July 15, 2018- Luke 2:21-38

Sermon Title: Faces of Faith: Anna

                The past few weeks, I have been seeing stores advertise for their “Christmas in July” sales. And I’ve wondered if we have stumbled into a new shopping season. My guess is most retailers are just looking for an excuse to barely mark down their older stock and repackage it to us consumers as something fantastic under the veil of summer Christmas sales. Merry summer Christmas shopping to you all! 

            It is only fitting then this week, that our Face of Faith is part of the Christmas narrative. (And I promise that was not intentional, it just ended up as an interesting coincidence). Anna, and her story, though is rarely shared during the Advent/Christmas season. She and Simeon often get overlooked from all of the theatrical Angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” the shepherds declaring to go to Bethlehem and see “this thing that has occurred,” and the Wiseman traveling far distances to bring gifts to the Christ Child. Our passage today reminds us that there is more to share about the birth and purpose of baby Jesus in the world than simply the idyllic nativity scene.

            Our scripture today begins days after Jesus’s birth with the new parents following the Jewish laws and customs by getting the child circumcised and then presenting him in the temple. As the family enters into the temple grounds and two people enter into the scene at the temple grounds, Simeon and Anna. Not much is known about these two individuals. Scripture says, that Simeon, was a righteous and devout man which the Holy Spirit rested upon him. Each week, as he entered the temple, Simeon waited to see the signs of the Son of God coming forward. He had spent his life reading, interpreting, and living the holy Scriptures. He would recall the words from the prophet Isaiah, reminding the people of Israel that God promised, “my servant will succeed. He will be exalted and lifted very high…he grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance…he will bring justice to the nations…he won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land. The coastlands await his teaching.”[i] And so Simeon waited, waited to see who would come along, waited for the promises of God to be fulfilled, when a young couple enters into the temple with a baby boy, presenting him for the ritual cleansing that all Jewish families follow in order to consecrate their child. Simeon sees the promise fulfilled in the baby Jesus and is filled with joy.

Just imagine “how lovely, how tender, the way aged Simeon, the frailties of his years draped over him, cradles the infant Jesus in his arms. Imagine holding in your arms this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of your entire life.”[ii] The years of prayers of hope and anticipation, the years of reading the promises of God to the people of God through the Scriptures, coming to fruition in this small little baby boy. This awaited miracle is a joy for Simeon and a joy for the nations.    

And then the scripture turns the focus on Anna. She was a prophetess, who had a husband for 7 years and then was a widow for 84 years. She had lived her life devoted to God, praying and fasting outside of the temple day in and day out. What is interesting about Anna is that this is the only time she is mentioned, and frankly, not much is said about her and she is not directly quoted. However, from what little scripture says about her, like Simeon, she was a woman who spent her time waiting in hopeful expectation of what would come. And then Luke says, when she sees Jesus, she “began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

            These two aged saints are representatives of Israel’s best; led by the Holy Spirit, through devout, obedient and constant prayer, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Simeon and Anna have waited a literal lifetime for the promises to be fulfilled. And as Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus into the temple, they see that all of their waiting, their praying, their fasting, all of the time spent trusting in the promises of God paid off. And so what is next for them is to turn their lives into proclamation and praise.

Our problem is that we do not like to wait. We want to move, fill the time, stay in control, rush to the next gratification—and in our inability to be patient and trust that God is God, we end up missing God.[iii] That is the problem we have as Christians today, as people of God who know the Christmas story, with just as much familiarity with the Easter story. We disillusion ourselves to believe that since the first Christmas and Easter story has come and gone, we don’t have to wait for promises to be fulfilled, we don’t have to sit at the temple alongside Simeon or Anna and wait with hopeful expectation.

However, even if we are willing to wait with hopeful expectation, it can be difficult for us to balance the cheer and joy with the stark reality of life. To live in the tension between joy and sorrow. But I think that Anna understands that balance, and I think that we can look to Anna for clarity and wisdom today. We all have experienced difficult years or periods in our lives, when we may have lost loved ones, or had disappointing news at work, or have endured pain and sorrow which can cause our lives to be especially difficult. Anna is an older woman and has been around the block more than a few times, seen the very best and the very worst. From what little we know about her from the scriptures, we can imagine that Anna has tasted love and loss, joy and despair, hope and fear, just like you and me. Her calling was to wait, despite all that had occurred in her life to hold on to faith in the promises that God had given to the Israelites and know that in time God would fulfill them. And when she sees the Christ child, that infant boy, all of those fears, despair, losses dissipate, all of that waiting comes to an end and she turns to joy and praise. Like the psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Joy comes in the morning for Anna and Simeon, with the presentation of the Christ Child at the temple.  They saw and they knew, and for Anna, she lived out her remaining days giving thanks for the promise of a world made new.

            This morning we celebrate a joy as well, of a couple renewing their vows that they promised to one another 20 years ago. Gus and Vikki met one another during dark and sad times in their life, but in their service and in their initial time spent together at the Food Bank, seeds of friendship were planted for joy in the years to come. After the death of their spouses, Vikki and Gus’s seeds of friendship blossomed into a deep love for one another. Though weeping may have lingered for the night for them, their joy came in the morning, in their love for and relationship with one another. A relationship that continues to endure the challenges that life presents.

This morning, we come together and praise our God for their love, for their lives and for what lies ahead for them. Vikki and Gus are indeed a testament to us that joy does come in the morning. 

            What we celebrate today is that despite all that we have endured in our lives, because of the presentation of the Lord to the temple, our joy will come in the morning. The promise of a Savior was fulfilled, through the Christ Child. What is left for us to do then is praise, to be in the moment, and to relish the moment, because God showed up?  Joy comes in the morning for us, so let us praise God and be joyful of what God can do, what God will do and what God is doing in our lives and our world today.  And may it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Is 52:13, 53:2, 42:1,4-5

[ii] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.

[iii] Ibid.

July 8 2018 -Matthew 26: 6-25, 36-50; 27:3-7

Faces of Faith: Judas

            Usually, when we think of the person of Judas, we do not associate him as a person or face of faith. Throughout our series so far, we have seen many strong and brave characters. People who have met challenges of their faith head on with humility and understanding.  During the season of Lent, we don’t really even talk much about Judas, just that he betrayed Jesus. We would rather focus on the more vivid and pleasing characters, like the woman who anoint Jesus with the costly nard; or Peter, the loveable disciple who so wants to please Jesus but rarely has a clue about how hard that can be; or Joseph of Arimathea, the man who offered his tomb and who you all learned about from Sam a few weeks ago. But rarely, do we ever think about Judas. However, Judas is a face of our faith that we should take the time to examine. I think that Judas, is a disciple that we need to know his story and learn more about him because he is no less of a disciple than Peter or John. He was called by Jesus and followed Jesus throughout his ministry. And though we know what he ends up doing, have we ever stopped to wonder what led him to that moment? What led him to betray Jesus? This morning we shall imagine the inner thoughts of Judas.

            I am called Judas Iscariot.  I’m the only Judean in the group.  The others must have had confidence in me because they elected me their treasurer.  And Jesus surely believed in me, because he chose me as one of the twelve. I have followed him, but I am growing tired of his unwillingness to take a stand against the Romans.  I believe he is who he says he is...but really…(with disgust)..why would God send a Messiah to wash feet and serve bread?  Really!  We need a real king! 

We need a political king (shake fist)…someone that will lead us in overthrowing these Roman tyrants!   Look how many people follow him, how many will gather on a hillside just to hear him speak.  He could put together a real army in no time!  

I know what the others say behind my back—that I am impatient and ambitious and stingy.  Some say that Jesus’ words about the love of money and greed were personally directed at me.  Of course I complained when Mary washed his feet with that expensive oil.  (with emphasis) I still think it was a waste of money!

 (with emphasis) It’s time someone made Jesus understand that we need him to make his move, lead us to victory and a position of power!   Why does he refuse! (pause) Well, I’ve made a move.  So what if I have conspired with the chief priests and if I have thirty pieces of silver to show for it, that’s my affair!  It had to be done!

(with seriousness)  He hints that he knows what I’ve done.  He said as much a few moments ago when he washed my feet, and again when we dipped our bread in the same dish. 

What would you do in my place?  Should I ignore his remarks?  (with disgust) Or should I be like the others, piously and self-righteously asking (with mock innocence) Is it I? (small pause)

 Is it I ? 

            Nobody can be sure, of course, why Judas sold Jesus out although according to John’s gospel, he already had a reputation for dipping into the poor box from time to time so the cash may have been part of it.  If, like the other disciples, he was perennially worried about where he stood in the pecking order, he may also have been reacting to some imagined slight.  Maybe he thought his job as treasurer to the outfit was beneath him.  Another possibility is that he had gotten fed up with waiting for Jesus to take the world by storm and hoped that betraying him might force him to show his hand at last.  Or maybe, because nothing human is ever uncomplicated, something of all of these was involved. 

In the context of the crucifixion narrative – really, the messianic narrative – Jesus has to be betrayed, the betrayal sealed with a kiss, and it has to come from inside his circle. Somebody has to do it. Indeed, at the table of the Last Supper, Jesus basically instructs his disciples accordingly. Somebody’s going to turn him in.

Judas is a complex and broken character. It’s natural for us to have strong or mixed feelings about Judas.  Some feel a sense of hatred toward him.  Some pity him.   But why hate him?  However, without that betrayal, there is no passion, no crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there is no resurrection. From a plot perspective, and a character development perspective, the disciple Judas is utterly necessary.

And from a discipleship perspective, Judas’s story is one we need as well. Judas represents our own brokenness and humanity as disciples of Christ. Judas reminds us that we all fall short, and betray Jesus and his ministry and life. As theologian Karl Barth reminds us about Judas, he could not forgive himself, said Barth, because he assumed that Jesus wouldn’t have forgiven him. How many of us have done something so wrong, so hurtful that we thought we were beyond someone’s or God’s forgiveness? However according to Barth, “we…are terrible judges of ourselves, and that’s not our job.” Barth is right. We are terrible judges of ourselves, and that’s not our job.[i]

Yet, we can benefit from thinking about Judas and our own commitment to the Lord. Do we fully commit to Christ?  How have we betrayed him?  And if we fail or fall short, do we give up all hope, or do we accept Christ’s forgiveness and seek restoration?

This morning I end us with a prayer of confession in the style of Judas, reminding ourselves that we do and will fail in our discipleship, we do and will put unfair expectations on Jesus, and we assume that Jesus will not forgive us, but that is not our responsibility to worry about, because we are loved by a God who will always forgive us, and always accepts us for who we are. Let us pray.

Surely not I, Lord? Surely not us? Surely not.
Surely I am not the one who will betray you.
Surely we are not the ones.
It’s someone else who denies knowing you,
someone else who uses you for their own gain,
someone else who wants to control you.
Surely not us.

For the times when we object too much…
For the times we point fingers to cover up our own wrong…
For the times we think of ourselves more highly than we ought…
Forgive us.


For the times we have betrayed you with our words—
speaking thoughtlessly,
hurting someone to get a laugh,
denying that your call extends to the parts of our lives 

we would rather keep to ourselves…
Forgive us.
 

For the times we have betrayed you with our actions—
living as if you are confined to the sanctuary,

leaving us free when we are not here,
acting as if we have been given domination over,

rather than stewardship of, your creation,
walking away from those in need, literally and politically…
forgive us.
 

For the times we have betrayed you with our hearts—
putting you far down our priority lists,
loving our ideas about you more than we love you,
longing for our way to be the one you choose…
forgive us.
 

For the times we have lived contrary to our baptism,
dipping our hand in the bowl but keeping our whole selves out,
believing we can earn grace…and that they should work for it too,
Forgive us.

 

Surely not I, Lord?
You have said so.
The truth rings in our ears…

and it hurts, O God, to admit it: it is us.
 

We follow other gods, 

we are a poor reflection of your glory,
we use our wealth, status, and power in ways contrary to your will,
we imprison you in our understanding of your word,
we refuse to create justice or to love mercy,
and walking humbly with you 

would mean letting go of our way.
The truth hurts us, Lord, 

even as we hear you say: you have said so.
 

And yet we believe—
we believe that you have the power to transform us 

and through us to transform the world.
We believe that your grace is enough.
We believe that we have received more love than we can imagine.
We believe that you are the Way, the Life, and the Truth—
the truth that sets us free.
And may it be so. Amen.

[i] Theodore J. Wardlaw, Has Judas Died for our Sins?, http://ezproxy.ptsem.edu:2112/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=b5cf9933-d475-439e-8839-4a6ce036f30a%40sessionmgr4009.

 

 

June 10, 2018 - Acts. 20:7-12

Cann Memorial Presbyterian Church

June 10, 2018-3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 20:7-12

Faces of Faith: Eutychus

 

            When I was a teenager, I went on a mission trip with my church’s youth group to Mexico. We were partnering with a congregation to help build a home for the church’s pastor. Because I had a strong enough ability to speak Spanish, I was asked to work alongside our local partners, translating and being the communication bridge. Long days working in the sun, we then would share an evening meal and devotion together. One evening, towards the end of the week, we gathered with the congregation for worship. It was a warm summer night and I was physically tired, from the construction work, as well as mentally drained from the linguistic gymnastics of interpreting and communicating in a foreign language. That evening, as the pastor preached, I tried concentrating to his sermon in Spanish. I tried listening, but I was worn out. My eyelids were heavy. I thought to myself “if I do close my eyes, then I can listen better…” not so much. I did everything I could think of to keep awake, but in the end, I just fell asleep in worship. Thankfully, I wasn’t sitting on the window sill, but in the middle of the room.

            For some preachers, our text today, could be a cautionary tale to not preach boring sermons. It may also be the cautionary tale of what happens when you do fall asleep in worship…be forewarned! But perhaps this short story is more than that.

The setting for today is Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor. It is an evening service, since Troas has many disciples who are slaves and cannot meet during the day. It also happens to be the last time these disciples will hear Paul, the visiting preacher, since he plans to leave in the morning; …The lateness of the hour (Paul is preaching past midnight) and the ambiance of the room (all those burning oil lamps, presumably to keep people awake in the absence of Starbucks or Muddy’s) only serve to accentuate the text's focus on sermon length. This vespers service is fast becoming a smoked-out lock-in. If the listeners were on the edges of their seats with excitement or bored out of their minds, the text doesn't tell us; perhaps the author is too polite to comment. Yet in verse 9, there is at least one reaction to Paul's preaching that cannot be overlooked, not because it is an unusual way to respond, but because the location of the listener prompts an unusual crisis. Over by the open window, propped up on the ledge, sits a young man named Eutychus who cannot keep his eyes open. This is hardly surprising: for all we know, everyone was starting to doze off from lack of sleep and breathable air. His eyes are heavy and despite probably all efforts to stay awake, he falls asleep and falls out of the window. If we fast forward, we don’t have to worry, he rouses awake, (whether he was dead is debatable, but Paul rushes down, checks on him and confirms he is alive).

This is an unusual story, but one that leaves me with lots of questions. Paul is worshipping with this new congregation, they come together in this upper room, to break bread together, and hear the Good News proclaim. They fellowship with one another, they are the first church and learning to be passionate in their worship.

This story reminds me of another parable. Soren Kierkegaard tells the parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go, there was no God-given task the ducks could not accomplish with those wings they could soar into the presence of God himself. Shouts of “Amen” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard---and waddled back home.

            Isn’t that truth, too often would-be worshipers waddle away from worship as they waddled in-unchallenged and unchanged. Why is that? Is the sermon uninspiring? Is the perpetual rote-ness of the liturgy not meaningful? Perhaps it is because we are creature of habit. Week after week, church goers sit in the same place in the same pew, following an order of service that they know by heart, listening to a sermon which they assume is intended primarily for someone else.  Is there anything wrong with this?  Do we blame people if they metaphorically fall asleep, or fall out of church due to the routine?

            Occasionally, though, something happens. Serendipity, unplanned, unrehearsed, uncontrollable spirit moves through the worship space filling the church goers with new breath-worship happens. Someone’s eyes are opened to a deeper awareness of the grandeur of God by the majesty of the music, and new commitments are born. Someone recognizes his or her life’s story as the Scripture lesson is read, and new believer is born. Someone hears in the sermon, as if for the first time, the unrelenting and forgiving love of Jesus, and new hope is born.  Someone experiences worship and leaves worship soaring, called to serve the Lord in their community. We may wonder why or where these moments happen, to some people but not to all. The trouble is these events can’t be explained, they can’t be directed, only described.

