Who Is The Prodigal?

Luke 15:11-32
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

__________

I hope that you were listening carefully to this morning's reading from the Gospel According to Luke because I'm going to ask that we try a little exercise before diving into this passage. In groups of two or three, I'd like you to share your paraphrase of this parable with your neighbor. I'll give you a few minutes before inviting us back together. 

[Small Group Discussion]

What were some of the things you noticed during your time of retelling this parable to your neighbors? Was there a lot in common with the versions that you heard? Were there any details missing and if so why do you think they were left out? Of course, I don't expect you to know all these things right off the bat, but they are questions that are important as we consider what this story means for us today. 

So I guess I should ask, "Who really is the prodigal son/daughter?" That depends, I think that depends on how you read this parable and how you see yourself in the story. Pay attention, because the prodigal might be someone unexpected! Because the prodigal might not be the self-centered individual, you think they are. The prodigal son might actually be a prodigal daughter, father, mother, or even a prodigal community. How we see ourselves in this text will humble us, remind us that we are not at the center of the universe, and call us to live lives of love and compassion. 

Mark Allan Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, reminds us of the importance of seeing Jesus' parables in a new light. Powell once experimented on twelve American seminary students and had them read the parable of the prodigal son and then recall it from memory. Interestingly enough, Powell found that none of the students mentioned the famine that had occurred within that country. Powell admitted that at the time he didn't consider the reference to famine significant, but was surprised that not one of the students mentioned it.  

This experiment continued when Powell went to Russia and did the same exercise with a group of fifty Russians. Compared to the group in America forty-two out of the fifty Russians had remembered the famine (Powell had conducted another trial with one hundred Americans of varying backgrounds and found that only six out of one hundred remembered the famine). What was different this time, though, was that many of the Russians did not emphasize the "squandering" of the prodigal son's inheritance. Which begs the question why? And of course, it comes down to cultural context.

Well, things get a little more complicated because as time went on this experiment continues to occur around the world. And we've found that in countries on the African continent and places in Asia, the problem isn't the prodigal son squandering or the famine, but it's the people who failed to help the prodigal son when he fell on a hard time! The failure of the community, the failure of helping a stranger who came to a new land is the great tragedy that occurs within this parable. We each bring something to the table, we all have something that we offer when we gather together and when we pray by ourselves as well. And each of these things influences who we are as a person who is unique and wonderfully made. So I ask once again, "Who really is the prodigal son/daughter?"

Again, that depends on how you approach this parable of Jesus. While we might be inclined to stick with what we know, the reality is we might feel a little uncomfortable in exploring other options because we might expose some of our own shortcomings. But that's the point! Each of us is a prodigal in some way or another. We aren't perfect, and if we think we are, we'll only end up like the elder son who became bitter and angry that the father showed grace and compassion. And if our hearts become so hardened and filled with spite, is it actually better to have been the one who followed all the rules? 

And if we think we’re the only ones who are righteous and well off our hearts might become like those in the faraway country who refused to help the prodigal son during the time of famine? Surely there was enough to share, but their hearts were hardened as well. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people in that country had a “pull yourself up” kind of attitude, but how quickly did they forget that it takes more than one set of hands to help pick up a fallen person. We cannot expect to receive grace if we are not willing to give it to others as well. It means we’ll have to be vulnerable at times, but isn’t that better than living a life that hordes blessings for itself? 

The point of our reflection this morning is to take a step back, look at the more significant scene that is before us, and see how each of us has played the role of the prodigal at different points in our lives. Perhaps we have squandered our possessions, but maybe we have also turned our back on our neighbor, maybe we've failed to help the stranger who came into our community from a distant place, perhaps we've struggled together in those times of hardship and famine (both spiritually and physically). We hopefully will find that we are a little more empathetic and a little more compassionate when we know what it is like to be in the footsteps of one who was lost and found.

Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parable that speaks to us today because it resonates with the hazards of life we still encounter today. We wrestle with greed, caring for the earth, protecting one another, and balancing our egos in the presence of a God who passes out forgiveness and grace freely. And I think that is the takeaway for us this morning as we imagine ourselves, as we know ourselves, being in the position of the prodigal son that when we return there is a God who welcomes us. It's not about what is fair or just, but what is right, and when we choose to live in that kind of community everyone who is a part of it is better for it.

There is an open invitation for us to turn our back on the ways of death and destruction and set ourselves back on the path that leads to life. We are all prodigal sons, daughters, and children of a God who calls us to life-giving love. The prodigal maybe you and me, but that doesn't mean we wear that title like a scarlet letter around our necks. Instead, we move forward knowing that each day we are given a chance to do better, to live as Christ would have lived, and to go out into the world knowing how hard it can be to stay on the path that is before us. So don't be so quick to judge as we are never truly sure of the full story of another person's life. And live life knowing that there is always grace and strength that comes from God who runs out to embrace us. Amen.


A Difficult Lesson

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

__________

I figured that since many people are back into the swing of things this September, I thought I would share a "back to school" experience from my past. Once I graduated high school, I thought it was time to "get out into the world," but somehow found myself going to college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now don't get me wrong, my college was excellent, and I enjoyed what Michigan had to offer. However, it made me realize what we take for granted out here on the East Coast (I'm talking about bagels and Taylor Ham/pork roll). There was one thing though that I could never stomach about college, and that was the 10-12 hour drive between Michigan and my home state of New Jersey. 

Pennsylvania was by far the enormous beast to overcome during this journey between New Jersey and Michigan. Nothing but 311 miles of uninteresting interstate littered with potholes, never-ending construction, and "service stations" that offered the bare minimum. Those service stations were something you needed to pay attention to though. Because if you weren't careful and went past a service station, you might find yourself waiting for an unbearable 50 miles until the next one. So you when you saw a sign you paid attention. Before passing one of these rest points, it would be natural to check your gauges, your body, and your mind in case you needed a break was crucial. You had to have a little forethought in your planning and pay attention to the signs. 

In our text this morning, such forethought and wisdom are essential if not vital to a life of faith. The reading this morning doesn't say where Jesus is going, only that a large crowd seems to be following him. Which is great, but do you think the people who followed Jesus, knew what it cost to be a disciple, a follower? Sometimes our perception, our understanding, of following Jesus is skewed by the response of the first disciples. So far the people who've been following Jesus and we have only seen the good. They've counted their blessings, yet I wonder if they have calculated their liabilities as well? We'll quickly learn though that we cannot merely follow, as Father Fitzmyers put it, "because of the blessing and the wonderful things that he has associated with the kingdom."

It must have been pretty jarring, and it still is for us, to hear Jesus utter the words, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate, father and mother, wife and children, brother and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." These words are meant to be provocative, and they are intended to serve as that "50 miles till next rest stop" sign to make us check if we are aware of what is going to come next. While Jesus might be speaking hyperbolically, the truth of the matter is that following in the footsteps of Jesus requires dedication. Following Jesus requires hard work, and it demands that our hearts commit themselves to a faith that just as much about sacrifice as it about receiving blessings. 

My mother has been a teacher for I'd say as long as I can remember. She taught at the preschool my sister, and I attended, she taught second grade for a large part of her career. As we start into another school year, I can be sure that teachers would tell you that as they prepare their lessons, they know not all their students are going to pick it up at the same rate. Of course, there will be students who get it on the first try and others who may need a little extra help or out of the box creativity to make the lesson comprehensible. I don't think that Jesus had a certification in education, but I think he was well aware that the people who were listening to him needed some creative lessons as well. 

So Jesus tells the crowd, whose attention he certainly has, two stories; one about a tower and another about a king who was heading off to war. In both of these stories, Jesus makes the point loud and clear! In the first Jesus lays out that you wouldn't build a tower if you didn't have the money you needed. And in the second story, Jesus would like to think that you wouldn't head off to war unless you knew you had the numbers on your side. Both of these short stories are meant to make you stop, and think about whether or not you've considered what it means to follow Jesus and if you're sure you want to commit. However, that doesn't mean we give up, because we have a teacher who is willing to walk alongside us patiently as we continue to understand what it means to be disciples who are committed, active, and hopeful. 

However, that hope and energy cannot manifest if we beat each other up over mistakes and misunderstandings. I've never been a fan of what preachers have called the "bad dog sermon." If you're not sure what I mean by that, I'm talking about the kind of sermons where the minister stands up front wagging their finger. Often you'll find them saying, "O, you're such bad people and God's disappointed." I'm sure that any teacher would also agree that this is not an effective means of education. Except there's an irony in what I just said because there are many who enjoy being reminded each Sunday that they are bad people who don't stop sinning. There is a time and a place for that kind of message, but it's seldom, and it's rare. And our approach to learning and discipleship should embrace a vigor that propels us to be better not because we are scared of being shamed, but because we want to serve for the sake of serving. 

In these past few readings from Luke, we've been learning what it means to be a disciple, to be the hands and feet of Christ. But today Jesus lays everything out on the table, "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." We've been slowing taking it all in, but all of a sudden a new revelation hits us. Not only do we have to not worry about counting things (like our possessions or social standing), but we also have to live as though nothing we have means anything. The lesson is not only about the end of our journey, but the in-between bits as well. It would be fair to say that Jesus wasn't expecting everyone who was following him that day to leave everything behind, but I would say that Jesus was expecting that all took time to evaluate the things that were important in their lives.

The takeaway for us this morning is not the emphasis on giving up everything we own or do. The takeaway this morning is the reminder, the challenge, for us to stop and consider if we know what it means to follow God's plan for our lives to completion. When we can let go of the things that we need to let go of we'll find the freedom to hand those things over to God and dedicate ourselves to things that bring rejuvenate us and give us a second wind. We've spent a lot of time holding onto past things that we've been saving up, but those past things will turn into bitter memories if we don't let go. So let those things go! Don't hold onto possessions or memories that won't allow us to grow, and our spirits transform as we become more interconnected with God and one another. 

There is one last thing I want to make one thing very clear, though, which is that this work of transformation, this work of learning, is not another project for us to take onto our list of things to do. This work has already been done by Jesus, the one who picked up his cross and bled and died for all of us. The only thing we have to do is make a choice. Are we going to reorient our lives on the things that truly matter and give what we have to God who has already done the hard work? Or are we going to keep counting the costs of mission, keep saying that our time is more valuable and that there are other things to be done, and keep believing that we have nothing to offer, so it's someone else's job? I can't answer that question for you, because a difficult lesson is taken differently by each person. So how will you live differently today, tomorrow, and the next day that God is calling you to live? We have an opportunity to receive a great gift, embark on a grand journey, and a call that leads us to a place of hope. So let’s take that first step with faith and grace. Amen.


Start At The Bottom

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place', and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

__________

There's a lot more than just a guide to table etiquette in this morning's story from the Gospel According to Luke. In this morning's reading, we find an underlying condition that runs throughout all of our lives. And that underlying condition, whether we know it or not, is that we like to count or tabulate our social credit. There is a tendency for us to calculate what impact our actions and words will have and how by positioning ourselves correctly, we might advance to the next social ring. I'm not sure that's how we would describe what we do, but it's something that exists in the back of our minds. 

The Dowager Countess of Grantham, aka Violet Crawley, from the PBS, show Downton Abbey is a perfect example of what Jesus is warning us about in the reading from this morning. If you've ever watched Downton Abbey, you're aware of how the character of Violet Crawley stands out as someone who is known for "scheming" and maintaining the social status quo as the matriarch of the family. Being in a place of high social standing, it's essential to her that her family doesn't do anything that would endanger their reputation. It’s all about keeping their family on a positive upward trend.

For as long as human beings formed communities and created norms by which they would abide, the challenges of relationships has not gotten any easier. We live in a world that values success, a world that places those who are social media influences and celebrities on pedestals that help guide us to some culturally enlightened place. But at some point, we have to ask ourselves, "How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to have a seat at the place we think is meant for those who are honorable?" Because the cost of that prestigious seat might be higher than you initially expect. 

It is impossible for us to earn, to manipulate, something that was never ours to begin with. All the scheming, all the planning we could do is not enough to win us a seat at the place of honor. And that is because we are all given a place of honor. Jesus is the host who invites us to move up and sit closer so that we may be in fellowship with God and one another. Jesus is the one who calls out to us, saying, "Friend, move up higher." Because there is enough room for all, who are looking for a place at the table, there is no need to shove or push or jockey for some in with Jesus. 

We may think we are deserving of a place of honor, but Jesus holds a mirror up and tells us we need to pump the brakes. Perhaps that's part of what we do on the Sunday when we celebrate the Lord's Supper when we consider what it means to partake of the bread and the cup. At that moment, we are allowed to see the world from a new perspective. Sometimes it takes that moment, a holy moment, to gain a perspective that reground us on the truly important things. Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped caring about what others think of us and use that energy for something beneficial? 

It should be no surprise to any of us, though that Jesus doesn't just stop at the making one point. Jesus has something else to add; something that makes his message speak not only to the present or future, but the present and the future combined. You see, Jesus throws us a curveball at the end of his parable. It's not just about doing good things for the sake of doing good things and not worrying about being noticed for them, but it's also about those who aren't at the table. It's about the people who are not at the table because they haven't been invited in the first place and about people like us have tried to stop them from taking their rightful place. How many times have we heard a story like that before?

The reversal of our expectations evokes a very Dylan-esque feeling. And what I mean by that is that this story from Luke rings especially true when you consider the last couple lines of Dylan's The Times They Are-A Changin', "For the first ones now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin'." The times they are a-changin,' and it's time for us to be a part of that change. It's time for us to give up our pettiness, the things that we genuinely don't have control over, and to place our trust into the hands of God who watches over us and calls us to action. A dinner party of one is not a very good time, and as an introvert I think that is a little too far. So how much are we willing to allow the Spirit of God to move and transform our lives?

In the back of my mind, I hear the old African gospel song belting out the phrase, "All God's children gonna sit together one of these days." What keeps us from the table of welcome? What keeps our souls from letting others sit at the table with us? Is it our pride? Is it our prejudice? Is it our inability to let the past be the past and let the future be the future? Is it our fear of not knowing what's going to happen if we allow our hearts to be vulnerable? We'll find that if we learn to trust a little harder, lean into the words of Christ a little deeper, the hard exterior shells we have crafted for ourselves will begin to crumble. And then we might be willing to embrace this not so radical world of Jesus after all.

This transformation requires a lot of trust, which is something that we may not have at the moment. But we need trust because without it our faith has no place to find nourishment. And I've got the feeling that we all need a little more trust in our lives. Trust that people are doing the best they can, trust that God will point us in the direction we need to go and trust that in moments when we feel like we have no control God is there with us every step of the way. And I say this because trust will be critical when we start inviting everyone to sit at the table with God and us. And I say this because sometimes we need to be reminded that as much as we might have a handle on things, some things are simply beyond us.

