House,” he adds. “Parents are very supportive, and our school superintendent has taken a keen interest in the program.”[ii]

 

One knit at at time:

       A group of seniors who call themselves the Knit Wits thought it would be fun to teach children the lost art of knitting, a skill they all were all expected to learn in their youth. The seniors are residents of Presbyterian Village North, a retirement community in northern Dallas. When Presbyterian Village North held Camp PVN, a camp held in partnership with Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church and NorthPark Presbyterian Church, children and seniors spent time together during “gift hours,” where residents imparted their knowledge of hobbies, interests, and activities with participating children. As a result, members of the Knit Wits group used some of the camp’s gift hours to teach children how to do French knitting with handheld spools. This activity was meaningful to the senior residents because they had learned how to knit and crochet at around the same ages as the children in the camp. Among all 12 members, it is estimated the group has a combined 500 years of experience, as many were taught at a young age and have been doing it all their lives.

The Knit Wits were excited to see the joy that radiated from the children’s faces as they created something unique. The residents spent four days working with the children, helping them to make flowers, headbands, and other creative items. After hosting this series of activities, they are contemplating hosting other tutorials during school breaks and on weekends. They experienced much joy in passing down their family knowledge of knitting and crocheting.[iii]

 

New Ministry in an Old Church:

            In the words and experience of Rev. Jim Moseley, executive presbyter of New Castle Presbytery, “Every great effort in ministry requires both strategic thinking and ‘daring’ in equal amounts.”

And maybe just a few peaches.

Dressed in peach-colored shorts and wearing a clerical collar, Rev. Fernando Rodriguez Quiñones, Church on Main’s organizing pastor, was determined to show Middletown’s residents—and some 20,000 visitors—that something new, exciting, and different had been launched on the site of the former Forest Presbyterian Church, which was formally dissolved by the presbytery in February.

Multiple congregations and presbytery entities greeted Rodriguez Quiñones with support and funding to begin building the new ministry upon many of the strengths that were already there.

During the daylong Peach Festival, Rodriguez Quiñones and volunteers from across the presbytery—including members of the former Forest Church—invited hundreds of people into the church’s air-conditioned comfort, sold peach ice cream and water for the visitors’ refreshment, and handed out lightly frozen towels with Church on Main’s logo and website.

Church on Main has three guiding principles, which form the acronym C.O.M.—community-driven, open, and meaningful—and which also happens to stand for Church on Main.

“We are focused on building community, being community, serving community,” he said… ”We are trying to have meaningful experiences spiritually as we serve, as we worship.”[iv]

Worshipping Together:

A shared faith and joint worship are building a bridge that is helping two Denver congregations cross a racial divide. Central Presbyterian, a predominantly white congregation, and Peoples Presbyterian, a predominantly African American one, began this journey on Martin Luther King Day this year. Central members traveled the 2.3 miles that separate the two congregations to worship with Peoples. The following Sunday, Peoples visited Central.

Not long afterward planning began on a joint women’s retreat, and Peoples hosted a vacation Bible school with children from both churches attending. Two additional joint worship services were held last spring, and more are anticipated in the future. “In past times, we had pulpit exchanges, but this is something much more than a pulpit exchange,” says Rev. Louise Westfall, Central’s pastor. “It’s a desire to be together.”

Theresa Varnado, a ruling elder at Peoples, is enthusiastic about the increasing level of understanding. “Sometimes the ideas we share just among ourselves can become redundant,” she says. “When we spend time in community, conversing and participating in joint activities, the opportunity to learn new and fresh ideas is greater. We are building bridges as well.”

Our fractured world stands in desperate need of deeper relationships and honest conversations across racial lines. On this World Communion Sunday, we join Christians around the world who are gathering at the Lord’s Table, a place where divisions are healed and hope is proclaimed. May we cross the barriers Christ calls us to traverse as we lean into the hope of Christ’s redemption.[v]

 

A Church Being Church with the Community:

In Northeast North Carolina, in a church that is tucked in-between houses on Main St., holds a group of people dedicated to God and dedicated to serving God. In this small, but mighty congregation chooses to interact within their congregation in small, but powerful ways. Though the landscape of the church has changed over the years, this doesn’t stop this church to seek new ways at making an impact in their community within their means. At Cann Memorial, volunteers commit one night a month to feed over 70 homeless individuals, food is prepared and bought by volunteers while other serve the meal. The church participates alongside many other churches to provide a warm meal to guests 365 days a year. The church also partners with a group of churches to host homeless individuals in the church facilities through the coldest parts of the month. In this church as well, a group of knitters meet weekly to fellowship with one another, and to create hand woven creations that get sent, not only to members of the church, but to people all across the country who may need the reminder that God’s love is surrounding them through difficult times. Cann recognizes that sometimes, worshipping on their own isn’t as fruitful as you when you worship with others. Cann opens their sanctuary to many grieving folks in December with their Longest night service, they collaborate in combined worships with area churches for Holy Week, and has endeavored to worship with a neighboring Baptist church on occasion including sharing a meal with them. The church recognizes that though people may come from different liturgical backgrounds, they still can glorify God together. When given an opportunity to serve in the community, people in this church willingly say yes, whether being buddies at an Elementary School, sorting goods at the Food Bank, providing supplies, gifts, goods for community needs, this church uses the gifts and skills they have to be visible witnesses of Christ in their area.

 

            Paul tells us, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Each and every person, each and every church is called to remember the faith that has been taught them, and to rekindle that gift, rekindle the use of that faith that was taught. Faith can’t be increased without being wiling to have our imaginations stoked, by the paths that others have also walked this way. It sometimes looks different that what has occurred before, but with the Spirit calling the church to be a visible witness in the world, it calls the church to try new things, with the power and love of the spirit. On this World Communion Sunday, we are reminded of ministries of others, of what is church has done, is doing, and dreaming what the church could do.

 

 

 

[i] Julia Watkins, 1001 New Worshiping Communities apprentice and associate pastor of Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia

[ii] Rick Jones, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

[iii] Lauren Witt, Senior Account Executive, Presbyterian Village North

[iv] Emily Enders Odom, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

[v]  Pat Cole, Communications Specialist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Action Required: Shameless in Prayer

 

Luke 11:1-11 (NRSV)

11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
3     Give us each day our daily bread.
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

 

 

Pray without Ceasing, “Fully Rely on God,” Prayer warriors, Prayer Boxes, Prayer rooms. The Christian culture is inundated with mantras, and ways in which to pray. When I was young I was taught to pray with my hands folded and my head bowed, as I got older I was taught specific prayers: of thanksgiving, of confession, of intercession. And every Sunday we collectively speak the family prayer Jesus taught his disciples, included in our scripture today. It is an important prayer, Jesus invites his disciples to pray hallowing God name, and asking for God’s kingdom to come near, praying that we see this manifested by daily bread for all, by witnessing and participating in forgiveness, and God delivers the faithful form their times of trial.

The question I have been thinking about this week, is why do we pray? What drives our need to pray?  And I think ultimately how should we pray?

I think that why is pretty easy to answer. In our own personal lives we face anxious times. In our lives together as the local church we face anxious times. In our world, we face anxious times. Many would say we are swimming in anxious waters, I don’t know if I can stand up on another Sunday without mentioning how tragic it is that more lives are violently taken, that while systemic issues of racism are attempting to be examined by some, continue to persist throughout our country and culture. We are living in a world where fear of the other drives how we act and interact with one another, and the fact is that in some sense we are justified in being afraid. We choose divisive words and actions over compromise and understanding. We choose to be rash in our thoughts and not listen to one another, my friends, we live in anxious times. And some would say, this is the time in which we need prayer.  

The challenge is that in our self-oriented culture, many people pray as a form of sanctified wish-fulfillment. Like throwing a coin in a wishing well, or making a wish upon a star, if we pray really hard and in the right manner then all our dreams come true. Then there are others who reject prayer altogether as a remnant from the days when people thought God was directly responsible for things like the weather. The solution to the problem of prayer lies somewhere in the middle between self-interest and cynicism.

And here in our scripture today Jesus interprets how we are to pray. Luke’s Gospel tells us, the story of the friend who asks to borrow bread at midnight.  He has received unexpected guests, and not to offer them food would be a serious embarrassment.  So he asks his neighbor to borrow bread.  Of course, the neighbor objects, but Jesus said, “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”[i] A more accurate translation of this phrase might be “because of his shamelessness, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” The man is shameless, by counting on the friend to help meet the requirements of cultural hospitality, because he recognizes that he cannot provide hospitality on his own.  

And that is what Jesus is attempting to tell us, that we are to be so shameless in offering our petitions to God, calling on God to keep God’s promises. Which is counter-intuitive to our own upbringings. For many of us we were taught to be proper, use our manners, there were rules and expectations, in how we are to interact with others. I remember when I was a child and I went to stay over at a friend’s house, my mother would insist that I go home at the morning, I did not need to be an imposition to the family. I was taught to use titles when speaking to my elders, to say please and thank you. We all were given rules and parameters with how to interact with others. And perhaps the same goes with our upbringings in the church, what to say, how to act, how to pray; however, Jesus is throwing that out, God is saying, just talk to me, spill it. We are to call on God, trusting that God will remain hospitable to us, no matter how formal or informal we are with God.  

In the book Godric, Fredrick Buechner writes, “What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who's to say? It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will…And sometimes, by God's grace, a prayer is heard.”

Our scripture today is challenging us to be in a relationship with God such that we trust God and are so shameless with God that we are able to come to God with familiarity and boldness in prayer. While Jesus does give us words to pray, it isn’t about the words, it isn’t about what kind of setting we pray in or how we hold our hands, prayer is about being so bold to trust God with what God already knows is on your heart.

 

Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, or our own self-interest, its not the prayer “dear God I would really like I dog, a new toy, etc.”   Rather, our prayers are to shaped by the principles of the kingdom: compassion, peace, justice, freedom, and new life. And that is what we are to be shameless in praying for, consistently asking and seeking. This kind of persistence, this kind of shamelessness, is necessary in faithful discipleship. In the midst of injustice, in the midst of overwhelming odds, in the midst of evil, in the midst of life in this world, may we trust God enough, to knock and ask for help. And may it be so. Amen.