For the church in Troas and for us, I think this passage requires us to ask ourselves, when we worship are we creating a stuffy environment, one that lulls people to sleep (and perhaps even fall out) or are we providing a worship environment that provides fresh breath and new life for people so they soar instead of waddle out?

When we come into worship what or who are we thinking about? Are we concerned more about how comfortable we feel in worship than who we are worshipping? 

Worship is a time to think less about ourselves and more about our faith in God,

 to think less about our own personal agenda and more about God’s will,

 to think less about squeezing God into our busy lives and more about melding our lives into God.

Instead, worship is a time to recognize what God does in our midst.

Worship is a time to be a place of fellowship and community for those seeking to see God working in their lives.

Worship is a place of refuge for those who feel on the margins of God’s abundant love.

Worship is a time to honor and glorify God through our words, our songs, and our actions.

Worship is a time to be renewed and refreshed by the Spirit, so as to go back out into the world to love and serve God. 

In every imaginable setting, through worship, people seek to connect with God, allow God’s word to shape them and offer their unique response of faith. God’s spirit changes us through worship. Without an attitude and space for passion in worship, worship becomes dry, routine, predictable, keeping form and order, but lacking space for the Spirit. We and others will have a tendency to fall asleep and fall out.

Who is it on the fringes of our world, and in our lives needed fresh breath and life in them? How can we in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our service to the world, be that needed breath for them?  

When we worship we are called to stir people back into their consciousness. We are called to desire our best in worship, honoring God with excellence and with clarity about worship’s purpose: that is connecting people to God. When churches engage in passionate worship, it is alive, authentic, fresh, engaging whether it is a congregation of 15 or 1500. The purpose of worship is to help people perceive themselves, their world, their relationships and their responsibilities in ways that include God’s revelation in Christ. It is something alive that requires continuing care, cultivation and effort to keep it alive and fresh.

Worship is a place in which people come to connect with God, and to one another as well as a place to feel restored, reminded, remembered and refreshed, so that when they exit the doors and assimilate back into their daily existence, they carry the light of Christ with them, sharing it with those who cross their paths. May we, through our stirring experiences in worship, go out into the world and be the breath and life for others. May we, through our love for God, worship and glorify him through our daily lives. And may we seek to arouse others into life with Christ. And may it be so. Amen.  

June 3, 2018 Numbers 27:1-11

This week I came across an article from Forbes magazine on FB titled “Your top 10 objects, your kids don’t want.” In the article it stated, “Your house, and what it contains, is a minefield in the eyes of your grown children. They can see from your example that collections of stuff are a curse…superfluous to a life well lived…Your grown children [may] not agree to be the recipients of your downsizing if it means their upsizing.” So the top ten list gave suggestions on how to get rid of these things instead of passing them onto your children. The list included things like, old books, sewing machines, silver plated objects, and your porcelain figurines. “Do you want x object?” Is an all too familiar question that comes up in our family. After my mom’s last move she is already putting into boxes and storage the things I do want from our family heirlooms and has already started purging the things I know I will not need or want. She also, in her most recent update to her will and trust, sent me a copy and let me know where the official document is when that day comes. And while I am her only child and her will is simple, not all families can afford that luxury. Perhaps you have experienced or have heard of families quarreling about their inheritances after loved ones have died. I’ve even read the bizarre stories of people leaving their fortunes to their beloved pet over their family members. What we are entitled to in our inheritance can be quite important. Perhaps not so much in today’s world, but very much so in generations previously.

            Which is the basis of our story today, who is to receive the inheritance left after someone dies? This is a passage that I can admit to you all honestly, that I do not recall ever reading or studying before this week, but as I began to read and study the scripture, I believe is critical and important when we think about the nature of God, the nature of justice, the call for people to speaking out for justice, as well as our call to listen to those who are speaking. The story is a short story filled with lot of names, but centers around 5 sisters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and they are on the precipice for returning home, to the Promise Land. As generations have come and gone, the leaders of the Israelite community decide to take a census of what families are there, so that they can distribute the land fairly to the families.

The daughters of Zelophehad become concerned, because their father, died before entering the promise land, and they had no brothers. But according to Jewish law, land rites, and the father’s name would only be passed down through the male heirs. According to law, the daughters were out of luck, they/their family name would not then receive land. They would not receive any inheritance that was due to them. It would not be fair, that their father’s name and lineage would fade away, just because he had no sons. It would not be fair that his property would be given to some distant male relative because he had no sons. It would not be fair that these women would be stranded, destitute because their father died.[i] And so, they go to Moses and the priest Eleazar and plead their case. They don’t rage, they speak eloquently and reasonably to them. Scripture tells us they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He wasn’t part of Korah’s rebel anti-God gang. He died for his own sins. And he left no sons. But why should our father’s name die out from his clan just because he had no sons? Give us an inheritance, property, among our father’s relatives.” Not only do the sisters see the injustice of the current religious and civil laws the previous generations had lived by, but they also see how their inequity would be similar to families like theirs and choose to stand up and advocate for themselves. What these bold women are doing is providing a new model for this new generations of Israelites to live by. The women are challenging the tradition of male only inheritance, by appealing to what they see as the tradition’s more foundational values, namely, the just distribution of land and maintaining integrity to all of the tribes of Israel. The sisters’ motivation is not necessarily for themselves (getting their just dues) but rather, advocacy on behalf of others, and for the good of the community-for family, tribe, nation and the whole tradition of God’s people.[ii] 

Now what is more incredible is that those in power, Moses and Eleazar, choose to listen to the women, to hear their case. These two men, did not dismiss the women when they came forward with their request. They didn’t say, “well we’ve always done it this way.” They didn’t say, “you are women, you are less than others.” They didn’t say, “you don’t deserve the right to take ownership of your father’s name or be given your rightful inheritance.”

What Moses and Eleazar decided was that they need to go to God for guidance and God grants the sisters their dues. God says, “Zelophehad’s daughters are right. Give them land as an inheritance among their father’s relatives. Give them their father’s inheritance.” God’s love, unlike that of human beings, has no bounds and does not discriminate in favor of one group at the expense of another. God’s love extends to all of God’s creatures, both daughters and sons. God expresses God’s eternal love for them and proclaims their demand is justified.[iii]

According to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, human dignity affirms the inherent rights of all human beings, “regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” And that this inherent human dignity and the equal and indisputable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. If we read this story through this lens, and through the knowledge that all people, regardless of factors such as ethnicity, gender, class, nationality or sexual orientation are created in the image of God, then all peoples are inheritors of the gracious gift of human dignity; which for the Israelites, meant inheritors of God’s promise to be successors of the Promise Land, regardless if there was a male heir. These bold women stood up and demanded human dignity, and the rulers and lawmakers of their world chose to listen to them, and to God, to make a fair and just ruling.

It may not be a surprise that others have used passages like this one in the Bible, as reference when speaking out for justice and the right for human dignity. In her work for the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, used the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. In her words she said, “The respect paid to the daughters of Zelophehad at that early day, is worship of the imitation of the rulers in our own time.” She also called upon women of her own time, who chose to give up economic independences because of their personal apprehensions...and called upon them to learn from the example of Zelophehad’s daughters.[iv]

In his famous “I Have a Dream,” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. references another power passage from the prophet Amos, “we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The civil rights movement was a time and call for action, for justice and equality, for human dignity to be given to African Americans in our country.  “I Have a Dream” reminds us that all human beings are equally created in the image of God.[v] 

In another sermon, Dr. King spoke of the need to stand together and speak out against what seems unjust, using the earlier story of the Israelites when they were enslaved by the Egyptians, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”[vi] Acknowledging an issue, joining together, and speaking out is what spurs change.

These five sisters were able to join together, to speak out as one voice and to take one small step toward greater justice for women by appealing to the core values of their shared tradition. They teach us to dig deeply and to argue persuasively from within a shared tradition, if we are seeking to overturn old customs and create new possibilities in social and economic relationships. These women are our models of boldness, fueled by hope, models of advocacy fueled by concern for a larger community, and models of faithfulness fueled by a dynamic relationship with their tradition and with their God.

So may we have the courage like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, to speak out and up when we see injustices occurring in our lives, in our communities and in our world. May we and may others have the ears when we are in positions of power, like that of Moses and Eleazar, to hear the concerns of others and make fair and just rulings. May we go to God for guidance and wisdom when it comes to resolves matters of human dignity, and choose to honor that all are made in the image of God and deserve equality. And may it be so. Amen.
 


 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Freeman, Lindsay Hardin. Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. 103.

[ii] Olsen, Dennis. Interpretation Series: Numbers. Pg. 166-7.

[iii] Shemesh, Yael. “A Gender Perspective on the Daughters of Zelophehad: Bible, Talmudic Midrash, and Modern Feminist Midrash. Pg. 104-5.

[iv] Ibid. Pg. 81.

[v] http://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/articles/4-bible-references-in-mlk-jrs-i-have-a-dream-speech.aspx

[vi] https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/history/

May 27, 2018 Genesis 2:4b-3:24

Names and identity are important things. We all have unique identities.  In my family of origin, I have always been known as Lizzie the helper. Growing up, I was my Aunt’s counter-part, helping her in the kitchen, with the kids. As I got older, running errands, helping to plan family trips, and parties. My aunt Lois called me just this week, and in our conversation, mentioned how she was working on a planning a party for next weekend, and couldn’t I just come down and help her out?? It’s who I am for my family.

We all have those things that people know us by, some good, like being a helper, the singer, the smart one, some less than ideal. In your childhood, were you known as the class clown, the snobby one, the bully? For some of us, who we were years ago, has no bearing on who we are now. And returning to class reunions, or hometowns, or communities can feel intimidating because you don’t want to return to be “that identity,” Sally the snob, or Billy the bully, because now you are a well-adjusted, well liked individual. The self or culture created identities are only a tiny fraction of what makes us who we are. Yet somehow, they carry more bearing on us in our daily existences. But really, who we are, should be wrapped up in who God created us to be. This morning’s passage is a glimpse at to who we are, as we begin our series this summer on faces of our faith. The first set of faces show us that our identities are less about who others label us as, and more about who God created us to be. 

In this second creation story, God takes on a, hands on approach to the making of creation. What I love about this creation story is not only the intimate care that God has for the humans, and creation, but also this story is the summons of God for us to be his creatures, to live in God’s world on God’s terms. We begin where God is on the earth, and takes the dusty soil to fashion the legs, and arms, and head of the human. Then God breathes in to the nostrils the breath of life, the spirit, the pneuma, the ruach, so that this human could have life. He intimately fashions this person out of the earth’s soil, the Hebrew word for it is adamah, so later, when the person is named Adam, his name is literally means “dust person.” The dust person is formed, the garden is planted, which is a great place for a creature to live in. God gives the human a chance to have a companion and that companion, that is the dust person’s sustainer beside him, his counterpart.  We are told of the purpose of the human’s being, and the conditions set by God. Scripture says, “And the Lord God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and to watch it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. From the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” Three conditions arise for Adam and Eve: you are given a vocation: You are to care for and tend the garden. From the beginning the human creature is called, given a vocation and expected to participate in God’s work. Eat of anything in the garden, it is yours to enjoy for substance and for sharing, but don’t eat from that tree. There is an implied element of understanding the authority of God and the expectation of trust and obedience of the humans, this is what they were created to be, a likeness in God’s image. The term in Christian theology is called the “imago dei,” made in God’s image. As the imago dei we were made to be able to create, worship, communicate, relate and reason, not only with others but with and for God.  The dust people, Adam and Eve, are then tasked to find a way to uphold their divine purpose, to live into the vocation set before them as imago dei.

The serpent then comes into the picture as a very clever and talkative creature made by God who simply poses some question and alternative explanation and identity that they could live into. At any point in the conversation, the humans could have told the serpent that he was full of it and to please go and bother someone else. But there was something in those humans that resonated in that suspicion, anxiety crept in and doubt in trusting God’s ultimate purpose for their lives. The two dust-people are controlled by their anxiety and they try to escape that anxiety by attempting to circumvent the reality of God. They failed to embrace the fact that they were made in the image of God. When God created human being in God’s image, God called it good, God had a purpose and plan for human beings and Adam and Eve failed to trust and believe in their lives as the imago dei, given the parameters God set before them.

So the humans end up disobeying the prohibitions set by God, and thus disrupting their imago dei, the very thing that called them into being and these two humans fail to live into the image that God called them into being. They doubted God’s providence, rejected the vocation, permissions and prohibitions that God placed upon them. They didn’t trust how God called them to live and move and be, even though they were given all of the components.  For Adam and Eve, they decide instead of being made in the image of God, they would rather be like God and that is where they fail. However, the good news of God is, even when we fail in the eyes of God, there is forgiveness. 

Redemption comes in the fact that God doesn’t give up on these two dust-people. God had a choice. God could have just said, ok you are going to return back to dust, I’ll start over with another set of people. But our God is a God who is persistent. God still works to correct their behavior and maintain relationship with the dust people. He prepares his dust people, fashions them clothes to send them out into the world to live, but he doesn’t abandon them. God wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t give up on his dust people. God empowers Eve to live into her imago dei, by literally bearing future imago dei, learning to live into not only her divineness, but also raising others up in their unique God-given image. As for Adam he lives into his original vocation, the keeper of God’s creation, entrusted to care for the all that God created to be good.

            Just like the first dust people, we too have been created in the image of God. We were uniquely formed and given gifts and skills to serve God in our world. We have been given our vocation and call, and we have choices to be made every day. Each and every day, our world is plagued with other unique God-made creatures who call into question our very being, our identities and our calls. We are told subversive messages telling us that we aren’t good enough, that what we do isn’t right, that we are failures. We are told that if we believe in a certain way, if we do a certain deed, if we change who we are and who we were created to be, then we will be more successful, we will be more desirable, we will be liked.

However, what God created us to be was good, and so we have a choice, to trust in our own unique imago dei, or to be influenced by others, who tempt us, who make us believe we need something more, that we can do better, that we are not good. I am reminded, of the psalmist, “For it was God who formed our inward parts; God knit each and every one of us in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. And wonderful are God’s works.” Being made in the image of God, means we are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as we are.

The song we sang with our young people, to me, is an important song that we all need to sing. It tells the story of who we are and whose we are. And how we were fearfully and wonderfully made.

We are all somebody, because God loves us. We are called to be accepted just the way that we are. We each are given vocations and duties to live out our imago dei. Yet, when we fail to take care of our God-given selves, when we fail to follow our vocations. When we succumb to the negative identities that others label us, we fail in being the imago dei. The Good News is, God’s love is deeper and wider than you and I can ever understand. So may we learn to love our identity in God and live into God’s identity for us. And may it be so. Amen.

 

May 20, 2018 Acts. 2:1-21

How often and how well do you remember your dreams? Raise your hand if you seem to be super-dreamers, able to recall effortlessly your dreams in vivid detail almost every day. Raise your hand if you struggle to remember even a vague fragment or two.[i] Most of my life, I have been one of those people who never remember dreams. It wasn’t until probably the last few months, that I started to recall my night’s dreams. And they have been quite vivid and detailed. Every morning, I share with Dave what new things I did or said or experienced in my dreams and he generally rolls his eyes at me that my brain could come up with such odd stories.

I was reading a Washington Post article recently about dreams and why some people remember them while others don’t. In a study that was conducted a few years ago, it noted that a key component to recalling dreams required you to have are more wakeful, or restless sleep, so that when you wake even for a brief moment, your brain has time to encode the vision into your long-term memory. So clearly, in the last few months, I have had more restless sleep than I have previously, which is probably due to the fact that the four-legged creatures in our home have decided, despite the plenteous pet beds, chairs, and couches they could sleep on, they would rather sleep in our bed, right next to me. But good news is that because of them, I get to experience dreams.  

Although quite familiar to us, our story this morning is sort of fantastical and dream-like, the people witnessing the event think everyone is drunk, but we tend to gloss over it as something nice, neat, or perhaps unusual at best. However, this is really not the case. The Holy Spirit swoops in with a mighty rushing wind, and begins burning above these people! Generally, we think of the Holy Spirit as the thing which eases our distress. She is the encourager and the comforter. She is there to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promise. This is all well and good, but if we really take a look at our story, the Holy Spirit is really far more radical and unpredictable! In our Pentecost story today, we experience a different unpredictable force, and a fire that is causes a burning passion to be ignited from within the people. In our story today, the Holy Spirit isn’t there really to comfort anyone, but rather there to shake things up. This Holy Spirit is there to testify, and to prompt the testimonies of the disciples.