In the end, I think most of us would take Jesus' words as more of a command than a recommendation. But I like to believe that Jesus' words were meant to serve more like an invitation rather than a command. "An invitation to what you?" you might ask. Well, I would say that it's an invitation to live a life that is free from unnecessary and burdensome constraints of what everyone else thinks about us, and an invitation to live freely in the love of God. And what a beautiful life that would be! We are all invited, all able to partake of the gift of the feast that Christ, the host of hosts, has laid out for every one of us. 

So we can stop counting! We can take a break from the social jockeying we partake in and just be ourselves. The game of social positioning is one that is unrelenting and brutal and gives no joy unless we take that joy from others. We can't have all the power, and we can't have all the control, because it was never ours, to have! Perhaps it's time we take a step back, pump the brakes, and stop counting, stop collecting, and start living life simply to bless others for the sake of blessing others. And then we will come to understand that it doesn't matter if we start at the bottom because there is always enough room, always enough love and grace at the table that Christ has prepared. Amen.



What Matters To You?

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

__________

I'm a fan of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. There's something about the thought of exploring the stars that captivates the imagination. But there's something else that is intriguing about the world Roddenberry created, and that is the utopia like earth. In Roddenberry's universe, there is no more war among nations (well, there aren't any nations at all), and things like poverty and illnesses don't appear to be a concern anymore. But the progress that was made by the people of earth didn't happen overnight. It took another world war and constant work, generations of work, to build a society that benefited all people. 

There's one episode I want to point out this morning because I find that it speaks to what is at the heart of today's reading from the Gospel According to Luke. The episode takes place in the city of San Francisco in the year 2024. It focuses on what are called "sanctuary districts." Ironically these districts didn't provide anything you would expect to find in a sanctuary but instead were places where those who were mentally ill and those who were without jobs were tucked away and hidden from society. The point that really strikes home for me is a quote that comes from an observer of these districts who says, "Causing people to suffer because you hate them... is terrible. But causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care... that's really hard to understand."

That is where we find ourselves this morning. We see ourselves coming face to face with the tension that arises between what we think to be essential, and what God tells us is important. The things that matter to us are a reflection of our core values. So it's vital that we take the opportunity to stop and assess the things that make us who we are. We need to ask ourselves, "Do we care more about following the letter of the law and every rule, or is it our love and ability to care that matters more?" It's a question that we need to ask ourselves not because we set out with bad intentions or want to beat others over the head with a rulebook, but because we are hardwired to find comfort in a set of rules and regulations that make sense to us as we make our way through an unknown world. And sometimes we are in need of a catalyst that will mix things up for us in unexpected ways. 

But as modern readers of this text, and as people who don't necessarily come from a background of in-depth knowledge of Judaism, we should take a step back and reflect briefly on the conflict that we find in this morning's reading. The stage appears to be set for another round of Jesus v. The Synagogue Leaders and we would expect a fight to happen, but if we look below the surface of what is going on, we'll find that there is something more to the synagogue leaders indignation. To the synagogue leader, healing was work, and it was a day of rest that was given to them by God. The woman who was bent over had an ample number of opportunities to come and seek relief from her pain, so she shouldn't try to circumnavigate or bypass the law. 

But Jesus challenges the realities in which the synagogue leader and we ourselves have become accustomed too; which is unsettling, and perhaps scary as well because it means the rules we thought we knew have changed. For Jesus, the question isn’t about what is and isn’t considered working on the sabbath. For Jesus, the issue at hand is that there is a “daughter of Abraham,” who is suffering from afflictions so great it becomes a debilitating way of life. While we might not think of it as a glamorous argument Jesus uses a simple example to reorient our hearts and minds, “Each of you would take care of your animals on the sabbath; otherwise, they would die! So why then would you not do the same for a daughter of Abraham who was bound by the death?”

They say that sunshine is the most effective disinfectant, and I would add that the same is true for how we adjust our lives as well. Sometimes it takes a moment of clear revelation to jolt us into setting us on the path in which we align the things that are important to us in a more constructive way. Assessing the things that matter to us isn’t easy, because it means that we’ll find some things that need a little or a lot of adjusting. Pulling from my earlier allusion to the sanctuary districts in Roddenberry’s universe, they weren’t disbanded and torn down until the people living in them protested and gained national attention. Many things may startle us, shake us, make us feel challenged or attacked, and Jesus pushes all those buttons in an attempt to get our attention. 

When we’ve caused suffering because we’ve forgotten how to care, it’s a sign that we need to need to step away and take stock of the things that are in our lives. The past few weeks, I’ve emphasized what it means to care for our neighbors and our community, but this week we’re given a chance to look inside ourselves. I mean, how can we help others if we don’t know what it is that makes our hearts and passions beat? If we don’t purposefully dedicate time to assess ourselves than we’ll only continue living on in the same way, perhaps even unintentionally hurting others along the way. But the fruit that is produced from such labor is priceless and something bridges the gap between how we think the world works and how God had intended us to live.

I read a story this week reinforced my hope in humanity and the importance of taking the time to look within our hearts. This article talked about a White police officer who arrived in front of a Cincinnati barbershop to find a group of Black men standing outside. The officer approached and shook his head, and when one of the men asked what was wrong, the officer said someone had made a false report. There was a moment of silence as both sides acknowledge what had happened, but then the group of Black men asked if the officer wanted to come inside, the barbershop had won an award and grant money that would be used to benefit the local community. 

The officer at first declined, saying that he didn’t want to spoil the celebration, but one of the men told the officer that someone has to take the first step in healing these relationships. The same man continued to say to the officer that former pro-football player Jerome Bettis was inside. When the officer heard that he lit up with a smile. It was a moment of camaraderie, a moment of fellowship, a moment of healing, a moment that was only able to take place because people were able to take a look inside and find something that went beyond themselves and took them to a place of discomfort and growth. (When We Remove The Masks We Wear)

We have to start somewhere! This is a truth that we cannot ignore. Some things are about rules and traditions, but most of the time we find that we need to stretch ourselves so that we might catch a glimpse of what it means to be in harmony with one another and with God. When we choose to see each other, and ourselves as human beings created in the image of God, the rules don’t seem to matter as much anymore, and our priority instead becomes grounded on how we protect that spark of the divine.  

This week I’m going to ask that you dedicate some time in prayer and meditation looking inward, and to consider doing the following (I know I don’t always encourage you to write things down, but it may be helpful if you are like me, which is forgetful): 

  • Spend some time in prayer just talking with God… It doesn’t have to be formal or anything like that, you can just sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed or go out for a walk and have a conversation with God about the things that are important to you. 

  • Consider the passage for today in light of all the pleas for help we hear. More important consider this passage in light of the fact that Jesus took the time and energy to be with people of all walks of life. You may be surprised how God replies to your previous conversation or you may find that you have more questions, which is totally okay as well. 

  • And lastly take care of yourselves… Take time for a break from the busy-ness of life and unplug. If you are someone who needs permission for that kind of thing I’m giving it to you now and you say that it’s my fault you didn’t answer the phone, text, or email right away in that very moment. We know we need to take care of our bodies, but we don’t always pay attention to what our souls need. 

You and I are daughters, sons, and beloved children of the living God. A God who placed themselves on a cross because God’s very nature was grounded on love and care for those who cry out in prayer. There’s a power to be found in taking the effort to take stock of what matters most in ourselves. And that inward spirit of ours has the ability to break out into the world around us, enabling us to work with hands that heal instead of harm, and it can start with a simple look at what lies at the center of our hearts. I’m always up for having my world turned around by Jesus. What about you?  



The Hard And Messy Work Of Faith

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

__________

I don’t consider myself someone who is very handy with tools, but I like to think that I enjoy doing that kind of work every now and then. Sometimes I’ll turn to the internet and see what kind of fun and random DIY projects people are up to these days. One such project I recently came across was a video of someone attempting to repair an old pair of shoes that they found in their closet. The meticulous work of replacing the soles and other parts of the shoe for some reason satisfying to watch, but it was intriguing to read a few of the comments. While most were positive, there was a good number who wrote things like, “They could’ve just went out and bought a new pair of shoes for the time it took to repair the old pair.” 

If you’ve ever invested that kind of time into something you know that’s not the reason why we sink our time or resources into doing tasks like restoration or the types of jobs that require more of our attention. It’s not about what is easy or what is fastest, but what is valuable in terms of feeding our souls and nourishing them. The path that is laid in front of us requires that we be persistent and that we forge ahead with faith that God will do what God needs to do and that we will continue to be the hands and feet of God. The readings we have had for the past couple of from the Book of Hebrews brings this understanding of faith to the forefront. Faith is the endurance of our souls to find rest and encourage in the Word of God and the strength to overcome the hurdles that lie ahead of us. 

There are a couple of essential stories that the Book of Hebrews evokes in this morning’s reading. The first is Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Moses certainly didn’t have plans to be a part of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt. I’m sure that Moses had plans. I bet that Moses had his sights set on living a “normal” life. But things happen, things change, and sometimes we are moved to take actions that will change the course of history. Moses didn’t start the day thinking that he would kill an Egyptian overseer who was beating an Israelite. Moses didn’t know he would stand before the throne of Pharaoh and uttered the infamous words, “Let my people go.” On those days when Moses thought that all for naught that his life was over the Spirit of God revealed a different path. A path that would lead Moses to possess the faith that God would separate the waters of the Red Sea; allowing the people of Israel to escape.

But if you were listening to reading this morning, you would notice that it wasn't just Moses' faith that allowed the waters to be parted, but it was, in fact, the people of Israel's faith. They, by faith, walked through the roaring waters of the Red Sea as if they were walking on dry ground. But when the Egyptians try to do the same, they were washed away the collapsing waters. Why did the waters swallow them and not the Israelites? Because the Egyptians did not have faith, only vengeance, only hate, and malice. A lesson that should strive to remember every day. Hatred and vengeance have no place in our life of faith, only love. And I don't say that with some glib attitude, I mean it! God is more than willing to sweep away the hatred we bring and will find ways to intervene. 

Rahab too is lifted up as another story for us to turn to as we look at our ongoing journey of faith. Rahab, the Canaanite woman, hid spies from Israel as they were collecting information about the city of Jericho. She didn’t meet the Israelites with malicious intent but instead welcomed them in peace. And because she did not allow them to fall into the hands of the guards, Rahab and her family were spared. As a Caanite and an outside, Rahab still welcomed faith in God even in the face of possible death. But setting aside her fears, we find that she and those who were close to her were given new life. To welcome in strangers, spies no less, from a foreign place and hide them from guards who were searching for them. That takes guts, that takes courage, and it certainly takes faith that something much more significant is at play.

As I've said before, on different occasions, the work of faith isn't easy. The late Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was a fantastic theologian and preacher, once said, "The world has two ways of getting rid of Jesus. The first is by crucifying him; the second is by worshiping him without following him." In that short sentence, there is a lot of truth to Fosdick's words. On the "bad days," I often look back at this passage and realize just how bad things could really be. Faith is messy, and faith on good days is still hard work, but the payoff is more rewarding than anything we could imagine. All it requires is that we be willing to take a step of faith as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. 

Following in those footsteps seems to often go with being a member of a church. But being a member of a church is easy, but the task of discipleship in the community of the church is something else. You might have figured it out, but the world often looks down on the things that are considered “wretched.” But those things that are “wretched” are actually blessed in the eyes of Christ. Blessed are the have nots. Blessed are the meek and humble. Blessed are the ones who show mercy and compassion. Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty so that God’s righteousness and justice may flow down like a raging river. Blessed are the ones who are peacemakers. Blessed are the ones who have been persecuted for who God created them to be, beautifully and wonderfully made. Blessed are those who have been chastised just because they showed love, because they showed compassion, and because they spoke for justice, not only for themselves but for those who need justice the most. 

It is that kind of faith, that kind of discipleship that should give us the motivation to keep moving. As we hear in this morning’s reading: 

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

Faith requires us to get down into the ground and get dirty. We need to get dirty to see that the reward for our perseverance exists outside of ourselves. It's not about what we contribute to one church, one town, one county, one state, or even the one country where we live. When we get into the messy work of faith, we'll find that God has called us to be a part of a much more expanse community of human beings. That might seem overwhelming, but it's part of one long relay. The work we do not will be passed to the next generation, and then they will pass it on to the generation that comes after them. 

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

In the end, all I can really say is keep the faith. In the messiness and the chaos, keep the faith. Keep the faith when you feel it strong and keep it when you don't. Hold onto faith when you're exploring the mountaintops and hills and keep it when you're in the valleys of angst and despair. Keep it when you feel like God is close to you and keep it when it feels as though God isn't there. 

God has faith in us, in you, so much so that we are given the gift of life. Isn't it worth it then to get our hands a little dirty so that our lives are not just lived to the fullest, but those who come after may be full as well? So may you, and we, have faith and courage to run the race as run the course that is ahead of us. Amen. 





Faith In Something Bigger

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

__________

This morning we find that our reading focuses on the idea of faith. And when I was thinking about what it means to have faith a common experience popped into my mind. There is something about infants that has always amused me. If you're a parent or someone who has ever played with a baby before you'll be able to relate to what I'm about to say. I'm talking about playing the classic game of "Peek-a-Boo." I've always found it amusing how infants react when you hide behind your hands only to reveal yourself a couple of seconds later. There's almost always a look of surprise, excitement, and curiosity as to where you went in that short amount of time. 

As you know, infants cannot understand the concept of object permanence. They do not possess the ability to comprehend that something still exists even though it may move outside of their zone of perception. While we may maintain a mastery of object permanence, we still grapple with accepting the things we cannot see. But once we take that first step forward in embracing the unknown, we begin our journey of faith in something much bigger than ourselves. This journey will challenge us to open our hearts and minds to what God has imprinted on our hearts. As we hear in our reading for today, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."

While infants find that human physiology limits their perception, we find that our failure to grasp the unknown often stems from our inability to let things go. We're good at pointing out the faults in others and focusing on the negatives, but in doing so, we limit ourselves when it comes to how much we are going to trust God. How can we have faith in something bigger than ourselves if we are so caught up in what the mistakes of other people? And how can we have faith that God will take our burdens if we try and micromanage our own salvation? Our belief in something that we cannot see is already challenging, so why would we want to make it harder for ourselves by trying to subvert the work of the Spirit of God? 

The struggles that we all go through can be seen in stories such as that of Abraham. We recognize that Abraham's story is lifted up in today's reading as a part of what it means to live a complicated life and find the faith in something that went beyond himself (not to forget Sarah as well). Abraham didn't know where God was leading him. And I'm sure that he had problems at home that were more pressing calling for his attention, but Abraham nevertheless followed the called out of faith. And the same is true for Sarah, who believed that she was beyond the age to bear children, yet mothered a future people called by God. The question is whether or not we are willing to take such a risk to pursue something that we cannot see?  

Let's be real for a moment and acknowledge that we each carry a lot of baggage. Some of our baggage can be good because it's useful and beneficial, but I think you know what kind of baggage I'm referring to in this instance. I'm talking about the things we can't let go of the grudges, the hurts, the fears, and the anger we've harbored over the years of existing. And instead of letting it go and having faith that God is in control we try to do things ourselves which can end up discounting / hurting others and lead us away from the place that God has prepared for us. As pioneers, as wanderers, we have a responsibility to pursue faith with wonderment and awe, in a manner that lifts those around us up instead of dragging them down. 