           

 

 

[i] The Waking Dreamer: Everyone Who Asks

Action Required: Stop and Listen

 

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

 

I was raised to be a Martha. The women in my life lived Martha lives. My mother owned her own successful business before becoming a pastor. Always, serving others, she never quits. My aunt was a foster parent majority of my life and her home was always filled with children and people. Whether or not they were related or part of her clan. If you were at her home at dinner time, a place at the table was always set for you, the more the merrier was her motto. So naturally, I was raised to be the gracious host, the welcoming individual and the person who put the needs of others before my own. I can easily imagine being Martha, in our story today.

            Jesus, after a day of teaching and after a day of being examined by the legal expert, is probably looking for a place to relax. It would have been second nature for me to offer my home to Jesus and others, a warm inviting place to sit back, chat, and eat a home cooked meal. So with open arms I would welcome them in. Now of course, I couldn't just serve any ordinary meal to my guests, I would want to make sure it was something special, and I would happily spend my time moving from the kitchen to the living room, back and forth, forgetting to even sit or eat myself.  I imagine that many of you have Martha hearts, offering drinks on the porch, dinner in your kitchen, out of town guests to retreat in your home.

However, I was also raised to have a Mary heart. I am a cradle Presbyterian.  I spent my childhood going to church every Sunday and Wednesday nights. There I learned the stories of the Bible and my favorite scriptures, I began to form my beliefs through the songs we sang (Jesus Loves the Little Children, or This Little Light of Mine), and began to learn how to pray when I learned the words, "Our Father...."  Church became a place where I came to understand and believe the words, "See what love God has for us, that we might be called Children of God, and that is who we are." From stories I have heard from you all and spending the last 3.5 years with you all, many of you have Mary hearts as well. I see you deepening your faith, asking questions, growing in God’s love.

The problem I find is balancing the two. Think about what you did this week, take a moment to think about a snapshot of a day or week in your life. How do you prioritize what you do? What falls to the wayside if need be? The problem is that eventually, something has to give-unfortunately, for many of us, our spiritual life, our Mary life, (or intentional time spent in conversation with God) gets the boot.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was a Catholic priest, who started the Jesuit order, and was known for spiritual study and discipline, described what is known as disordered affections, “The things which become the focus of our desires and consequently our time on it, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.” Some of the disordered affections are easy to identify: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, compulsive behaviors. Then there are the less obvious, the seemingly harmless ones: TV, Internet, Exercise, Work, Compulsion to be Busy, or Perfectionism. Those are the ones that sneak up on us, and most of us have had challenges with our disordered affections. Some are more tangible than others, but all have a serious effect on how we relate to God, to others, and even to ourselves.

We as Christians yearn to sit at the feet of Jesus, to be present and enjoy his presence, but we also live to serve and do. In our scripture we see the the heart of life in Christ, the call to balance in harmony. Martha yearns for her sister to come help her serve their guests, but Mary is busy living in the present moment, simply being. Our scripture today illustrates that we must find our balance between our spiritual enrichment and duties with devotion. Is one to be favored over the other? The question we ask in this scripture is Jesus chastising Martha for her devotion?

I think the key for us here is what scripture surrounds our passage today. Before Martha and Mary we hear Jesus telling the law expert the story of the Good Samaritan, asking us to go and do likewise, by being aware and caring for those around us and following our story Jesus teaches us how to pray, with the Lord's Prayer. Maybe instead of one or the other, as disciples, we are called to live a life that is a balance of action and prayer. So when Jesus says to Martha, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things." it isn't out of chastisement, but out of concern and love, you can't focus your whole attention on serving and not being served yourself. The problem is the worry and the distraction that plague Martha, the very act of serving is necessary, but in our serving we get pulled or dragged in a different directions, our work suffers.

Neither shall you just sit and listen and not go and do. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which is a matter of spiritual discernment, if we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, which person to follow: Martha or Mary, his answer would probably be yes. Contemplation can lead to thoughtful and authentic action. We need both.

Brother Lawrence joined a monastery-expected to spend his days in prayer, worship and mediation. But instead, he got assigned to the kitchen to do the cooking and clean up-not his favorite task in the world. But after some time, he came to the revelation that he needed to attempt to “do everything [in the kitchen] for the love of God, and with prayer…(prayer) for his grace to do his work well.” Brother Lawrence ended up finding his service in the kitchen a joy and an avenue to a closer walk with God. He realized, “the time of business does not, with me, differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” His daily chores and tasks became his prayer, his routine became a moment in time to focus on God on the Holy.

The key is to take the work and the activities of our lives and allow them to be holy and spirit filled. It is the problem that Martha faces, even in the serving of her Lord and the guests, she is distracted and pulled away from what is going on in her midst. That is what Jesus is asking her to refocus on, not necessarily pulling her away from her work, but he is telling her to quit letting her work overcome her, possess her, and instead be allow it to be mindful.

Barbara Brown Taylor talked about re-ordering her daily work and allowing it to be part of her spirituality. She said, “Prayer, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something that I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in the Midst.” So although she needed to do laundry and hang the clothes up on the line to dry, she made that a prayerful act. For every piece of laundry she hung it became a prayer for her, so by the time all the laundry was up on the line, it was her own prayer flags, a representation of all that she was praying for and a reminder of God being in her midst. If we reorient our lives so that even our daily goings on are gifts and moments with God doesn’t our whole life become one conversation, one deepening relationship with God?

Brother Lawrence said, “Our Sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.” If we look at Mary and Martha in John, you see a portrait of two women at who have ordered their lives towards God, who have become more mindful of the presence of what is holy in their midst. Scripture says, "Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."

 These women are at rest with their savior. at rest with themselves. Martha still serves, but she does it with an attentive heart. rather than barricading herself in the kitchen, she serves in the living room within the presence of her lord. the busy servant has become an attentive student as Martha drinks in his every word. Mary may have started the evening sitting at the feet of Jesus but rather than passively listening, she gives all that she has. she breaks open her treasure, spilling it out for her Lord, becoming a servant of extravagant love through her deed. 

Some days, some weeks will be easier than others, but that is how it should be, like Paul says, though we haven't "already reached our goal, nor have already been made perfect," we are called to continually pursue it, "so that we may grab hold of it because Christ has grabbed hold of us." The Good News is that Christ when we choose to let go of our inner Martha's enough to look for God in our presence, we are able to be more like Mary. May we find more meaning in our lives, experiencing the relationship with the one who first served, first loved, and first taught us. So may we be empowered balance the two in harmony, living and serving The Lord in our daily lives. And may it be so. Amen. 

Action Required: Love Unconditionally

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

[Modern Parable-Samaritan] 

Jesus asked, Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is a parable we are all too familiar with. For many of us, we can retell the story in our own words fairly easily. Even in the secular word, Good Samaritan laws, Good Samaritan deeds, all harken back to the actions of the man in the story. With such a familiar story, the radicalism for the firs century listeners gets lost on us. We listen to the story and we choose to have an apathetic attitude towards it, we choose to live into the distorted reality that the story is not a call for us to truly acknowledge who our neighbor is. Instead of examining who we are to find compassion and mercy towards, we affirm the lawyer at the beginning of the story and question Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” or perhaps more aptly, “Who is not my neighbor, what limit or parameters can I put up on who I choose to acknowledge and serve.”

The problem is that more often than not, when we imagine this story being lived out, we would like to imagine ourselves as the Good Samaritan, we want to picture ourselves helping those who are in need. But truth be told, when push comes to shove, we don’t want to actually be the Samaritan because then we would have to address the question of who our neighbor is, and we really don't want the answer to who is my neighbors because it might be people we don't want. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “Man often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot community because they are separated.”

I like the modern interpretation of this parable, because I think it shows us how more often than not we more closely identify to the two who pass the man by, illustrating how our fear overcomes our desires to actually serving our neighbors. It is easier, to walk on the other side of the road, we pass judgment on each other, making assumptions, believing into stereotypes. When let fear, of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of doing something not what we are used to doing, when we refuse to acknowledge the presence of each other, when we chose to walk on the other side of the road, we end up passing judgment on each other, making assumptions, believing in stereotypes, and we fail to actually draw near to one another, to recognize the pain and hurt and need in our midst.

 We become the doctor in the car, assuming the hurt man is just a homeless drunk who maybe “deserves” being in his current state. We become the children and the youth worker who follow the lead of others, even if it goes against our desires to help. We become the security guard-staring down the Arab man while he waits to hear the news of the stranger’s health.

 It is is easier to exist safely behind our set boundaries away from the real needs, by rather choosing to be passive and not actively help. To make excuses as to why you aren’t capable of serving the neighbor who is yearning for your assistance, “I’m too tired, I’m already done that it is some one else’s turn, I’m got other things that are more important, someone else will do a better job than me.” We make our excuses that let our fears continue to separate us, and we forget to see one another as a Child of God, as someone who by that title, deserves our time and attention. When we choose to step outside our comfort zones, when we choose to cross the boundaries and the lines that we set up, it requires us to recognize “that every human face is the face of a neighbor.” And as our neighbor, we are called to support and care for their needs. Christ is calling us to not continue to build walls that separate us, that delineate an “us” or “them,” rather Christ is urging us to draw near to one another, to act a community bound together by our common vulnerability knowing that God has worked through so many people to care for us, and that God invites us to look around and care for our neighbors in need.

God expects us to not only care for our neighbor, but to see all peoples as our neighbor, not just the people who may look like us, talk like us, live near us, participate in the same activities as us, but those who are totally different from us. A neighbor is someone who clearly has needs, and you decide, I will come over and help you. This is not an easy job, it can be a risky job, because it puts us in a place outsize of our comfort zones, but if we are truly desire to live as disciples of the Gospel, it is the action that is required of us, to love, respect and care for those whom are not the same as us.

This parable is more than just about learning who our neighbor is, the parable starts with the lawyer asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What Jesus is sharing with the lawyer and with us, is that eternal life can be known to us in the here and now, when we are loving God and loving our neighbor, eternal life is near us, when our actions reflect the commands given, acknowledging our neighbors, serving our neighbors in need by means of love and compassion. We have a choice, we can choose to remain living as the doctor or the priest, or we can choose to be radical, and come near to the problems and help. The choice is yours. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

Binding Ourselves to God: Against Old Scratch

 

Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

 

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall about the devils. One is to believe in their existence. The other is believe, and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them. [The devils] themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist and a magician with the same delight. This is certainly true about Satan. Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork. On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.” CS Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, acknowledges the struggle that most of us have when it comes to talking about Satan, evil, dark forces, Lucifer, the devil or Old Scratch the old southern colloquialism I came across this week. In all honesty, even thinking about preaching on the topic of evil, Old Scratch, spiritual warfare, makes me pretty anxious. It’s not a light topic and one that I don’t know if I know what I believe. However, thanks to this sermon series, I couldn’t justifiably leave out an entire stanza and so we will wrestle with it together.