Which is what we hear in the second part of our scripture, Peter begins to preach to the people. Peter reminds them of the words from the prophet Joel, “In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people.Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams…And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter reminds the people that God is a God of history, that on this day, Pentecost becomes a continuing and adding to the people of God. It is a day to recognize and bless the history of faith for the people of God. God’s Word was being heard, God’s Spirit was being shared, and God’s communion is being brought into existence among humanity here and now.

 But now, as people of God, they are called to dream dreams.

Pentecost is an invitation to dream.  Not necessarily the dreams we have when we sleep, but the dreams we envision of a life of what could be. A dream of possibilities. A dream of what would happen if. A dream of what-could-be when. These types of dreams are so important for churches and communities to do. Because when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. 

Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. These types of dreams help us to see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach. Maybe we can find freedom from what binds us. Maybe there can be justice. Maybe we can make a difference. Maybe a person’s value isn’t determined by her income. Maybe the future of our economy or our society or our church or our planet is not yet determined. Maybe God is here with us, even if our current struggles never go away. God’s dreams, and good dreams, need us to have fitful sleep, so they can shake us into consciousness to what the Spirit is calling us to do.

We might think, that church as it is, is enough, that life as it is, is enough. That we don’t need new dreams, and we would rather just have the deep sleep. We might think what we have now is enough, it is sufficient but what if it isn't?

It is on the day of Pentecost where we are called to be filled with the Spirit, to allow everyone to come up with dreams outside the realm of “but that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  We are called to let the Spirit of God fill us with dreams of what could be.

We cannot mandate how, when, where, and to what extent God acts, God just acts. On Pentecost we see that the Spirit makes visible and tangible God’s promise to be present, to empower and to compel dreaming. The Spirit is there to move us forward, to take the preparations we have made and to transform them to the situations that are in our present midst.  And this means that we have to begin to see God’s power differently and then we have to see change differently.

The Christian faith has its roster of exceptional dreamers, who, like Jesus, insisted that God could make possible the things that other people couldn’t see. Just in the last century gave us dreamer like Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero, name a few.

But dreams need not always be dramatic, and the prophetic task of describing how a new, God-given possibility is coming to life is not restricted to public figures with magnetic personalities.

The beautiful and most meaningful part of the story of Pentecost, is that ordinary people receive power.  It’s not just the people who are the brightest, most talented or most promising, but our scripture says the everyday person: the slave, the woman, the man, the child, are filled with the Holy Spirit. So the power of the Spirit is given to all persons, young/old, conservative/liberal, poor/middle wage/rich, strong in faith/lost in belief, to you and to me. The power of the Spirit is emboldens people to imagine that they can live differently. Think differently, Act differently. The power of the Spirit is an awakened imagination to live the words of Jesus Christ in our day to day life, whether we run our own companies, or our own homes, whether we attend church on a regular basis or we attend when we get the energy to come. And even when the community’s dreams seem smaller, more localized or slower to develop, they can still be revolutionary.

As Christians, we could be a church that chooses to sleep deeply, to fear the restless sleep that produces wild and vivid dreams, and choose to stay in the church and the tradition that isn't completely relevant to the current culture. We could choose to stay indoors, fearful and anxious as to where the Spirit is leading us.

However, we could also choose to be the church who leans into the restless night, to commit our dreams to memory and to be willing to share them, no matter how bizarre and wild we might think they might are...using it to our advantage in creating a church where winds surrounds us, the Spirit fills us, moves us, and helps us to hold onto our core values, yet pushes us to take our values and to go outside our comfort zones, to see the church in a new and glorious light. Like the disciples on the day of Pentecost, we are called to new age, a new era, a new life in Christ.

 Filled by the Holy Spirit to proclaim this good news, to sing our praises to God, to share our passions, and our dreams with others. Friends, this is our calling, it may not be an easy one. Dreaming dreams requires sacrifice, but the more we stick together,  the more we allow one another to share and live into the dreams we are given, harnessing the energy together, and  using it to form and build new structures for the church; the better we can find new ways to approach God, the better we find meaningful ways to proclaim the goods news that we were given: God loves us and calls us to share that love to everyone.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in one of his books, tells us what God’s dream is for us and for the church, what we are called to proclaim. “God says to [the church], ‘I have a dream. Please help me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts. When there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.’” How we share and tell this story, how we help to live out God’s dream, will change and evolve, but as people of God, we must we willing to dream as God dreams.

We are called at Pentecost, to look back in time, to see where and how the Holy Spirit has filled us, has urged us, and called us to fulfill the dreams God has placed on our hearts. But at Pentecost we are also called to be looking right now in the present, and be willing to have restless sleep which will allows us to have dreams that dare us to consider where God may be found today. May we be able to be filled by the Spirit, and be willing to dream and to live together in Christ as one. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/2014/02/22/486125e2-9a56-11e3-b88d-f36c07223d88_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1594976c1ca2

 

May 13, 2018 Luke 24:44-53

This week, I received a card that said “There are few problems in life that can’t be solved with a new pair of shoes.” For me, this could be a life motto. I love a new pair of shoes, and imagining how the new beauties could be used in my life. Will these be a fun new pair to go out one evening with friends? Will it be the practical dress pair that I can use for work? Will these shoes be the comfy cozy ones, that I wear because they feel like pillows hugging my feet? Will they be the fancy ones that I use for special occasion, but I have to remember to not wear them for lots of walking? Will they be ones that I can use on adventures, across different terrains, used in multiple climates? Different shoes have different purposes and help to dictate where we are able to go.

This morning’s passage is the end of an earthly journey for Jesus. His ministry and life have taken him across many miles through Israel and Palestine. He has walk to the seashore, and ask disciples to follow him, he climbed to the top of the mount and taught the people listening, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus was welcomed into homes, dining with people no one ever expected him to break bread with.  He entered into the temple and taught new ways of living and understanding the law. Jesus traveled in boats, on foot, and as he descended into Jerusalem that final week on a donkey. The well-worn shoes that Jesus donned, were used for many purposes throughout his ministry, and they carried him out of Jerusalem, on one final journey, out to a hillside near Bethany, alongside his disciples.

The story of Jesus’ ascension is a short passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus gives his final instructions, commission and promise to the disciples. Jesus reminds the disciples that though people didn’t expect it to be the way he lived, Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms must be fulfilled.” All that took place for God’s greater purposes. Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” to understand that the “Messiah is to suffer, to rise from the dead on the third day, and that the repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Jesus reminds the disciples they are the witness to all of this. Being a witness is not just becoming merely a spectator, but rather testifying, to all what they have experienced and that has been taught by their Lord, and then continuing to live out that life Jesus had lived.

The Ascension teaches us that Jesus belongs to God.  And what our expectations of Jesus were, what we wanted him to do, how we wanted him to rule, when we want him to come back, was not our call, not our decision. Jesus belongs to God. Just as we belong to God. But we are to be witness to all these things. I read this week that, "We grow and change. We move from one place to another. We endure disease and violence. We live in the sometimes-painful rhythm of suffering and death. We make mistakes and we commit sins, knowingly and unknowingly. But through it all, we carry with us this vision of our humanity being taken up by Christ into God, caught up within an ultimate, redemptive purpose for our lives. At the Ascension, Jesus took all of human life, which he cared for so deeply, and brought it "into the heavenly places," into the very heart of God. This includes the suffering refugee, the abused child or spouse, the victim of war or terror, the lonely one in the nursing home, the one who struggles with depression or a lost sense of worth and value, those who are sick, all who are in difficult transitions in life." In the Ascension, Jesus moves emphatically to God's side.  And Christ's Ascension we have a vision of God’s creation being pulled toward the heart of God.[i] Through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection and today in his ascension, we see the fulfillment of God’s ultimate story and purposes. Calvin said that “from [the ascension] our faith receives many benefits. It understands that the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom…And since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows…that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him,’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but [Christ] already possesses it.”[ii] Everything and everyone is headed towards God in the fulfillment of God’s purposes. And we are to be witness to all these things: the incredible unfolding of God’s plan.

I love the image on the front cover of the bulletin today. It’s an interesting rendition of the Ascension by Brian Whelan, it is colorful and shows the whole scene, the angels bringing Jesus up, the disciples watching his body being carried. You have the dove, the reminder of the Spirit who was there for Jesus’s baptism, who will come soon enough to the disciples, even the leaves at the bottom, perhaps a nod to the Palm fronds of Jesus’ parade?   But what I love the most is two little details: one that his sandals are left on the ground and two, the man whose beard is closest to the sandals is not looking up, but instead at the sandals. It is almost as if that person doesn’t really care about what is happening to Jesus, rather what is left behind.

What Jesus left behind was for disciples of every age to fill his shoes. To keep doing what he had done all along the way, to be a witness and to teach a message they had heard Jesus proclaim throughout his time on earth. As modern-day disciples, we too are to wear the shoes that Jesus left behind and to proclaim a message of forgiveness, a message of peace and a message compassion. A message that God is a God who exceeds our expectations, who does not discredit us when we falter but rather, God loves us unconditionally.

In the contemporary confession we will read this morning, it says, “We rejoice in the goodness of God, renounce the works of darkness, and dedicate ourselves to holy living. As covenant partners, called to faithful obedience, and set free for joyful praise, we offer our hearts and lives to do God's work in his world.”

We are like the disciples, called to fill the shoes of Christ, to do God’s work in the world, through whatever means we see fit. It may seem like a daunting task, putting on his shoes, but we do so, no on our own, but together as believers, blessed by God, to proclaim and witness to all whom we encounter.  As people of faith, we are to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, through our words and in our actions; because our faith demands nothing less. So may we put on the shoes that Christ left behind and go out and be witnesses to the world. And may it be so. Amen.

 

[i] John McClure and John DeBevoise, https://www.facebook.com/john.debevoise/posts/10209009495619875?fref=nf&pnref=story

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.16.16.

May 6, 2018 Psalm 98

One of my favorite movies growing up, was the 1940’s Disney classic, Fantasia. The movie, paired classical works of music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, including selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, set to vivid scenes; whether it be the evolution of the seasons of creation, or vivid abstract colors and shapes in tune with the music. It was a fascinating and unique movie compared to traditional movies with storylines and a progression, Fantasia, took the music and animated a picture of the story the music was singing.

            This is what I think about as I listen to our psalm for the day, As I hear the words of the psalmist, I almost can hear the lyre and the trumpets singing tunes, and I can visualize the seas roaring and the hills alive with their sounds of music in praise to God. I see bright colors twirling and swirling in harmony, flowers and trees dancing in the wind, I hear birds chirping and lions roaring, I imagine children giggling and dancing together, churches singing with their loudest praises and old friends laughing and listening to one another. This is a psalm that tells a story of all of creation giving of themselves in honor to God. It is a psalm that tells the story of the cosmic jubilation, all the world, eager to point to the presence of God, celebrating what God has already done, is doing and will do for them.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, a confession drawn up in the 1600s. It is the quintessential document describing reformed theology and thinking. The Confession is in question and answer form. And the very first question of it is: What is the chief end of humankind?  Answer:  the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. Which is exactly what Psalm 98 highlights how we are to live into that praise, to get lost in adoration of the beloved, and to be awestruck by beauty. As Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann says “All of life is aimed towards God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the one whose we are…God is addressed not because we have need, but simply because God is God.”[i]

Sing to the Lord, sing praises to the Lord, shout for joy! The sea applauds, the rivers clap, the mountains shout, encore! Praise the Lord for he has done marvelous things! The psalm calls us to Glorify God, to stand in awe and to create space so that we can take in the wonder of God, so that we might hear and know God with our entire being. A state of wonder and gratitude of awe is how we are meant to exist in this life we live. Waking each day still unable to believe we are alive, to see God’s glory in the sunrise, in a rock formation, the dandelion sporting its golden flower, the smile of a loved one. Creating space for God so that we might Glorify God. That is the chief end of humankind.

That’s the feeling we often receive in seeing the beauty of nature, gazing at art, watching children at play, or singing a moving hymn. I suppose that is why the opening hymn we sang remains one of the most favored.  How Great Thou Art—we sing and praise God—oh Lord my God—when I in awesome wonder consider--The text of this hymn is by Carl Gustave Boberg who put down these stirring words in 1885. They were a result of his experience in a midday thunderstorm where moments of flashing violence were followed by a clear brilliant sun. It was reported that Rev. Boberg fell on his knees in “humble adoration to God” and shortly after, wrote the poem. Several years later he discovered that folks in Sweden had set the poem to music with an old Swedish folk melody. In 1951 it was introduced in the US and quickly became the most popular in the US. Even today it remains a powerful and favorite hymn due to the wonder, awe, and gratitude it powerfully evokes.

But that sense of awe is hard to sustain.  It’s hard to continuously create that special space for God. Life being what it is, we are continuously bombarded with challenges that turn our focus inward. And yet, God’s grace reaches out to make Godself known. And we are to continually yield and submit ourselves in trust and gratitude to God. God speaks to us always, through people around us, through music, art, books. God’s grace reaches out and finds us in all ways.

The creations story is a work of art—it is the first expression of creativity and God’s grace. The scriptures tell us God—Out of nothing—out of nothing, God created and then God paused to reflect on his handiwork. God saw creation taking shape and God gazes on it as an artist—with keenness, perceptivity, and patience. God called forth beautiful things that didn’t exist until he called them. He observes, he attends, he notices and he calls his creation—Good!

Frederick Buechner tells us that this artistic creativity is an ongoing event, “using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water every 24 hrs God creates something new out of them. If you think you are seeing the same show all over again 7 times a week—Think again! Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And “the you” that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again either.” God is the ultimate creator and craftsman.

And it is that desire and that captivation by the hidden power of sounds, words, colors, shapes that God has put before us in creation that inspires humanity to repeat, as we reach out not only in praise and gratefulness, but which we try to explain and enter into the mystery of God through the creative arts. God is a mystery, a challenge to Christians at all levels.  So humans continually seek to interpret, explain and understand God, to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

The creative arts seek to unwrap the mystery of God and our relationship to God by exploring those existential questions:  From where do we come, where does this road take us, what is the object of our toil and sorrow, how do we understand cruelty and evil in our understanding of a kind and merciful God, will the meaning of life be revealed in death?

The creative arts touch us, wound us, open our eyes and help us discover/rediscover the joy of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the mystery of which we are a part and then firmly engage with it every day. The arts shock us out of ourselves, keep us from being content with the status quo and becoming complacent. They provide a means to opening our hearts and minds, creating space for God who alone satisfies our deep longings. The revelations of the splendor and wonder of God is never ambiguous.  It changes hearts and minds.

The creative arts lead us to contemplate the mysteries of faith, and point us to Christ Jesus, the One who emptied himself for our salvation. It has been said that in this era of post-Christianity, the creative arts may be the most compelling path to faith. In one of his books, Philip Yancey wrote about the time Yo-Yo-Ma visited the ailing Steve Jobs and played Bach on his cello, Jobs teared up and said, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” The creative arts communicate at a more subtle level, they cut through defenses and awaken our thirst for something meaningful.

We are not all called or gifted to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet as we learn from the book of Genesis, we are all given the task of crafting our own lives. In a way, we are entrusted with the responsibility to make our own lives a work of art, a masterpiece that glorifies God.   Each day presents us with multiple opportunities for personal encounters with God, for moments of awe, for creating space for God—never the same as we were before and never to be the same again. God speaks to us always—through people around us, through music, art, books, through nature. God’s grace reaches out and finds us in all ways. And then as our act of response, like the seas and hills, we are to with our own lives make a new song to the Lord; praising God with our own creative selves.

By creating space for God, we clear out all the distractions. Then and only then, can we experience the call that God has placed on our lives and only then, can all things be properly ordered that we might create the masterpiece that is our lives. The good news is, praise and joy to God is a communal experience, whether is it music shared together, art enjoyed, gardens and nature viewed, worship given collectively. In our human experience, joy and inspiration is a response that ultimately does not stay contained. It is an emotion to be shared, that ultimately leads to the whole universe praising God and celebrating the human impossibilities that become God’s possibilities.

 In a world that assumes the status is quo, the praises of God’s people, through whatever creative means, are fundamental indicators that wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen and hope is an authentic stance. And this happens because of, the truth of God’s grace: that there is nothing that we have to do but live in the joy of the Lord.[ii] What is the chief end of humankind? To glorify God and enjoy God forever. So may we, with our songs, our dances, our brushstrokes, our poetry, our gardens, our lives be a creative and living praise glorifying God and enjoying God forever. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Walter Bruggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, 1.

[ii] Patrick Miller, In Praise and Thanksgiving, 186.