I wish there were an easy solution, and I wish it were as simple as snapping your fingers. This world needs people who have faith. Faith not just in themselves but also confidence in those around us, and faith, not only in God will take care of every single detail, but that God will give us the courage, strength, and power to do what needs to be done as well. If we go forward in humility and faith, then God will not be ashamed to be called our God. If we can go ahead and love one another, trust one another, and take up the mantle of the women and men who have come before us, then we will find we are one step closer to the place God desires for us. But all of that requires faith, sweat, tears, joy, and all of the above. It’s hard work for sure, but work that satisfies our hungry and yearning souls. 

So how are we going to live lives that reflect our faith in something bigger than ourselves? How are we going to honor the footsteps who have come before? The martyrs, the sinners, and the saints who were all a part of God's plan for creation. Faith requires us to trust that there is something much more meaning that exists outside of ourselves. My challenge for all of us here this morning is to think about concrete steps we can take that enable us to make a new way forward. A way forward that embrace faith in the unseen, a way that trusts that God will take care of things we can’t do by ourselves, and a way that 

Since today is not a traditional worship service, I thought I would end in a non-traditional way. In the last couple of years of his life, before he died, Pete Seeger wrote a song that I think is appropriate to today's message. The song I want to end with today is titled, "God's Counting On Me, Counting On You." I think it's a song that encapsulates the themes I want us to walk away with after hearing this reading from Hebrews:

  1. Faith can and most likely will be a rocky journey.

  2. Faith is rewarding once we place our trust in God and place our “baggage” into God’s hands. 

  3. Faith encompasses all of creation and is not something that is done alone.

God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting On You 
Pete Seeger ©2012 (Bill Barone Productions)

When we look and we see things are not what they should be
God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you...

Refrain: 
Hopin’ we’ll all pull thru (3x), me and you

When there’s big problems to be solved, let’s get everyone involved
God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you...

Refrain

What we do now, you and me, will affect eternity
God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you…

Refrain

When we work with younger folks we can never give up hope
God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you…

Refrain



Take Care!

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

__________

Most of you probably already know that I love folk music. Folk music is my jam for many reasons. One of these reasons is that many of the songs tell a story and sometimes contain a lesson on morality. But there's another kind of folk tradition that does something similar, but instead of music uses words to craft a story, often with creatures that the writer has anthropomorphized. Of course, I'm talking about Aesop's fables, which have made their way through time, even though there were never any written copies made. But as I was thinking about this folk tradition, there was one story in particular that seemed particularly relevant to this morning's reading from the Gospel According to Luke. 

Aesop tells this story about a grasshopper who lived a carefree life. The grasshopper went around playing their fiddle wherever they went. One day the grasshopper came across an ant who was toiling in the summer sun, and the grasshopper stopped and mocked them. "Why are you working in the hot sun?" asked the grasshopper. "We need to gather food for the winter!" replied the ant. Well, you would think that the grasshopper would take those words to heart, but instead continued merrily along until the seasons changed. One day though the seasons finally changed and the grasshopper found that with the bitter cold there was no more food to be found. When the grasshopper asks the ant for some food, the ant scoffed and said that the grasshopper should go and dance the winter away. 

You know what's interesting is that the story about the grasshopper and the ant is commonly known to be a criticism against laziness and sloth. But there's another interpretation of Aesop's fable, which critiques the actions of the ant. In this telling of the story, the ant is so focused on gathering material goods that they steal from others. It's the nature of the ant to want to collect goods and food, but that nature is a fault when it means that they turn their back on those who are in need. The same is true for us! We tend to want to gather spiritual and material things that will benefit ourselves, but the work of discipleship often asks us to sacrifice those things to help others. It's this dichotomy, the urge to follow God and store up earthly treasures, that seems to trip us up every time. 

We find tension in this fable and this morning's reading, between our tendency to want to gather and save and to live in the present moment with God. It would be great to live a life without fear, like that of the grasshopper, but our minds tell us we always need to prepare ourselves for winter. We hear Jesus warning us about this conflict in this morning's reading, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." This theme runs throughout the entirety of the Bible. We find that God punishes those who are greedy, those who take from the have nots and emphasizes that a full life does not require earthly treasures. 

I've found that most things in life boil down to balance. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. But take care! The act of keeping all these things in harmony with one another will be hard to do if we lose sight of what is truly important. As hard as we try though, we'll find that on some nights when our heads hit the pillow at night, our late-night conversations with God turns into a list of the things that we need. We have student loans, parents who are sick or aging, bills that we need to pay, and when the sun rises we find once again our minds have bought into the belief that if we had more our lives would be fulfilled.

So how do we make sense of this tension then? If we find that our late-night conversations with God take a self-centered turn, how do we fix it?  Ultimately what we are asking this morning is, "Is it possible to center ourselves on God instead of earthly possessions?" To which I would say, "Yes, of course!" But it all depends on what bar we are going to set for ourselves. If we think that we can do it flawlessly, then that's an unrealistic goal. As I said, most things boil down to balance; and the same is true for our expectations. There are times when living fully in God will be a joy and there will be times when it's hard, yet as long as we keep trying that is where we will discover that our journey has provided us with a rich well of experience.

Part of this balancing of our lives requires a change in our perspective. Our life and our faith is not some bank where we cash in and save for our heavenly retirement. We can't think like the rich man in the parable and be content with the riches we have gathered for ourselves. Discipleship, living life with God and one another, requires constant work. Regardless of our age, our point in life, we are called to persistent vigilance as we strive to set our minds on things that Christ calls us to pursue. The path we are called to walk requires sacrifice, perseverance, and dedication to the belief that our work together is what will bind up the broken hearts of those around us and our hearts as well. 

When we look at it from a distance, the greed in this morning's passage is a call for something deeper, something meaningful. Greed is a desire to be loved and to love, but in a warped way. When we try and fill our barns with crops and lots of other goodies, we will discover that instead of binding up the brokenhearted, we are taking the things that could have helped them and ourselves. So the things we have hoarded for ourselves become gods created in our own image. Our hearts were never meant to be closer to things than to people, so if we find that we've reached that point, we need to readjust ourselves and refocus our minds on the heart of God that provides for all people. 

The truth is that we were never meant to possess everything within our reach. We're told that even from the beginning the world we were never expected to have everything. And even if we were able to have everything we wanted we wouldn't be living a full life. Hoarding things because we think they'll make us happy is not what God intended for us.  Can you imagine what the world would be like if God decided to be greedy and keep everything locked away up in heaven? From the start, we are told that God was generous in outpouring love to the entirety of creation. And we should remember, of course, that this sacrificial love led to God sending Jesus to earth to show us how we ought to live in community with one another. 

Jesus knows how messy arguments around possessions can be.  Jesus knows that money, power, and material goods can cause division that is real and hurtful. Perhaps then that is why we're meant to channel both the spirit of the grasshopper and the ant. We need to live lives that are free-flowing in God's Spirit, and lives that are open to being forged by sacrifice and the hard work of following Christ. It's possible only if we set our hearts and minds on God. Otherwise, our fears and worries will tempt us back into thinking that we don't have enough and that we are not enough for the work that we have been called to do. 

There's been a lot on my mind this past week. I've been thinking about Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Uniontown, Gilroy, Chippewa Falls, Columbus, Rosenberg, Haskell, Southaven, Elkhart, Suffolk, Pomfret, El Paso, and Dayton. I've been thinking about the 53 dead and 90 injured people who were shot this past week alone. More specifically, I've been asking myself the question, "Why would perpetrators do such a thing?" And in the end, it usually comes down to fear. Fear that came from the words they've heard on the television, internet, and radio. Fear that outsiders are going to come and take their jobs or their earthly treasures. Fear of things that don't look like them, talk like them, or live how they live. And I can only imagine what might have gone differently if they only heard the message of abundance, peace, and the rich tapestry of our diversity, that flows from our God who walked on stormy seas. Let us condemn us for what it is, evil! And let us go forward knowing that our storehouses filled with treasures mean nothing if the world we created results in a broken, shattered, and tattered reflection of God's hope for our life together. 

You and I have the power right here and now to change the narrative. You and I can go out and tell others about this love that comes from God. Love that is so plentiful there is enough for everyone who yearns for it. Love that knows pain so dark and real that it can comfort us in our times of need. And love that is so precious that it contains a rich diversity of stories from everyone who has partaken of it. There is mercy enough, and there is sufficient grace for everybody. Christ invites you and me to take care of and guard ourselves against the fear that there is not enough and invites us to work together in our seeking to lift one another out of the ashes and pits of death. 

Perhaps it's appropriate that the reading for today has to do with the question of balance and abundance. On this Sunday as we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded that God gives us our daily portion. We break bread, and we pour the cup, and we find that God reorders our lives to tell us that life can be lived differently. Everything we need and desire is at the table that the Lord has prepared. Except there aren't any possessions at the table, only love, love that will not let us go. At the table, we will find that each and every one of us has brought something of value, and it doesn't matter who brought what. All that matters is that we share what we have as we engage in fellowship that reflects God's desire for us. 

Christ has embodied this love. Christ is the bread of life for the entire world. And Christ will satisfy our yearning souls. So take care and guard yourselves against greed and selfishness desires. Let us come and open ourselves to God's love, which provides for all who come searching for it. Trust in that love, trust in that power, and may we work together then as we take care of all creation. Amen.



Unbound Generosity

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:  Father,hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

__________

The year was 1943. The month was October, and the place was the city of Rome in Italy. A roundup of Jews and other groups of people were underway and the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII was in a precarious position. The Vatican had no army, no missiles, or tanks. All they had was their faith in the power of God. But in spite of their dangerous situation, Pope Pius XII ordered that Vatican City and churches in Rome open their doors and provide a sanctuary and refuge for anyone who was seeking protection from deportation. Whoever came looking for assistance received it. Churches gave food, provided water and medicine, and helped distribute false identification papers for those in need of them. In defiance of the law, human law, the Law of God took precedence above all else. When you, when we hear someone knocking on our door, we don’t turn them away, unless we want to close the door on God. 

Pope Pius XII was not a perfect Pope, and in the eyes of many was deemed to be lackluster and ineffective in doing more to help Jews and other oppressed minorities. It goes to show that those in positions of power and privilege can do much to help others if they only exerted their influence in the first place. I want to think though that Pope Pius XII had this morning's reading in mind, with many other passages, when it came to taking a risk to embody unbound generosity. Unbound generosity meaning that it came from a place of understanding. An understanding that when someone comes in search of aide, you don't turn them away, because we know that Christ came to set the example of what it means to give of our whole selves. The knock on the door is a loud and clear call that is not something we can ignore. So what's important then is how will we respond. Will we offer food, shelter, or whatever it is the person on the other side is looking for regardless of who they are? Or will try to give them a scorpion, a snake, or our malice and hate instead? 

But before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the more well-known part of this passage. This morning we hear familiar words, words that we say every Sunday. This morning we come across the Lord’s Prayer and more extensive teaching of Jesus that has to do with the prayer. Interestingly, it is at this point, in Chapter 11, that the disciples finally ask Jesus how to pray. Perhaps it was a cultural, a religious hurdle, or maybe the disciples were having feelings of inadequacy. Regardless of the reason, Jesus teaches them to pray, to invoke the name of God, to ask for the provisions needed for their spiritual journey, and to ask for the things that will get them through life as well. It’s a prayer that carries a punch, a prayer that has a lot of meaning if we stop and consider what it is for we are praying. “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

This point brings us to the section that is the focus of our meditation this morning. This discussion that Jesus presents on what it means to pray fervently and what it means for us to open the door instead of closing it. In a way that is almost comically simplistic, Jesus asks those who have gathered around him to imagine what it would be like to go to a friend and ask for help. You would think it would be a simple thing for us to imagine, but Jesus throws in a curve-ball. In this exercise, Jesus assumes our “friend” decides not to help because it’s not a convenient time of day. It’s almost funny that Jesus assumes that our friend won’t help. Because perhaps Jesus knows that our initial inclination isn’t to offer help when we feel bothered. But it’s through perseverance, that act of continually knocking on the door, by which we are finally given what we need. 

It’s an analogy that should be a source of comfort and encourage us to cultivate our own spiritual lives as well. It should comfort us because it means that even if we can’t find anyone to listen to us, God is there. If we feel as though something is weighing heavily on us, God is there and won’t shut the door in our face. And it should encourage us to cultivate our own spiritual lives because it means that we can have a conversation with God at any time. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2, 3, 4, 5 in the morning because God is always ready to welcome us in (and God, of course, isn’t bound by time so there’s that as well). Last week we considered what it meant to carve out time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. This week are presented with a task to carve out time in our lives to have a conversation with God in our everyday living.

Just as God is there to answer the door when we pray, when we want to have a conversation, there is a response on our part as well that demands our attention. While we know that God hears our prayers, we in the here and now hear the prayers of those around us as well. We hear the prayers of those who are grieving, we hear the prayers of those who are hungry, we hear the prayers of those who have suffered injustice, fleeing persecution, abuse, and in all those situations they are the ones knocking on our door asking for a loaf of bread. God hears our prayers, and as I said, we already know that. In our mission to co-labor, co-work, with God, we find that we hear a number of different prayers as well. And like I said, in the beginning, our response to those prayers will reflect our ability to live generously in God’s grace or be constricted by the rules we place on ourselves. And if we are willing to break free from any earthly molds we made for ourselves or principalities, we’ll find that our lives together are blessed and made richer for it, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The reading’s we’ve had for the past few weeks reminds me of something that we don’t usually include in our Presbyterian tradition. There’s a passage that comes from a book that is in the Catholic version of the Bible called the Wisdom of Sirach. It contains a number of Jewish teachings and sayings that are similar to that of the Book of Proverbs, but in the Wisdom of Sirach 28:1-5, “The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance; indeed God remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for one’s own sins? If a mere mortal cherishes wrath, who will forgive their sins?” If we expect God to hear our prayers, then it should be reasonable for us, the hands and feet of Christ, should be able to hear and respond to the prayers of those around us as well. 

 Without ceasing, we are confronted with the question of how we will talk to God and care for others every day in various forms. We’re asked whether or not we will let in our neighbor, help them out when they require help. We’re asked whether or not we will allow God into our hearts to empower us to co-labor in this work of love. And we are asked whether or not we will expand our understanding of the image of God to those whom we have traditionally closed the door on for the wrong reasons. It’s a tall order, yes, but one that is crucial to creating a world where all are treasured, all are valued, and all are welcomed regardless of who they are. And when the going gets tough, PRAY! Pray without ceasing, pray with perseverance, because God is listening, because we who are your fellow travelers are listening when you need us to as well. Pray, and it will be in that time of prayer that we come to understand what unbound generosity truly is. 

