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."

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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.



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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!”

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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."

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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."

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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.”

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"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.”

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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.

Impossible Love

Luke 6:27-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

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We've been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God these past few weeks, and perhaps that is because we have been focusing intently on Jesus' claim on our lives. But this morning I want to take a step back and look at what it means to live out one of the more challenging aspects of kingdom building, which is love, and how it relates to us and our complicated lives. The passage this morning is one that stirs up feelings of uncertainty and asks, "How can Jesus say such things?" And that is because at the heart of our Christian faith there lies a bed of principles, which seem to contradict everything we know to be true… Do good to those who hate you? Pray for those who abuse you? Turn the other cheek? How are any of these things love? More importantly, how are any of these things just?

The first reading we had this morning is one that I think wrestles with this very idea of what love is and what just love looks like. For those who might not be familiar with the first reading, it is about Joseph, who was sold by his brothers who were jealous of him to a slave trader who brought him to Egypt. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph was presented with several varying obstacles, which led him to be placed in a position of power. And what we find in the first reading this morning is Joseph coming face to face with his brothers who had sold him into slavery as they came to Egypt looking for help, since their land was undergoing a season of severe drought and famine. While it would have been easy for Joseph to throw his brothers all in jail he didn't… Instead, he invites them to stay with him in Egypt to seek refuge and not just his brothers, but everyone else as well… It's a sneak peek of the impossible love we find Jesus talking about this morning.

I know that the passages this morning are about love, about forgiveness, and about grace… But I can't help but emphasize the critical role that sin, that broken relationships play as well. Because I have to assume that Jesus knew the kind of people he was talking to… They weren't all saints, some of them probably held deep-seated grudges, and others might have had pains that ran so deep that no natural balm could have soothed their souls. So how could Jesus have asked people to take such a radical leap of faith when talking about praying and blessing those who do you harm? It's almost as though Jesus is challenging us to embrace an impossible love. How does Jesus expect us to reach out and grasp that impossible love when we are only human?

There are probably some of you out there who have gone hunting, or have gone at a shooting range, or have shot a bow and arrow. I've only done a couple of those things a small handful of times, mostly because I'm scared of "accidentally shooting my eye out." But in case you haven't done any of these activities I mention them only because it fits with how we might view our ability to love, as ironic as that may sound… In Greek, there is a word for sin, hamartia, which in English literally means "to miss the mark." I think that this is a perfect way of demonstrating that there will be times in our lives when we "miss the mark" as we strive to live in the Kingdom of God. Our love may not always be perfect, our actions are not still perfect, and that is because we are not perfect individuals.

A part of me thinks that Jesus knew this as he stood before the crowd and spoke these words about love to those who gathered around him. A portion of me imagines that Jesus knew that we would struggle with what it means to love or to pray for those who have done us harm, and I would like to think that Jesus knew that we would not always hit the mark. To me, that is the exciting part of the gospel… To me, and to us, it should be encouraging because it reminds us to pick ourselves up when we are down to keep moving forward… We might have made a mistake this time around, but there is always tomorrow… We are people who continue to grow as we mature in our life and faith, and these experiences shape us as people created in the image of God.

It is tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one passage such as this. It's a passage that people can understand, and it sounds at first glance like a passage about getting along with others in the world. But we know that it's just not possible to condense the entirety of the Bible into one key verse or passage. Because if we did, we would end up missing out on most of what Jesus said. The "Golden Rule," as this passage has often been referred to as, has a much more significant implication when we see how many times Jesus uses this theme throughout the New Testament. Jesus says, "Loves your enemies." And we find Jesus saying these words only a few verses later again and again. The challenge of this passage is that it may seem simple, but it is not really as simple as we would like it to be. The kind of love that sometimes feels impossible can appear to be not only impractical but dangerous as well.

Jesus is talking to those who are the victims, not the victimizers, and is talking to those who are the abused, not the abusers. And I believe that we find that Jesus is saying that those who have been wronged should not keep being wrong! As we begin to near the end of Black History Month, I can't help but think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who took these words of Jesus to heart. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just roll over and let the oppressors keep on oppressing, but instead did something radically different… In front of folks with water hoses and snarling police dogs, Martin Luther King Jr. took a knee. "Only violence can fight violence," they told him, but those in power didn't know the real force of Dr. King's movement. The people who gathered around him knew the power of violence, and instead of resorting to the same old ways, they became people who would not be victims anymore. They would be grown people who would claim their God-given a place in the world.