April 22, 2018 John 10:11-18

I just wanna be a sheep _____________. So you were paying attention to the children’s message today! Though did you know that sheep are generally not considered the brightest of livestock. In fact, sheep are quite vulnerable without a shepherd. Like our scriptures today notes, they are vulnerable to predators like wolves and thieves. They are vulnerable to themselves, notorious to wandering from the flock. Which is why some people are quite uncomfortable with language that refers to humans as sheep. They don’t want to be associated with an animal that is deemed, weak. However, this morning on the 4th Sunday of Easter we celebrate Sheep or Shepherding Sunday; our readings point to just two of the many passages in scripture referring to sheep/shepherd language. And if Jesus himself calls us his sheep, then there has to be viable reason for this metaphor.

          Often times we think about these passages and seek to find comfort in them, the idyllic scenes of lush green pastures, gently rolling hillsides, crystalline blue streams, and a strong shepherd carrying a lamb over his shoulders. But the truth of the matter is that shepherding life is not so beautiful and iconic. The just outside of Jerusalem, is a rocky and hilly area, few trees dotting the landscape and varied shades of brown pastures surpass hews of green. The shepherds live a nomadic lifestyle with daily risks of predators, safety, and food insecurity.

The journey for sheep and their shepherds can be rough. However, it is a normal part of a sheep’s life to have to journey through these dangerous and sometimes painful places in the process of getting from grazing pasture to pasture. Yet, shepherds transform the wilderness into security and safety for the sheep, guiding them around danger to green grass and cool waters. As the sheep are prone to wander, the shepherds will guide them back, calling them from behind, herding them back to safety. In biblical times, they would use the rod and the staff as tools for this task.  

For Jesus, the image of the shepherd and the sheep was about the relationship and the bond they had for one another. You see, there is a deep bond between the shepherd and the flock.  One that goes beyond safety and food, one of deep trust. Barbara Brown Taylor noted in a sermon that “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds as part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive.” It is true, that sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and will follow that voice, but none other. For Jesus to be the Good Shepherd, he embodies strength, power, empathy, kindness, and mercy. This relationship between Christ as the Good Shepherd and his flock, is one built on obedience, trust, and mutual love. What Jesus does for his sheep, for his people, is an extension of his love and devotion to God, no matter the danger that is present.

So perhaps us being called sheep is apropos. Jesus yearns for us to listen to only his voice, to follow only him. But in reality, we are much more accustomed to being shepherds in control than sheep in need of leadership. However, when it comes to our relationship with God, Jesus understands our human tendencies, better than, perhaps we understand ourselves. When it comes to our faith, we are very much like sheep in need of a shepherd. Like sheep, we have the tendency to follow. Like sheep, we are often confused by the cacophony of voices calling out to us, often mistaking the Good Shepherd’s true leadership with the kind offered by hired hands (or shepherds who are in it for the wrong reason). Like sheep, we are endangered by those who prey on our vulnerability. Like sheep, we are perhaps most vulnerable to ourselves and our tendency to wander away from the care of the shepherd and the safety of the flock. For we live in wildernesses, we put ourselves in the way of danger. We wander through life as though we are indestructible, when in truth we are not. We may live as recklessly as sheep, overextending our resources. We certainly need a Good Shepherd, like Jesus, who is willing to care for, to lead us, and who will sacrifice for us.[i] The good news is that our Good Shepherd, Christ, is guiding us, leading us, not from in front, like the pied piper, but rather from behind, moving us gently along, protecting us from ourselves as well as danger. We often are oblivious of Christ’s presence with us, we aren’t able to hear his calling. 

Yet it is in this gathering--this community where we best hear the voice of the shepherd. But not unlike that early community that John is addressing, we still struggle to discern the voice of Jesus among the many competing voices trying to get our attention. And our hearing is also afflicted by our own intended and unintended actions that muffle or block the voice of the Shepherd.  Sometimes we allow these voices to become the center our lives such that the voice of the Shepherd becomes faint and distant and we begin to lose our way. Sometimes these voices can be deafening, attempting to take advantage of our vulnerability and separate us from the flock. The voices of bitterness, criticism, hate, prejudice, exclusivism, rejection, envy, addiction–just to name a few…drown out the voice of the Shepherd. The reality is we will always be confronted by these competing voices. They are a part of our humanity.                 

Which is the challenge for the church today. It is the same as it was in the time of John and every time since—to be community in and for one another with the cross at the center and our ears tuned to the Shepherd. In community, together we listen to the competing voices, we discern, we listen again until we hear and know the voice of the Shepherd. The only way to do that is to be here with one another and be in the presence of Christ and recognize the presence of Christ in one another. The Good Shepherd who calls us together and attends to each and everyone of us. In community the voice of the Shepherd is amplified and is clarified. In community we are best able to genuinely critique ourselves, thus, assuring we hear the voice of the Shepherd and the voice we follow, is that of the Shepherd.

Henri Nouwen said, “The basis of the Christian community is not family ties, social or economic equality, shared oppression or complaint or mutual attraction. The basis is our divine call—something we hear together.” And it is together centered around the voice of the shepherd that we can once again resonate with the voice that calls us, asks for our attention, our commitment, our faithfulness and our trust. This Christian community is not a closed flock nor can it be like-minded in the way of a safe and cozy clique that narrows the community and the sense of community. We must always be able to create space for others so that they also may become one of the flock and add to our fullness in hearing the voice of the Shepherd. Trusting in the Shepherd who stands guard against the worst the world can do-- we are empowered to be the community, --the flock that points beyond itself to the one who calls us by name.

          The challenge that our scripture lays upon us this week, is asking ourselves if we are willing to be sheep, to be led by the Good Shepherd, to help one another hear his voice and to welcome others into the flock ?

Because the truth is we will never be as good as or even come close to being the shepherd that Christ is. So instead, we need to decide if we are willing to follow the Good Shepherd, to be led by him to pastures and places unknown. Will we choose to learn his voice and follow his commands to love and serve him? Will we welcome others into Christ’s fold. May our response to the call from our Good Shepherd be, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I just wanna be a sheep.” And may is be so. Amen.

 

[i] http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/2622/sheep-need-a-shepherd

April 15, 2018 Luke 24:36-48

Imagine trying to convince someone that you’re alive. I don’t mean trying to look alert to the English teacher after dozing in class. Or setting the timers on your lights in your house while you are on vacation. I’m thinking of the challenge of actually having to prove that you’re not physically dead.

This was the predicament a few years ago for Charles Hubbard of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits. A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life. That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. Imagine having to going up to someone and saying, no really, here I am, I’m alive, it’s me! [i]

            This is the challenge that Jesus faces after he is resurrected from the grave. Our scripture takes place later in the day after the women have discovered the tomb empty. The eleven were assembled in that room –behind locked doors in Jerusalem—trying to make sense of it all.  “They were startled, frightened and fearful” scripture tells us. Which is not surprising. This was definitely not what they signed up for.  Not the way it was supposed to be. A few years ago, Jesus had singled each one out and called them—he could have chosen anyone—but he called them to be HIS disciples. And they set out on a journey with him. Sometimes it was incredulous—they witnessed miracle healings, changed lives, even the raising of the dead—Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus. At times the journey was frustrating—Jesus could be so hard to understand. Sometimes is was just downright aggravating—why did he have to be so humble—why didn’t he exert some of that “God power” to take care of the ones that opposed him and taunted him. They wanted Jesus to be the Messiah the scriptures had mentioned, to rule like King David, to overthrow the unjust powers of the Roman government. And the disciples envisioned, a long and rewarding ministry with Jesus, traveling from town to town; being there for the moment he took over at last as the powerful leader of the people of Israel. Oh—this relationship may have its ups and downs but all in all---everything was right in their world. Until—until that is, until the arrest, until the crucifixion, until Jesus was laid in that tomb. Now what would the future hold? So the disciples hide behind the closed doors and wonder, what now?

And so we find them in a room, wondering all these things terrified when Jesus appeared to them. And they were terrified. Who is it? What is it? A ghost?  An apparition?  What was this before them? It would be reasonable to believe that their inclination would be to run from that room as fast as their feet would take them and never look back. Yet, Jesus, in an attempt to prove he was alive says to them, “Look at Me!” He showed them his hands and his feet. Then Jesus asks if there’s anything in the fridge. This may have been Jesus honestly hungery; there’s no meal service in the grave, and days have passed since the Last Supper.[ii] But more than that, Jesus is determined to try to help these disciples know that he is not a ghost. As if to say, if you look at me, look at the miracle of the resurrection, you will find the answers.

And they did. Then Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. It is written —God has a plan—a plan he is fulfilling in me—and just because you do not understand it—does not make that plan wrong. The fulfillment of the Scriptures are leading to a new promise, a promise that you as my disciples will fulfill. Like these disciples, we forget that the Gospels do not demand that we understand Christ—rather—they offer the insight that Christ understands us. Christ identifies with our feelings, with our humanness, with our failures. Christ brings encouragement; Christ brings hope; Christ brings answers—of repentance, forgiveness, salvation. This message of repentance and forgiveness is a message of radical, life-changing—wipe the slate clean—good news. Good news of the magnificent plan God fulfills in Christ.

Christ conquering death and being raised from the dead is an incomparable experience. Resurrection is like nothing else. It is without precedence, without explanation. It exceeds any hopes and dreams of human possibility.

But then Jesus says, you will be witnesses. Not, “please be witnesses.” Not, “consider being witnesses if you have time.” No, “you are witnesses of these things.” As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.[iii]

While the world turns away, you are the witnesses to call people back to look at me.  To find the answers in me. That is where we enter into the story. We become the disciples with our own questions, doubts, hopes, fears and misunderstandings. And we are the witnesses that are called to testify to the good news. Which feels like a much harder task—since we were not first-hand witnesses…or are we?

 Often in the church we are reminded we are “Easter people,” and that every Sunday is a “little Easter” because each week, through worship we encounter the Risen Christ. In the reciting of the scriptures and the preached word we are offered explanation of Christ’s life and God’s plan. We eat the bread of the resurrection and drink from the cup of salvation with Christ at his table in the Eucharist. And through the prayers prayed and songs sung, and worship we experience the presence of the sacred in our midst. The spirit enlightens us and opens our hearts and minds to the calling to which we have been given. And then we are sent out into the world to be witnesses to these things.

The Risen Christ calls us to look at him. We can choose whether our faith is just lip-service or whether it is real. Christ does not call us to simply exist, to simply to survive. We are not even called to be successful, but we are called as the church, as believers, to be faithful to Christ and to serve and love the world as he did. Frederick Buechner says that as witnesses to Christ, we are “to keep alive the rumor, to bear witness to the presence, to proclaim in word and deed that all life is indeed blessed by, accountable to, and lived out in the presence of God.” 

That’s the rub. “We are witnesses” is not only who we are but also then how others see God to be. “We are witnesses” both points to our calling as well as our commitment to it. “We are witnesses” gives witness to our own selves, our own faith, our own belief. And that is the hardest truth to hear -- that perhaps we don’t believe in the identity God has given us, don’t believe God needs it, don’t believe others will see it, don’t believe that it actually matters. All the while, therefore, rejecting God’s expanded horizons and God’s relentless attempts to expand our imaginations.[iv]

What Jesus commands of his disciples and us, does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. “We are witnesses” does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. It just is. And that is the good news. Because, feft to our own devices, we’d make up every excuse imaginable to relinquish such responsibility, we’d probably be ok if someone stole our identity and we were deemed dead. We’d convince ourselves that someone more qualified could more certainly justify this calling.

So rather than continue in our ceaseless attempts to convince ourselves we have a choice, that we can carry out this occupation just as soon as we are adequately prepared, that we can graciously, even politely and respectfully, avoid God’s claim on us, why not try it on and see what it feels like? Wear it around, maybe even with “gladness in your heart” (Psalm 4:7). Fake it till you make it, if you will. Who knows? Perhaps then we might start to believe it.

Because witnessing is not optional. It’s not an intermittent activity of faith. It’s not something you can decide to do one day and then resolve to take the next day off. It’s constant. It’s a way of life. It’s who you are. As people of faith, as Easter people, we are to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, in our words and in our deed; our faith demands nothing less. And may it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/april-15-easter-3b-luke-2436b-48

[ii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/april-15-easter-3b-luke-2436b-48

[iii] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5126

[iv] Ibid.

April 1, 2018 Mark 16:1-8

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “We are the sum total of the choices we have made.” Life is all about choices. From our every day choices: “Do I go out and work in the garden or stay in and watch Netflix?” “Should I eat ice-cream and a glass of wine for dinner or a salad?” “Do I get up and go to church this morning or just stay at home and read my bible?” to important decisions: “Should I move here? Do we get married? When should I retire?” Our Holy week narrative is full of choices: Jesus being asked if he is the king of the Jews, the crowds being asked Barabbas or Jesus, Peter being asked if he is a disciple of Christ, the disciples choosing to stay and watch as Jesus is crucified or to flee in fear. Our lives are the sum total of the choices that we have made. In our scripture today, the women are faced with more choices. Yet the scripture feels like an incomplete story. For many early Christians, they even tried to complete the story, adding in additional verses in Mark’s gospel, just so we are not left hanging. We might begin to wonder how then to celebrate this Easter morning.  However, I think that Mark was very intentional at where he left us, in the midst of some mixed emotions and left with our own choices to make. Easter Morning is just the beginning for the women and for us, and though we want to have some extra joy and pomp and circumstance, maybe we need to begin first with feelings of fear, terror, and amazement.

            The story begins with the dawning of a new day. The women, are walking up to the tomb where just a few short days prior they watched Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body off the cross, wrap him up in a linen cloth, and laid his body in a tomb.  Rolling the stone in-front of the grave, these women said goodbye to their Lord and Savior. The women, who stayed through in the midst of the horrifying experience of witnessing Christ’s death on the cross, now are headed back up to the tomb to prepare his body with spices for an anointing. It is the start of a new day, a day that is filled with raw emotions: grief, they faced a loss; anger, reeling from the injustice of Christ’s death; fear, for what will happen next-to them, to the other disciples, to life as they once knew it. So walking up to the tomb, early in the morning, just as the sun begins to rise, these women focused on the one thing that mattered still to them, Jesus’ body.

They were coming to complete a task, to finish up the preparations of the body, the customary practices of the death ritual. Like a family whose loved one dies, there’s a list of things to do: get the death certificate, make arrangements with the funeral home, the church, call family, write the obituary…and that is just the beginning. The women were working on the list they had to finish the earthly life of their teacher. As they were walking to the gravesite, they ponder to each other, “Who will roll away the tomb?” Who’s going to help us, roll this massive stone away so we can get to our tasks? And while the question lingered in the air, the women come to the opening of the tomb to see the stone had already been rolled away. A man is there in Christ’s place. “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here. He has been raised.” The man continues and tells them to enter into the tomb, “Look, here is the place where they laid him.” Jesus, obviously not there. And then the man says, “Go, tell his disciples, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Yet, in our final verse, the scripture says, “Overcome with trauma and ecstasy, the women fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

That’s where Mark ends the story. It’s really uncomfortable, the women go to the tomb to complete a task, filled with emotions, but they can’t do what they wanted to do because the tomb was empty. The body was gone, and something else was asked of them, go and tell the others. Here the man is giving them a choice, challenging them to a new day, a new beginning, with new responsibilities- you have to go on ahead, don’t live in the past of Christ’s death, move forward in the light of the resurrection, go to Galilee, proclaim the Good News.  But two other emotions creep in for these women, one word we in English would be described as terror/trauma/fear, and the other word ecstasy/amazement/astonishment. When I think about these two words, I generally don’t put them together to describe feelings: trauma and amazement. They seem to be on two different spectrums, but maybe that is precisely why Mark uses them for the women.

When the women enter the tomb we want them to shout Alleluia! We want them to proclaim that Christ is risen, to go ahead and see Jesus. But from Mark’s account, they don’t react the way we expect them to on Easter morning, instead they are filled with literally an entire range of emotions, and they flee. I think Mark is intentional here, and wants us to jump into the story with the women, to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. They didn’t see Jesus, and neither do we. They didn’t hear Jesus call their names, and we don’t either. We won’t be able to touch Jesus’ hands. The three women are our silent partners, leaving the space for us, the readers to complete the story.

It is often in our lives when we experience moments that are filled with dueling emotions, like terror and astonishment, just like the women at the tomb. Whether it is that we receive the news that our loved one is in end-stage lung cancer and the only option is comfort care, or receive the news that “It’s a girl.” Whether we put down the down-payment to purchase a new home or pack up the home filled with years of family memories. Whether we say I do at the altar, or say goodbye as we close the door to the office and the career we once had. We all have and have had moments and times in our lives filled with transitions and choices. And in those moments, despite what people around us are saying, we end up with feelings that both traumatize and amaze us, not completely sure what will be in store for us, what comes after. Stepping into the world of the resurrection is transformative in both the traumatic and ecstatic sense. To reach this state, like the women, calls upon us to step out in faith. It is a faith that requires us to believe in the God who is not in the tomb, but out there in the world, waiting for us.