            The stanza begins by saying, I summon all these powers (the things that we bounded ourselves to in the previous weeks, the holy Trinity, Christ, the Cloud of Witnesses, all of Creation, God our provider) to protect us from evil. The evil that St. Patrick names aren’t necessarily the evils I would name today, but I recognize it can be difficult then to name what is evil, what Satan or Old Scratch is. In the Bible, the proper name, Satan comes from the Hebrew meaning adversary. Everyone and everything can and has acted at some point as “a satan” as an adversary, opponent, or accuser. So with that knowledge, we could then see satan, is more akin to a relationship than a person. Anything that is facing someone in an antagonistic or adversarial way, anything that is working against someone as an opponent or enemy is standing as an adversary or satan. In the Bible, Satan and the Devil are the personification for the Enemy of God, the thing working against God and God’s kingdom in the world.[i]

             And we can see things in our world that are adversarial to God and God’s kingdom, we can see innocent being blood poured on streets, we can see relationships broken due to addiction, we can see lies being proclaimed as truths, we can see the powers disease and illness hold over us, we can see the persistent cycle of poverty, the racism, the homophobia, the mass incarceration, the worshipping the idols of the world: power and greed, the thinking it’s all about us. There is evil in our world.

            So acknowledging then, that there is an adversary, the things working against God and against God’s kingdom in the world, we then have to figure our what we are to do, how we are live in this knowledge. Paul tells us, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” These pieces of armor are not just for one person, but rather they are for the collective whole, the community of believers standing up against the evil forces. The belt of truth fixes what is necessary in such a way that it leaves the church free and flexible, able to walk or run, loosed from what constrains or trips the wearer. The breastplate covers the core of the body. Righteousness protects the heart and lifeblood from evil. Shoes are for readiness to stand and speak peace. The shield is the faithful defense against arrows, against assaults from those who od not know the gospel is about peace.[ii] The helmet of salvation reminds us that the battle is already been fought and defeated, that death, evil forces have ultimately no power over us because Christ already won. We just are girding ourselves until Christ comes again in full glory.

In a world that is dominated by indifference, suffering and violence, we as the church, the body of Christ, urgently need the restorative justice, of the armor of God wherein the whole community is committed to naming evil for what it is and addressing and dealing with it by bringing together offender and victim, to look hard and openly at what happened and agree on a way forward. We need to engage in love and redemption. It has been said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We are called not just to understand the problem of evil, but also to be part of the solution to it. We are called to live between the cross and resurrection on the one hand and the new world on the other.

We are called to bring the two together in prayer, holiness and action within the present world. That is what it means to put on the armor of God, to acknowledge the existence of evil in our midst, to protect ourselves and to go forth and deal with it head on. The armor of God is designed to help folks stand fast, to empower believer to withstand the evils that surround and threaten them. When evil abounds, when we will find ourselves under attack, through the power and love of God, we will be able to stand our ground against all which threatens our relationship with God.

If we choose to protect ourselves with truth, with righteousness, with peace and faith, and then go forth in doing our part to be the solution to evil, we will be left standing, perhaps a little bloody, but unbowed before the lion that wanted to devour us. “God's justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place.”[iii] We wont necessarily see the glorious victory in our lifetime, but we can hold our ground now, until God’s justice is complete. What we are called to do as Christians to seek means of compassion when suffering is in our midst, to be the bearers of peace when conflict and warfare arise, to be voices of truth when lies are promoted. That is our call, to not take a passive stance, but to be active participants in spiritual warfare, acknowledging the evil in our world, and doing our part in bringing God’s justice. For us, it means that, “Spiritual warfare is putting love where there is no love. It is the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil, and being true to love in a world that is cold and lonely and mean. It is the kingdom of God breaking into and interrupting our lives. Spiritual warfare is maintaining a posture of resistance in the face of suffering and evil. What does that look like today? Spiritual warfare is the prayer vigils for teachers, for law enforcement, for all lives, for blood unnecessarily spilled, for governmental leaders. Spiritual warfare is providing a well balance and warm meal to hungry patrons on a Wednesday night. Spiritual warfare is seeking help when the demons of mental illness overpower daily life. Spiritual warfare breaking the power that addiction to drugs and alcohol hold over us. Spiritual Warfare is standing up against the hatred of others towards those who are oppressed. Spiritual warfare is prayer, holiness, singing and discerning the spirits in worship together.  Spiritual warfare is (You fill in the Blank). Spiritual warfare is this and and a million other things, it is Old Scratch interrupted. It is the kingdom of God’s divine justice. So may we be ever so brave enough to put on our armor, and face Old Scratch together, knowing that we have the power and love God behind us. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

[i] Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch, 8.

[ii] Melinda Quivik, Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20, www.workingpreacher.org

[iii] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of Go

Binding Ourselves to God: Holy Comforter

 

Psalm 86 (NRSV)

1 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
4 Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
6 Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my cry of supplication.
7 In the day of my trouble I call on you,
    for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like yours.
9 All the nations you have made shall come
    and bow down before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
10 For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your steadfast love toward me;
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me;
    a band of ruffians seeks my life,
    and they do not set you before them.
15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me;
    give your strength to your servant;
    save the child of your serving girl.
17 Show me a sign of your favor,
    so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

 

 

One summer in Seminary, I spent working in a hospital as a chaplain. As I was learning more about the work and life of Hospital Chaplains, I had various duties apart from visiting patients, including attending discharge rounds, building relationships with the staff, responding to emergency calls, and filling out the accompanying paperwork of all of those visits. Most of the time I would only end up seeing a patient once, maybe twice in their visit due to the nature of short stays in the hospital, but early on in the summer, a woman, came in and and ended up staying in the hospital for more than 6 weeks. She had an aggressive form of cancer and with that many complications that kept preventing her from doctors ever fully being confident to discharging her. After my initial visit with her, I recognized that this woman, dealt with some challenges with maintaining hope and faith in her dire situation. I visited her often as I could, not because I could fix any of her pain, but because I felt this draw that she needed some familiar face among the sea of nurses and doctors, someone who could acknowledge that she was in a lot of physical and emotional pain and her current state sucked, for lack of better word. What she needed someone she could lament to.

Laments are powerful tools, a place in which to air our grievances, expressing sorrow, and the state in which we are in. Whether it is a seemingly insignificant lament that our bodies aren’t what they used to be, and it takes two times as longer to get up and going in the morning as it did in years past, to deep grief over why is this person gone from my life and how will I be able to move forward, lament is an important form of personal expression for people. Which, to me is why the book of Psalms includes many different laments. The basic intention of the lament in the psalms and other biblical writings are to rehabilitate those who are suffering. I read recently that a lament was not merely an opportunity to have a good cry and to “let it all hang out,” but rather lament was to be associated with prayer and deep inner soul-searching reflection.

Our psalm is a wonderful lament that shows the present state of the author and the deep reflection on God’s presence in their midst. The Psalmist writes of a time in which they are in in the midst of hurt, alienation, suffering and loss. We hear the cries echoed throughout the psalm: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy... Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication…O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life.” And given their present state, the Psalmist is confused, bewildered and crying out for some help or relief, “Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant…Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you… Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame.” Though we don’t know what the psalmist’s enemy is, or what is causing the turmoil, we too can relate to their cries, for the endless events that cause us to grieve: the loss of a job, end of a romantic relationship, death of a loved one, our own sickness, an act of injustice or violence. These and many more can be considered the insolent and ruffians who seek our life, who cause us pain and undo suffering.

But just like the Psalmist, we too can call upon our faith in God to help us in our times of trouble. What I love about this psalm is how you can feel the Psalmist working through their mind their current condition, the faith that they carry within, and the desperate need for God to really be present for them. That is the value of this lament and other lament psalms, they free us to make bold expressions of grief before God and in the presence of others. They force us to acknowledge the intense emotions, and sometimes actually naming those emotions that we can’t really name. To me this psalm boils down to “Incline your ear God, listen to me. I remember you helping me out a time or two before, and it is pretty amazing how awesome you are, but right now I need you again. I’m really glad that you are my God, I love you for it, but I’m on the struggle bus and could use some help getting off.” The psalm gives voice to the pain that usually we force ourselves to contain.

Most importantly, the laments in the psalms allow us to rely on God and the community to carry forth hope on our behalf when we ourselves have no hope in us. James instructs, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:13-15a). As the Body of Christ, when one of us is hurting, we rest in the knowledge, that we do not have to suffer alone, rather the church and those closest to us can help beard the burdens with them. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so this love that we are called to give to is the gift of compassion. We are most compassionate when we are present to one another, we “have the opportunity to not only remind our hurting brothers and sisters the truths of God but also to love them, walk beside them, and encourage them.”[i] 

One of my favorite authors, Andrew Purves defines presence in his book, The Search for Compassion:  “To be present for another is to be available for him or her. It is to relate to one another with all of one’s attention and energy. And it is to invite that other into relationship with oneself. Presence allows another to stake a claim on one’s personal and private space. It is to be open to being changed by another.”[ii] 

When we imitate Christ, and allow ourselves to present, to connect to, to attend to the needs and feelings of others and ourselves, we embody Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. For those who are in pain, it may be difficult to put words together to pray so paying for and with people can provide some much needed care. In worship today, we will have the opportunity to pray, for our own selves, on behalf of those we love, and on behalf of those who we don’t even know. We will lift our hearts together to God and fill our worship space full of love and adoration to the Creator.

As Christians, we carry the hope through the knowledge that God is for us, with us, and guarding us each and every day, we are able to revel in the hope, that there will be a time where we will no longer suffer. The challenge is to find ways in which to experience and remind ourselves of the truth that nothing separates us from God’s love even in the midst of pain.