I think that Jesus would be empathetic to someone who did not pray for their abuser… I believe that Jesus would understand that some hurts in this world run so deep they will never be healed until the last day when they stand before the loving arms of God… But I believe that what we find this morning is Jesus asking us if there is another way… That we are not the ones, who have to pick up our spears and our swords, because that kind of revenge and justice is not ours to give… "Vengeance is mine saith the Lord," is a powerful piece of Scripture that I often think about… How can I love radically? How can my love seek justice, seek healing? How can I live a life that places these hurts in the arms of God? How can love put us back onto a path of reconciliation where the impossible love becomes possible.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…" When we think that we have mastered the "Golden Rule" Jesus throws one more curveball… Just when we feel as though we have a grip on things Jesus reminds us that we need to go deeper, that we need to seek justice harder, that we need to love more sincerely, and that we need to be willing to beyond what we think is comfortable and relaxed. To give more of ourselves than we could ever hope to receive in return… It seems impractical, it seems illogical to believe that Jesus would ask us to love strangers and enemies more than the amount we love our friends and family, but that is precisely what Jesus asks of us. It doesn't mean that there won't be justice and it doesn't mean that we are meant to sit idly by and let injustice flow our way, but what it does mean is that our love needs to be proactive.

In the end, I find myself coming back to the story of Matthew Shepard… Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998 for being gay. The suspects Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested and under Wyoming state law were eligible to receive the death penalty… But in the last possible moments Judy and Dennis Shepard asked the judge to lower the sentence so that no death penalty would be issued (they were instead issued life sentences). In a statement addressing the court and Aaron McKinney, Dennis Shepard said, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of [my son] Matthew."

"Love your enemies," Jesus said… When I hear Jesus' words, I think of Matthew parents… What kind of power must it have taken for parents to seek out a different path when the world was seeking something different? Matthew's parents were shaped by a gospel deeper than hatred and revenge. I don't know if I could do what they did, but their actions are a powerful witness to the social power of the gospel. Such love, the impossible love that Jesus asks of us, is not always practical, but it can change the world. How will you change the world? How will you let your love guide you to take actions that seem impractical or illogical? I don't have all the answers as to how to make it happen… I know that we will make mistakes and that we may stumble on our quest to embody this impossible love… But I am confident that it is in the love of God where we will find the strength to carry out such an essential and life-changing task. Amen.

Blessed Are...

Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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“Four score and seven years ago…” I imagine that these words have become so ingrained into our minds that just hearing them evokes a sense of grandeur and awe. It was over 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, which would become a speech that would live on in infamy. Yet before he rose to power, not much was known Lincoln and when asked about his youth he replied, “It can all be condensed to a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’” I think it would be fair to say that Lincoln lived a life that was just as complex and shaded in hues of gray as our lives are today. As we reflect on Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, it might be useful to look back on Lincoln’s life as we consider how these teachings of Jesus lay claim on our lives today.

Lincoln was not a Presbyterian. Neither was he a member of any denomination that we know of and his Lincoln’s faith is mostly surrounded by a shroud of mysticism.  Some aspects of Lincoln’s life and faith are still contested and controversial even though it has been over 150 years after his death. Some have argued that Lincoln used religion as a means to gain power, and never personally held onto the “Christian” teachings that he professed to uphold. Yet setting those arguments aside we can see how many of these classic Christian elements were embodied in the life of Lincoln, and by “Christian elements” I mean both the good and the bad, parts that are reflective of Christ’s teachings and segments that remind us that we are ourselves not above reproach.

It is the absolutes and greyness of Lincoln’s life and legacy that truly bring us into today’s passage… Because just as there was diversity in the crowd who came to hear Jesus so too is there a diversity among us who hear the words of Christ in our lives today. For some, we may see the absolutes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. For others, we may hear that there is room for nuance and interpretation of Jesus’ words. There is a sense of comfort and discomfort to both of these ways of listening to Jesus. Perhaps that is the point of the Sermon on the Plain… Maybe the point is that the blessings and woes are means to challenge us… Challenge us not only in how we actively live out our faith in our communities, but how we live out our faith in relationship to God as well. Because at the heart of all these blessings and all these woes is the emphasis on the relationship with God.