The choice is clear—be paralyzed by fear or propelled forward by faith. Should we remain as defeated bystanders wallowing in despair or be witnesses to the resurrection ready to step out in faith for the risen Christ, ready to tell others. Mark’s message reaches across all time lines to grab hold of us and challenge us. You have a choice: Respond to Christ’s call or Remain frozen in fear, remain hidden in the dark places. Mark reminds us the story of the resurrection is not about an empty tomb. It is about changed lives, about risking a transformation, about a new life-- in Christ.

In our scripture today, the Resurrection is not about empty tombs, but about the living Christ who continues to encounter us in the world and call us to discipleship.  As the Psalmist affirms “God has made known to us the path of life.”  That is the Easter story. The story that compels us to choose—a life in the safety of our own dark hiding places or a transformed life that can be full of risk, full of surprises, full of challenges, but lived in the promise and the truth of resurrection. Christ is alive!  In the words of the angel that day “I will meet you in Galilee.  There we began together; there we will begin anew.” Christ is with us claiming us for the journey.

Yet, the truth is…it’s a big risk. Like with any choice, any next step in our lives. There will be setbacks along the way.  Troubles, disappointments, down right heart wrenching sorrow, fire breathing anger, or frightening episodes.  There will be confusion, shame, guilt, doubt, and even unbelief.  Jesus comforts us, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Paul calls these the times that we won’t fully understand until at last “we see face to face”. Nevertheless, Paul says, keep on the path, run the race, head for the finish line and keep your eyes on Christ.

And we know that is what the women chose, eventually. Because we know the story. The women eventually told people, shared the good news, because we know the Good News. Fear did not hold them back, instead their faith eventually gave them the courage to proclaim that the Lord had Risen.   

We are all on a journey, some of us new in their walk with Christ, some well on the way, some struggling on the path and ready to give up. But like the women, today we stand at the empty tomb and we have a choice: To leave in terror and fear, or to go and share the good news. The choice is ours to make. Leonard Sweet puts it this way:

When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you believed too much or you believed too little?

When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you cared too much or you cared to little?

When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told that you tried too hard or you didn’t try hard enough?

When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told that you were too forgiving or you were too judgmental?

When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told, “Well done, thou hyper-hopeful and risk-taking servant, or “Well done, thou sober and play-it-safe servant”?

There is a choice, this Easter, even in the midst of our doubts, our questions, and our hopes. Even in the midst of our fear and amazement, Christ calls us from our hiding place to celebrate life in him, a life of choices, of risks, and of surprises. A life of joy, of conviction, and anticipation. Will you go to Galilee, and share the news? May it be so. Amen. 

March 11, 2018 Lamentations 4

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted are the words we hear in the Beatitudes.  Like most of you, I have experienced the “valley of the shadow of death” when family members died.  Often the experience is rather surreal, your brain is operating on a rational level: smiling, nodding, making polite conversation, thanking people, organizing a memorial service, while your heart is barely able to beat.  I am reminded of the scene from Steel Magnolias:  Friends and family are gathered at Ma’Lynn’s home after the funeral of her daughter, Shelby.  One friend, Annelle tries to comfort saying, “Ma’Lynn, Shelby is with her King now”.  Ma’Lynn explodes and shouts “I understand that in my head, but would somebody please explain it to my heart.”  Ministry is more than theologically correct answers to our questions, we need healing for our hearts.  That is the value of communal lament that we hear in the text today. In our scripture we hear now the voice of the community, wailing and telling their story, pleading that their suffering will eventually end. Ultimately with their communal lament, the people are able to envision a new reality, a life completely opposite of their present conditions. That is the beauty of lament, it clears the air, and the spiritual and the psychological space for imagining a different future.[i]

There is an Chinese tale about a woman whose only son died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and asked, “what prayer, what magical incantation do you have to bring my son back to life?“ Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he told the woman, “Fetch me a mustard see from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.” The woman set off in search of the magical mustard seed. She first came to a home, knocked on the door and said, “I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place?” The people told her, “You’ve certainly come to the wrong place,” and began to describe all of the tragic things that recently befallen them. The woman said to herself, “Whom is better able to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?” She stayed to comfort them, then went on to search for a home that have never known sorrow. But wherever she turned, in hovels and in palaces, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune.[ii] The moral of the story is that everyone is our brother and sister in suffering. No one comes from a home which has never known sorrow. It is only necessary then that in the midst of our grief, we be supported by others who have also experienced pain and suffering. Lament allows for this to happen.

Which is why communal lament is the work of the church.  In Ecclesiastes we hear:  There is a time for wailing and a time for laughter. It is true, the church is willing to rejoice with one another in times of great joy. And often we are really great at celebrations: births, promotions, weddings, but the same is not always true when it comes to sharing grief.  Grief is generally, ignored by the church because, let’s face it, we don’t really know what to do with grief and all that goes with it, the tears, the tough questions, the lack of answers--they make us uncomfortable. Society and the church discourage us from expressing intense feelings of sorrow or anger when we experience a significant loss in our lives. When there is a death in the family, people are allowed very little time off from work. And although it once was the custom; today, no one wears visible signs of mourning, rather we expect people to go back into the everyday routines of life. And as Christians, continued expressions of grief are often associated with weak faith.[iii] Other than funerals and perhaps during Lent, American churches have few intentional and regular moments of communal lament. Even in worship in most churches the liturgical style is upbeat, perky, positive and celebrative.  There is little room for songs and liturgy that express the misery of life because we are mostly communally disconnected from misery.

Yet, our churches’ pews are filled with people who are disconnected from the upbeat approach to worship. They find no voice to speak out their lament. A mother who suffers the birth of a stillborn and then sits in worship trying to maintain as the congregation sings “God is so Good”.  A man who lost his wife and companion of many years tries desperately to hold it together as he listens to words that speak only of prosperity and the life of joy Christ wants you to have.  Because the community does not lament, these lamenters in the midst of despair, sorrow, doubt sense their faith is inauthentic or even that they are faithless.[iv] They feel utterly alone.

However, French Philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.” When we are feeling at our weakest and most vulnerable, we need a community to understand and empower us to speak our true emotions.

Against our tendency to deny the intensity of grief, we see in our study of Lamentations, and throughout the Bible, there is a bible tradition of lament, which allows individuals to express anguish and anger directly to God and before the community of believers.

The Bible recognizes the overwhelming reality of grief that can’t be consoled. Which is why the church need to turn to the biblical concept of lament to provide a space where people can express their sorrow before God and one another.[v] The time has come for the church to recover the value of communal lament not only for the sake of individuals but for the sake of the world.  Without the practice of public lament, collective work for healing is blocked giving power to injustices, hurt, anger. Lament empowers sufferers to speak for themselves.[vi] The emotions that the people of Zion are feeling are raw. There is no holding back in their feelings, “The precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold-how they are reckoned as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands! Happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger, whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field.”

That’s the value of lament, 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. Communal lament invites us to stand with one another and sometimes act on behalf of those who are paralyzed by their pain. In many Jewish communities the practice of “Sitting Shiva” is honored.  Following the funeral, the family and close friends gather in the home of the deceased for a period of seven days. Mourning focuses on the loss so that the mourners will be able to gradually heal.  Neighbors and friends supply meals and they sit quietly with the family to share stories of the deceased.  Tears flow freely.  The time is not rushed and there is no push to move beyond the lamenting. 

Without faithful communal lament, the church continues to preserve the privatization of faith and fails to think theologically about public issues and public problems.[vii] Without faithful communal lament, private hurts live in tension with public joy. That tension holds true as people experiencing great hurt cannot connect with the celebrative and even contemplative liturgical worship.  Even though they may bring their hurts and pains to support groups or therapists, they feel no access to the communal or shared expression of lament with their faith community making them feel like outsiders.[viii]  

It is all too often that we tell ourselves and others to “put on a brave face” when we go out in public, to step out of the sanctuary when tears begin to flow, because we do not want to seem weak or have people give us the trite comments that provide no relief. Yet, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the “gift of tear” and the catharsis, the comfort, and the renewal that can come from expressing deep grief. Tears give us access to our full humanity.  Tears of loss, grief, abandonment and outrage are a release, an emptying, a cleansing of body and spirit.  Tears can give watery birth to hope. [ix]

In many ways the contemporary church is recovering the value of lament in private prayer.  I hope that is something that you are coming to see this Lent in daring to boldly pray to God the truth of our hearts whether they be words of worry, hurts, anger, thanksgiving, doubt.  I hope also that recovering the value of lament is being raised in your understanding as we explore the difficult texts of Lamentations.  While the recovery of personal lament is a great gain, if communal laments are not likewise incorporated, only personal religion is served. 

Lamenting together, allows 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. (James 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. This includes our ability to lament alongside one another. 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.”[x] 

One of my favorite authors, Andrew Purves says, “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.”[xi]  Communal lament provides us the vehicle in which to be truly present for one another, by providing authenticity and voice to the honest feelings we experience.

We could easily conclude that communal lament is a “downer,” but that is the misunderstanding of lament. Lament is a necessary expression of faith.  It sustains hope. Lament is not meant to wallow in the pain and sorrow of the human predicament which amounts to self-pity; rather, lament transforms, enables perseverance, empowers, gives hope which arises out of trust in God whose love is forever. 

Lament summons Christians beyond ourselves to become the communion of saints, the church united, the body of Christ broken together, the sacrament of healing for the world.  Lament teaches fierce staunchness before God.[xii]

Without faithful communal lament we cannot fully live in the call that Christ has placed on us.  We cannot hear the full content of one another’s cries leaving us with little room for the suffering of others. Diminished compassion thwarts our ability to stand in solidarity and live justly in community.  Justice and love must arise from a genuine connection with others.  Without communal lament social justice remains in the secular realm leave the church without voice in the public square.[xiii] Without faithful communal lament, communities of faith do not share the hurt and pain of public, nations, or global tragedies and anxieties.  We are unable to fully grasp the realities of the human predicament.[xiv]

Though we will all have moments when we suffer and in pain, there is sweet comfort knowing, that as Christians, we have the gift and calling to hold one another’s hands, to speak out and lament together, and to walk together with one another through the journey of dark pain into the light of new life. May it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] O’Connor, Kathleen, “Lamentations and the Tears of the World,” 69.

[ii] Kushner, Harold S. “When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 122-3.

[iii] Sally Brown and Patrick Miller, “Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square,” 5.

[iv] Hicks, John Mark, “Preaching Community Laments: Responding to Disillusionment with God and Injustice in the World. 

[v] Brown and Miller, “Lament..” 7.

[vi] O’Connor, Kathleen M., Lamentations &The Tears of the World, Mary Knoll, New York, 2002, p.128.

[vii] Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p. 68

[viii] Hicks

[ix] Ibid. pp. 129-130.

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

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

[xii] O’Connor. p. 136

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

 

March 4, 2018 Lamentations 3

In the anthems of “songs my mom sang to me” a Neil Diamond song was classic for days I came home from school sad or frustrated. He introduced a song in 1972 called “Song Sung Blue” that goes something like this: (and today I’ll spare you from singing) “Song sung blue, everybody knows one.  Song sung blue every garden grows one.  Me and you, a subject to the blues now and then, but when you take the blues and make a song, you sing them out again.  Funny thing, but you sing it with a cry in you voice and before you know it, get to feeling good.  You simply got no choice”.  At some point in life many of us will lose hope whether, it is due to our choices or circumstances beyond our control.  The ground seems to just give way beneath our feet, and we are swept away to a place where we feel completely and hopelessly lost to the point we think we will never find our way again. When fear, sadness, pain and anger are our constant companions, we question whether we will ever again find life. Our experiences have pushed us past the ability to hold on to hope.[i]

That is precisely the point at which we find the speaker in the text.  This morning’s text we hear a new voice, that of the strongman. Our strongman, was entrusted to defend the women, children and non-combatants, yet he himself is a captive, and is powerless, unable to fulfill his protective role.[ii] He has tenaciously tried to engage God even in the face of God’s silence.  His passionate words accused God of injury and abandonment.  His tears are tears of hope that wash out the space occupied by despair, fury, and sorrow leaving that space for hope to enter.[iii]

But like many people, our strongman flits between doubt and hope throughout the poem. “Those who were my enemies without cause have hunted me like bird…water closed over my head; I said, ‘I am lost.’ I called on your name O Lord…you heard my plea…you came near when I called on you…” In times of tragedy and suffering, hope rarely remains steadfast and strong, but rather emerges and retreats.  Survivors often reenter their suffering, briefly see beyond it and then fall back into pain and loss, only to emerge again with hope. What is unique to our poem today, is the power of hope and faith in God. The familiar hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness borrows the strongman’s poetry, “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” These pivotal verses found in the center of the poem, echo a truth needed, a budding reminder that everything that Jerusalem and the people of God have endured will not be forever.  God never stops showing mercies and loving-kindness; every morning new mercies will overturn. What the text is recalling is that God’s character is unchangeable, God’s nature is enduring.  How God feels and acts toward us does not arise from our ability to behave in a certain way, but upon God’s fidelity to his own word and his unwavering loyalty.  Suffering, evil, and pain are not God’s final intention. God always has the last word because his love is never finished.  The strongman finds hope, then, not in his ability to overcome the circumstances but in the faithful character of God.[iv] Though the strongman’s life is in ruins, in his own deep act of trust, he remembers God’s faithfulness is his possession, his chosen way of living.[v] The strongman is reminding himself and those who hear him that God’s love, God’s faithfulness is greater than any sorrow, destruction, self-infliction or doubt. Only in that love will we find hope in our hopelessness, and the promise of joy in our sorrows.

We aren’t without our own losses. Whether it be losses of loved ones, loss of job of security, or the loss of life as it once was. We have seen the world evolve, the fears of not being able to trust others invades our lives. With shootings and bombings not only overseas, but in our own country and in our communities, we hope for the world to change; yet, see little hope and the seeds of despair begin to flourish. In the middle age, a descriptive phrase was coined that captures the overwhelming sense of loss and destruction that is all too common in our world…The Dark Night of the Soul.  This phrase captures the spiritual poverty that consumes us in the midst of despair, grief, and God’s seeming absence.  The Dark Night of the Soul is to be conflicted—wanting to believe but not wanting to be hurt again—wanting to hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, but not wanting to become vulnerable again.[vi]

  Yet, hope is more than optimism, wishful thinking, or just a simple act of willful determination.  Hope is putting trust in God’s promises and having confidence that God’s promises will come to pass.  Hope, then, is faith in the future tense (Rom . 8:32) Hope isn’t something passive, but rather, hope is an action brought about by the grace of God and enacted through us in our faith and trust in God. Hope empowers us to enter into solidarity with the groaning creation and to persist in the struggle for the renewal of all things. Christian hope does not close our eyes to the suffering of the world, rather it should stretch our imagination and deepen our solidarity with other people.  The world does not need Christians telling everybody life is always rosy, it needs us to tell the truth and the reality of the way things are and how we can deal with that.  We sing out the Song Sung blue to bring hope—we have no choice. God’s faithfulness is the basis of our hope and how we live out that hope in a troubled world is our testimony to that faithfulness.  As Christians, we will not be removed from the troubles of the world; rather we bring God into the depths of the chaos to share our terror, our belief, our despair, and our pain.  We are given Christ, a firm place to stand, in whom we place our trust, and who gives us the hope to believe in a new way to live and be in the world that seems so dark and disordered.

As a Christian, what is it that I hope for?  I hope for the world to change. When I see the countless people who are homeless and poor, I hope for the day when the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets. I hope for the day when there is no room for violence, when we stop producing body bags because there are no innocent bodies from merciless killings to fill them. I hope for the day when children do not have to be distracted in school or exhausted because they have not been able to eat over the weekend.  I hope for the day when all people who are plagued by the personal demons of mental illness, are able to receive regular and affordable care and treatment. I hope for the day when our world is no longer torn apart by racism and sexism and homophobia. I hope for the day when people know not the God of religious fanatics or bigots, and not a God who seemingly enjoys seeing the temples destroyed but a God who, in God’s own time will bring more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp. What is it that you hope for?