We may not be perfect, we may not always be kind and gracious people, but we are people with a heart that God imbued with a sense of purpose and love. So maybe it’s not comical than that the disciples asked Jesus how to pray. Perhaps we need that same spirit of humility as well as we continue to learn how to pray as well because we need to start somewhere and to live as Christ did let us pray that we begin by opening the door when we hear a knock. Amen.



Can I Get A Little Help?

Luke 10:38-42

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

__________

We live in a fast past world, a world that is always moving and never seems to take a break. There's work; there are sports, there's family, friends, drama that comes out of nowhere and many other things that are filling up our overwhelmed grey matter. And the ironic thing is that the technology, that was thought to make our lives easier, actually ties us closer to all these other moving parts making "unplugging" all the more difficult. With all these things that we find ourselves juggling, how do we add time for Jesus? Or I guess the question we should ask ourselves this morning is how do we make time for Jesus, how do we make time for ourselves to take a step back and simply breath? 

For this morning's passage, I like to think about my own experience with hosting people for a dinner party, usually an affair for family and friends. While I may not seem like a perfectionist, I like to dedicate myself to doing something well, so if that's cooking a meal for family or friends, you better believe I'm going to do my best. But sometimes that desire to do good is overcome by an obsession, an inappropriate feeling you might say, to focus solely on that one task of making a good meal. And if this feeling goes unchecked, it can lead to some expressions of annoyance and frustration. However, this feeling only appears when I lose sight of what matters, which at that moment is fellowship. 

It should be noted that I think Martha has gotten a lot of grief over the years to an undeserving degree. Who wouldn't be excited and attentive to the details of their house if they knew that Jesus was coming over for a meal? Imagine being in Martha's place and how you would want to make sure that everything was just right and feeling frustrated that people weren't helping you out the way you wanted them. You might yell out from the kitchen, "Hey, can I get a little help here, please?" Martha might have had the best of intentions when she asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?" But the thing is that we, like Martha, get sidetracked, and instead of placing our hearts into the hands of God, we try to invest ourselves in more ways than what is viable.

The problem we encounter this morning is not Martha's desire to serve and provide hospitality to her guests. Certainly we remember, even from last week's reading about the Good Samaritan, that Jesus lifts this kind of service to those who are our neighbors. But like I said Martha's service is not in and of itself the problem, the problem lies in the fact that in the course of Martha's work she was plagued by distractions. The Greek word periespato has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in multiple directions. Any one of us could speak to what it feels like when we try and juggle numerous things at once. Sometimes we're successful, but other times we find that the things we've been juggling end up on the floor in a jumbled mess. 

We hear Jesus speaking to us, calling out to us, this morning, "[Y]ou are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." When these words are spoken to Martha, they aren't meant to serve as a criticism. On the contrary, they are intended to be a reassurance that no matter how much Martha does or how well she does it, she is still a beloved, valued, and cherished child of God. We need to hear these words ourselves. We too need the reassurance that regardless of how much we do and how well we do it, we are still a beloved child of God. This kind of grace is a skill that benefits not only ourselves but those around us as well. It's a grace that reminds us that God will work with what we have and that we need not punish ourselves when we think we've failed. 

In this past week's midweek reflection, I posed the question, "When was the last time you unplugged?" It's a question I pose to you again today because it fits with this mornings reading from the Gospel According to Luke. When was the last time you unplugged? When was the last time you purposely set aside all the things that you're juggling to take a moment for yourself and create a time for you and God to be with one another? Setting aside moments for ourselves to breathe, to pray, to sit in silence or serenity shouldn't be viewed as an indulgence, but instead a priority. We need that time to pray, to ask for guidance, and to process the events of the day and center ourselves. 

That time we intentionally set aside to be with God is the one thing that we need daily, and it's the thing that will sustain us, nurture us, give us the insight and creativity to look out towards the future. While there are a lot of things that are vying for our attention, we will never be able to attend to all of them if we burn ourselves out in the process. We were never meant to go all out 24/7 because it's just not healthy in both a spiritual and physical sense. Of course, doctors and psychologist will tell you that, but even God tells us that as well. God didn't work for six days and then tacked on six more. No God rested after creating and tells us to take time for rest and rejuvenation as well. 

Perhaps it would be better to think about the story of Martha and Mary as a tale of two models of discipleship coming together to form a whole. You see if we don't have a vision of what God is doing or what God desires for our lives, then we'll eventually get beaten down. Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to the words he offers, listens to the vision the hope, and without those words from Jesus, we can't go on, like Martha, in doing the good work of providing hospitality and love for the world. If we lose sight of the one thing that guides our heart it will do more than distract us, it will worry us, make us angry and bitter, and it will tire us to the point of exhaustion. Spending time with Jesus, taking a break from the chaotic work of our lives, we'll find that we have a renewed sense of purpose and that we can then prepare meals for the hungry, care for the sick, and show hospitality to the stranger, and keep on loving our neighbors in the name of Christ. 

Who do we neglect when we don't set our hearts, our minds on God? Jesus is there to remind us, like Martha, that much of what vyes for our attention and energy is not deserving of our time and resources. The message we hear over and over again from Jesus is that we need to be who we are, that we need to live in the transforming grace of God and take to heart what the means for our daily living. In other words, there are moments when we need to offer the distracting things in our lives to God so we can hit the "reset" / “rest” button. If we can do that the other parts of discipleship will fall into place, the tempting call of our distractions will lose their power. And the urge to resent or blame our "siblings" will lessen as well. And perhaps more importantly our  inclination to neglect the needy, exploit the poor, and trample others will yield to the redemptive love of God, because we've sat at Christ's feet, listening to every word, and after listening we will realize that we can't help but see the face of Christ in all those whom we meet. 

We can't love another, and we can't serve one another, we can't be patient and graceful with one another if we are at our wit's end. In our listening to God, in the silent moments or in the moments when we feel at peace, our spirits are renewed. In our doing God's will, serving others and loving as God loves us, then we will find that our lives are balanced and become more well rounded. But being intentional about the time we come to be with Jesus is a skill that takes practice and takes patience. And as we look at this story that talks about Mary and Martha we might be wondering how it all ends, because being creatures of curiosity we might think it would be helpful to see how this all pans out.  

In a manner that is consistent with the stories of Jesus, this one is left suspended. We don't know what happens; next, we don't know whether Martha and Mary were able to reconcile, and we don't know if they eventually sat down to eat the meal that Martha had prepared. While we might never know what indeed happened to Martha and Mary, we do know that Jesus invites all of us who fear about life's uncertainty and are distracted to come and sit for a while and rest in the presence of God. We are invited to rest and know peace and know that what we do, to whatever degree of our ability, is enough for God, because we are cherished beings. 

So the next time we find that we are feeling a little too burdened remember that there is one thing that needs our attention to our guests and ourselves, both things requiring a balanced heart and soul. And if we do so we will discover, our guest might also be our host (i.e. God),  who comes with abundant gifts to give to all who are gathered at the table, gifts that soothe and encourage our weary bodies and souls. Amen.



Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood?

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?” He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.” Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?” Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man. “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’ “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

__________

When the religious scholar asked Jesus, “What do I need to do to get eternal life?” I’m sure he wasn’t expecting Jesus’ reply. I would bet that the religious scholar was hoping that Jesus would say, “You need to believe ‘x’,” or “You need to believe ‘y and z,’” but Jesus doesn’t offer any of those replies. Instead Jesus tells a parable, a story, about a man who had been beaten up on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho by thugs and was saved by a Samaritan traveler. We too come to Jesus with questions, sometimes because we are curious and sometimes because we want to try and make a point, but the truth remains that Jesus will always find a way to turn our expectations around and challenge us to see the world differently. 

This ever evolving view of the world, of ourselves and of our faith, is made even richer when we understand the significance of the character we find in this mornings parable told by Jesus. We first meet the traveler on their way to Jerusalem when they were targeted by a group of robbers who leave the traveler hanging on for dear life. It might be assumed then that the priest and the Levite would have stopped to help the poor traveler, but they both were more concerned about their own purity, their own cleanliness, and so they do the opposite of what we would expect, which was to go out of their way to make any kind of connection with the traveler. 

All doesn’t look well for the person who was simply walking along, until a Samaritan shows up and pours out their love for the one who is on the brink of death. You might be wondering at this point why it was significant for a Samaritan to help the person who was in dire trouble. The truth is that Jews and Samaritans did not get along with one another, you might say that they even had a deadly hatred of one another, but despite all that this Samaritan breaks the mold and takes the Jewish traveler under their care and makes sure they get back to good health. Would we be willing to do something like for a stranger we had never met before, let alone someone who didn’t fit into the social molds we have crafted?

It isn’t faith by faith alone by which we are saved or by which we are known to be followers of Christ, but it is by how we live and more importantly how our faith dictates how we live our lives. Of course what we believe is important, but if those core beliefs don’t produce any visible fruit or don’t provide a moral compass that's feeds ourselves and others than what are we doing with our lives? Our faith, our lives are meant to be more than the sum of their individual parts. The challenge for us is how do we lives that are balanced, lives that reflect growth within ourselves and lives that push us to care for those who are our neighbors. 

It’s important that we wrestle with these questions, these questions that involve our faith and how we live our lives, because if we aren’t careful we will discover that our once beautiful day in the neighborhood is actually a day in a neighborhood with closed doors and hardened hearts. There’s enough cynicism, skepticism, and we find that we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or not we are willing to let the love of Christ do it’s thing so that our communities may once again be a reflection of what God has intended for us. But living into that community requires sacrifice and as we all know sacrificing things of our own doesn’t always come as an act that is easy for us to embrace. 

We might like to think that we are like the Samaritan, but in reality we might find we can relate more to the Levite and the priest. Do you know why the priest and the Levite left the man who was robbed on the side of the road half dead? Do you know why they couldn’t spare a minute for someone who was clinging onto their life by a narrow thread? It’s because both the Levite and the priest were so concerned about their own wellbeing, both spiritual and physical, that they didn’t want to sully themselves with the blood of another human being. While it may be hard to accept the truth of the matter is that we ourselves have placed our own “purity,” status with God over that of others as well. 

If this is all starting to sound familiar it should, because it follows a story most of know at this point. And that is the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus didn’t care about whether or not the people he was saving were “clean” or “unclean.” Jesus didn’t care about whether or not they mastered all aspects of theology or religion, because what mattered most to Jesus was the fact that each and of us were beautifully and wonderfully made. Now Jesus did some things that we might not be able to do (i.e. walk on water, multiply fishes and loaves of bread, etc.), but this act of loving is something that is not out of grasps and it plays such a vital role in how we cultivate our spirits in relationship to God’s will. 

I mentioned something before that might have sounded familiar to you and that was the phrase, “A beautiful day in the neighborhood.” It’s a phrase that comes from the beloved program Misters Rogers Neighborhood and has had an impact on millions of youth and adults. But there’s a question that lies at the heart of the message for today and that is the question of, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s a core question one that will ultimately shape the world we live in. It’s a core question that saves people, saves faith, and ushers in peace if we are willing to be the one who treats everyone like a neighbor. 

You know this past week I spent a week at a place called Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center. It’s a place that’s special for me, because it’s always felt like a sacred place where you can be who you truly are and a place where you can forget about the world and enjoy the time you have with friends. But what I most enjoy about the time I spend there is seeing how kids and youth encourage one another. For some it’s the first time they’ve been away from home, for others it’s the first time they’ve been told they can who they really are, and for others it might be the first time where they are treated with respect and kindness. And what makes it all the more special, for me at least, is seeing how kids and youth model these things for those in there cabin groups. They don’t only have fun together, but they care for one another as well. 

My challenge for all of us would be that we embrace that “child-like” sense of love and care for those around us. We might have gotten bogged down by our doubts about others and our cynicism, but when we love and care for our neighbors we’ll find that we feel good. We’ll feel good not only because we know we’ve done something that is right, but because we will also know that we have grown in faith and body as well. “Neighbor” isn’t just the person who lives next door, but it is also the person who lives down the street, the person in the next state over, and the person who lives in a different country. And when we care for our neighbors, our hearts will find that they are full on the days when they are in need of healing and rest. 

So won’t you be somebodies neighbor today? Go out and live like the Samaritan, not just because you know it’s the right thing to do, but because it is what our faith commands. Jesus didn’t tell the religious scholar that they had to know what the right thing was, but they had to put it into practice as well. Today we are given a reminder about our faith and the role it plays in our lives. So when we hear Jesus asking us, “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” may we be like the religious scholar “The one who treated him kindly.” And then afterwards may we take to hear what Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” In our doing the same we will truly find that it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.



Here I Am

I Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

__________

We find this morning that Elijah is on the run after having killed a large number of those who claimed to be prophets of Baal in a competition. Elijah had fundamentally committed an act of treason against the government and was now fleeing as fast as he could as Ahab and Jezebel were searching for him all over the land. But instead of standing up to Ahab and Jezebel, we discover that Elijah has something else in mind, he has a different plan, and that is to head off into the wilderness and hide out of fear for his life. Which raises the question, “Whoever said that following God was an easy thing for us to do?”

The story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness is almost similar to that of the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by the whale, where instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah goes into the desert and asks God to simply die. Elijah too eventually sits down and asks God to bring it all to an end. But for whatever reason Elijah gets up, and God tells him to go up to a mountain and wait for God there. I'm not sure about you, but I would be wrestling with what God was asking of me if I found myself in Elijah's position. Having committed a life to serving God it would appear like Elijah wasn’t receiving anything in return.

We all have all had days like the one Elijah was having. You know what I'm talking about here. You may not have the armies of Ahab and Jezebel chasing after you, but there has to have been a time where we were feeling ready to tap out and give in. Those times are hard, because they aren’t only draining physically, but they are draining spiritually as well. On those days, it's understandable then why we may not be so eager to answer the call of God by saying, “Here I am.”

I’ve always found these stories to be amusing in a way, because they almost play out like a skit. This whole story that we come across this morning almost runs like a sitcom with a script that I can just imagine now:

God: “So Elijah what are you doing here?”

Elijah: “Well I’m pretty annoyed and upset right now.”

God: “Oh really? Why?”

Elijah: “Well I’ve done everything that you’ve wanted as a prophet right? And the people you sent me to aren’t doing anything in return. And now I’m all by myself and their even chasing me right now!”

And then there’s an awkward silence, because God doesn’t have any words of sympathy for Elijah. Instead, Elijah gets a call to get himself out of the cave, he had been moping around in, in order to bear witness to what we would call a theophany, a manifestation of divine glory. But while God wasn’t in any of the magnificent gestures, I would imagine that Elijah felt like he was at least making some progress.

In those moments we might find that we have a bit of a respite from the chaos of life and we might look to God in those moments, I'm sure that Elijah was doing the same. The hard part is that God doesn't always answer us in a way that we would expect. God didn't appear to Elijah in some flashy manner. God wasn't in the fire or the earthquake or the winds that cleft the sides of mountains. No God wasn't in any of those things; instead, God was in the silence.