The One who surrounds us, who gives his ear to hear, and eye to see, words to speak, hands to guard, who is our shield and protector. It is important to remember, that “God works slowly, and he often accomplishes his purposes in life’s little events…our faithfulness cannot always was be realized through programs of epic proportions.”[iii] Sometimes, the greatest gift we can give to those who are suffering, is to sit alongside them on the mourning bench, to hold their faith when their faith feels lost, to listen to their story, and to love unconditionally. Though we will all have moments when we suffer and in pain, there is sweet comfort knowing, that as Christians, we have the gift to hold one another’s hands, walking together with one another through the journey of dark pain into the light of new life, an amazing gift of grace. Glory be to our Divine Physician and Comforter, Amen.

           

 

 

[i] Matthew Sanford, Grace for the Afflicted, 89.

[ii] Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion, 38. 

[iii][iii] Stewart, Govig, Souls are Made for Endurance, 74. 

Binding Ourselves to God: Creation

 

 

Psalm 104 (NRSV)

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2     wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3     you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
    fire and flame your ministers.

5 You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
    they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
    the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
    the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15     and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
    and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
    the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
    the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
    the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
    when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
    seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
    and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
    and to their labor until the evening.

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
    and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

 

 

I love the summertime. I don’t really love the heat of summer, but I love what summer provides. An abundance of food: from gardens, and farm stands and markets, days spent out by the water, flowers bursting with colors, lazy evenings spent out on the porch. Summer, to me, is the time in which we can revel in creation, all that God has to offer. This past week, I’ve enjoyed home grown (not by me) cantaloupes, peppers, tomatoes, and abundance of herbs. We’ve stopped at the local farm markets to pick up freshly grown corn, eggplants, and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. Although I’m not the gardeners, there are some of yall who have posted flowers, plants and bushes that are growing in your backyards. In the evenings I’ve seen bunnies hopping, hummingbirds fluttering, and the cacophony of the crickets singing their song.  And whenever I get a free day, I make sure I can get myself to a body of water, it doesn’t matter if it’s the river or the ocean, I just need the water in-between my toes and the sun on my skin (within reason of course!).

            Summertime is the time to relish in God creation.

            And our psalm for today is a psalm that helps us celebrate of God for the creation that we have been given. It is a psalm which, as a whole, surveys God’s works among creation: the heavens, the clouds, the winds the water the mountains, the valleys, springs, the hills, wild animals, birds, plants, rocks, moon, and sun. It reminds us how God is really creator of all, harkening back to the very beginning in our Genesis creation stories. Our psalm is reminding us that we are created to rejoice in God’s works, just as God rejoices in God’s works because God likes to have a good time. Author, Annie Dillard says, “The Lord loves pizazz!” And creation is an example of the pizazz that God enjoys, all of the clacking buzzing, whistling, howling, shouting, laughing, weeping cacophony of creation. And as creatures living in the midst of creation, we too are to love and adore it. How can you not see or experience nature without experiencing God?!?

            The problem is that we don’t always value creation in the way that our psalmist leads us to. Through human error, we cause oil spills and forest fires, bringing damage and chaos to not only humans, but to the plants and animals in their natural habitats. We over-source trees in the rainforests causing deforestation, and attempt to maintain high volume farming to keep up with demands of low cost foods. The way in which we use our natural resources at present won’t allow for sustainable agriculture and nature as it is presently for the future. We don’t always acknowledge that all living things, including our very selves, are receiving life, breath and sustenance from the hand of the Creator, and if that providing hand were to ever be closed, no creature could survive.

The Psalm says, “These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” We tend to forget that we are completely and utterly dependent on on God. Just think, we breathe about once every five seconds, our hearts beat about 80 times a minute, our lungs fill and our bodies go on existing. We think of these as natural processes, but our Psalmist reminds us that even the very breath of our life is a divine gift. Our existence and the ongoing existence of the world are grounded in God’s commitment to and enjoyment of life.

            I read this week that, “Food is a gift of love. As with all of creation, food does not have to be. The fact that it is, and that it has the potential to occasion great delight, is a sign that God made the world not out of boredom but out of joy…To receive food is a gift and declaration of God’s love and we are called to take it as such.”[i] If we view every bite of food we eat and every breath we take as a gift, we then can begin to look at the world with a perspective of gratitude and humility. In Genesis, the dust people, Adam and Eve, were instructed to “serve and preserve” the world, and our enjoyment includes this command. When we look at creation, we not only want to say “wow, thanks God” but we also are commanded to do work in order to ensure that our creation continues to be a joy and blessing to all. Part of Christian duty, is to live within our means-whether as a family or a species. Maybe it looks like neighbors helping to rebuild homes after forest fires or planting trees on mountains to prevent mudslides for a community. Maybe it looks like finding and implementing ways in which we rely less on fossil fuels and finds ways to create sustainable energy. Or choosing to support seasonal and sustainable farming practices. Maybe it means we do our part to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste. Our Christian responsibility is to make small steps of hope and progress as we inch toward the completion of creation. It doesn’t mean we will always make the right decisions, we will and do take advantage of creation.

We know we fall short, but we are given redemption through Christ. Through Christ, we are called to persist in perfecting creation. This morning we will partake in communion. Though we know that communion is our sacrament in which we remember the saving death of our savior, but it is also a reminder of our creator. It is by love, which we are bound together, called to live for and with each other. This was what Christ came into the world to do, create a community that lived to support and lift up one another, and choose to go against living for ourselves. And it is that sharing and fellowship that take place in the breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup. In that act, we are allowing ourselves to be transformed from within by Christ’s word and through regular participation in the meal, we as Christians learn what it is to be present to and responsible for each other.[ii]

Just as the psalm says, “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.” The bread and the cup, remind us of the necessities that God gives not only for us but for all living creatures. Food is a holy mystery, when we come to the table we are reminded we are not self-subsisting gods, rather we are dependent upon our Creator for nourishment-both the physical and the spiritual. Eating reminds us that we participate in a grace-saturated world, a blessed creation worthy of attention, care and celebration. And our psalm reminds us that we are to celebrate all that God has provided for us, the earth, provisions and most importantly eternal love. So this week, to take time to relish in what God has provided for you, every breath that you take in, each morsel of food you eat, the sounds of waters lapping on the river, the crickets chirping, bees buzzing, the colorful flowers which bloom, even the slugs who may eat your tomatoes or the mosquitos who may bite you. Remember each and every living thing is a gift of God’s creation. Bless the Lord, O my Soul. Praise the Lord!  Amen.

 

[i] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 11.

[ii] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 153.

 

Binding Ourselves to God: The Cloud of Witnesses

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (NRSV)

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

Today our scripture is about faith. Now faith, when you ask people to define it, it can be difficult to put into words. We often compartmentalize or reduce faith to pat definition simply because it is hard to define. Our author of Hebrews even gives his own definition at the beginning of Chapter 11. He says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, it is an indefinable feeling, understanding, inclination of the deepest part of our being, that allows God to be God and trusting in that God rather than ourselves. Having faith though, in a day and age where it is more common to be categorized as a “non” or a person with “no faith,” where we look at the state of the country, the world, we see the suffering and pain among the people and we wonder is faith enough? How do we continue to live in faith within the midst of a struggling and often discouraging world? It makes it challenging when we claim to have faith in the One who died and rose again.

            However, our story is no different than those who came before us.  We aren’t the first generations of Christians living in a discouraging world; the early Christians also faced these challenges, including the people this letter was written to. The help provided to God’s people was the assurance knowing they are not alone, while living in the midst of a discouraging world. We follow the footsteps of many bold and confident Christians who maintained faith in the midst of peril.  Hebrews is a sermon written for a generation of people struggling with their faith, and the entire 11th chapter provides us the list of people who maintained faith in God, even standing up for their faith when the culture attempted to assuage them. People like, Abel and Enoch, Noah and Moses, Abraham and Sarah, Gideon and Samson, David and Samuel.  Scripture says that these and many more people, who through their faith, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises…won the strength out of weakness, and became mighty in war.” The preacher of Hebrews is illustrating that we are part of a larger story, with heroes and heroines who have bravely kept their faith throughout all of life’s circumstances. They persevered in the face of difficulty. They testify to God’s faithfulness to his people.

            If we look to the many people of God who came before us; faith then, is best defined through the characteristics of a life in relationship with God. Faith requires courage, taking action in the face of overwhelming circumstances that often contradicts reason. Faith is the assurance that God is present and doesn’t abandon us in times of trouble. Faith requires us to trust the God who stay true to our ancestors and will stay true to us. Faith is the courage to trust in God’s promises and to step out and act on our convictions.

            Faith then is not merely, a course of study or an intriguing intellectual pursuit. Rather, faith is nothing less than the passionate, consuming experience of God. Faith is not a set of beliefs or even a lifestyle but breath and pulse and life itself.[i] With faith we hold the courage to believe our world can be different, things can change. With faith we know that there can be a cure for a disease, that there can be a more just world, that a life or lives can be changed-even when there seems to be little hope. With faith we are called to discover new lands-sometimes land within our own city, we are called to stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed, to make a difference in the lives of those closest to us, to set a precedent for how people engage God in their everyday life.

Faith requires us to use our imaginations, in setting a new standard of identity in Christ and to prepare the path for those who will follow behind us. The courage of faith moves us out into the unknown, move us in to the future with God, knowing the future is God’s. Faith holds fast to the promises of God even though we may not see the fruits of those promises in our future. And we can believe in those promises by looking to our past, the witnesses before us whose promises were eventually fulfilled by God. Just has Abraham and Sarah did not see or live in the promise land, we cannot know and will not always see the fruits of our faithful action and convictions, yet we hold on because we know that we are part of God’s story-the larger story that reaches back to Abraham and those who trusted the promises.  

Our stanza of the breastplate reminds us of all the people in the past who surround us in our journey of faith, who walk beside us as we struggle to make our mark in our world. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Saints who strive to serve as witnesses of faith. Theologian Karl Barth tells us that the Church is the communion of saints. Barth says that the word Saint isn’t supposed to mean exceptionally fine people, but saints are ordinary Joes, like you and me, who seem not so “saintly” most of the time. But these ordinary Joes set apart, with holy gifts and works to serve God. Abraham and Sara, Gideon and Samson, David and Samuel are saints of ages past. Ordinary Joes, like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorthy Day, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Saints who give tirelessly to bring understanding and hope to community relations, saints who advocate safe lodging and full lives for adults with developmental issues. Saints who work to provide education for all children and youth. Saints who tend to those most vulnerable in our communities. Saints who quietly go about helping others. There are many saints among us, joining the great cloud of witnesses of ages past.  These ordinary Joes are chosen ones called out to special lives and to live as God’s beloved children and to trust God in the future, rather relying on the past.