            Christian hope is living and acting in a way that expresses confidence in God as Lord not only of the past and the present but also of the future. 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 as Christians are called to pray and work toward these ends. To live in hope means to persevere in the struggle for justice, reconciliation and peace in the world, and to be confident in the ultimate victory of God.[vii]

In the Confession of Belhar it says, “we believe- that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.” God’s reign has come and is still coming. We see the reign of God when we see good overcome evil, when the oppressed are set free, when those who hurt are healed.  And it is our call and duty as Christ’s own, that we do what we can to accomplish this in our time, in our places, in our lives. This work has not been completed and we are still responding in gratitude to God’s mercy as we join in God’s kingdom and submit to God’s call our lives. 

In the face of the overwhelming challenges of our world, it is tempting to turn to despair. It is tempting to lock our doors in fear. But when we remember our hope in Christ, when we commit to stay true to Christ’s message and mission, we discover resources that empower and sustain us for our work. These resources include an alert watchfulness to recognize God’s coming – God’s presence and activity – and co-operation with what God is doing, the wisdom to know how best to respond to the challenges we face, and the stamina to keep going when it gets tough. When we remember that God’s reign arrives in the subtle, unexpected ways Jesus spoke of, we discover that these resources are exactly what we need to make the small, consistent commitments and contributions that really do change the world for the better.

We are called to live in the present, with the expectation that we cannot envision completely how God will work towards the restoration of all things. But while we wait in hopeful expectation, we are called to be the living incarnate of the Messiah who will make all things new. Great is God’s faithfulness. May it be so. Amen.

 

 

[i] Alan Brehm, “Nothing Lost,” sermon delivered on 4/6/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.

[ii] O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World. 44.

[iii] Ibid. 130.

[iv] Rah, Soong-Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Downer’s Grove, Ill., 2015 pg. 129.

[v] O’Connor, 50.

[vi] Carl Crouse, Sermon on Lamentations 3:19-26, Dare to Hope, https://www. sumasacchurch.com

[vii] Migliore, Faith Seeking, Understanding. 162.

February 25, 2018 Lamentation 2

Ever had the opportunity to serve on a jury?  Then you have a good idea of how a trial works.  The prosecutor lays out the crime and how the defendant is guilty.  Every action is described and the defendant is made out to be a horrible villain who deliberately caused the pain and suffering of the victim.  It is then up to the defense attorney to counter with another view—one that is less harsh and gives a plausible rationale for the defendant’s actions. 

This passage in Lamentations sounds very much like a trial.  Accusations are being hurled, blame is placed.  The only difference is—the defendant, God, is not present, and there is no defense attorney explaining the defendant’s actions. All the destruction and suffering of Jerusalem are attributed to God. YHWH has used Israel’s enemies to bring judgment upon Jerusalem and punish her so harshly that she is utterly destroyed. The jury or audience, is faced with a difficult truth:  What if God proves to be the source of suffering?  What if the humiliation and shame of Jerusalem is God’s will?[1] How, then, do we reconcile that with God who said “I will be your God and you will be my people”? The very God who chose Israel as his beloved. 
     Outcries concerning God’s wrath are not confined to Lamentations.  In fact, the wrath of God appears over 600 times in the OT alone.   We don’t often realize the extent of this in the biblical narrative because an angry God is considered an unacceptable topic in the contemporary church that only wants to hear God’s love and the blessings God pours out on his people.  It’s why I’ve heard pastors say that they don’t like preaching or studying the OT…they don’t want to have to talk about an angry God. Nevertheless, if we are to fully honor God, we must acknowledge the fullness of God’s divinity as is known through the Scriptures.  We have to embrace a narrative of anger, judgment, and suffering along with love, mercy, and grace in order to understand the fullness of God’s intentions for God’s people.
    In the Bible, God’s actions are not capricious; rather, they reveal a constancy and integrity of God’s character and ultimate faithfulness to his own words and the covenant with his people.  In Deuteronomy 28 (v. 15)  we hear, “if you do not obey, you will be cursed” and (v. 25) “if you do not obey you will be defeated by enemies”.[2]  Simply put, wrong doing is a personal offense against God who created us and loves us. In the Scriptures, God’s wrath is always a reaction to the sinful and unbelieving conduct of humankind. [3] The individual and corporate sin of Israel and all humanity, fall into 4 broad categories: unbelief, disobedience, disloyalty, and injustice.  Moses showed unbelief and it kindled God’s anger when he was reluctant to go to Pharaoh—“send someone else—I can’t speak well enough”.   He did not believe God would empower him to accomplish the task. Israel’s disobedience was often expressed for their disregard for God’s Word: In Isaiah we hear that God’s wrath was kindled against the people when they “rejected the law of the Lord Almighty”—a familiar theme in the prophets. Disloyalty is evident in the “golden calf” incident as well as the many time the people turned to the gods of other cultures. Injustice reared its ugly head when the people failed to follow God’s command for social justice,  “show kindness and mercy to one another” and instead, showed little compassion to the oppressed such as the poor, the widows, the lame.  As Zechariah wrote, “a great anger came from the Lord of host.  In his fury he scattered them with a whirlwind among the nations”.[4] 
     What we see in the Bible, is that God’s wrath is always personal—not impersonal.  God desires and has an intimate connection with all God’s creation and God was, is and always will be actively involved with us. Yet, humanity has been given the choice to be free, thus having the choice to do good (by following God’s law, by remaining faithful to God and to neighbor) or to do wrong (by separating ourselves from God, by disobeying God’s commandments, by choosing to hate rather to love one another). Scripture sees sin as a personal affront against God and so God’s wrath is rooted in his holiness.    Because of God’s holiness, jealousy, care, and concern for his people God must exercise his wrath against sinful humanity.  God cannot ignore sin.  If there were no wrath—there would be no need for salvation; that is, if God takes no action against sinners (his “anger”) then they would not be in danger and would not need deliverance.[5] The people of God would not ultimately need a Savior in Jesus Christ to come and be the deliverer, the intermediary, the redeemer for our sinful ways and be the provider of God love and compassion for us. Judgment  will certainly occur so that sin and evil does not go unchecked in the life of the world, but it will be limited in scope  and intensity.[6]
     If we consider the question, is God for us or against us, the answer is most definitely --Yes!
God’s wrath is directly related to his love:  God’s love drives God to anger—like a parent reprimanding a disobedient child, —when we sin against God, when we disobey, God must respond.  Yet, God is not a “hot head”.  God allows sinners time to repent.  God’s love limits his wrath, from the covenant provided to Noah, never again shall God flood the earth—anger is temporary, but God’s love is permanent.  Understanding God’s wrath helps us understand the gravity of sin as well as the extent of God’s grace. Deuteronomy also says, “Behold I have set before you the path of good and the path of evil, the way of life and the way of death. Choose Life” (Deut 30:19). Our moral freedom means that if we choose to be selfish or dishonest we can be selfish and dishonest, and God will not stop us…If we want to hurt someone, God will not intervene to keep us from doing it. All God will do is tell us that certain things are wrong, warn us that we will be sorry for having done them, and hope that if we don’t take God’s word for it, we will at least learn from experience.[7]

A Sovereign God that both loves and punishes raises questions for us like those of the people in Lamentations:   Can a loving God that deals out judgment, abuse, and often seems absent be trusted?  There are several ways to approach God’s character:

We can just ignore the wrathful side of God and embrace only the appealing texts that make us feel good about ourselves and God, thus being oblivious to major sections of the Bible. But that is problematic because then we are ignoring the fact that we do believe that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God, and we are just eliminating or ignoring the text because it makes us uncomfortable or we don’t understand them. 

We can reject all texts about God’s abuse and declare them as harmful because they teach violence.  This is especially dangerous in this culture that is saturated in violence and is only beginning to come face to face with our own abuse, violence—our cultural reality.[8] Because then we allow ourselves to ignore problems in our world, sweep the unsavory actions under the rug, and refuse to face reality that there are broken, evil, violent people in our world that we allow them to continue to persist, because we are afraid to stand up to the violence.

We can justify God’s judgment as necessary for God to shape us so God has no choice but to punish sinners.  The danger here is that violence and abuse can be “a dimension of love” –I’m punishing you for your own good. That is obviously a serious problem because that then allows people to defend their authority and belief in punishing, controlling, subjugating others because it is what God did to control God’s people. We get horrific events like slavery, racism, and ethnic cleansing from this problematic thinking.   

 Another more plausible approach is to accept that God is not to blame except perhaps to the extent that God created a world in which forces and powers of good and evil coexist.  Once set in motion, evil can overpower good, and the world returns to chaos (Jer. 4:23-38).  However, I am not quite entirely convinced of this either, because then would God be considered an absent God, or a God who starts the top spinning and whatever happens happens. That makes God out to be an impersonal or distant God.

Although Lamentations’ speech about God insists on God’s punishing violence, it does offer theological speech that corrects and provides constructive possibilities. The first of which is that speech about God in the Bible is a conversation in process into which believers in every generation are invited. At the very end of the poem, first the narrator tells Daughter Zion to “cry out to the Lord…[to] pour out [her] heart like water before the presence of the Lord.” The narrator is telling her to return to God, to be in relationship with God, to confront God. And in the last three verses, we hear Daughter Zion choose again to speak to God. “O Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!” Daughter Zion is affirming her choice to be in relationship with God, to question God, to ask God to consider her and her people. And we bring to this conversation not only the biblical text but also our own culture, our own experiences and our own contemporary struggles and questions. If we are in relationship with God, we too are called to question God, to cry out to God when our world feels like it is in chaos, and to return to God when we have been sinful and evil in our own right. We can ask the questions; how can a ruthless dictator kill hundred and thousands of innocent people. We can ask why children die of AIDS, cancer, or gun fire. We can question, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and floods. We know there is evil in our world. We know we are not immune from it. But here is truth, we may not get the answer to our questions, we may never know the answer to our questions. Becausethere is No biblical portrayal of God that exhausts God’s being or identity or expresses for all times and places who God is.  Yet, we must always be alert through the Holy Spirit and to God’s continued revelation all around us and to honestly critique our experiences in our personal lives as well as our life in the community of believers, in a nation, and as part of the global community.[9] The assurance we don’t have to deal with the hardships of life by ourselves. As the scripture says, “the Spirit helps us, in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Lamentations is that revelation and honest critique of the people in that time and place reflecting God’s seemingly insensitivity and cruel harshness.  But with God’s blatant silence, it may also suggest that God has no ready explanation for the catastrophes facing his beloved people.  Instead, God suffers as the whole community accuses God of evil, hateful deeds.  God’s will for a genuine relationship with all creatures is grounded in the relational life of God who is always and everywhere present. God judges the world in and through the created moral order so that sin and evil do not go unchecked in the life of the creation.  Yet, God saves the world by taking its suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it, and then wearing it in the form of a cross.[10] Even in the midst of the sorrow of death, we are given hope, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we begin to feel like life is hard and we feel God is absent, we are given hope. That nothing, not even our own sinfulness, our own wrongdoing or own self-alienation from God, will separate us from the Love of God.  That is the Good News we are given. That is where our hope and faith rests. Nothing, will separate us from God. May it be so. Amen.

 

[1] Rah, Soong-Chan, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, Ill. 2015, pg. 74

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dvoracek, Andy, A Perfect Anger: A Brief Survey of Divine Wrath I the Tanakh, paper for OTS548

[4] Ibid. pp. 10-11

[5] Ibid, pp.14-17

[6] Fretheim, Terrance E.  To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering, Word and World Vol. XLV, Number 4 pp.347.

[7] Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. 89-90.

[8] O’Connor, Kathleen M.  Lamentations and the Tears of the World,  Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2002, pp.116-120.

[9] Ibid.  pp121-122.

[10] Ibid. p. 350

February 18, 2018 Lamentations 1

Some days are just horrible, awful, no good days, and nothing good comes from them.  Such was the day on a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  The doctors face one horrific event after another.  A man hit by a drunk driver dies in the ER; a young black boy mistakenly shot by a police officer could not be saved despite their best efforts; a young woman arrives in the throes of labor and delivers a healthy baby but succumbs herself to complications of the pregnancy.  A horrible, awful, no good day that causes the surgeons to question God.  Why? Why? Why? Do you not see?  Do you not hear?  Do you not care?  These are all valid questions….Job asked, the psalmists asked, even we find ourselves asking.  Just this week, we checked the news on Wednesday to find yet another mass shooting had occurred, this time in a High School, killing 17 innocent lives and injuring many more. Death, destruction, pain, suffering are all very real and present occurrences in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Unfairness, inequities, and cruelty in the world are all too common place. Sadly, it is all too common for us to ask, Where are you God?  Where are you we wonder.

This Lent, we will focus on the small but powerful book in the Bible, Lamentations, one that asks the same questions…where is God in the midst of our pain and sorrow?  Lamentations is a series of five poems that depict a generation of the people of Israel who are at the end of their ropes. It’s been years of horrible, awful, no good days.  Their world was completely and utterly annihilated.  The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, reduced the temple to rubble, captured their king, and deported the majority of the people.  The few who were left in the city were plagued with years of violence, deaths of family members and friends, scarcity of supplies and basic needs, and oppression under the foreign occupation.  And they wonder…why?  Where are you God?

The Book of Lamentations opens with a narrator painting a picture, like a reporter coming to the scene of a major crisis and covering what they see. The narrator details the empty gates, the children gone, the young men “out to pasture,” the women abused and exposed, no one is in the mood  really to celebrate the religious festivals. The narrator sees the difference between Daughter Zion’s current desolation and her former glory. But then we hear the cry of the city, personified as the Daughter Zion, a weeping widow with no one to comfort her.  She longs for the old life, but in truth she has been deserted and betrayed, and now, she weeps alone.  Her wailing is a deep anguished cry that will not be silenced; her pain is too great; she refuses to be ignored. She wallows in her overwhelming sorrow.

Even so, Daughter Zion does not dwell on what has happened; rather, she dwells on her present destitute condition.  She is guilty; and in her mind, her sinfulness explains the situation, so she takes responsibility.  This leaves her bound in shame and at the mercies of her enemies.[i] Her former glory only a memory. “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they weigh on my neck, sapping my strength…The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word…See, O Lord, how distressed I am, my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.” She does not hesitate to direct her lament straightforwardly to God, who she sees, as having brought about her destruction.  God’s silence gives her room to fully vent her bitterness and feelings of shame.[ii]

These are the best of times, the worst of times—the heart of Israel’s story, a story riddled with a rainbow of emotions from great joy to profound grief.  Most powerful of all those feelings experienced  by Daughter Zion is shame.  In ancient Israel, the culture was based on honor and shame.  It was important to live and die with honor than anything else.  To lose one’s honor through loss of status, military defeat, a damaged reputation was to cast oneself into shame. Shame in the Bible is caused by one of two ways: either the awareness or exposure of guilt, or the embarrassment of a hurt reputation whether or not this feeling is due to sin.  Throughout the Bible we see shame manifest:  After eating from the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve left the Garden in shame, David burned hot with shame after Nathan confronted him and his adulterous behavior, Peter wept bitterly after denying Jesus, and the woman with the 12 year illness only wanted to be released from her shame by Jesus’ healing.

Not unlike the people of Israel, we also live in a culture of honor and shame.  Without a doubt, most of us tend to have some sense of guilt or shame about our lives. People often want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma, but really shame is something that we all experience. Shame is getting laid off and having to tell our spouse. Shame is having someone ask “are you pregnant?” when you are not, you’re just overweight. Shame is hiding the fact that you are in recovery. Shame is unpaid, overdue bills. Shame is flunking out of school. Shame is not making partner. Shame is raging at your kids. Shame is real pain.[iii] Shame can manifest differently for people. Shame can derive from simple or accidental mistakes like tripping as you get on a stage or wearing the wrong clothes to a party or event.  Then there is victim shame that results from abuse, humiliation, rejection, and subjugation.  And lastly, there is inherited shame-things we were born with—our body, our family, our hometown.[iv]Whether we fall just a little short or a lot short of what we would like to be, the shame we feel is a powerful motivator.[v]

But there is a distinction between guilt and shame:  guilt focuses on behavior and says “I did a bad thing”; but shame focuses on our inner-self and says “I am bad, I am worthless, you’re not good enough, who do you think you are!”[vi] Shame, the swampland of our soul, is a reality we all struggle with.  We all know the voice that says, “you’re only good enough if….you attain a certain level of success, or your kids turn out a certain way, or you have better stuff than the neighbors or your life is a poster of perfection.” When we fall short of that voices high expectations, we hunker down hoping our failures won’t be discovered and somehow we can fool others just enough that we can maintain our dignity.  As Brené Brown, Sociologist and researcher of human behavior puts it….”There is a constant barrage of social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate.  Everywhere we turn, there are messages that tell us who, what and how we’re supposed to be.  So, we learn to hide our struggles and protect ourselves from shame, judgment, criticism, and blame by seeking safety in pretending and perfection.”