For some reason or another in our modern Christianity, we have equated success to be mean that a person has a strong faith… Just watch some of the Sunday morning shows, and you will find televangelist preaching that if you pray hard enough, if you only give a little more, God will bless you. It’s unfortunate that we have created a culture that assumes that if you live a happy and full life, your faith must be strong. Earthly success does not mean that we have divine approval from God. That means we need to cast away false beliefs that assume that if someone is suffering, they are being punished by God, deserve their suffering, or that they created the current situation for themselves. All of these things run counter to what is at the heart of the Word of God. And if we were to take a close look, we would find that the text this morning tells we need to be wary of embracing a full life and that experience of humility is what brings us closer into a relationship with God.

Humility is one of those things we talk about, but never seem to master in terms of applying it to our everyday lives. We aspire to be humble, we strive to be modest in our successes, and graceful when we fall short. Yet it feels like no matter how hard we try, we aren’t able to get to the place where we want to be when it comes to living lives that reflect a spirit of humility. Lincoln might have been a good example… Edwin Stanton, who was a former colleague of Lincoln, during his time as a lawyer, would often call Lincoln names… After being appointed to Lincoln’s cabinet as the Secretary of War, he was famous for having once called Lincoln a fool. When asked about how he felt Lincoln said, “If Stanton said I was a [darn] fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.”

So how might humility play into some of the blessings and woes that we find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain? I would suggest that we take a look at a few of them and then consider how they might impact us as we use Lincoln as an example… “Blessed, are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Lincoln’s humble upbringing is one of the most important factors when it comes to his impact as a statesman and president. The loss of his mother and sister, while he was young, would help shape the kind of leader Lincoln would become. While not perfect, Lincoln would seek to pursue the common good during the time of his presidency. What are the things in our life that make us who we are today? If we are rich in material goods, what might we be “poor” in? If we find that we are without any material goods in what ways have we inherited the Kingdom of God?

“Blessed, are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” While I think that many would say that Lincoln embodied many of the teachings from the Sermon on the Plain, I think it would also be fair to say that he fell short in some ways as well. Without dwelling on his shortcomings, it would be prudent to name a couple of them for the sake of realizing how we have not upheld this blessing from the Sermon on the Plain:

As much as Lincoln abhorred slavery, he was not an abolitionist. Though he worked alongside abolitionist Lincoln never considered himself to be one. In 1854, 7 years before the Civil War, Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, IL where stated that as much as he hated slavery he wasn’t sure what could be done about it within the current political system.

And while we would agree that Lincoln lived a life that embodied the core of the Sermon on the Plain, or the Beatitudes as found in the Gospel According to Matthew, Lincoln wasn’t 100% in favor of giving people the rights, the “hungry” as Luke would say, what they are entitled to. In his debated against Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

It may be uncomfortable to think that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, could end up on a side that we know to be wrong, a side that violates, that defiles, what is at the very heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. But that’s the redeeming part of the Sermon on the Plain. While Lincoln was not perfect, I think there is room for us to see the power of what it means to have a heart that is humble and a heart that is willing to be open to new possibilities when it trusts in the promises of God. For Lincoln, that meant having a relationship with Frederick Douglas [ad lib], who was a freed slave who led abolitionist movements in both Massachusetts and New York. This relationship is what could spur Lincoln on to give the Emancipation Proclamation, which in itself was flawed, but a step that would lead to others carrying on in the work of healing and reconciliation.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” We know the cost of what it means to live in a free society… Lincoln who oversaw the end of one of America’s bloodiest wars would pay for that peace in his own blood. Throughout his presidency, he was mocked and caricatured in ways that would seem mild by even today’s standards. Yet Lincoln never gave into responding in a like manner. Perhaps we can think about how we have treated one another… The ways that we have hurt others, the ways that we have excluded others, how we try to physically and metaphorically exclude others… Because it’s them, not us, who are blessed.