The author of our scripture reminds us that Jesus endured the cross and endured suffering, “for the joy that was set before him.” So we as Christians, are also to have to trust and maintain optimism about what is to come. As Christ looked to heaven in his death, we look to Christ. We are called to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.”  Our Scripture challenges us to endure the trials and tribulations of our world, to change structures and from within, and to look to Jesus as our pioneer and model of radical action and trust in God.

To live in Christian hope is to live in the expectation that by God’s grace things can change, disease and death, do not have the last word about human destiny, peace is possible, reconciliation between enemies can occur, and we are all called to pray and work towards these ends.”[ii] Fredrick Buechner says, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again, rather than once-and for-all. Faith this not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.”[iii]  I was told this week by someone that no matter what is happening in life, even when one’s faith is floundering, it is better to have faith than to be without.

Faith may then, be our enduring heartbeat throughout our great race.  All glory and honor be to the One who is our pioneer and perfector of our faith. Amen.

 

[i] Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks

[ii] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 162.

[iii] Fredrick Buechner, Beyond Words:Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, 108. 

Binding Ourselves to God: Christ

 

Philippians 2:1-18 (NRSV)

2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— 18 and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

 

 

I have to confess, sometimes I can be little self-centered. Growing up as an only child at home, my ideas, my desires, my visions mattered. If I wanted to watch my favorite program, I could (as long as my mother wasn’t watching something else). I didn’t have to fight with a sibling to choose where we would go out to eat after church. My bedroom and bathroom was my space. As an adult, living alone, largely the same principles persist. Whenever I want to go to bed, I do. If I want to leave the bathroom messy, or not put away the clean clothes, there is no one to stop me. If I want to eat popcorn for dinner in my pajamas and watch really terrible reality TV shows, I do. On my day off, if I want to take off and go out of town, I don’t have anyone to be accountable to. Now, I will admit, being in a relationship has forced me to soften some of those narcissistic tendencies. Most days, I eat dinner with Dave and together we come up with a plan for what to eat (though sometimes I think my ideas are better than his). Usually on our days off we decide together, if we need to do errands or work at our homes or if we want to head off on an adventure together. However, it isn’t always perfect, there are still days when one of us has our own vision or desire and the other has to compromise. Even on our best days, all of us, whether we have people whom we live with or spend much of our free time with, we still tend to be focused on ourselves, our needs, our desires. We live in a world where we live focusing on the self: self-promotion, self-preservation, self-importance, selfishness. We as a culture have become extremely self-involved.  We even have new phraseology for taking pictures of our own self- the selfie. Yet our scripture calls us to question our self-involved selves.

In our scripture today, Paul is writing to the people in Philippi, a church who, like many early Christians, are trying to live a life based off of the teachings of Jesus Christ. But it’s not always easy living the life of faith. Being a Christian requires radical sacrifice and faithful commitment. Often times, we feel as if we don’t live up to the task, as if we just live in the dark shadows of our selfish world. The church in Philippi is a new church, and Paul chooses to nurture them, by teaching their purposes and meanings and daily living, based on the life and work of Christ through words and music. And like churches today use hymns in worship, Paul reminds them of the verses of a familiar hymn to remind them about Christ’s life. Telling the story of Jesus through the words of song. The song of Christ is divided into two sections: the work and actions of Christ, and the work and actions of God. The opening verses tell of Christ’s life, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Christ, by his own choice, came down to the dark and twisted conditions and the powers succumbing humanity, to become a servant to God, obedient even to death. The three verbs that Paul uses to describe the heart of Jesus are emptied, humbled, and obeyed. Those three words, aren’t self-centered words, rather they are self-giving words. Jesus emptied: not in the sense of a loss of self but in the sense of pouring out his grace and goodness to creatures in need. Jesus humbled: not in a condescending way but by willingly entering into solidarity with those of low estate, bridging the great gulf between God and creatures, God and sinners. And Jesus obeyed: not in the sense of his involuntarily bending to a higher coercive force but freely consenting to the will of God for the benefit of others.[i]

If we are to bind ourselves to Christ, we too are to forgo our self-centered tendencies and to be selfless: to be emptied, to be humbled, and to obey. When we empty ourselves, we willingly put others before our own desires. We choose to say yes, when asked to volunteer, despite our own reservations on our perceived ability. We set aside our differences and acknowledge that there are things we do because it serves a greater good, even if it is not our preference.

When we humble ourselves, we acknowledge that we are not always right, we don’t always have the answers but we seek find the base commonality: that we are all children of God. When we humble ourselves, we put others needs above our own needs. When we listen and value others, especially when they are not normally valued. When we treat all people with respect.  When we recognize that we don’t always have to be right, and let someone else be right for a change.

When we obey we live our lives knowing that the authority that we ultimately are accountable to is Jesus Christ. We can’t live subject solely to what we want, how we want to live, and who we choose to interact with, we are accountable to someone greater, who challenges us to be better citizens of this world in his name. We are challenged every day, to hate different groups of people, yet it was Christ who commanded us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

 Scripture says, “God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Christ’s death and resurrection was not in vain, rather it is was the ultimate act of service that led God to triumph over all powers that bonded humanity to the world, setting us free, all for the sake of love. The central event in the story of Christ’s emptying, humbling, and obeying God for our salvation begins and ends with love.

That’s the Good News of the gospel, God came down to us, descending down into the world filled with self-centered individuals. People who only cared about their own needs and not the needs others. God came down to in earth in Jesus Christ to make life here on earth to save us from present existence; to set us free to live in this world the selfless way Jesus lived. God came down to save us from violence by showing us the way of peace. To save us from sin, by showing us the way to forgiveness. To save us from sorrow by showing us the way of joy. To save us from our addiction to narrow self-interest, by showing us the way of self-giving love. God came down in Jesus Christ to save us from death by showing us the way to life.[ii] The way of Christ is a life lived not to ourselves, but a life in-Christ, in community, being cognizant of the needs of others not just our own needs.

When we bind ourselves to Christ, we seek to embody all that Christ embodies, love for one another. But we don’t have to work on being selfless people alone, Julian of Norwich says, “But this is our comfort: that we know our faith that by the power of Christ who is our protector…he wants us to trust, that he is constantly with us in three ways. He is with in us in heaven, true man in his own person, drawing us up. He is with us on earth, leading us. And he is with us in our soul, endlessly dwelling, ruling and guarding.” That is the Good News, that seeking to be like Christ, living a life of love, we aren’t by ourselves, Christ is with us, supporting us, encouraging us, and leading us in the path. So today, instead of being self-seeking, instead of thinking about your own desires, think about another person today. Whether it be a friend or spouse, or a neighbor, or a stranger you may never see again, see to their needs and not your own. Share the bounty of your garden with a friend, give a larger tip to your server, hold the door for another person, call someone up just to see how they are doing. You may find that caring for the needs of others might just be better than thinking only about your selfie.

 

[i] Daniel Migliore, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible-Philippians and Philemon, 85.

[ii] James Harnish, When God Comes Down, 44. 

Binding Ourselves to God: The Trinity

Revelation 21:1-6 (NRSV)

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

In Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock is one of the most holy sites while also being the one that is most contentious. It is a place where as tourists, if there is no fighting going on, to enter, you must go through multiple checkpoints. The site is of religious significance for all three Abrahamic faiths: Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. For Christians and Jews, it is the place thought where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac, and then the place where Solomon’s temple was erected, and then destroyed. For Muslims, it is the 3rd holiest place in the world, the Dome of the Rock, the place believed where Muhammad ascended to heaven. While Jews, do not go to the top of the mount, but merely pray at its base, Christians and Muslims go to the top of the mount. While standing on the grounds, below was sea of devoted Jews, praying against the wall, and on the grounds, Muslims reading the Koran and praying prayers. When I visited, our storyteller spoke to us the words from Revelation, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” While standing up on the Temple Mount, I felt a sense of awe and wonder, although we were surrounded by police presence, it was amazing to me to see different bodies coexist and worship in from their own context. For a very brief moment, up on the mount, I felt a sense of peace, (in the midst of what is a turbulent place) a glimpse into perhaps what the new heaven and new earth John envisioned.

I love that John uses the image of the city, because a city is a place where you most visibly recognize people living together in dependence upon one another. A city works best when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare and wellbeing. When people choose to set aside their differences and look to help the needs of the community. A city can be a good thing. Yet at its worst, it is the place in which divisions are pervasive, where self-interest prohibits growth and development for the greater good. That is the challenge in our world today, we know all too well the reality of tears, pain, sadness, darkness, suffering, and death. We know all too well, often times we experience relationships growing cold, sour, and end; hurt and disappointment come from those we love; life seems to be unjust and senseless; decisions are not readily evident as we would hope, and despite our best efforts, discouragement accompanies our noblest intentions. We yearn for this new heaven and new earth to be created, for us to live in. We ache for justice and mercy to shower the people of the earth and the spring of life to nourish us once more.

The first stanza of the St. Patrick’s breastplate recognizes the power of God, through the Trinity. Through the acts of the creator, the saving grace of the Son, and the empowerment of advocator, the Holy Spirit. The holy Trinity is the foundation in which to see the equitable, relational connection we are to have with one another. “By virtue of their eternal love they [the Trinity] live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one.”[i] Just as the Trinity is one, working together through individual means, we too are called to embrace the unique attributes given to each and every one of us by God and choose to be the agents of hope to the world.

We are called, like the people listening to John of Patmos’ vision, is to desire to be part of the new heaven and the new earth, a future filled with life, hope and peace. In this new heaven and new earth, all of the pain of humanity (crying, mourning, death, terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, disease, and all of daily human brokenness) will be no more. This new heaven and new earth is only a divine world and it is a vision in which the God’s Dream is made manifest by those who are love by God and those who have faith in God. As Christians we are called to partner with God in ways that will allow the power of the Trinity be experienced in this world. It is world that is not an eternal world, but must be realized in human history, a place where skin color, occupation, zip code, sexuality, political preference, or age does not divide people but that all God’s people have access to every area, including access to health care, education, transportation, jobs, housing, worship, and most importantly, an authentic life. It was sais, that “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”[ii] God is calling on humanity to be involved in making God’s new heaven and new earth, be realized in this world.