We may not all get a vision in a brilliant flash of light or other grand phenomena. For the most part, the call from God comes in the whisper of a gentle breeze, which means it's all the more important that our hearts are in tune and spiritually aware of what God is asking us to do. Because more often than not, it's in the gentle whisper or the silence where God will be speaking into our hearts. And if you find that it’s a struggle don’t worry, because it doesn’t matter if you are new to faith or have been a seasoned traveller. The skill of listening to God in silence is a difficult ability to put into practice.

When was the last time you spent listening to God in the silence of your heart? When was the last time you spent time in prayer just listening for what God is saying or when was the last time you sat down with an open Bible and only reflected on the words that were in front of you? This relationship we have with God is a two-way street! We can't just wait around for answers to fall out of the sky; we have to be active in our pursuit of spiritual devotion as well. And we if we think that a once a week dose of spiritual penicillin is enough, then we might find that we are always returning to worship together with souls that are running low on sustenance.

There's a lot of noisy garbage that fills up our ears, and I'll be the first to say that I'm much more comfortable having a podcast or music playing in the background of whatever it is I'm doing instead of sitting in silence. But this spiritual path that you and I have decided to travel upon asks that we make some sacrifices along the way. It asks, or perhaps even demands that we set aside time to commune with God either by ourselves or with a group of people listening for the gentle words of God. Being intention about our time with God on a regular basis challenges us to decide what the priorities that guide our lives.

Listening to what God is saying to us isn’t as easy as you might think, as we live in an age where we generally like to speak more than we like to listen. And perhaps our hearts aren't attuned or aren't accustomed to that kind of spirituality just yet, which makes it all the more critical that we start cultivating those skills now rather than later. If we don't begin exercising those spiritual muscles now how will we be able to answer God when we are asked, "What are you doing? Where are you?" Because we exercise the other parts of our body, why don't we sacrifice the same way for our souls as well?

To answer the call from God, we need to be ready. That doesn't mean we're perfect or have our act completely together, but it does mean we have a spiritual foundation on which we may draw strength. What was it motivated Elijah to get up after asking God to end things? I would feel confident in saying that it was his faith, his upbringing, his hope, that gave him the energy to push just a little farther to listen to what it was God had to say to us.

This is all to say there's a time for us to sit and wallow, a time for us to grieve and put on sackcloth, but there is also a time for us to get up and keep moving along. We can't stay under the shade of a solitary broom tree forever. At some point, we will have to get in touch with something deep inside us that gives us the motivation, the energy, to go on. That may be your faith, your family, your friends, and it may be the time you spent having those late night conversations with God. It’s easy for us to get caught up in things that are flashy or seem to provide us with the answers we are looking for in any particular moment. But the truth is that the answer from God might not be in any of those things, the things we have a vested interest in.

So here is my advice if you are looking for a few beginning steps to exercise your spiritual muscles:

  • Read a verse of Scripture of day… Just one verse and spend a few minutes sitting with it and lettering your heart and minds meditate. There are plenty of good resources out there that can provide you with daily readings of Scripture.

  • Go for a walk or something where you are “plugged in” or distracts you.

  • Spend time in prayer.

It’s important that we we take time to listen for God in the silence. So that way when the time comes we are able to say, “Here I am.”

Amen.



Freedom to Live

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

__________

You know as I get older I've been working on honing some of those essential life skills such as cooking. But at the same time, it's hard because when I do something, I like to do it well, and that can lead me down a lot of rabbit holes. Because I've always believed that if you were going to start out with a quality kitchen tool, it would be a knife, because let me tell you that there is nothing worse than a knife that dull or cheaply made. It's one of the most frustrating things for me when I cut into a fresh ripe tomato for example, and the knife just mushes it down instead of slicing through like a finely honed blade.

There's a lot of science behind a good knife. They take different metals, and they fold them together by exposing them to extremely high heat sources. And after working the metals to form the basic shape of a knife, they quench it and permanently freeze the particles that were under stress to create something that is durable and can hold a proper edge. You have different parts coming together to make something that is used in our everyday lives, and depending on what kind of tools you have, they might be under more stress than you think.

I was thinking a lot about the similarities of knife making and this passage from Paul's letter to the Romans. And I know that might sound odd at first but stick with me and I think you'll start to see the connection between the two. It starts by  upfront and open and acknowledging that the suffering and hardships Paul writes about are things that can range on a scale of manageable to needing help from others. And while Paul doesn't explore the varying level of which we experience such pains they are things that influences who we are and how we craft the narrative of that shapes our relationship to the world around us.

And when you start to think about it, I think the similarities come through. I mean, for example, think about the stresses that the metal goes under to become a hardened piece that is used to transform into a refined tool. And also, I think about how we go through a transformation when we undergo the trials life throws at us, and in the end, our hearts become honed and transformed as well. But in the same way, we need to be careful at what we have become because just as a knife that is skillfully made is also dangerous we will find that if we aren't careful just as we can cause harm as well if we aren't careful.

But it's in that living between the hazards of creation where we find the freedom and power to be who we were created to be in the eyes of God. We are free, free to live because we know, or should know now, that through our trials, there is hope and love, not only at the end of our lives, but throughout our life's journey as well. On those days when things seem dark, and it feels like there's no hope we might find solace in remembering that our lives have been tempered and forged in the hands of a loving God who knows what it was like to be filled with joy and grief.

When we consider what it means to be free, to live lives that are free to love and be generous, we might appreciate just how precious our lives are and how they reflect a God who is just as multifaceted as we are. We should have the strength to take on anything that comes our way as God who created the world and keeps watch over us, as Jesus walked upon the earth and knew our joys and sorrows, and as the Holy Spirit pours out an abundance of love for us as individuals created in the image of God, our sources of renewal are endless. And the cost of this freedom demands that our lives reflect the living God who opens up new paths when we find that we have overcome the hurdles that are in our way.

There is one thing though that strikes me as being odd in this passage, because it seems to go against everything we've heard so far from Paul in regards to boasting or being proud. Because according to Paul, boasting is one of those human characteristics that don't lead to anything good in the eyes of God. Yet unlike his previous critiques regarding boasting Paul seems to shift gears in this reading from Romans. In the text for this morning, our boasting can be done with a certain level of confidence and reassurance that it is being done in a way that brings glory to God and reminds us of how our work is done in partnership with a God who gives us the strength to carry on with a multitude of others.

What we find in Paul's letter to the Romans this morning is almost a type of "prophetic boasting," boasting which expresses hope in what the future holds. The early believers were never sure about what each day would bring. All they knew, all they professed, was that in Christ's death and resurrection creation was made the world anew and being restored it to reflect the beauty of its Creator. I know that we wrestle with a lot of things in our lives today, but I would have to hope that we can see the hope that is found in this passage if it was enough for the early Christians living in a dangerous Roman Empire.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "We are justified by faith, and we have peace." Let those words sink in the next time you feel beat up or unsure of where you are going in life, because if we let these words and assurance be the things that ground us, then we will find that in those times of trouble we are well equipped to handle what comes our way. That doesn't mean we won't ever feel overwhelmed. Do you remember how in the beginning I said can take different kinds of metal to forge something sturdy? Keeping that in mind, then we should  remember that as those trials come our way we don’t have to take them on alone, because we are called to be with one another and take them on together.

We have been molded in the forge of life, refined by God as people created in the image of the divine, and loved as a cherished heirloom by the Spirit that sees the things that make each and every one of us unique. Bringing all these things together we find that we have a lot to consider, so perhaps it would be best to distill these thoughts into a few good points. A few takeaways for us this morning then is that we are free to live because of the experiences that have shaped who we are, the unconditional love that we have received from God, and the fact that hope that will not and never die.

I think that these are summed up or portrayed really well in a movie that you've might have seen called, The Shawshank Redemption. There's a scene in that movie where Andy has just been released from month-long solitary confinement as a result of him having hijacked the prison's loudspeaker system to broadcast a beautiful rendition of an aria by Mozart. Upon his release from solitary confinement, Andy has a conversation about hope with Red (played by Morgan Freeman) where Andy's sense of hope held in tension with the truth that talks about hope in the gray world of prison can do more harm than good if it does not come from a genuine place.

Hope can be a powerful thing when we find that we are in dark times or in need of a force that is uplifting. So friends go out, be free, and live in faith and confidence knowing that it is in God, and in one another that we find our strength to be the light, to be the hope, and love that stems from God.

But before I officially come to an end, I'd like you to spend some time thinking about what hope means to you, and the hope that we find in God and one another. And to help you spend that time thinking about the role that hope plays in your life and how it enables you to live freely in God’s grace, I want to sing you a song. This song comes from Lev Oshanin who grew up in Soviet Russia and depicted the things that he had hoped for as he grew up. Now I'm going to sing the song the way that he wrote it, but then I'm gonna add in a verse or two of my own:

May there always be sunshine,

May there always be blue skies,

May there always be mama/papa,

May there always be me.

May there always be friendships,

May there always be families,

May there always be hope

May we all share our joys.

May there always be friendships,

May there always be families,

May there always be hope

May we all share our tears.

May we help one another,

May we love  those around us,

May we walk side by side

May we all hope and dream.

Amen.



Babel or Blessed?

Genesis 11:1-9

At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down. They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.” God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built. God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.

__________

You might have heard this Bible story before it's one of those narratives that both church and non-church people seem to know. But did you really understand the words from the Scripture reading this morning because there's a chance that you heard something else? I don't know about you, but growing up this is how I heard the story of the Tower of Babel told. What I remember is that there was a group of people who were so proud of themselves, that they decided that they could be like God. So they decided to build something that would commemorate their achievements, and God decided that it was time to punish them for their hubris. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

It may sound familiar, but the truth is that that is not what we find in this morning's reading. When we look at the text for this morning, we will find that the people came together to build a great city, not because they thought they were great, but because they were afraid of being separated. When we dive deep into the text, we'll notice that God didn't cause confusion among the people because God thought they were full of themselves, but because the people were not living into the call that God had placed on their lives. They weren't fulling what God had laid out in the beginning, "God blessed them: 'Be fruitful and multiply! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.'" (Genesis 1:28)

Let me just say that our desire to be with those who are like us is not something new. Our desire to live in a community where we feel comfortable and safe isn't new. We find that time and time again throughout history, throughout Scripture, people who tried to keep things the same, because it was what they were most comfortable with. But being comfortable won't lead us to the places where God is calling us to go. For us to be faithful, we need to acknowledge the times we have fallen short of living out God's call, and we need to summon the courage, the strength, to follow through and profess that the Spirit of God calls us to go and be in some pretty uncomfortable situations, uncomfortable places.

I could point to countless examples in the Bible were trying to build a community like that of Babel didn't turn out too well. But I think there is power in naming the times in our local community where we have not succeeded as well, because it hits a little closer to home. Did you know that a little over seventy years ago in 1937 there was a  promotion for a subdivision on Lake Mahopac that read, "The patronage of Hebrews not desired.” This was shocking, because taken in the context of how things were ramping up in Europe it seems impossible to think that something like this could happen so close to home. Yet even though it might be hard to admit, the truth is that we have a tendency that encourages us to erect dividers rather than creating spaces that allow us to be in the presence of a multitude of others.

There has been a lot of progress made over the years of our human existence, but there is still much to be done as well. It took God coming down to earth to “garble” their speech to get the people who settled in Shinar to move out of their comfort zone and grow as the people they were created to be. Perhaps we need God to come and mix things up for us, because in what ways have we become “too” comfortable? In what ways have we or have we not stood up to injustice, to oppression, to those who don’t care for the widow or the orphan or those who don’t follow God’s commandment to welcome the stranger who has come to a new land? In what have we grown and in what ways have we found God’s call for us to be challenging?

It would be tempting to think that Pentecost is the “undoing” of the garbling of speech that occurred at Babel, but I think we would find the opposite. The Holy Spirit that descended upon the disciples didn’t grant them the ability make others speak the same language they did but instead gave the disciples the ability to speak in a language that was not their own. We were never meant to live in an isolated bubble. Our gifts, our talents, were never intended to be kept to ourselves. The disciples didn’t stay in Jerusalem, or at least they didn’t stay because for long. The disciples might have tried to gather in one place and stay there, but God doesn’t let the status quo go on for too long. Sooner or later, we have to move out and live.

Last year, believe it or not, I took a group of high schoolers to France. More specifically, I took them to an ecumenical community called Taizé, where we spent a week with other young people from around the world. There was a cacophony of different languages, and truth be told we were one of the few English groups in attendance. At the time it was a bit concerning because I thought that perhaps the fact that there weren’t many other English speakers would negatively impact the experience of the young people I had brought. But by the end of it, all the youth I brought couldn’t stop talking about their experience, their faith, and the friendships they had made with people who came from all different corners of the globe.

The Church is called to enter into the public sphere to be a witness to the love that God has not only for us but for all of those who are a part of God’s creation. As we look forward as a community of faith, I think the challenge will be for us to live as a church that has been touched by God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God calls us and reminds us, this Pentecost to be a missional church, not a consumer church. Our vision for the future needs to be outward focused, our vision needs to be not only focused on how we convey the message of God’s love to those around us; but we also need to be centered on asking how do we change our hearts to let those around us in without feeling like our traditions or ways of life are being threatened.

The simple truth, the reality, is that we can’t go back to Babel, because we were never meant to live in Babel, never meant to be one people with one language one culture. We’re meant to go out into the world speaking different languages, not just spoken languages, but languages of the heart as well. Our ability to the love will be richer for it, our ability to feel God’s presence will seem more tangible, and our pains and joys will see more real when we recognize that the multi-colored tapestry of our different stories opens ourselves to a true understanding of one another.

Pentecost is something that we are meant to live out in our daily lives. It isn’t just some fanciful remembrance of God’s Spirit coming to the disciples and fulfilling the promise that was made by Jesus. This day and, we are meant to live outwards, live boldly, and live with hearts full of understanding and grace. If we live as a church that trusts that God puts new people in our lives for a reason, we might discover the joys of what it means to be a community of faith that goes forward with a rich collection of stories that comes from our different tongues and languages of the heart.

So, in the end, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Are we going to feel that our babbling in different tongues is a hindrance? Or are we going to going to view it as a blessing? Personally, I feel safe saying that it’s the latter. Because if we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, we will find that we are led not only to unknown places but unknown places that end up being rich and vibrant. If we dare to let ourselves go beyond the barriers we have built for ourselves we might discover that the work that God has given us becomes more manageable when we are aren’t living behind a cloud of fear of those things or people that don’t fit our expectations.

On this Pentecost Sunday let us join together as we put our faith into not only into words of comfort and love, but actions as well. The people who found their way to Shinar were never meant to live with one another for very long. The disciples who made their way to the upper room were never meant to stay hidden away by themselves for very long. And we here, here in this place, are not intended to live out faith, our love, once a week here in this building with it’s four walls, but every day and everywhere we go. So don’t be afraid to take risks to love, to be bold, to stand up for what is right, and to tear down the dividers around us so that we can see each other face to face.