The either/or nature of the blessings and woes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain are meant to make you stop and consider the impact they are intended to have on our everyday lives. There are days where it is easier to trust God. There are times wherein our weakness, we can turn things around and bless others, but all of these things require a spirit of humility. The Sermon on the Plain raises many more questions… Questions about God’s providence, questions about suffering and pain, but for today, let us focus on who the happy ones are. They are the poor, they are the hungry, they are those who are mourning, and those who are hated, and they are you and me… As we go out into the world around us with the hope of blessing others, we will discover that we will be blessed. Not because of anything we have done, but because of God’s grace and compassion.

As we near the Season of Lent you might be considering something you might want to try this year. Perhaps you’ve tried changing your lifestyle, and maybe you’ve attempted to seek a spiritual practice as well. This year for the Season of Lent why don’t we try doing something different… Why don’t we try living into a life of humility that trusts in God, set aside fears about whether or not we are successful, and allow ourselves to fall back into the arms of God being comforted by the knowledge that God knows our hearts, regardless of how others may judge us. Because then all of us who are called to blessed may keep passing those blessing on to others. Amen.

Fish or No Fish

Luke 5:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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"Tidying Up" featuring Marie Kondo is a Netflix special that has gained a lot of traction recently. Based off of her book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," Marie Kondo walks us through a journey of reclaiming our living spaces and sorting through our possessions that "spark joy." I didn't know that tidying up could be so controversial, but apparently, it has caused people to be defensive of their extensive collection of books, antiques, or whatever else you could think of having in your house. Kondo's effort to let go of the things that don't spark joy has resulted in a myriad of articles, Facebook posts, and memes… (For for those of you who don't know what a "meme" is a picture that is culturally recognizable and provides humor when you caption it.)

There are things in life that bring us joy, and there are also things that don't spark that same sense of comfort within our souls. While I think all of us at some point have accumulated things that lift up our souls, I believe there are also times in our lives when gather things don't always relate to happiness. I'm thinking in particular of the card game "Go Fish," where you ask the opposing player if they have a specific card and if they don't, they say, "Go Fish," and then you have to add a card from the deck to your hand. In that scenario, fishing for another card from the deck doesn't elicit a feeling of excitement or awe. As we look at the passage this morning, we will want to keep this in the front of our minds, that our call is not always something we want to do, as we find Jesus telling Peter, "Go fish."

I'm sure that as Simon, who would be called Peter, was pulling up his nets and headed for the shoreline he wasn't expecting to run into someone like Jesus, but really who among us is ever ready for an encounter with Jesus? After putting in countless hours of waiting and tending the nets, Simon came back with nothing. And I almost imagine Peter rolling his eyes discreetingly when Jesus told him to go out and cast his nets once again. You know it's one thing to be a fan of Jesus, to understand what Jesus teaches and to know who Jesus is in the world… But it's another thing to actually be a follower of Jesus, which lays a higher claim on our lives than what we are often willing to give to Jesus. We'd much rather do the things that we want to do instead of doing the hard tasks that Jesus asks of us.

Now I'm not an avid fisherman, but I know a lot of people who do enjoy fishing regularly [ad lib]… Compared to the technology we have fishing today in biblical times was a whole other ordeal. It was strenuous work and took a lot of energy… Often fishermen like worked out of wooden boats that were about 27 ft in length, 7.5 ft in width, and 4 ft deep. So there wasn't much room to move around and then add the fact that they would have to haul in large nets that would catch the fish. Just try and put yourself in Simon's position… You've been working all night casting and reeling in your nets and when day breaks you're ready to get some rest, and then Jesus comes asking you to do the process all over again.

I'd be pretty skeptical of Jesus… In truth, I might even think that Jesus was trying just to have a little fun and see if I would actually go out and follow him. How many times have we missed the call of Jesus on our lives because we refused to believe that Jesus would add one more thing to our already long list of things to do? How many times have we left the work of compassion, care, and love untouched, because we though there were more important things to do? Fishing takes patience... it means that we'll probably end up doing some things that aren't fun or exciting or spark joy within us. But that's what it means to follow Christ... There's a cost, there's a sacrifice, and that's what it means to go fishing in the Kingdom of God.