The Trinity is our sign of hope, reminding us the new creation that is being redeemed and will be redeemed. God will ultimately replace the broken and divided city, with a brand new one, a place where peace and harmony will resound, where there is no need for divisions or fear of the other, but rather mutual honesty, respect and trust. For me that brief moment up on the temple mount was my reminder of God’s vision. It is isn’t perfect yet, we still have days where we forget how to be a city, a culture, a world filled with unique people, but choosing to live as united. The question remains what are you doing to make the kingdom new here and now? Every time a house is built-one more family doesn’t haven’t live in their cars: the kingdom is being made new. Every time we serve a meal, one more belly is nourished for the night: the kingdom is being made new. Every time a shawl is made, a broken heart is reminded of love and compassion: the kingdom is being made new. Every time books, or supplies are given to the school, children are given more opportunities to learn and discover the world around them: the kingdom is being made new. Every time shoes are made from leftover scraps, a child can walk in their village without fear of contracting parasites in their feet: the kingdom is being made new. Every time we support the arts, we are honoring imagination and cultivating creative action and change: the kingdom is being made new. Every time we remind people of God’s love and presence and choose love over hate: the kingdom is being made new. We can choose to bring the kingdom of God in our midst, by our actions, by our support, and by our love for all of God’s people. The Good News is that God wins in the end, and as Christians we are to trust in God who will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new through us. Amen.

 

[i] Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p.175.

[ii] Barak Obama. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/barackobam409128.html?src=t_change

 

Choosing Love

2 Corinthians 5:6-20 (The Message)

6-8 That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming.

9-10 But neither exile nor homecoming is the main thing. Cheerfully pleasing God is the main thing, and that’s what we aim to do, regardless of our conditions. Sooner or later we’ll all have to face God, regardless of our conditions. We will appear before Christ and take what’s coming to us as a result of our actions, either good or bad.

11-14 That keeps us vigilant, you can be sure. It’s no light thing to know that we’ll all one day stand in that place of Judgment. That’s why we work urgently with everyone we meet to get them ready to face God. God alone knows how well we do this, but I hope you realize how much and deeply we care. We’re not saying this to make ourselves look good to you. We just thought it would make you feel good, proud even, that we’re on your side and not just nice to your face as so many people are. If I acted crazy, I did it for God; if I acted overly serious, I did it for you. Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do.

14-15 Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.

16-20 Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.

It is amazing how connected of a world we are these days. In today’s society, without going up to a person to ask their opinion on a matter, all we have to do is scan Facebook and can read what is happening not only with our friends and family, (or the people we know tangentially in our lives), but also with the scroll of FB we can know everyone’s current opinion on what is happening in the world. We no longer have to rely on watching the news or subscribing to the papers to find out what is happening locally or globally, we can receive a digest of what is going on in the world with a click of a button. Some days, it’s overwhelming. For those of us who naturally tend to be feelers, those who live with our internal gut dictating our reactions to life, hearing the sadness, the anger, the bewilderment, the outrage, the sorrow, the hurt, the overall pain in people can be overwhelming. To some degree, everyone of us are feelers, some more than others. I tend to be the later. So usually when I take vacation time, I like to disconnect from all of the things that connect me to others. I need a moment to recharge my own internal self, my own internal feelings, and bring equilibrium back to me. So I turn on my auto-reply on my email, and I don’t read the daily new digests, and if I get on Facebook, I only scan to look at the cute pictures of animals, landscapes and happy people. I try to live in the moment, enjoy the blessings of my life and be present with those around me.

            However, the past few weeks, I have had a difficult time not being connected to everyone else. In brief scans on Facebook, I ended up seeing, the endings of relationships that they once thought would be forever, the distress of bad jobs and the difficult decision to leave positions. I have seen people injured, and ill and in hospital. And more horrifically, the deaths of many innocent people, while they worship, they celebrate, they protect, they drive, they go about living their lives in their moment. And I’ve seen countless people crying out in agony, asking (or even pointing out) who is to blame and when will this turmoil end?  My heart hurts, deeply. My heart hurts because it is not difficult to see the amount of pain and suffering in those who are close to us, those whom we know, and those whom we have never met but hear about.

            When I picked the two hymns for this week, and I chose the scripture, I had a different picture in my mind of what I would preach on, but after this week, and this past month, and with a little prayer and help from the Holy Spirit, today, I am speaking from my heart, my heart that is aching and longing to sing with truth, “It is well in my soul.” However, those are words that don’t come so readily and flow so feelingly as they often do. The words that come to my mouth from my heart this week, sing “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” The Psalm is the words I sing not for me, but for all people, for the names plastered in the news, for their loved ones grieving, for the towns and countries riddled with fear and sorrow, for the nameless who suffer in silence, for those who work daily to keep a brave face yet can’t help but cry when no one is looking. How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever?

            However, we may seek some comfort in our text for today. It reminds us that God does not forget us, God is with us in the midst of our sufferings, God is our protector and provider. And that when life is plaguing us, causing us more emotions than we know what to do with, when fear drives our communities and culture, we have hope and ways of coping, finding love and peace.                        

            What brings peace in Paul’s soul in the midst of his sorrow, in the midst of his unjust imprisonment and dealing with a system that is oppressing him for what he believes, is the love of Christ. Paul chooses not to live in fear, to not give into the the evil forces that surround him, but rather speak with truth and most importantly, with love. Paul chooses to walk by faith in Christ, and not by the sight, the life around him influencing him. Paul recognizes that fear makes us do what another demands, but never affects conduct in the same basic way that loves does. Those who understand love, and are loved, will love those who love them and those who do not. Love is often thought as powerless, but if love is to control all things (like Christ commands us), it does have power, it does contain strength. Love has a power of its own which is not measurable, but it enables martyrs to endure, widows to go on after their loved one’s death, people to stand up for those who cannot speak, humans to forgive those who have wronged them. Paul reminds us that Christ’s love urges us on. The interpretation from the Message says, “Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do. Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look…Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other.”

In the past few weeks, I have overheard many conversations about fear, about protecting ourselves and our rights. But I also found a wonderful quote from the late, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, he said, “Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom.... Only love can create intimacy, and freedom too, for when all hearts are one, nothing else has to be one--neither clothes nor age; neither sex nor sexual preference; race nor mind-set.” When all hearts are one, nothing else has to be one. The act of God, God’s own love for all of God’s people has changed everything for all times, and God’s act has changed us. We are no longer the same. We can’t ignore the pain and suffering of others, we no longer can set up self-imposed barriers to self-select for privilege, to build up dividing walls of hostility, we no longer let fear drive our actions. That sin-sick soul attitude will only crush us, will only perpetuate hate, will only spread violence, will only ruin our relationships with “the other.” There is a balm, that heals the sin-sick soul and that balm in the love of Christ. That love is what we are called to have hope in, to believe in, to live out, not only to those whom we love, but those whom we hate, those who have wronged us, wronged our neighbor, those whom we don’t understand their life choices, those whom we haven’t forgiven, those who don’t know Christ, those whom we don’t even know. For us, faith is “being grasped by the power of love.” If we really listen to our text today, we must pause.

We must take a moment to realize that no one is beyond the circle of Jesus’ love. If we are in Christ, part of his family, we must treat all others as valued fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and seek to love one another. We can no longer regard them from a human point of view. We must be consistently gracious, merciful, and forgiving. We must strive to recognize that God’s love supersedes whatever evil, sorrow, injustice, or pain may afflict in our lives or the lives of others. As believers in Christ, together, as one body, we are called to be the love that God has given to us, freely. How do we have peace within our souls? When we choose love over hate, when we choose love over fear, when we choose love over sorrow, when we choose love over anger, when we choose love over ignorance, when we choose love over obstinance, when we choose love over hurt.  When we choose above all else, love, it will be well within our souls. 

Here I am Lord, So Now What?

Isaiah 6 (NRSV)

6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

In the summer after graduating from college, part of my job responsibility for working with the youth at First Presbyterian Church, Waco, Tx was to be one of the sponsors for their summer camps. It was the final conference I would take with these kids, whom I had grown to love and care for, before I left the states and headed to my year of mission work in Northern Ireland. The summer was filled with many emotions as I said goodbye to many friends, colleagues and a town which felt like home, while beginning to anticipate what would come of my next year. The theme for one of the conferences that summer was Lost and Found. One afternoon, while the youth were taking their required rest break during the heat of the afternoon, I sat on a bench with my mentor, Dave, to talk about my upcoming plans and future. It was on that bench, sitting in one of the few shady spots, in the quiet of a very boisterous day, where Dave said, “I think that you need to go to seminary after you finish your YAV year.” It was comment that struck me deep, a notion I had never considered and something I never felt worthy to consider. “Why me? I’m not a good enough Christian, I skip church when I feel like it, I’m a judgy person, I’m don’t have strong enough faith, I haven’t studied the Bible enough, I’m not a great speaker, I just finished this degree to teach math to middle schoolers, that’s where my passion lies!”…more excuses of why I shouldn’t be in ministry seemed to spew from my mouth than reasons to go seminary. But with an understanding nod, and a reassuring voice, Dave said to me, “You may not see it or feel it now, but God is calling you in this direction, you are meant to be serving God in ministry.” As I sat there and cried, for fear of the unknown, fear of unworthiness, fear of what it would mean to accept a call so foreign, I couldn’t help but wonder, was this what God is really calling me to do?

That year, the keynote speaker for the conference was a young woman who had been part of the same mission program and I including living in Northern Ireland. After her mission year, she too went on to seminary and was a minister. It was if God knew I needed to have a reassuring voice and companion help ease my anxiety about the unknown.  It was if God was saying to me, “Look at my servant Whitney, I carried her and equipped her, you can do this too, Elizabeth, you have gifts and skills to serve my church, I will equip you, I will not let you fail!”

Flash forward a few months to living in Northern Ireland, I began to see more broadly what it meant to be an educator. I began designing church curriculum for the church I was serving in, I taught lessons with their women’s, youth and young adults group and I began to take part in worship leadership. Some of my anxieties about what ministry began to dissipate as I saw my gifts and strengths being used in a way I had never imagined. And so I applied for seminary and stepped onto the Princeton campus, with the the words from Isaiah ringing in my ears, Here I am Lord, so now what.