When we see each other face to face, when we speak in different tongues and languages of the heart, we will know that we are living in the world that God had intended for all of humankind. And we won’t ask ourselves whether the babbling in Genesis was a curse, because we will find that we are too overwhelmed by the blessings of a fellowship that is greater than anything we could have created by human means. Amen.



A Plea For Unity

John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

__________

This morning we arrive at one of those passages where Jesus is emphasizing something so vital that he repeats the message for us seven different ways. SEVEN DIFFERENT WAYS!!! We find that this text comes as one last call, one final plea, for unity before we arrive at the day of Pentecost. This plea for unity, for oneness, is made seven times, and yet the words seem to fall on deaf ears, this is true not only of us but for those who were closest to him as well. Discipleship is hard, that is something we need to remember, because if these saying of Jesus are real and obtainable if we find the strength within ourselves with God's help.

These words from Jesus aren't some pipe dream, they aren't some ideal. These words from Jesus, this plea for unity, is something can be something that is lived out in our daily lives, but we choose not to embrace the call that Jesus has laid out for us. And the vibrant part of this plea for unity is that the richness of this comes not from its homogeneity, or sameness, but from the diversity that reflects the very nature of God.

Let's take a moment to look at the various people that Jesus encountered as he lives out the words we read in this morning's passage. You have someone like Nicodemus who came to visit Jesus in the dead of night to have a late night conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus was affiliated with those who were trying to tamp down Jesus' ministry, but Jesus doesn't care who Nicodemus was in that moment. All that mattered was that Nicodemus and Jesus were together in that time and place having a conversation, getting to know each other beyond preconceived notions and biases.  

You have the Samaritan woman who came out to fetch water in the heat of the day and, finds herself having an intimate conversation with Jesus, who was a Jew (Jews and, Samaritans didn't get along). Not only was she a Samaritan, but someone who had, a series of broken relationships, resulting in others labeling her with a scarlet, letter. But Jesus didn't care about those things. The emphasis was not on the things that made them different, but on being in a place where they could be empathetic towards one another.

And then you have the Roman Centurion whose daughter, was ill and passed away. The Roman Centurion was a symbol of an oppressive government, an occupier, but Jesus saw something different. Beyond the rhetoric of the politics and fears of the day, Jesus saw a parent who was concerned about their child. At that moment, their identities as a Roman, a Jew, a political figure of the empire, and a Jewish rabbi, didn't seem to matter anymore. Because at that moment the call to just be present, to be in one community with each other,  superseded everything else.

Love that transcends these dividers that we erect for ourselves only manifests if we are willing to put ourselves out there for others. It's love that makes true unity possible when it does not wrap itself in an agenda or self-interest, but instead is rooted in seeing people for who they are, as people who possess the same spark of the divine that we possess. It may seem contradictory to use this analogy, but imagine each person had a mirror in front of them and ask yourself how would like be treated in "x" situation?

By this point, you might have noticed a pattern or at least have picked up on a common theme. The plea for unity that is found in Jesus' morning requires something of us, a cost you might say because being a follower of Christ doesn't mean that our relationship with Jesus is for us and us alone. We'll have to make room for some discomfort, make room for people who don't look like us, come from the same economic background, or even the same religious or ideological background that we are accustomed to. There is something that is a part of this equation to being at one with one another, and that is empathy.

Empathy, more precisely the deep empathy that is required is a sensation that transports us into the feelings and experiences of others so that we become one with them. Jesus might not have agreed with the theology or politics of Nicodemus, but he could connect empathetically with what it meant to have a desire to serve God. Jesus might not have been a woman, but he could connect with what it was like to be on the fringe of society. And Jesus might not have been a parent, but he would have been able to connect with what it meant for God to be the caretaker of all of us and the pain that comes when you see the people you love hurting.

You would think that this is something we could do, connect with others empathically. But the reality, the reminder, for us this morning is that even if we profess to be filled with the Spirit if God there will be times when we don't love, don't embrace, other parts of the body of Christ in a way that is redeeming or honoring of who God is in light of Scripture.   We find that this is the case with Paul and Silas during their encounter with the slave girl who was telling fortunes.

The reality is that Paul and Silas care for this young slave girl is no better than the slave owner. There isn't any justice, no acceptable resolution, and we find that Paul even plays the citizenship card to find fair treatment under the law.  There was no justice afforded to the enslaved human being who had no rights in the eyes of the law, because of who she was, she wasn't a citizen, she was a woman, and she was poor, but even if society didn't see her that way she was still on equal footing in the eyes of all those around her in the eyes of God. The problem is that those around her had eyes that were clouded by greed, selfishness, and a sense of undeserved superiority.

When read in conjunction with the passage from the Gospel According to John, we might find that this reading from the Book of Acts makes a little more sense. It's a reminder, that once we heard the call from God, the call to be one with one another, that doesn't mean we stop paying attention to how we conduct ourselves and how we treat people who are not like ourselves. Accounts such as Paul's encounter with the young slave girl serve as a reminder of our own baggage, our personal privilege, and our own experiences where we have failed to see the image of God in others because we were too wrapped up in ourselves.

We're people, created in the image of God, but we are also people who are mortal, people with flaws, and people who don't always embrace the world with open hearts. God came to earth to be with us, to walk in our footsteps, let that sink in for a bit. Because the truth of the matter is that in our moments of weakness, in our moments of failure, the truth is that we will become stronger as a result if we let the Spirit of God do the work within us that it needs to do. That work is hard, and it isn't easy, but it is necessary to be faithful to the saw that we are one with God as God is one with us.

The plea for unity is more than a painting of a far off future ideal, it is a present challenge that asks us whether we are strong enough to look each other in the eyes and see not an adversary, but a companion, a person like ourselves who was created in the image of God. As we will soon recall the story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that God's Spirit descended upon the disciples and enabled them to speak in many different tongues. Not one tongue, one language, like they did at the Tower of Babel, but in different tongues that reflect the many different expression in which we interact with the world around us.

Oneness, unity, in this modern world, is something that is meant to be enriching. The point is that you won't agree with everyone you meet, and that's okay. The point is this call, this challenge for unity from Jesus, is meant to call our attention to things that need fixing, that need justice, that needs our hearts and hands and blood to mend together and not on our own. We call out injustices as we see it just as we call out the moments where we have witnessed true and pure love. We remind ourselves that even as we follow a living God, our hearts always need to be aware of how to treat those who are around us.

Oneness, unity, in this modern world, is something we need in our everyday lives. Our hearts have become so accustomed to reacting in defense and seeped in hate that we have forgotten what it means to love as God has loved us. Seven times, seven times, Jesus makes this commandment to be one. And if Jesus had to phrase it seven different ways than I assume, that means our oneness will not mean we are all alike, but instead be different facets on this beautiful gem of creation. The challenge that is ahead of us is whether or not we participate in the call to be one with one another. So will we ignore these words of Jesus and try to blot of things that are not like us? Or will we instead be brave, bold, and spirit-filled as we live into the community envisioned for us by Christ Jesus? Amen.



In Need Of Healing

John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

__________

We open up our Bibles this morning to find a rather unusual setting. We’re told there is a festival going on, but Jesus seems to make his way to a place where people aren’t partaking in the festivities. We discover that Jesus goes down to one of the healing pools, which in Hebrew was called Beth-zatha, where there are many “invalids,” outcasts, shunned, were waiting by the side of the pool. The author doesn’t tell us why they were waiting near the waters or what was so significant about the pool of Beth-zatha, which is something we perhaps should ask ourselves this morning.

Those who were following along in their Bibles might have noticed that there is a “missing verse.” Yes, it’s true, most Bibles skip verse four, which was thought to be added later to fill in the question of, “Why were people gathered by this pool of water.” If you’re curious the annotated verse adds the following:

[F]or an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person.

Those who were waiting by the side of the pool of Beth-zatha were waiting for their chance to be healed, according to legend. I imagine that since this rippling, this stirring, of water didn’t happen too frequently, I bet that when it happened, people did whatever they had to to be the first person to touch the water. The people who were pushed to the outside margins, because there wasn’t enough healing love had to compete against themselves to receive the leftovers that were meant for people who were forced out of the community.

That brings us to the man we meet this morning, this man who had been ill for thirty-eight years waiting by the side of the water. Jesus comes up to this man, who doesn’t have a name by the way, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” You would think that the man sitting by the side of the pool would answer with a resounding “Yes!”, but instead, we find  that he has a complained, “Yes, but I have no one to help me, and when I try someone cuts in front of me.”

You may not realize it, but you and I know what it is like to be in the place where this man had been for the past thirty-eight years. We may not have the same ailments as the people who had gathered by the pool of Beth-zatha, but we certainly have things in our lives that need healing. We have wounds, scars, that haven’t fully healed because either someone, something, opened up those pains again or we haven’t been willing to do the work that is required to alleviate some of our innermost hurts. And to add one more thing into the mix, we all seem to wrestle over who gets to be “healed” first, as if it’s some kind of competition.

Which really makes the healing of this individual by Jesus all the more miraculous. Because if you noticed, all Jesus did was say, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” That’s it! Jesus didn’t have to bring the man down to the waters of the pool, because there was so much healing love in Christ that it spills out in abundance for all those who require healing. Those illnesses, those things that plague our hearts, don’t have to compete with the hurts of others, because there is no scarcity, there is no need to fight over something plentiful and freely available to all who seek it. Christ comes to offer love that heals to those who aren’t able to make it down to the water, Christ comes to offer grace in whatever mess we might find ourselves in at the moment.

I’m thankful that in those time where it feels like no one care, Jesus is there reaching out a hand in solidarity. We’re all in need of healing, but will we take the time to notice the things that need attention in ourselves and in those who are around us? Jesus makes the extra effort to meet us where we are, whether we are waiting by the side of a pool waiting to be healed or find that we are in the pits not sure how we are ever going to get to a place where we can feel whole again. The thing is that for us to heal and walk alongside the healing process of others, we need to get in touch with the low points in ourselves to travel upwards with others.

When we realize that we have all walked along a road that has not been smooth or easily traveled we might begin to tone down our aggression towards one another over fighting for the things that soothe our souls. Brené Brown, a research professor who has written talked a lot about the power of shame and fear, once gave a talk about what it means to empathize with someone:

Brené Brown paints a picture where you imagine yourself in a position where you see someone who has fallen into a hole, and you hear them calling out, saying, “Hey! It’s dark and overwhelming down here!”. To visualize what it means to be empathetic, not sympathetic, Brown says that in this case you climb down into the hole as well and say, “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.”

That’s what it means to be empathetic, to love empathetically (not sure if that’s a word, but I’m gonna use it anyway). To love from a place that is vulnerable means that the person you are with, and you can work through things in a way that brings about healing and growth simply by just being present with one another. It’s not always about trying to find solutions, sometimes our quest to be healed is a simple as finding someone who is willing to sit in our pain with us.

In that sacred space, where we connect with something vulnerable within ourselves to be present with someone else, the pool that rarely rippled with healing waters begins to overflow in abundance. The healing that comes from God touches us because God’s hurt has hurt with our hearts. We can find renewal and hope because Christ had walked in our shoes and came to show a new way for us to live. This bountiful love is meant for all at no cost but does come with a set of responsibilities.

We’re all in need of healing; there’s no doubt about it. But our yearning for being healed can’t be achieved if we are trying to get ahead of everyone else and leaving others behind; hence, we are responsible to some degree to share it with others. You know one of the most startling things about this reading is that the Beth-zatha pool was in right smack dab in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem. A place that was supposed to be embracing of people had pushed them outside to seek help somewhere else. It took God made flesh to set an example of what it means to be with those whom we have not cared for in a way that is genuinely in line with the nature of God.

I’m going to throw out an example, and I hope that you don’t take it the wrong way, but I think it’s the easiest thing to point to in this conversation about healing and love. But think about the time or something similar, where you might have had an opportunity to feed meals to those who are homeless. As I said, don’t think I’m assuming these aren’t good things to do, because they are, but try to think about how often you’ve served means while also being empathetic. You don’t have to answer, but I’ll admit that it’s hard, because it means that I have to connect with something deep within myself. And more often than not I’m not sure I want to go to those places, but if we did so occasionally what might happen as a result of our sharing God’s love in that sacred space?

As we take this weekend to remember the sacrifice, the dedication, of those who have served others at the cost of their lives, we should be inspired to take up a similar mantle that has been passed onto us by Christ. A mantle that asks not what we can do only for ourselves in our own pursuit to be fulfilled and healed, but asks how we can achieve those things with the help and the fellowship of others. As we make our way through the dark and cavernous valleys and the up through mountainous terrain, we will find that as we descended we will always be led back to an ocean, not a pool, of God’s healing love that is only made richer when we partake of it together.

Just remember that we can come as we are. We can come as sinners, as saints, as those who are grateful, and as those who are doubtful of the gifts God gives. We no longer have to seek healing in the shadows but are free to be in the light of God who embraces all. We are all in need of healing, so perhaps it’s time we start acknowledging those things that need work in our lives as we come together to build one another up in both body and in spirit. Amen.  


From The Ashes

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

__________

Have you ever spent time with a loved one or close friend or even time by yourself and realized that time could move in ways you didn't expect? I'm talking about the moments where you think only one hour has passed, but in reality, it was more like four… I'm talking those special occasions where you have quality time, and you find that you are so wrapped up in whatever it was you were doing you discover that morning has quickly turned to dusk. We might describe those experiences as being the very definition of a "good time." As we look at the passage for today, we find ourselves asking, "Have we been intentional about having those kinds of good times with God as well? Are we living with God as Christ lives with God and with each other as Christ is with us?"

This past week during a Bible study, I mentioned how we often associate the Book of Revelation with apocalyptic images that are reminiscent of modern interpretations such as the "Left Behind" series. But we don't find any of those things in this morning's reading… There is no fire, no brimstone, no separation of the chaff from the wheat. Instead what we find is a much more confusing scene… Instead of there being a violent cleansing of the world, God comes down from heaven to be with a hurting world. God makes a home among the  messiness and the chaos and claims that there will be a new creation, a home where there will be no more death, no more mourning and crying, a home where the "first things have passed away."

When we hear those words, the promise of God making all things new, we might think that they are some far off distant musing about what the future is going to look like. We might not believe that those words carry any significant weight in the here and now. This tension isn't new, in case you're wondering, people across the ages have wrestled with what it means to live with the future promises of the divine and the current situations they find themselves in their daily lives. And it isn't easy to reconcile these things when we're concerned about things like finances, work, relationships, or find that you are wrapped in a cloud of grief.

We are living in what is commonly known as the "in-between" time that falls somewhere in the middle of the present and the future. It truly is a brain teaser and if you have the answer let me know, but I don't believe there is a clear and concise reply to those who find themselves asking how the promises of God speak to us in the here and now and the days to come. But add into the mix then the turbulence of life, and it's many ups and downs, and it can be hard to see how this new creation is going to come into existence. It takes faith, which is easier said than done sometimes, but perhaps it requires a persistent faith and persevering, a faith that can adapt to our rapidly changing world and meet the needs of not only our souls but the souls of those around us as well.