However, the advice from a carpenter's Son would prove that all our eye-rolling, skepticism, and doubt would come back and catch us off guard if we go through life not willing to live with hearts that are open to the wondrous works of God. We find that there were so many fish that the nets were about to tear apart and the boat was on the verge of sinking into the lake. Had Simon given into his desire not to go back out, he would have missed out on the miracle that Jesus brought about that day. In many ways, we find that we are in Simon's position each and every day. We are present with a choice to either embrace the call of Jesus, which can lead to unexpected things, or we can stick to what we know, but miss out on the situations that Jesus sincerely asks of us.

I sometimes worry that our cultural obsession, both outside and inside the church, with the things or activities that bring us joy will make it so we will not hear the times when Jesus calls us to do something different, something that is outside the norm of our daily lives. I worry that as we pursue our own happiness and our meaning and place in life, we will neglect essential things if we find that they do not spark the same amount of joy in our lives. As an aside I want to say that I'm all in support of pursuing the things that are affirming in your lives, because more often than not they do lead to the places where God is calling, but if we ignore the more challenging call in our lives than we may find that at the end of the day instead of having fish, we have none.

We know what happens next to Simon once he decided to follow Jesus and go back out into the waters of the lake to cast his nets once again. As Simon and his crew pulled in the nets full of fish; we see Simon kneeling before Jesus, saying that he was not worthy. When we face our fears, when we face difficult challenges head-on, it can be quite an intimidating experience and overwhelming when we accomplish those tasks at hand. When we find that our challenge has been completed, we look up to see that Jesus is there telling us not to be afraid and that if we are willing to follow as disciples, we will discover that the nets in our hearts will be full of abundant love and grace. When we choose to follow even though it may not be the most exciting thing ever, we will find that something is waiting to be uncovered within ourselves and within our communities.

This morning we also hear of another story in which there was someone who believed that they were unworthy answering the call of God and hesitant in answering. In our first reading this morning, we hear the voice of the divine calling out to the prophet Isaiah, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" The prophet is concerned that he is unclean, unworthy, but before God, those excuses we make for ourselves mean nothing. And as the prophet is purified by a lump of hot coal he responds out to the voice calling out to him saying, "Here am I; send me!" When we are asked to go out and try again when we are asked to go out and casts our nets into a lake that seems void of fish, it doesn't seem intuitive to answer enthusiastically, but that is what God expects of us.

Fish or no fish? It seems like a simple question, but not so much when you begin to realize just how much work and energy goes into the kind of fishing that Jesus asks of us. It's easier to stick to the things we know… It's easier to live a life of discipleship that focuses on things that affirm the gifts that we know we have, but what would it look like to live a life of discipleship that casts the nets once more, because there is faith that Christ will use what we have to build up the Kingdom of God? You may be tempted to roll your eyes and look at Jesus with that a face that says, "Really?" Try throwing your net on the other side of the boat, because the thing that catches may be life-altering, transforming, and reaffirming in a way that exceeds any accolades or praises the familiar things could offer… But if we don't throw our nets over the side of the boat, we'll never know.

As Jesus called Simon, later known as Peter, to be a fisher of humankind, we see the impact that his faith had on those around him. While we might not talk about discipleship or trust in the same manner as they did back then, perhaps we should, because it would remind us that if we aren't willing to take risks to follow Christ, genuinely follow Christ, then we'll end up with an empty net… So here are some things I'd like us to carry with this week…

  1. Do something that is meaningful, but familiar… It could be volunteer at a local organization, it could be visiting a friend or family member, it could also be as simple and as meaningful as praying for someone who you know needs prayer.

  2. Do something that is meaningful, but unfamiliar… Take an opportunity to cast your net on the other side of the boat. Try something that you’ve maybe always wanted to do, but haven’t had the motivation to pursue it.

  3. Spend time in prayer and reread the story of Jesus calling Simon… In what ways do you resonate with Simon and in what ways are you different? And perhaps most important of all spend time letting the Spirit of God inspire your imagination of what we could do together as we “fish” as faithful disciples.

We may not know what the waters of life bring next, but I imagine Jesus would tell us the same thing as he told Simon, “Do not be afraid…” So let us pick the nets and get the boat ready as we follow Christ. Amen.