Whatever the source, shame is the failure to meet expectations that we or others set for ourselves, causing us to lose sight of our dignity, value, and God given belovedness, even in the midst of failure.  Shame imprisons us and is fed by secrecy, silence, and judgment.  It is like a bumper sticker, easy to apply but painful to remove.

Yet, Lamentations becomes instructional for us when it comes to coping, and perhaps even thwarting our propensity to allow our shame to terrorize and control us.  Like Daughter Zion, we are invited to personal and social truth telling rather than to secrecy and denial which means the loss of our spirit and the diminishment of our humanity.  Denial of our pain blocks our capacity to heal and to reconnect with God and our belovedness. Which is why we include the corporate and silent prayers of confession in our worship. When we confess our sins, “we trust God’s mercy enough to lay before God not only those sins which may belong to us individually and personally, but also the sins and brokenness of the congregation, the church universal, and the world…[We confess together] the tragic brokenness of our human condition, in which, even without intending to, we are constantly running away from God and our neighbors.”[vii]

The comfortless book of Lamentations opens the way to both receiving and giving comfort when we are utterly honest with God, ourselves, and others and no longer held hostage by shame.  This honesty before God enables us to affirm the dignity of those who also suffer.  When shame is given empathy it dies. Brene Brown said, “The two most powerful words are “me too,” because it does open up doors to recognize that we are not alone, and shame does not have to have power or control over us.” Last fall, people flooded the internet with the hashtag #metoo. #metoo was not just about sexual harassment or assault. It was and is about escaping the silence and exposing how widespread and suffocating the risk of sexual violence is. #metoo is about not allowing the shame of being harassed or assaulted be an isolating event, but rather exposing the issue and demanding justice. In hearing Daughter Zion direct her lament straightforwardly to God, we also can say “me too”—the words that beckon us to confront our own personal shame and begin the road to healing. If we are going to find a path away from shame and back to God and God’s love for us, we must be willing to be vulnerable, to admit our shortcomings, and to love ourselves and one another as God loves us. And may it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Frank M. Yamada, Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6 , Working Preacher

[ii] Yamada

[iii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, 70-71.

[iv] HonorShame website at www.HonorShame.com,  “God’s Honor for our Shame”  Sermon notes

[v] Alan Brehm, sermon entitled No More Shame , Feb. 27, 2010

[vi] Brene Brown, excerpt of her Ted Talk

[vii] The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, 37.

February 11, 2018 Mark 9:2-9

This morning we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. It is the recognition of the end the Epiphany season and Jesus’s ministry as we transition to Lent and reflecting on Jesus’ journey to the cross. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, professor, and author once said: “Those of us who spend a lot of time in church have heard this story of Jesus’ transfiguration so often that we think of it as a public event.”  It’s true, we’ve heard lots of sermons on the glowing face of Jesus, those rascals—the sleepy disciples, the amazement of a mountain top experience, and the desolation that is about to come when Jesus descends to the valley below. This week at breakfast, the other clergy and I were joking about what new things could we preach on this year… But whatever conclusion we might have come to, this is not a public event but a very private holy moment. We are like interlopers peering in on the scene watching the action trying to make sense of it all as Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain.  If we recall, their journey with Jesus thus far has been anything but dull or predictable.

I am reminded of a TV show that was popular in the 70’s and then was reprised in the 90’s which is when my mom and I would watch it—Columbo.  Unlike other detective shows, this was an inverted detective story, which begins by showing the commission of the crime. The audience knows “who dun it” and so the story revolves around how the perpetrator will finally be caught and exposed. The person to do this was the detective Columbo, whose trade mark was his bumbling, stumbling and somewhat absent-minded manner, rumpled raincoat, disheveled appearance, and cigar stub in his fingers. The audience is drawn into the fascination of his shrewd and pestering behavior that teases out the truth. In a similar manner, Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry teases out Jesus’ real identity that is gradually revealed in ways that help the disciples, who waiver between grasping his identity and shear cluelessness.

In the Gospel of Mark we are on the precipice between Jesus’ ministry and his journey to the cross. Mark captures a glimpse of glory for his audience. His audience that now includes us, unlike the disciples, is well aware that Jesus is God. We remember the Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism and the voice calling out  “This is my Son whom I love; with whom I am well pleased.

The audience knows the many accounts of Jesus’ healings of people—lepers, blind, those filled with demons. We know the lessons that Jesus taught and the many miracles that he caused to happen. So, Mark’s account of the transfiguration—when the person of Jesus took on this transformed appearance and talked with the prophets Moses and Elijah—was not really a shock to the audience then or us now. Not a lot of evidence is needed for us to affirm what we already know, that Jesus is God. From what we have seen, the audience is already convinced, and has already made the decision.

Yet, Mark’s recalling of this event has a purpose. His recalling is more than a passing moment filled with a beautiful vision; more than a Kodak moment; it’s not a staged event to make Jesus more popular.

Although Mark is confirming that Jesus is God, this event even more so points to the experience of the disciples that accompanied him up that mountain, this transfiguration moment signifies the impact that the experience of Jesus has on all those who follow him, for those of us in the audience.

The transfiguration was such a moment for those on the mountain. For Jesus, his calling is confirmed—the Messiah—God entering into the world is on the journey to save his people—a journey that would cost him his life.  It was a moment of encouragement to continue on with confidence that God is with him—that he does not travel alone.  “This is my Son whom I love.”

For the disciples, this was a defining moment. Not only did it affirm who Jesus was—his divinity, but also they understood they were in the presence of the holy. The disciples saw Jesus through new eyes…a new perspective. New meaning to the vision that Jesus was modeling...new hope; new life. Up on that mountain, the disciples received affirmation that following Jesus was the right choice.

Mark has done an amazing thing with this candid account of the transfiguration. As hearers and observers of this event, we too cannot remain unmoved; cannot remain on the mountaintop distancing ourselves from the invitation that is offered.

The transfiguration restores if not corrects our vision that has grown dim. As if we had cataracts that have been miraculously removed from our eyes. A powerful experience as those who have had the surgery can tell you…blurry, dulled vision is restored in the span of a few minutes in surgery. They are able to see more clearly than ever before.

Mark was right to paint with his words this picture of the transfiguration; this is correction of our vision is needed. Unlike surgery that has more lasting results, our glimpses of glory can quickly fade, the dazzle in our eyes burns out when we come down the mountain. At this moment on the mountain, the transfiguration becomes a turning point for the disciples, a transition from one way of seeing Jesus-this teacher and healer- to something far greater-the Son of God.  For the disciples and for Jesus, upon that mountain, time stood still, all of the events leading up to that moment seemed insignificant, and Peter—like us—wanted to stay in that moment forever! Let’s put up shelters. We can just stay here! We know that feeling.

Because instinctively they knew that moment wouldn’t last, once they came down from the mountain. Peter who is ready to build a shelter so that Jesus and the three disciples could remain on the mountain soon forgot the vividness of what he had seen and denied Jesus three times. James and John lost sight of the vision as they quickly engaged in the human sport of “being #1, getting the attention”. “Let us sit beside you when you come into your glory” they asked Jesus.

As modern-day disciples we are no different. We know how hard it is to be the feet and hands of Jesus, to be faithful disciples in the messy middle of life. It is difficult to try being a voice for peace in a world that seems to thrive on war. Or our attempts may seem futile when we try to offer the promise of hope in a world that is cynical and mistrusts anything that cannot be seen, touched, or proved to be true with cold hard evidence. We become weak in the knees when we endeavor to stand firm in doing the right thing in a culture that increasingly challenges our sensibilities. It is difficult not to become judgmental and cynical about the plight or actions of others. Retaining, remembering, practicing God’s vision is hard in the middle of messy life.

Yet in that moment upon the mountain, there was a change. A change in everyone’s perspective of seeing the world. This was a significant moment for all. Not only have the disciples and Jesus seen the past, God has laid out a future for them. “This is my Son, the Chosen, Listen to him.” This command was not just a “Jesus has something good to say, you better hear him out.” Rather, it was something more. What Jesus has to say about himself and what is to happen is God’s will. What Jesus says about discipleship is to be followed. All of Jesus’ teachings about love for God and for humanity are to be observed. When he leaves the mountain, there will be things to see and work to do.

Transfiguration is just the Epiphany we need as we enter into the Lenten season. It is a reminder that God does have a vision and that we are part of it. It is a declaration that we cannot remain on the mountain top basking in the light of that glory, that experience. It is a testimony that God’s vision is for real and that there is work to be done.

Jesus came down from that mountain and traveled the long hard road to the cross, which was part of God’s vision of salvation for his people. We too are called down that mountain to action. We are called to get up out of the pew.  To roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty with the messy work of discipleship. James tells us that faith without works is dead. It’s true. At the bottom of the mountain there are:

·       People needing healing from diseases both physical and spiritual

·       Poor waiting for jobs

·       Homeless waiting for shelter

·       Children waiting for food

·       Young people waiting for education and job training.

·       Elderly waiting for care.

·       A world that needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ with voices that are not afraid or ashamed of not upsetting the status quo.

Our faith is not to be lived on the mountain top. The work of discipleship begins at the foot of the cross. Transfiguration is a transforming opportunity-- changing ourselves so we can change the world. Seeing the world as God sees the world; broken but not hopeless. True discipleship is to be transformed with Christ and in so doing to stand in solidarity with one another in the way of Christ. It is trying, it is hard work, and it calls us to high standards, and occasionally to give up our “rights” for the common good. Living transformed lives, calls us to commit to God’s purposes, to work for the good of all, to be responsible for all.[i]

It is in our solidarity with Christ and with one another that we are to be transformed and to be transformers in this world with vitality and vision for the purposes to which God calls us. We don’t all have to be Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Oscar Romero. But we are called to actively engage with our corner of the world as Christ’s disciples just as we are. To bring the glimpse of glory from the mountaintop to dark valleys. The late William Sloane Coffin said, None of the twelve disciples had any of the so-called ‘advantages’—education, wealth, social status.  They were as ordinary as they come, which makes the point that Christ is not looking for extraordinary people but for ordinary men and women who do ordinary things extraordinarily well.  To take on the imperfections of the world means of course that your heart will be saddened, your self-confidence impaired, your trust disappointed.  You will know despair.  Life being what it is, if we don’t make a difference by trying, we’ll make a difference by not trying.

We are called and challenged each day with opportunities, to be transformed and be transformers. Our transformation, is a process, it doesn’t come all at once, but takes the time and patience and work. The Good News is, we are supported by God, who is our great encourager, when our vision becomes dull or blurred, reminding us that we are his children and through Christ all things are possible. May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] (paraphrase of Pope John Paul II, 1987).

February 4, 2018 Mark 1:29-39

I found a quote this week that I found to be a powerful touchstone as I read our scripture passage this week. Gerald May, a medical doctor who practices psychotherapy in Washington, DC, writes of the importance of community in the healing process. He says, “God's grace through community involves something far greater than other people's support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.” [i] This morning’s passage is speaks about healing beyond a fever breaking, or wounds being mended, or illnesses being cured. This passage is really a story to discipleship and what it means to live out our faith in the one who provides healing for us.

But before we get into our story, it is important that we understand where this story fits into the context of Jesus’ ministry. Last week, we were in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples (the fishermen), Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John, left the seashore to head to Galilee. And at the Synagogue, Jesus ends us teaching with a new authority, and he exorcises a man with an unclean spirit. The people stood amazed with wonder at all that Jesus was saying and doing. This morning, we leave the Synagogue with the disciples and head to Simon’s home where his mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever.  The disciples, just witnessing Jesus in the Synagogue, then tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law.  Jesus comes and takes her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

Now on the surface this story may make us uncomfortable. A woman is sick, is healed, then immediately begins to wait on the guests in the home. We may ask ourselves, why does she get up after being sick and begin serving the people in her home?

We could explain her actions away, that the mother-in-law began serving everyone because of her gratefulness for her healing. Now this might be more plausible, if it were just Jesus she served, as a thank you, but she served them all.  Another possible reasoning of her serving, was to explain the miracle. The act of her serving people was a testament to how well she was feeling, post healing. No recuperation time needed, no need for the Medicare given days in the rehab center. This too is possible, but not totally convincing. Then we could look to the culture of the time for explanation. It was rude of the Mother-in-law to not server her guests. It was what society expected of her, no matter how she was feeling. Like the medicine commercial that parents have no sick days. This is my least favorite explanation. All of these have some valid elements of truth to them, but I still don’t buy it.

As we have begun to see in studying Mark, he has explicit reasoning for every detail that he chooses to put in his Gospel story. So today, I want us to focus on the first few verses of our scripture today to help us understand not only Jesus’ first healing story but the significant impact it had on the one healed and those around her. But also perhaps we can gain some insight for us today.

Leo Buscaglia, a PhD professor of Special Education, said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” 

We read in the scripture, that Jesus takes the woman by the hand and lifts her from the mat. How does Jesus heal? Through the power of his touch. By taking her by the hand and lifting her up. For Jesus, touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence, and for relationship. And here Jesus gives this woman the first opportunity for this type of intimacy and this woman receives it wholly. Jesus understood the power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole, something that we are too often too slow to comprehend.

Not only does Jesus gently hold this woman’s hand, but he also lifts her up. This lifting of the woman is the same verb that will be used when Jesus is lifted up, or resurrected from the tomb. For this woman, her healing has become the new life, her personal resurrection from her sickness. “If you are brought back from the edge, from almost death, or from the brink of what you thought life had to be (life of ailment, life of sickness, life of bed-riddeness) shouldn’t there be something else for you, some sort of new vocation, new career, new identity?”[ii]  Perhaps Simon’s Mother-in-Law even asked the question, “What am I doing here?” as soon as she realized she was healed.  Instead of looking at serving as something that she was expected to do, or the only thing she could do, perhaps she was brought back to be the mother she always was and that she always wanted to be. And in being brought back to who she was, she became a disciple, serving others in new and purposeful way.[iii]  And that purposeful way was to work to welcome others in need of healing into her home.

So what if, like this woman, like Jesus, spiritual healing, new life, resurrection is being lifted up to be who you always were and always meant to be? Not some new, super hero- with magical powers with some sort of spiritual future, but rather lifted up to your present reality, to the here and now, to live your perfect God-given self. Your mind, your spirit, body, everything together, everything that you were always meant to be. If we are like Simon Peter’s mother in law, we are called to serve as well, and with our faith Christ will heal us, equip us, or empower us to live out our discipleship calling through our own acts of powerful touch.

In 12 step programs, a crucial aspect of sobriety is being of service to others. Whether that means coming early to a meeting to make the coffee, or being willing to pick someone up in the middle of the night to take them to detox in the hospital. Some people who have gone through the 12 steps, often are too busy to socialize, but they’ll drop anything if a sponsee, or even just a person who came to one meeting calls for help. I recently heard a story about a man named Keith, who at his death was 20 years sober. Keith was a faithful participant in his local AA program, and at his funeral, his family was greeted by many strangers whom they had never met, but who were impacted by Keith.  These people told the family that Keith sponsored them or otherwise helped them in the program. And more than one credited him with saving their lives. Sometimes when you are given healing, you come back to provide the healing touch for others who live similar stories to you.

I also read a story recently about a young woman named Sonya, who suffers from bipolar disorder and several months ago had a very bad episode. She really struggled to find care during her latest episode. Her state, very much like North Carolina has very limited resources and support for people who struggle with mental illness. So her friend invited her to join her at a legislative forum on mental health care. That morning, Sonya decided to tell her story to the packed room. Now Sonya is connecting with state representatives, and starting to get more into politics as a way of becoming an advocate for better mental health care in her state. Even when our healing isn’t complete, or we aren’t healed the way we perhaps want it, we still can find ways of discipleship and serving others.

 Perhaps, our healing story teaches us that God is in the business of restoring us to who we really are and who we are called to be. Mark is inviting us to look for experiences of resurrection and healing in our everyday life, in the lives of our families and in our society.  As Christians, our call is to not only experience those healing, restorative moments for ourselves, being lifted up to who we always were and always meant to be. But also, we are called to help bring those healing moments to those around us. That is the essence of being in a Christian community together. The love that pours forth among people, is the healing power that we are called to give and sometimes receive. It is a powerful act.  Just as Simon’s mother-in-law, we are called to our ordinary lives but living through servant discipleship. “A life filled with compassion, witness and service, through sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress.” [iv] Our healing story today reminds us when we are given new life through Christ, we are called to go out to serve others in need through the most faithful way and most true way of our God given selves. So maybe it means we are called to serve strangers in our house, maybe we are called to serve out in our community, or serve our church in leadership, or perhaps some different way. However it manifests, we are called be servants, through our ordinary selves. And to me, that is pretty amazing. This is who you are, and this is who God calls you to be.  Yourself.  May it be so. Amen.