John, who is traditionally thought to be the writer of this book, was in a quite a predicament when he wrote the Book of Revelation. It was said that John was exiled to the Island of Patmos by the Romans during a time of conflict between the government and the growing religious diversity within the empire. If we were in John's place, it would be tempting to think that the world was going to burn and turn into a pile of ash, but John saw something different. John saw beyond the imminent threat and fear and sets a focal point for us to set our eyes upon when we struggle with the complexities of life and our souls.

It can be hard living as people who exist "in-between" the time of the present and future promises of God. And what complicates the matter, even more, is that the future isn't some far off time, but like I said before it is also now! From the ashes, from death and chaos, God makes all things new today and tomorrow. If it sounds confusing, don't worry. What's essential is that we live in faith, knowing that God is with us as the "Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." Everything around is always going to be in some flux, but the love, the commitment of God, has been steadfast for generations. It is what has allowed new things to come out from the ashes and bloom into the beautiful new something that God is doing in our lives, in our world, today!

Recognizing these things there are a couple of points in this morning's reading that we should indeed take to heart as we go about our daily lives… The first is that the author is asking whether or not we are going to side with God and be a part of the new creation. It's a vital question… God can cast the vision, but if there isn't any buy-in from all of us, then what's the point? So let us reconsider these word you heard earlier, "Ἰδοὺ καινὰ ποιῶ πάντα" (Behold, I make all things new). "Πάντα," it's the Koine Greek word meaning "all." But this word, πάντα, doesn't mean "all" in a way that comes with stipulations and conditions… It means "all" in the purest sense of the word (every part, every piece, everything that makes up the whole).

The love that God has for the creation and all of us should be something that isn't shocking or new… I mean it is unfortunate that we have to remind ourselves that God loves us just the way we are, but this passage from Revelation should bring us back to the very beginning of the Book of Genesis where we find that after God had created the world, it was pronounced to be "good." Except for this time things are different… We are meeting God, being with God as the people we were created to be. Unlike the story in the beginning in Genesis, we can be with God entirely even after having obtained knowledge from the forbidden tree. All of these things, and I mean all of it, are a part of God's new creation, and this vision is set before us, and we are asked whether or not we are going to buy in as disciples who bring their own unique stories and experiences to the table.  

Moving to the second point that is important for us to remember this morning is that once we commit ourselves to this new creation, there is a responsibility to be an active participant, a steward, a disciple. In our first reading this morning we heard Jesus speak these words, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have a love for one another." (John 13:34-35) The new creation requires not only buy in but an investment as well. It's one thing to say that you're a part of the new creation, but it's another to say that you are an active participant.

I think that this is something we have a harder time understanding when compared to faith communities around the world, especially those in the global South… Most of us here probably think of the new heaven and new earth as being something that is not connected with the world we live in right now. But for many who come from places like South America and Africa the new heaven and new earth are likened to that of a village where all people are free to walk in and commune with the physical world and the spiritual. It sounds like something out a fantasy book while in reality, this is a picture of how we should and are interacting with the world around us! We communicate with the physical, but at the same time, we interact with the sparks of divine that exist within you, me, and all of creation!

This passage is telling the tale of the changing of seasons, the different phases we go through in life while remaining in the arms of God. From the ashes comes new life, from new life comes new opportunities, and from those new opportunities, we discover where God is calling us to go. There's an old hymn, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," that ends with a verse that I think ties it all together:

"They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

The saints of God, the merging of the physical and spiritual, the rising of new life from the ashes, happens every day. While we hold fast to the promises of God that are to come, we also hold just as fast to the hopes of the future that are with us today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. So let us carry onward as people who offer what they have, embrace who they are, and grow with the community of saints and creation as God makes all things new forever and ever. Amen.

The Unexpected Ending

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

__________

"How long will you keep us in suspense?" It's a question that we find ourselves asking today, not only because we want to know how our favorite book, movie, or TV show will end, but because we want to know what is coming around the corner in our lives as well. It might be disappointing for some of you to hear, but I used to have a nasty habit of reading the last chapter of a book before starting from the very beginning. I liked to know what happened and surprisingly enough, I enjoy being able to see how the developing plot points lead up to the end. I'm not saying it's a great way to read a book, but it's something I used to enjoy.

Can you imagine reading a book and not knowing how it ended. So you write to the author, and they tell you, "Well, didn't you read it? You're supposed to know what happens by the time you get halfway through the book!" Some things might have gotten in the way of knowing what happened, and by the end, we might be caught off guard if we discover we are following the wrong voice. So what is the unexpected unending? What is it that we are supposed to know? What are we supposed to walk away with? What's going to happen? The suspense seems too much to bear.

Perhaps that's why I jumped ahead and read the last chapter before starting at the beginning… It was one of those rare moments where we have control over something, and for me, it might have felt like I had control over whether or not I invest time into something depending on how convincing the ending was. But life isn't like, unfortunately. We don't know how things are going to end and as much as we try to predict and plan, more often than not, we find that we are wrong with our many guesses and assumptions. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what happens next, but the problem we run into is that sometimes the answer has been in front of us all along and we just haven't been paying attention.

I can imagine Jesus standing among the group of people who had gathered and said, "Come on guys… How many times do I have to say it? I've already told you, but you're just not listening to what I'm saying." The shepherd in Jesus' answer calls out the sheep who know the shepherds name. I think it would be fair to say that we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but even though we know the voice of Christ, we don't always hear and respond to the call.

There's a little bit of uncertainty in every one of us. There is a little bit of anxiety within each of us as we struggle with hearing not only the call of Jesus but the call that we receive from each other as well who possess a spark of the divine creator. If we listen closely enough, or maybe more accurately listen more attentively, we would be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd over the chaotic orchestra of sounds that are also vying for our attention. Which can seem disappointing when we think we aren't successful in our discernment, but it's a part of our growth as people who are led by God's Spirit.

There was a story I remember hearing about a person who lived with someone who had three overbearing and misbehaved dogs. Just picture the worst behaved dog you can… They tore up future, barked at the most inappropriate hours of the day, and would only be welcoming to their owner. One day this individual had enough and devised a plan to get "revenge." You see, the owner had a very recognizable and easy to impersonate voice. And every day, the owner would greet the dogs by saying, "Hey, where is everyone?"

So the owners spent some time practicing, and finally one day they felt as though they had a pretty good imitation voice. So the one day at the same time the owner usually came home, the roommate unlocked the door and said, "Hey, where is everyone?" All of a sudden, the three dogs came running with their tails wagging happily. But all of a sudden then stopped in their tracks, and they looked at the roommate with confused looks on their faces.

This went in for a few more weeks, the same old routine, but one day something changed, something was different. It was the same time of day when the roommates opened the door and let out the imitated greeting, but there was silence. The roommate explored the house and found the three dogs sitting in the living room sleeping. They had finally picked up in the difference between the fake voice and the voice of their owner.

There are a lot of voices out there that try to trick and confuse us and lead us astray. Some voices tell us we will never be good enough. Some voices tell us no matter how hard we try; we will end up failing. Some voices tell us to give us, throw in the towel, and go home. But through the flurry of all these voices, there is still one that rings out always calling us back, and that that is the voice of the Good Shepherd. And for every voice that tells us that we will never be good enough, the Good Shepherd says, "You are beautiful the way you are." For every voice that tells us we will fail, the Good Shepherd says, "Don't worry, I'll be with you when you try again." And for every voice that tells us to give us and go home, the voice of the Good Shepherd pierces through and says, "Fear not, I'm with you through thick and thin."

I don't know many people like the Good Shepherd that Jesus describes in the reading this morning. There are some people in my life who I know I can always rely on and turn to when I need help with something, they know me, and I know them. What is challenging about the reading this morning is that Jesus paints a picture of a much broader family or "flock" to whom we are called to belong and place our faith. That takes a lot of courage to invest that much into someone who you have never met before. I don't expect you leave here this morning and find a stranger to love the same way God loved us, I'd give you a lot of credit, but I would understand if that is not your first instinct. That kind of relationships take time, and we don't all have the experience of relating to people so openly.

Today is Mother's Day, which is something most of you probably already knew. I find that Mother's Day is one of the holidays, much like Father's Day, that evokes many different emotions. There are those who never have been "mothers" in the traditional sense, there are those who have lost have their children or find that they worry about them, there are those who have lost their mother or those who were mother-like figures, and then there are those who take this day to cherish those whom they call "mom," whether it be their biological mother, adopted mother, or those unique individuals who have helped lived into that role. Today on this day, all these things are held in healthy tension as we celebrate those who are essential in our lives and grieve for the things that we need to grieve for in our lives

We don't often think of God as being a mother, but we certainly can call upon such images that come to us from individuals such as the Prophet Isaiah who wrote, "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." (Isaiah 66:13) As a mother, a those who have been female role models, have comforted been with us through our life's journey we might have found that they have been there to comfort us, to walk with us, and call us by name when others might not have been there for us. It's a rocky journey but one that reminds us that the unexpected ending to the story comes at a price that is not always apparent, not always acknowledged by our hearts.

The unexpected ending to the story might seem disheartening at first glance. We might think that if we don't hear the Good Shepherd's voice, then there is something wrong with us, but in reality, I don't think that's the case. It's not one chance and one chance only kind of a thing, but the Good Shepherd is one who continually calls out the sheep by name and goes to looks for them when they get lost. The Good Shepherd, who is also like a protective mother who calls us by name, loves the flock so much that they will make sure that no one or no force takes the sheep away.

"No one will snatch them from my hand," says the Lord God. In the end, maybe the unexpected ending shouldn't be that surprising to us. And if we do find it surprising perhaps, it's because the love of the Good Shepherd is still so radical that our minds can't wrap itself around such a sacrifice. The expected ending, the ending that we knew from the beginning is that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sake of others, the Good Shepherd loves us in such a way where we are called to model that love to others. Whether it is our biological mother, adopted mother, or mother figure, perhaps we can channel a bit of their energy into being present for those who require such divine love, and grace, and compassion.

Let's not afraid to be real this Mother's Day. Let's not be scared to be vulnerable to one another and God's Spirit. The Good Shepherd is calling out to us by name, looking for us among the thistles and the thorns that might have seemed more alluring to the sheep who wandered off. Listen attentively… if you lean in hard enough into the everlasting promises of God, you will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd breaking through the voices that try and keep us down. And hopefully what we thought was an unexpected ending turns out to be a powerful reminder that you are a beloved child of God, who cares for us like a mother and is willing to give all so that we may find rest in true peace and love. Amen.



When The Phone Rings

Acts 9:1-6

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest  and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

__________

When was the last time you received a phone call? Perhaps it was this morning before you left for church or the previous night before you went to bed. Maybe you find that you're the kind of person who always gets a telephone call at the least convenient time (i.e., when you're walking in the door with bags of groceries in both hands). On most days, we find ourselves getting called by friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. Overall these calls are pretty innocuous, and some of them are from undesired telemarketers or automated messages. It's not too often that we get a call that knocks us off our feet, don't get me wrong, we certainly do get calls like that, but we pray that they aren't too frequent. But there's another kind of call that we can receive as well, the call from God, that we are always anxious about answering because we aren't sure what we will hear on the other end of the line.

Saul of Tarsus was one such individual who had felt that they received a call from God… Of course, it's not the call that you and I might have imagined… Saul, a religious leader, and teacher of the law felt that he was charged with the task of rooting out the disciples and their followers. We find that Saul was so bent on making this call a reality that he went to the high priests and made sure he obtained permission to bring any disciples that he found back to Jerusalem for trial. While I think we might agree that rounding up people for their beliefs or their identities would be wrong, we might discover that we can relate to the devoted, the passionate nature, of Saul's pursuit to fulfill what he thought was God's calling for his life. How many of us here would say that we could relate to having a strong sense of call like that, a time where we sunk everything we had into doing something well because we thought it was what we were supposed to do?

It's a great feeling when we can dedicate ourselves to the path we believe we are meant to tread. But sometimes the crystal clear phone call we thought we received from God isn't as clear as we thought it was. We certainly did receive a call, but it might have gotten garbled up with interference, or we thought we understood what God was saying, but our brains crossed the original message with what we wanted to hear. In those moments we end up playing a game of telephone with God and our time of prayer might then feel like those old Verizon commercials where they had an individual say, "Do you hear me now?" I can't speak for you, but there have certainly been times in my life where I've been disappointed, heartbroken, and frustrated because what I thought was God's call for my life ended up leading me to various tangents and roundabouts.

Throughout those moments of frustration, grief, confusion, and sorrow, I don't think I ever had an experience like that of Saul, who was making his way towards Damascus. Can you imagine Saul making his way steadily and all of a sudden finds himself blinded by a divine light? The light was so disorienting that it was enough to bring Saul to his feet as he tried to cover and shield his eyes from the piercing rays. While Saul was still trying to reorient himself, he hears a voice calling out to him, saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" I think this question goes beyond the surface layer of just asking Saul if he knew who he was persecuting. Because at heart we find God turning Saul's world around 180 degrees. Following God can be a dangerous endeavor, because we run the risk of having our world turned upside down at unexpected times.

In a world that is filled to the brim with suffering, gut-wrenching, mind-bending, headlines of murder, cruelty, and devastation, we need to ask ourselves: Can you, we, hear God now? When the phone rings, and we feel like the busyness of life keeps us from answering will we set aside time to spend in prayer and meditation, listening to what God has to say to us today? Right now, Jesus is calling your name… Just as Jesus called out to Saul and the many other disciples before and after him, Jesus is calling us now by name. That is the power of the resurrection, the power of having our world turned and having a God who walks with us through it all calling to us by name. There is nowhere that Jesus won't lose track of where you went, even if we find we've strayed from the path that God desired for us.

This past week I spent time with some great colleagues in ministry. We gathered at Stony Point retreat center and shared about what we experienced this past year. Part of our time included taking time for rest, so some of went into the city to see about a play about the Temptations called "ain't too proud." There was a line from the play that stuck with me… The actor who played Otis Williams, the last original surviving member of the Temptations said, "When we reach the top of the hill and stand before the Almighty we look around and take stock and ask ourselves if the sacrifices we made along the way were worth it." I don't believe that this the call God is asking us to pursue… A little bit of sacrifice is okay, but when you start talking about people, I think that's a different story. A colleague shared with us a story, a parable of sorts that I believe encapsulates the call we should hear in our daily lives

There once was a man who was in great need, and as he is walking through the park one day, he happened upon a senior woman. The woman looked up and asked if he was hungry, and so she pulled out some fine wine and other foods that she had with her. Surprised the man asked if it was okay and to which the woman responded, "Of course. Come and sit with me." As the two sat and had their fill, the man looked and saw a glimmering gem in the bag of the senior woman… Knowing that this gem could turn his life around, the man asked, "You have been so kind to me already, but may I ask for one more thing? Would you be willing to share with me the gem that you have?" "Of course," responded the elderly woman and she pulled the gem out of her bag and handed it to the man in great need. In shock, the man replied, "Are you sure?" to which the woman nodded her head. The man thanked her and began to walk away. As he rounded a corner, he stopped and looked at the gem in his hands. Looking back, he could still see the woman sitting by herself, eating, and drinking cheerfully. The man stopped and thought for a little bit before going back to the woman. "Kind woman, you have been so generous to me and have given to me everything that I have asked for, but I still have one more request. Would you please take back this gem that you have shared with me, and instead show me where it was you were able to gain the power to give so freely?"