One of the books that has helped form my understanding of vocation is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In his book he states our journey in finding vocation is a path of both light and dark, places in our lives that we can see clearly what to do next and then areas of uncertainty. Palmer also quotes Fredrick Buechner’s definition of vocation. According to Buechner, vocation is, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Throughout my journey of finding deep gladness, I have gone down parts of the path that I may or may not have been able to see clearly. Palmer says in his book, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truth you embody, what values you represent.” Both Palmer and Buechner were formative in my understanding of where and what God was calling me to.

For the better part the last 8 years, I have been walking through the darkness. I was quite unsure of my call; I was unsure that I should even be in seminary, I was unsure if I was really even meant for being a solo pastor in a small town. From the very first conversation with my mentor Dave, God’s call for me did not make sense to me because it never fit my plans, it never seemed to fit who I intended to be. Yet, Someone was encouraging me in another direction. Someone knew the plans that were sketched, Someone would be there to walk along side me each and every step of the way. Through the joys of my calling as well as the challenges. It has been difficult for me to not follow the logical process of following my bachelor degree. But what I have learned in the last 8 years is that I need to stop telling my life, telling God, what I planned to do next. Rather, I just need to let go, keep walking and let life, let God tell me what God intended for me to do. Letting go of that control and walking in the darkness has been frightening. However, I am starting to discover in the darkness the light that comes from within me, the truths that I embody. I am able to see God is with me in this journey. I know I am called to care for others, to be a calming presence in the midst of strife. I am called to teach others the Word and how to share the light of Christ that is within them. I am called to walk humbly with God.

In our scripture today, Isaiah was called by God, and although he does try to give his excuses, “my words are unclean like everyone else’s.” But the angel takes the coals and touches his mouth, cleaning his mouth, making him whole, equipping him for the call from God. God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who will be my voice to the people? And Isaiah says so boldly, “Here I am, send me.” Walking right into the darkness. Not unlike many of the other prophets in the Old Testament, Isaiah’s call was one to prophesy to the people, not a warm heartfelt message, but rather a message that tells them “to keep listening but don’t comprehend, to keep looking, but don’t understand.” Basically, God is telling Isaiah this isn’t an easy call, you wont understand it, but keep following me and keep trusting me. There is darkness ahead for you, but you can walk in the darkness with me. In her most recent book, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”[i] We need the darkness, we need the moment when calls are not clear, when we catch a glimpse of what God is asking of us, but not understanding the whole. We need to be comfortable with saying Here I am Lord, so now what do you want me to do...what is the next thing you need from me, especially when it is something that may not be easy, or is uncomfortable.

Part of becoming a person sent by God is learning to look and listen for God, especially at the turning points of life.  As we pass through transitions, celebrations or crises, God may well meet us there with a new vision and a fresh word, but we have to be willing to receive such a call. Most of the time they won’t be a call filled with mystical visions like Isaiah, but perhaps they come to you in a feeling, a moving worship service, a private devotion, or a push from another person.  Sometimes they are one of great grandeur and life changing (go to seminary, leave this town, take a new job) or some might seem more mundane, (serve on session, volunteer with the schools, take up a new class, befriend this person), but the call is still important nevertheless. “The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there.”[ii] As people of God who have been filled by the Holy Spirit, God is asking us, “Whom shall I send?” and we are being asked to say, “Here I am, send me!” When we respond to God in this way we are trusting in God’s presence and grace in our lives. It is not because of our skills or abilities, or the free time we may have to offer.

Rather, like Isaiah, we are laying our lives before God who has come to us to help us see what is really out there. We may not have any idea of where we are going, what the road looks like ahead of us. We don’t always know ourselves, what we are truly capable of doing. And often times we don’t even know if we are doing God’s will. However, we do trust and believe that what we do pleases God, that God will lead us on the correct path, even though we may not be able to see through the darkness. We will not fear for our God is always will us.[iii] Here I am Lord, so now what? 

 

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] ibid, 180 (Thomas Merton). 

Trusting My God

 

Psalm 33 (NRSV)

1 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.
    Praise befits the upright.
2 Praise the Lord with the lyre;
    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
3 Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

4 For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
5 He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;
    he put the deeps in storehouses.

8 Let all the earth fear the Lord;
    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
9 For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm.

10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
    he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
    the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
12 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

13 The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all humankind.
14 From where he sits enthroned he watches
    all the inhabitants of the earth—
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all,
    and observes all their deeds.
16 A king is not saved by his great army;
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
    and by its great might it cannot save.

18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 to deliver their soul from death,
    and to keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and shield.
21 Our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you.

 

This week, I watched a short documentary of a conversation by lead front man for rock band U2, Bono and Presbyterian, author of the Message Bible Translation and many books, Pastor, Eugene Peterson. In the documentary, Peterson and Bono talked about the impact of the Psalms in their lives. Bono, whose music has been influenced by the Bible, current events and his own personal belief said in the documentary, “Why do we need art? Why do we need the lyric poetry in the Psalms? Because the only way we can approach God, is if we are honest, through metaphor, through symbol, so art becomes essential, not decorative.” Peterson said, “the Psalms are important, because they [show] imagination [is] a way to get inside to the truth.” If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t know how to explain or speak about the power of God. We don’t have a set or precise definition on what to say who and how God acts or interacts with God’s people. However, like Peterson and Bono articulated, the Psalms describe through beautiful poetry and metaphor the majesty of God.

Our Psalm today is no different. It is a psalm of praise, proclaiming the Lord as the one in whom the righteous may place their trust and hope. This psalm gives us the language to speak about the face of God. God’s mouth speaks, and the universe comes into being. God’s eyes sweep the earth in judgment and governs its inhabitants. The psalm points upward to God looking majestically upon the inhabitants of the earth. God’s power judges humanity and at the same time graciously bestows blessings and invites humanity into relationship. At the end of the hymn we are given the opportunity to praise God, accepting that we are God’s people, we wait for God, rejoicing and trusting in God’s name and pray for God’s hesed, God’s steadfast, enduring love to be upon us.

            The Psalms are hymns which proclaim God’s steadfast love for God’s earth and creation, hymns in scripture and our hymns we sing in worship are ways in which we articulate a liturgical and a giving of our self and community to God. It is the way in which we celebrate the pioneer and perfector of our lives, the Creator of our unique bodies. Like our Psalm for today, we are called to lift up our voices, rejoice in song, because we believe how amazing our Lord is and can see the work of God in our midst. Just as with the Psalm, we sing songs today that remind us that How Great our God is, how God is most blessed, the most glorious, the ancient of days, the almighty and victorious. In the translation of this psalm from the Message, the first verses say, “Good people, cheer God! Right-living people sound best when praising. Use guitars to reinforce your Hallelujahs! Play his praise on a grand piano! Invent your own new song to him; give him a trumpet fanfare.” The psalms speak from the human response of God in our life.

How do we experience the attributes of God expressed by the Psalmist in our real daily lives? How do we see in our midst God acting in our lives, so that we too can create our own songs of praise and thanksgiving? Creation blossoming and growing, people with whom we see the face of God in (through the kindness and generosity of others), through our own actions.

 

 

 

But why do we need to be able to articulate this aspect of faith? Why do we need to have praise songs to God? Because our world is riddled with doomsday prophesies, we are inundated by destruction, despair, and disappointments. Like the Psalmist, we too struggle with pain, oppression, sorrow, and challenges. It feels as if hope is lost. But in spite of the hopeless feelings, we are called to sing those praises. I think we need to sing them even more.  Because, just like the Psalmist, God has come through to help God’s people, to help us. We are looking for hope, for something good to come out of the mire. The Psalmist is acutely aware that survival in this difficult world depends entirely on the slender thread of prayer and covenant faithfulness that binds us to God. And as Christians we are sometimes called to sing (old and new) songs alike. The songs of hope, of praise, of proclamation of how amazing and faithful our God is. We recognize the reliability in our God, God’s steadfastness and faithfulness to us and creation, when we live in a world riddled with uncertainty and failure. And so we sing this Psalm and our hymns to remind us that God’s love endure forever.

We can talk about faith in a variety of ways. Faith can be a system of religious beliefs—Christian faith; in the reformed tradition, we have our essential tenets. We can understand faith as belief that does not rest on logical or material evidence. We can talk about faith as fidelity or faithfulness—in the context of what it means in a human relationship-whether with one another or with God, the commitment, the loyalty, the allegiance, and the attentiveness to the relationship.

But I think our Psalmist and by extension, we are called to have in God, is faith as “fiducia”—that is, trust. Faith is a deep trust. Faith in God is more that commitment(fidelity)—it is also a deep trust in God, no matter what may happen to us, or to those around us. The opposite then of faith then is not infidelity but mistrust—and mistrust produces anxiety—and difficulty in a sustained and growing relationship. That is what Jesus is referring to in Luke 12 when he asks the people to look at the birds in the air and the lilies of the field—God takes care of them. Why do you worry—you of little faith?  Why are you so anxious? Faith is a deep trust in God—who is always faithful to us. This deep trust comes from centering ourselves evermore deeply in God. Faith is paying attentions to our relationship with God, and making God the center. Faith is making God our #1 priority, even when we are overwhelmed in life.

Trust is the fruit of that ever growing relationship of fidelity and faith. And our Psalmist today proclaims in whom he has faith, in whom his trust is built upon. And as we read the Psalm for today, you must ask yourself, who do you have faith in? Where do you place your trust?

Throughout the Bible—time and again—God’s people are called to step up and speak out, proclaiming our faith and trust in the One who has gone the distance with us. From creating us-to adopting us as his beloved-to coming to us and being with us on earth-to bringing us salvation through the cross—to being present with us in the Holy Spirit.  In short—to committing to us in faithfulness despite our shortcomings.  God is always faithful to us.

Thus the question-In whom do we place our faithful trust? God requires complete loyalty, complete commitment —not some wishy-washy, now and again assent—particularly when life’s circumstances spin us out of control. God wants to be the center of our living and being every day.