 

 

January 28, 2018 Mark 1:21-28

How often have you challenged someone with that question.  “who died and put you in charge?”  Or how often have you been at a meeting that is going absolutely no where and you wondered—who’s in charge—who has authority to get this moving? Authority is typically defined as the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.  One who is an expert or received approval. However, authority and our perceptions of authority have come to have a variety of meanings.

An organizational structure can determine who has what authority in which circumstances. Cultures differ in how family structure is perceived and who has authority which is why we speak of matriarchal and patriarchal societies. Even within the Church denominations vary on their structure and who has authority in what circumstances.  Supreme authority can be vested in one person i.e. Pope or Bishop while others distribute authority within a selected body/group—such as in the PCUSA—authority vested in the Session who serve defined terms.

The concept of authority, in general, in our world today can be a bit controversial, it seems. In a world where trust is scarce, where the phrase “fake news” is thrown about ad nauseum, and power is used more as a weapon or bargaining chip, what does, or should- authority look like?  I’d like for you to take a moment and think about authoritative figures in your lives. 
Who were they? What are they? Who do you want them to be? 

I read an article this week[i] where someone googled the word “authority figure.” In their search they discovered, that although our world has changed and we see various types of people (differing in age, race, and gender) our society still has some stereotypes. The first page on the Google search, had heaps of well-dressed white men with pointing fingers and stern expressions. In some instances, they were yelling at those in lower positions. There were policemen and business men and male doctors. There were even some pictures of male wrestlers. ?!?!?

And throughout the search, there were hardly any pictures of women, and there was only a single picture of a person of color. That one black male was a scary looking wrestler who glared viscously into the camera. The women of "authority," on the other hand, were either scantily clad runway models--who wear nothing but bright-colored bras underneath tight blazers. Surprised? Me either.

            I think we are stuck in ruts at times of who or what is the authority over our lives. Whether it is the social constructs that perpetuate dated viewpoints, or the more abstract of things or ideas that hold authority over our lives, things like greed, power, self-importance, achievement, wealth, or popularity, we need to shift our perspective on who or what is in charge of our lives. So the question that we ask ourselves today is what should authority look like?

In the text today Jesus and his band of disciples have traveled to Capernaum and it is the Sabbath. Jesus goes into the synagogue and begins teaching. His words amazed the people, because they were not like the usual teachers of the law they were accustomed to hearing on the Sabbath.  “He speaks with authority” they said. Which brings us to the question—what was unique about Jesus and what he was saying. The Jewish leaders had authority—their authority was passed down generation to generation by virtue of their office of leadership and by tradition.   They were well versed in Torah and the commentary on the Torah.  They knew the law well and could correctly teach the people how to live in obedience. They used critical thinking and logic to assert their knowledge. What was different about Jesus?

Jesus was a teacher.  But Jesus did not teach using the same methods passed down from generations of scribes and rabbis. It wasn’t a lesson in critical thinking or returning to the scholarly works for answers for the day’s questions; rather Jesus taught through his words which were actions. The authority that Jesus taught with, the very words he spoke were self-authenticating, there was no need for resources to back up his assertions. Or like we as preachers do in our sermons, we quote someone smarter than us to legitimize our thoughts.

Rather, Jesus spoke…and the unclean spirits left the man. Jesus’ very words were full of the right and the power to be spoken, and  then became action. Jesus was a teacher who was the one uniquely authorized, commissioned, and empowered to declare and institute the reign of God. It is through Jesus, then, we glimpse characteristics of this reign.

And because of this, Jesus’ words had a different sort of impact on the people.  They did not necessarily recognize him for who he was, unlike the unclean spirits, but they did recognize his uniqueness, his presence, his command.

As we move though Jesus’ life and ministry alongside the disciples, we see Jesus was a different sort of teacher.

Jesus’ teaching was intrusive, as he broke down old boundaries that benefited others.

Jesus “practiced what he preached” by enacting the healing and liberating presence of God’s kingdom in the lives of those who were subjected to the powers of evil.

Jesus didn’t just speak of God’s love for people—especially sinners and those distressed by evil forces—he backed his words with powerful acts on behalf of those in needs.[ii] 

Jesus’s words and actions were one in the same. He lived as the one who had authority. An authority radically different from that of tradition and what was expected.

·       Jesus said that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” So he ate with those deemed by society and law as unreputable: tax collectors, women, and sinners.

·       Jesus said “all who are weary and heavy laden, take my yoke upon you” and so he healed the blind, the lame, and those deemed unclean by the rest of the society.

·       Jesus said, God has given the Son of Man “all authority over all people.” So he healed on the Sabbath, Preached in the temple, and called out injustice when he saw it. 

·       Jesus said, holding the bread, “This is my body broken for you.” And holding the cup, “this cup is the new covenant pour out for you.”

The people sensed something different and perhaps this was the authority that others lacked. The teachers of the law were good at teaching about God, but they were always a bit removed from the God they were talking about.

Jesus was different—there was an intimacy to his knowledge about God. The people did not yet conclude that he was God in the flesh, but they recognized at times that he spoke as though he had spent time with God.  And there were times it seemed he was speaking as God.

The people acknowledged Jesus’ powerful and effective teaching, they saw him put words into action; yet, they didn’t line up behind him in droves and follow him. They didn’t make a commitment to follow this teacher who showed God’s authoritative presence among them by his teaching and deed.  They didn’t change their lives. They were admirers, but not followers. Which is something that occurs even now—people admire the “great teacher Jesus” but not follow him.[iii] 

I Once heard it said—you can sit in a pew on Sunday and call yourself a Christian just as easily as you can sit in a garage and call yourself a car—but that doesn’t make it true.

When Jesus invited the disciples to come and follow, to be a part of his ministry.  Jesus wanted them to be in relationship with him, and by extension to be in relationship with God. And that relationship doesn’t just mean lip service, but rather a call to action different and unique from all other cultural authorities.

That’s a challenge in this day and age—there are so many competing voices telling us what to believe, how to believe, how to live, how to be. A question we must ask ourselves—who are the voices that guide our lives actions today? Whom do we trust and follow? Whose words and examples shape our minds and consciences? Who are the prophets for this time and our needs? Are they shaping us in Jesus or someone/something else?  And how much of what we do in the everyday routines of life is lived in the presence of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ?

If we strive to live in that reality, our lives will flow from one worshipful experience of God’s grace in Jesus to another. Recognizing Jesus’ authority in this life – his Lordship over all that is – means that we allow him to be God of our lives in all that we do and say.

In the church, this means we are an authoritative voice, but a defining voice against the masses. Worship can become less formulaic, and more of a living testament to ongoing faith development and bring forth new and deeper ways of engaging Jesus. Mission can become less about bringing something to someone and more about truly learning the needs of those around us and changing our lives accordingly. Membership can become less about names on a roster and more about a changed purpose.

When we seek to provide an atmosphere where we can think, grow and feel in ways that gain deeper insight into ourselves, our world and God, we then, as the church begin to complete Jesus Christ, serving him, recognizing his supreme authority over our lives and in the world. 

The church, then, becomes a counter-cultural community where Republicans and Democrats and Others, where the Wealthy, the Middle-Class and the Working Poor, where people of varying races, can gather around a Table and claim belonging to one other and to God, proclaiming that it is Christ who has broken down the dividing wall and hostility between us. Instead Christ has given us, through the church, an opportunity to come together as individuals, and serve one common purpose, one common goal, that is to proclaim him as the sole authority over our life. And then live out that life, together.

When we live life this way, whether in the super market or as a restaurant manager, on the highway or in a classroom, with our neighbors or with our nieces and nephews, with our spouse; how we manage the house; how we treat our neighbors and strangers. We live in such a way that worships God and gives adoration, praise, and all glory to Jesus – simply by being alive. And all this comes out of a recognition of Jesus’ authority and what he has done for us.

So we come back to the question today, what about us? What is our authority in this world? What do we want it to be, and how will we use it? Pope John 23 (XXII) said once, “Authority is mainly a moral power; therefore, it must first call upon the conscience, that is, upon the duty that each person has to contribute willingly to the common good.” As Christians we do this by proclaiming the authority of our Lord, and embodying the authority that Christ proclaimed: to bless, rather than curse, to build up the Kingdom of God, rather than tear down, to encourage one another, rather than disparage; to promote love, rather than sow hate; to draw together, rather than to divide. Our words and our actions can be powerful, because of the One who called us by name. So may our lives always be a reflection of the One who is the sole authority in our lives. And may it be so. Amen..

January 21, 2018 Mark 1:14-20

One of the programs that is provided by our area workforce board in the local career centers, high schools and colleges teaches people soft skills for future job placements. Soft skills are the basic skills one needs to learn in order to be best employee. The idea is to give these basic social and business skills, so that people are a) hirable, and b) a good employee. Things like resume writing, interview skills and job professionalism and etiquette.  When going to an interview, people learn in soft skills training that you should: 

·       Know the company—it’s background, philosophy, culture

·       Dress accordingly—finance= business like; graphic design=more casual

·       Firm grip on handshake, keep eye contact, body language important, personally connect with interviewer.

·       Anticipate the tough questions

And generally, when you follow this type of advice, it can ensure a good interview, and potentially make or break you getting hired for the job.

Today’s text takes no notice of all this helpful advice on how to succeed and land a plum position in an up and coming company. I doubt if the disciples even were offered any soft skills training. In contrast, Jesus, according to Mark was in Galilee preaching the good news of God.  “The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news”. As he walked along the seashore he sees two fishermen, the brothers Simon and Andrew, casting their nets into the waters. Calling out to them, Jesus said, “Come and follow me-I’ll make you fishers of men.” He didn’t stop there—walking a bit further, Jesus sees James and his broth John preparing their nets and calls to them to come join him.

To our way of thinking, this is a risky way of finding help, as an employer. There was no pre-screening on background checks. There was no searching questions to determine knowledge base, leadership capabilities, skill sets. No confirmation of experience or education, No reference checks. In today’s world this is unthinkable!! Why everyone who has been in a position to hire employees knows full well this could lead to big trouble!

These men were blue collar workers and there was no evidence they were qualified for the job at hand. Makes you wonder why Jesus didn’t stay in Jerusalem where there was at least a pool of qualified educated and connected folks well versed in religious law and Torah interpretation that would have served him well in ministry. Who would have had excellent soft skills and interview well.  But he didn’t—he went to a small seaside town and recruited fishermen! Who probably were terribly unprepared and did not have good interviewing skills.

Our curiosity is aroused further by the fact that these men, according to Mark, immediately got up from their work, their families and followed Jesus—no questions asked—no job description to review. We can never know the answer to why, as no answer is provided, but history tells us that a fisherman’s job was not easy in those days. Long days, equipment to keep in repair, slumps in daily catches, taxes to pay to Caesar, fishing licenses to buy from the government, quotas to meet. Perhaps following Jesus, whatever the unknowns might just seem more appealing.

More likely though, they knew of him from John the Baptist and had heard him preaching—The Kingdom of God is near—and they were curious enough to want to know more from him. Perhaps what Jesus offered—this Kingdom of God-was better than the struggles they endured from the Roman domination.

What we do know for certain is they –and later many others—were prompted to follow Jesus, to become his disciples, students of his teaching, and servants of his mission.

According to Calvin, God called “rough mechanics” like Simon, Andrew James, and John in order to show that none of us are called by virtue of his or her own talents or excellences.[i]  This “call” or job offer requires not background checks, academic degrees, or special dress.  Later in our story we see that these disciples were not even great at their “call.” They will misunderstand his teachings, they will stumble, they will backslide, and they will betray Jesus. 

This text draws us to the question—one that makes us uncomfortable—what would be compelling enough to draw us away from all we know, all we have?  What or who would tug at our heart so much so that we would leave safety, security, and the comfort of our daily rhythms of life? We admire what the disciples did, but would we consider following their example? What would be compelling enough to draw us into a new way of life, to venture out, to trust, to follow Jesus’ call into something new?[ii]

As church, the community of believers, we find ourselves facing the same question. What would be compelling enough to venture out, to trust, to follow Jesus’ call into something new or different in the Kingdom of God? It’s no secret that church attendance is on the slide—has been for years across all denominations. There are studies after studies that try to find and explain the cause. One reason agreed upon by many analysts is that we are no longer in a time of “duty”; that is, where one does things because you know you are supposed to. Rather, we are in the age of discretion—where we make choices on how to spend our time in order to get the most out of life. The bottom line is that attending church is no longer a cultural given. People have a lot more options on how best to spend Sunday mornings to maximize the personal rewards.

The second reason often cited is that many have not found the Christian story a particularly helpful way to view and make sense of their lives. In other words, they are unable to connect what happens on Sunday to the rest of their weekly lives. For some, they see no follow through on what Christians profess and how they live and act in the world. We profess as a Christian community that faith matters, but how then do we live that out? How do we spend the hours of the days between Sunday morning services?

So, here we are back to the question:  what would be compelling enough to draw us away from all our assumptions, presumptions, and “we’ve always done it this way” to follow Jesus in new ways of showing others the KOG is real and available to all.

In her book Sailboat Church, Joan Grey says, “The church was created to tell, to demonstrate, to live [out the] good news and to be the staging ground for partnering with God in saving the world.   Only congregations that are living into a transforming relationship with God for whom nothing is impossible, can ever hope to fulfill their potential as the body of Christ”.

Like the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark says, “This is the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ.” Christ entered into the world bringing a new and different good news, a message unlike any other message the people of God had heard before. Jesus didn’t come in and repeat everything every other previous prophets had done, because like Albert Einstein said, “insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”  Instead, Jesus approached his life and ministry with a whole new vision, out of the box thinking, based on building relationships and mostly relationships with the people who were imperfect, unqualified, and unwanted by the rest of the world’s standards.

At the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, we are called to relational living, not only with one another but with God, treating and caring for others as Jesus did. We as the church do this by embracing the values of inclusiveness, love, forgiveness, and healing that Christ radiated in word and deed. This is the lifelong craft we seek to hone as disciples. We aren’t going to be perfect at it, there are moment and times in which we will fail to live up to Christ’s expectations, but we rejoice in knowing that we do not follow him alone. Peter, Andrew, James and John did not go it alone, rather they and the other disciples learned, and followed together. We too, are surrounded by a community of faith who seek to help us create our identity as disciples.

In an address to Congress a few years ago, Pope Francis urged congress (and by extension all peoples) that we are called be agents of change, of peace and justice, hope and healing. He said, “We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises...Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”[iii]

“Come follow me” said Jesus, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Come follow me:  that is a call to obedience and commitment to Jesus.

·       A call to act as Jesus acts.

·       A call to stand up to injustices, evil, hate in various and sometimes curious ways.

·       A call to benevolence in love and forgiveness.

·       A call to seek the welfare of others

·       A call to service and mission beyond the walls of the church.

Jesus is calling us to live knowing that the Kingdom of God is true and real.  And in so doing, we live to help others believe it too.  We may not feel able or have the right skills for the job, but as the church we are being asked, and with God’s help we will be equipped, so will we drop our nets and follow? May it be so. Amen.

 

 

January 14, 2018 Mark 1:4-11

Names are important things. They are our identification for legal situations, how people relate to you, perhaps how you identify yourself. You may not only be Martha or David, but also Nana, Opa, Grandaddy, Auntie, Paps, or Mumsy.  I know for many of you, your legal name, what is on your social security card is vastly different than what you are referred to-which can be quite difficult for Pastors when we have to come visit you in the hospital! I have been thinking a lot about names, as I went through the tedious process of becoming Elizabeth Whitmer, shedding the name of one family and adopting a new name, a new identity.

Rabbi Peter Tarlow, in an article, talked about the importance of names. In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in Exodus “having a name is more than a mere sign of life- it is symbolic of that person’s life.”  “For the people of Israel names meant existence, not having a name was to be less than human.” Which is true in all cultures, we give abandoned children or unidentified adults the names Joe and Jane. Names, even if not their given name, bring them value as a human being. Many women who lose children during their pregnancy, are often encouraged to name those children, as a way to honor that child’s life, to acknowledge their existence albeit so very brief, to provide a step towards healing. And because they are important to us, we even give names to our pets, as a way of valuing them. Names give us identity; a way of being in the world and connecting to those around us. Because that is just it, we yearn to feel connected to one another.