The power of Easter, the power of the resurrection, is not something that should be trifled with. The resurrection power of Easter will turn things over, mix and match things we think don't belong together, and will ask out to step out into the world as people who have been transformed by the love of God. Saul the Assassin was now Saul the Ambassador of Christ. Follow the heavenly songs of glory, follow the Sauls of this world and knock on their doors and open to them a new path, follow the one, Jesus, who called a ragtag group of sinners and saints to follow him as his disciples. Follow and answer the call knowing that that call will grow as we continue to grow in body and spirit.

If you are following the one who appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus you will no doubt find yourself falling to your feet, not just because the light is blinding, but because of the weights of the burdens of the world as well. If you are following Jesus Christ, you will find your deepest convictions turned upside down for the sake of the one who turns our disdain of "the other" into a selfless love to die for the ones we wanted to kill. If you are following, you will find yourself being humbled and learning from others how it is we can better share with a precious gem of God's love with one another. If you are following, if you are waiting for the call, you will find that while others may turn away from you, there will be a multitude who embrace you as well. And if you are following, you will be known by name, loved for both your talents and your flaws, forgiven and made new in the body of Christ.

When the phone rings are we going to answer? And if we answer how are we going to respond? Are we going to love as Christ would love? Are we going to give as Christ has given to us? And are we going to answer with a spirit that is ready to be shaped and molded? When the phone rings, we are going to have to be prepared for whatever we hear on the other end of the line. The creative, beautiful, and life-transforming power of God cannot be stopped, and those who love the Lord, those who answer the call, refuse to give into the darkness, the deadly, the hate-filled ways of this world, because they know that Jesus has overcome everything that does not lend itself to an abundant life. Do you hear the phone ringing? Now is not the time to be timid or afraid, but to take a leap of faith and follow, and answer the call. Amen.

Songs of Faith (Pt. 4): Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Isaiah 58:6-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

__________

This morning we arrive at the final part of a series of sermons titled "Songs of Faith," using my favorite hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." As I've wrapped up my time here this past month, I've enjoyed preaching sermons based off of hymns that come from some of your favorite hymns. And as I thought about what I wanted to say in this last sermon, I felt that this was a fitting hymn, not only because of the music itself but because the words themselves are appropriate to where we find ourselves today…

Like we have done for the past few weeks we'll take a brief look at the person behind the hymn that we will sing after the sermon this morning. The author of our hymn this morning is a man by the name of William Williams… Now before his ministry, primarily in Wales, Williams had studied medicine before becoming an itinerant preacher. For some reason, it seems like many hymn writers had come from a medical background… His hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," was initially titled, "A Prayer For Strength To Go Through The Wilderness Of The World," which is a fitting though lengthy title. In his hymns, Williams often evoked the metaphor of "pilgrimage," a metaphor that is used heavily in the hymn for today.  

I was on a "pilgrimage" of sorts, or at least I was on a journey that took me outside of my comfort zone. During my first trip to Korea, I got lost while navigating the subway system. I didn't really know any Korean at the time, and while there were signs in English, I couldn't make heads or tails of what any of them meant. I felt embarrassed, I thought that I could get to where I needed to go without asking a friend to come and get me, but I couldn't find the way. I was frustrated that I didn't know where it was I was supposed to go, but I eventually set aside my pride and found someone to ask for help. With the limited Korean, I knew I asked them if they spoke English. Nodding their head, I asked them how I could get to the address I had written down, and they kindly wrote down directions on how to get to where I was going. Seeing that I didn't look confident they offered to ride with me to make sure I got off at the right station.

I'm not sure why, but it's hard asking for directions, especially in times when we find that we are not sure where we are going. Maybe it's because we have trouble trusting someone we've never met before. Perhaps it's because we thought that if we just worked hard enough things would turn out okay. But regardless of whether we are asking for directions or seeking out what lies ahead of us, we know that our journey to find our way through life cannot be made alone. We know as people who have been baptized, who eat the bread and drink from the cup, that God is one who often journeys with us, showing us the way of God. Yet sometimes, even when we have God by our side, it can be hard to see how God is acting in our lives.

The uncertainty of not knowing, not knowing what will happen next, the difficulty of not knowing how people will react, etc., is a source of high anxiety for me… When I've talked with my therapist about it, she always reminds me that we don't mind readers and that we have to live with a certain level of not knowing what is going to happen next. It's something I've been working on over the past year as I remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who in this morning's passage wrote, "The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."  

Not knowing what tomorrow brings naturally makes us feel uneasy, we enjoy being able to understand what is going to come around the corner. And yet, in a strange way, there is a sense of comfort in the uncertainty of tomorrow as well. Whatever happens to us or to those around us is out of control; we simply can't know what the future holds even if we tried. There is an idiom: "Let it go, and let God." In this hymn by William Williams, we are given a way to express these words as a prayer. As a prayer that God would guide us as we walk through the unknown parts of life. It's a prayer that I need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow… It's a prayer that you also need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. For in all the times of uncertainty, there is the odd hint of comfort in knowing that not having control, not knowing, is okay.

"Guide me, O though great Jehovah, pilgrim in this barren land…" Though the terrain may seem impossible and the ground unworkable, God is there leading the way. Through the desert, God led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, from an area that barren, to a land that was flowing with milk and honey. We may go kicking and screaming, because we don't like the discomfort the unknown brings, but we may be surprised at what we'll find if we are willing to trust that God is with us and embrace the unknown as a friend instead of as an adversary. Remember that there are times when we need to, "Let it go, and let God…"

The image of a pilgrimage or journey, as Williams uses them,  is really a summary of our lives. It falls in line with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who highlights both the highs and the lows of life, and everything else in between. It can feel discouraging when things don't go the way we want them too… I mean you and I have put a lot of blood sweat and tears into pursuing our passions and goals so it can feel disorienting when the unknown parts of life throw things into disarray… And in those moments we might run into a situation where we forget that God is walking along the same path we are.

But we only have to look at Scripture once again to find that others were also caught up in the chaos of a single moment and forgot that God was walking with them… You might remember this story, it's one that I've preached on here before, it was about Cleopas and his companion as they walked on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and those traveling with him were so distraught after the death of Jesus, they didn't even recognize that it was Jesus who was walking alongside them the whole time. And by the time they reach the city they still haven't figured things out… But embracing the situation, they invite the stranger, Jesus, in for a meal. And when Jesus finally breaks the bread, their eyes are open, and they realize that the person who had been traveling with them for that whole period was Jesus!

When the time comes, and we have the veil lifted from our face, we'll find that that is when we are not only in the presence of God but also in the presence of one another. And remembering that life is a pilgrimage that is done by inviting those around you, the possibilities of God's work becomes endless. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to work in this place. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to foster innovation, creativity, and boldness to be the hands and feet in this community… I'm hopeful that the Spirit of God will nurture a community of faith here in this place that will live out the mission that it has been given.

That's not to say there won't be ups and downs, but I pray that you'll all remain healthy. Because even though I've said it before, I'll repeat it, life is too short to hold onto petty grudges… And let me say that God doesn't have time for those kinds of complaints. But if we put our trust in God, if we put our trust in one another, then we will find that even the unexpected, might not always lead to bad things. And in those cases where things really don't work out then that is why we have others and God to place our fears and anxieties as we hear in the last verse of Williams hymn, "When I tread the verge of Jordan, Bid my anxious fears subside; Death of death and hell's Destruction, Land me safe on Canaan's side."

God is what gives the Church, gives us life, so that we may be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Throughout all seasons of life, through the expected and unexpected, God is there. In our calling to protect those who are vulnerable, those who are without a community to love them, those who are seeking fellow companions in their pilgrimage, we reach out knowing that things won't always go the way we had planned. But that doesn't mean we give it, that doesn't mean we stop trying to live into the identities we have been provided by God, that doesn't mean we take our ball home, because things didn't go our way… No, because we gather together to read from Holy Scripture, to meditate together, to listen for the voice of God together so that each and every day we become more and more like the one we were called to follow…

And remember, that when we feel frustrated that things seem to be out of our control, "Let it go, and let God." We can't always control what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but we can control how we will follow God in loving others more deeply, in caring more profoundly and living a life that is steeped in faith and fellowship. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 3): When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

John 19:31-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

__________

This morning we continue on in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith,” by focusing on the text that relates to the hymn, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” I’ll do my best try and keep things on the lighter side this week, which may seem ironic when talking about the cross, but we’ll see how things go. On another note, I hope that during this Season of Lent you have something that fills our souls… Some folks have told me about the beautiful spiritual practices they have been doing, and let me say that it is never too late to start a Lenten or year-long spiritual discipline. I think that how we choose to practice Lent is a mirror that shows us what things are and aren’t necessary for our lives… And it shows what things we are and aren’t willing to lay down at the foot of the cross.

But before we dive too deep into the passage for today, we’ll take another brief look at the author behind today’s hymn. It was said that on one Sunday afternoon a young Isaac Watts complained to his father about how terrible were the hymns that were sung in church. His father, who was also the pastor of the church, scolded Watts and said, “I’d like to see you write something better!” Well, then legend has it that the young Isaac Watts retreated to his room for the night and came up with his first hymn, which was received with great excitement at the Sunday evening service that same day. Isaac Watts appreciated the power of sacred music and often took well-known tunes and turned them into hymns. There are over 600 hymns which are said to be credited to Isaac Watts, including the focuses of today’s sermon, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”

Our eyes are immediately drawn upwards towards the cross starting in the very first verse of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” It puts into perspective the cost of grace, the cost of love, that God poured out without any strings attached, it is there for all who seek it. In all reality, it should make us stop and wonder at how great a gift this was, especially when you consider how brutal crucifixions actually were. Crucifixions were not meant to kill people instantaneously… On the contrary, they were designed to make people agonize in public for long enough that those who considered doing misdeeds against the Roman Empire would think twice about committing such acts.

What are the things that keep us from coming to the foot of the cross and being in the presence of Jesus? And know that Jesus has risen, but technically we haven’t arrived at that point in the church calendar yet, and the cross is still a place for us to come and be in the presence of God as well. There is a multitude of art pieces that try to capture the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I don’t think that there is anyone painting or piece of music that can truly encapsulate everything that happened the moment that Christ laid down his life for the world.  “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow, and love flow mingled down,” write Isaac Watt and, “Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Perhaps the weight of those words and the things that they represent are what makes it feel like we are unable to come and stand at the foot of the cross.

When we come and stand at the foot of the cross, we do so with a bag of mixed feelings containing the joys and sorrows of life. The cross is one of those things that brings both clarity and moments of contemplation. Recently I came across a funny comic strip that showed Jesus sitting on a park bench with a stranger. Jesus says, “I want you to follow me.” The stranger replies, “On Facebook?” “No,” Jesus says, “I literally want you to follow me.” “Oh,” replied the stranger, “I get it now… So you mean on Twitter?” The comic shows Jesus putting his face in the palm of his hand and then taking a deep breath. Jesus looks up and tells the stranger, “Okay… I’m going to start over again, and you can let me know where I lose you.” The great thing is that Jesus is a patient mentor, friend, and teacher… And truth be told we certainly in need of someone like that to walk alongside us as we navigate the perils of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last couple of years and about people who have been fellow travelers on this journey of life and faith. I’ve thought about our gifted ministers of music: Carl, Sara, and Jenny, and everyone who helps lead worship, as they’ve been very accommodating to my desire to try out new kinds of music… I’ve thought about Mary Sandford and John Suddith, who have shared with me a myriad of stories about life and faith and the those who have come before. I’ve thought about the Sunday morning group that has been meeting and the conversations we have had about a whole assortment of different topics. And when it comes to it, I’ve really just thought about everyone who I met this past couple of years both those here in Watertown and those who I’ve journeyed within other contexts as well, even if just for a little while. Who have you been walking alongside with on this journey that leads to the foot of the cross? It certainly frames things differently when you think about how our lives all interconnect and come together.

My favorite verse of this hymn is probably the last because it captures all these things. It is the one where Isaac Watts writes, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” At the foot of the cross, there is love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our all. And that divine love is so amazing how can we keep it to ourselves? We should naturally want to go out and share it with the whole wide world. As God gave the gift of love to the world, it is our responsibility to help make sure that that love is accessible to all people, in every time, and in every place. And that can’t happen if we don’t actually go out and share the good news of such love with who is around us. Slipping notes to passerbys under the cracks of the church door would not be an effective means of spreading that good news. It takes a spirit that is willing to take risks, to dream, and to live boldly in their identity as people created in the image of God.

When you look at the reading for this morning and then look at the hymn text for “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” you should feel a sense of reverent awe, but also a sense of tenderness and love that is so divine, it has the power to bring the world together. In a previous sermon, I once talked about “two-handed giving.” We cannot give to God entirely if we have one hand open and one hand held tightly shut behind our backs. That idea of two-handed giving applies to this morning’s reading as well. How can we come before Jesus who bore the weight of the cross if we are not willing to lay everything at his feet, the things that weigh heavily on our hearts with hands that are open? And then if we come to the cross with open hands, we need to be willing to turn to those around us and share with them the love, the compassion, and grace we have received because that is what we find when we come and stand at the foot of the cross.

In the end, when you take all these things together, I want to lift up a few points that I think will be important for you all, and for this church, as you move forward together… And since I didn’t want to cram a final farewell into one sermon, I thought I would break that up into what was said to today and the last part of this sermon series which will be next week, so here we go:

  • As you continue to strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, don’t forget to stop and enjoy a little fun and humor along the way. Even though the Bible doesn’t include any jokes by Jesus, I’m sure that he had his moments with the disciples. I’ve been reminded by my good friend Gerda Barbour, that we all need a good laugh every now and then.

  • Our community of faith is made up of people, not programs… I think that at the heart of the cross you will find that God emphasizes the importance of relationships. The relationships that we have with God and the relationships with have with those around us… Programs are important, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t maintain the core of what it means to be a part of a community of faith, which is the people who belong to it and those around it.

  • Finally on a similar note I would lift up the importance of the love that is found at the cross as being something that will carry you forward for years to come. Love can’t be bought, sold, or traded like some generic commodity. Love, especially the divine love that comes from God, is something that is received and shared without stipulations or expectations.

When you take all these things, I think we find that we have worked towards living a life that brings us closer to the cross, closer to the being with God who dwells in the company of others as well. When you take all these things together, I think that what you will find is that wondrous cross that has inspired generations of people who have come before us, and ages who will come after us as well who have been good and faithful disciples. Amen.