Faith is not a box to be checked on our list of lifetime accomplishments. Not something we do or say only at significant points in our spiritual formation—confirmation, or ordination or joining a faith community. Not simply repeating a creed—“I believe in God the Father almighty…” Faith requires us to daily commit to the One who has authority over our lives and daily giving up temptations to hobble back and forth between opinions. Faith requires us to sing, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.”  This is bold faith.  This is bold faith that trusts and acts and lives accordingly. As Christians, we our call is to claim this bold faith, to be hope in a hopeless filled world. We are called to trust in our Lord and sing the praised of God’s faithfulness to creation. Joshua reminds us, “Choose today who you will serve –who you will serve faithfully and in whom you will trust. As for me and my house it is God---For the Lord is God indeed!” Let us boldly trust and boldly submit to the Lord who indeed is God. Let our steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. Amen.

 

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

 

John 15:12-17 (NRSV)

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

Today begins a new series looking into the messages of some of our favorite hymns. I have been impressed with some of the selection that y’all have chosen, some very well loved hymns, a few new ones, and all the while I am listening to them with fresh ears. Many of our favorite hymns can easily be grouped together based on some of the major themes presented to them (that is in fact how Rachel and I choose music each Sunday). We know the theme of the sermon and so we find music that follows that very same theme, whether it is a church season, like Lent, Christmas, or Trinity Sunday, or based on a certain scripture. But there are often times we take the main topic of a sermon and draw hymns from that: forgiveness, love, discipleship. It has been quite interesting going the opposite way this time around, looking at each hymn and finding the essential topic, discovering if the hymn was based off of any particular scripture, (like Holy Holy Holy, is from the Revelation passage we talked about a couple weeks ago). And then finding like hymns and putting together the sermon. If you want to know more about the histories of the two selected hymns, there is information in your bulletin today (but you can read those after the sermon!). This week, two of the requested hymns both show the relationship between Jesus and us. It is all about friendship.

What is a friend? I polled Facebook earlier this week with this question, and I was quite amazed at some of the profound definitions I was given.

 

A friend is:

·      Someone who cares about you, shares your laughter and your tears

·      Speaks truth into you and loves you at your best and your worst

·      A listener, a questioner, a reflector, a celebrator, a quiet voice

·      Someone with whom to share life's ups and downs. Someone you can call at 2am.

·      Someone who loves you even when you're unlovable.

·      Family and/or Family that you choose.

·      A mirror of my soul

Then I looked to others to help understand what friendship is:

·      Proust said, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

·      William Penn said, “A true friend freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.”

·      Cookie Monster says, “Sometimes me think, what is friend? And then me say, friend is someone to share the last cookie with.”

·      My favorite definition of a friend comes from one of my favorite television shows, Grey’s Anatomy, “If I murdered someone, she’s the person I’d call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor. She’s my person.”

 

What is very compelling about these definitions, is that the definitions given described how a friend act, not just how a person feels or what a friend says.

Our scripture today also gives us a clue into what true friendship is as well. What is fascinating about this passage, is that is comes in the longer section of John that we know as the farewell discourse. It is the conversation that takes place on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. In just a few hours, Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as the enemy of the state. And he does show to in order to demonstrate the love he has for his disciples and indeed the profound love God has for the whole world. Our passage today is an important passage to understand the theology of friendship. Jesus demonstrates friendship throughout the Gospels: dining with people, providing relentless understanding and compassion, even when those around his deny or don’t understand him, being a welcoming presence, and speaks truth and honesty to anyone. However, our passage describes and names who and what Jesus is as a friend. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus is both the model and the source of friendship for the disciples and for us. As the model of friendship, he calls the disciples to love as he loved. As the source of friendship, he makes possible their own friendship through what he has given them. 

            Jesus reminds his disciples, you didn’t not choose me, I chose you. I selected you to be my friend. We do the same thing, we choose who we want to be friends with, who we want to share our lives with. That’s the beauty of friendship, like one of my Facebook definitions gave, friends are the family that we choose. And just as Jesus notes the shift in his relationship with his disciples (from servant to friend) we too have shifts in our friendship.

            One of my greatest friendships began in a teaching class in college. Torrey and I were part of a group of four women who had the great idea to study middle school education with an emphasis on serving the gifted and talented. We ended up being paired to go to the same schools to tutor students and teach in the classroom. What initially was an acquaintance out of proximity and like studies, soon became a friendship to last a lifetime. With shared interests, similar personalities, she is my person, the one whom I know we can call one another at a moments notice and seek advice (does this outfit match?, let me tell you about the crazy thing that happened at work today, or lets put this place on our bucket list!). She is the person who would not bail me out of jail, because she would be in the cell next to me. She is the one who understands me more than I understand myself, a mirror of my soul. Over the course of the years, we both have been part of our families lives, she spending holidays with my family (even when I am not there), me going to visit her family. And if we have periods of time we go without talking or seeing one another, as soon as we reconnect, it is as if we picked up from where we left off. She is my person, the one who I would do anything for.

But those types of friendship are few are far between, yet to some extent, that is what Jesus is asking of us, Jesus is asking us to love one another as he loved us. Jesus’ love was about sacrifice, yes a literal sacrifice, but a we are asked to sacrifice in love for others as well. Perhaps it is a sacrifice of our own time, of our resources, of our own personal desires and gains, on behalf of another. It is an obvious commandment given to us, but it is one that we do well? The call for us as Christians is to give love freely and generously without counting the cost or wondering and worrying about who is on the receiving end, because this is how Jesus loved. This isn’t easy. Love can get tiring, and our ability to love everyone is limited. We get tired of loving people and not feeling love reciprocated. Our loved gets tarnished when we are hurt or betrayed. Loving the unlovable drains us. And somehow, despite our best efforts, we manage put conditions on our love. None of us love perfectly, even with the people we value the most in our lives.

But God has a wellspring of love from when we can draw from when we are dry of our own resources. And because Christ has commanded us, we as Christians are called to keep trying to love fiercely. May we seek to show true love, love that knows no limits to each and every person. May we rejoice in the friend that we have in Jesus. And may it be so. Amen. 

This is the Day the Lord has Made!

This Psalm is a joyful Psalm. If you really read it with feeling, you cannot help but feel joyful and excited! My Nonny’s favorite verse comes from this psalm and when you call her phone, or you walk into her home you will hear and see “This is the Day the Lord has Made, Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” It is her mantra for daily living, and for good reasoning. It’s a Psalm that tells a story with exuberance of the wonder at which God had worked in their life. It is a song that tells of the struggles, the fact that this person was a good as dead and now is alive and the response is to give thanks to God because of the love that God had for him. Like most psalms there are sections and movements, beginning with an initial call, “Let those who fear the Lord say, God’s steadfast love endures forever.” The psalmist then recounts the time in his life when he cried to the Lord and and God redeemed him. “Out of my distress I called on the Lord and the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.” The psalm then turns to a song of praise and thanksgiving honoring God, “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Today we will reflect on this psalm through a rewording of the psalm and a time for group collaboration.

 

Thank God because he’s good,

    because God’s love never quits.

Tell the world, Israel,

    “His love never quits.”

And you, clan of Aaron, tell the world,

    “His love never quits.”

And you who fear God, join in,

    “His love never quits.”

Pushed to the wall, I called to God;

    from the wide open spaces, he answered.

 

When has your life been, or pushed to the wall? When have you felt the need to call upon God?

 

God’s now at my side and I’m not afraid;

    who would dare lay a hand on me?

God’s my strong champion;

    I flick off my enemies like flies.

Far better to take refuge in God

    than trust in people;

Far better to take refuge in God

    than trust in celebrities.

 

It is far better to take refuge in God than to trust in ______________

 

Hemmed in by barbarians,

    in God’s name I rubbed their faces in the dirt;

Hemmed in and with no way out,

    in God’s name I rubbed their faces in the dirt;

Like swarming bees, like wild prairie fire, they hemmed me in;

    in God’s name I rubbed their faces in the dirt.

I was right on the cliff-edge, ready to fall,

    when God grabbed and held me.

It can bring us joy when we see God at work in our lives and in the lives of others. When God does grab hold of us and does not let us fall.

 

When have you seen God at work in your life and people’s lives?

 

God’s my strength, he’s also my song,

    and now he’s my salvation.

Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs

    in the camp of the saved?

        “The hand of God has turned the tide!

        The hand of God is raised in victory!

        The hand of God has turned the tide!”

 

How do you draw strength from God? What does God’s strength do for you?

 

I didn’t die. I lived!

    And now I’m telling the world what God did.

God tested me, he pushed me hard,

    but he didn’t hand me over to Death.

Swing wide the city gates—the righteous gates!

    I’ll walk right through and thank God!

This Temple Gate belongs to God,

    so the victors can enter and praise.

 

We have a new Song to sing!  What is included in your song of praise to God?

 

Thank you for responding to me;

    you’ve truly become my salvation!

The stone the masons discarded as flawed

    is now the capstone!

This is God’s work.

    We rub our eyes—we can hardly believe it!

This is the very day God acted—

    let’s celebrate and be festive!

Salvation now, God. Salvation now!

    Oh yes, God—a free and full life!

 

Blessed are you who enter in God’s name—

    from God’s house we bless you!

God is God,

    he has bathed us in light.

Festoon the shrine with garlands,

    hang colored banners above the altar!

You’re my God, and I thank you.

    O my God, I lift high your praise.

Thank God—he’s so good.

    His love never quits!

 

How do you look for God’s blessings in your life?

 

O God, what a delight it is to give praise and thanks for

God’s goodness and mercy, and for God’s faithfulness, even

when our own faithfulness has been challenged.

O God, we give thanks that we are able to put our trust in you, and not our trust in idols like money, greed, power, celebrities or even others at time. We are grateful that you will always be at our side.

We are so grateful for the endurance of God’s grace-filled presence within us. Other people also endorse these feelings of thankfulness too, which adds to our thanks and gratitude, when we see God at work in the lives of people whom we love and seek to serve.

We are grateful to have also been able to draw strength from God’s strength, which is an added blessing, giving us a sense of victory over the trials that are part of our everyday life. God’s strength has also encouraged us to step out boldly in our struggles to keep going with confidence in a life where internal and external factors play a major part. We are so grateful God travels with us.

How marvelous are God’s actions! How generous is our God in so many ways! We have been severely tested in the struggles of living, and it has been hard work to start again. When we were down and out, rejected, forgotten and bewildered; God picked us up, dusted us off, and set us on a new path in life and love.

Today has been made by God. Yesterday and tomorrow are also God’s handiwork, and after yesterday’s and today’s blessings—We look forward to being blessed in all the tomorrows ahead of us. Amen.