"The Mission"

I Corinthians 13:1-13 (New Revised Standard Version)

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

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This past week I attended a SNEPJC training that was given by a RE from GA who works with the GAPJC. We talked about IC’s, AI’s, RE’s, TE’s, AFR’s, the PMA, the OGA, and the PC(USA)... I’m afraid that I’m not speaking in the tongues of angels but instead speaking in the tongues of mortals, contrary to what I would like to think. Whether we know it or not we often talk using “insider” language, terms or phrases that may be familiar to us, but inadvertently excludes those who are aren’t in the know… And I mention all of this because it’s a segway into our theme this morning, which is that our words and actions lack love if they originate from a place of self-centeredness.

Another example of this comes from one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it, but as I thought about the sermon for this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the movie “The Mission” released in 1986 starring Jeremy Iron and Robert De Niro. Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty and giving away the whole film, there is one scene I want to highlight for you. Robert De Niro’s character, a reformed slave trader, decides to change the direction of his life and attempts to join the priesthood in South America. Throughout his journey of discovery, he is given a Bible by one of the priests and reflects on the reading from I Corinthians 13.  

I recommend you watch “The Mission,” because it was powerful scene to watch De Niro’s character, an initially rough and tough slave trader, read the words that we read this morning, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” It’s a journey of selfless love, love that does not ask for anything in return, love that does not do things for the sake of recognition but to answer the call to love without restrictions or expect anything in return.

When was the last time you sat down with Scripture and reflected on a passage such as the one from I Corinthians? When was the last time you let a Bible passage sit with you for some time as a meditation or prayer? As I mentioned, in the beginning, this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians challenges us to think about what is at the core of our being. Is it faith? Is it hope?  Is it love? But since we know that love is at the heart of all of these things, perhaps the questions is, “What kind of love is guiding our life?” Because if it is love that is self-serving or for vanity’s sake, then we might have to go on a journey of rediscovery and self-discernment.

We have a tendency to exalt ourselves, a tendency to pad our own egos and self-image, and the love that God has instilled in us ends up needing a little tuning every now and then. We might find that we need to reconnect with the things that are supposed to nurture both our bodies and our souls. When we go on a journey of rediscovery, when we pursue the mission that Christ has given to us, we will hopefully end up in a place where our love has grown up. It may be that you are looking through a mirror dimly or that you understand the world as a child, but at some point, something needs to change… The idea that we are static or immoveable does not lend itself to the type of challenging faith that we are called to participate in.

Last week also took a look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And in the section, we looked at last week Paul was seeking to correct to the church in Corinth. As we looked at how all of our spiritual gifts come from God, we remember this week that if those gifts are not used properly, they may end up being as useful as a “loud gong” or “clanging cymbal.” Love is edifying, love is what builds up and not tears down, as Paul puts it, “love never ends.”

Lonni Collins Pratt is the co-authors of a book that some of you might have read or heard of called “Radical Hospital.” In the book, she talks about a time where she and her husband lived across from a small cabin, which was empty at the time. Soon after their arrival, they had a neighbor move into the little cabin, an older gentleman who was described as looking like Willie Nelson. Pratt’s husband went to introduce himself, but being more reserved Pratt didn’t go with her husband. It soon became apparent that their neighbor had a mission, which was to renovate and fix the cabin, which had fallen into disrepair.

All was well until one night she heard a loud scream coming from the cabin. A few weeks went by, and Pratt finally went over and introduced herself to their neighbor and brought over some food. As they swapped stories, the man said he liked to go around and fix up houses so that younger families could move in… Being a Vietnam vet, he found it therapeutic but still felt like he was living there. Pratt writes that as she listened, she heard things that her neighbor never said… As she listened with intent, she listened to the underlying message of concern and pain, “Don’t worry I won’t be here very long, and I hope that you can tolerate me and soon you’ll have the neighbor that you had hoped for.”

And that is part of the mission… Can we listen to that deeply to the story of those around us? Can we listen with such deep love as to hear the words of others that are not spoken? Can we act then in love once we look out of a place of our own vulnerability and care? Because that kind of listening and action is what Paul is talking about this morning… It is that kind of listening and engagement that comes from a place of selfless love that leads to the understanding of true love that is described by Paul in the passage for today…

Once again I would encourage you to see the movie “The Mission,” because the evolution of Robert De Niro’s character is an excellent portrayal of what Paul is calling for in today’s Scripture reading. Because we all have a mission that has been given to us by Christ, a task that will ask us to change what is at the very core of our being. It is a mission that is filled with joy, a mission that is filled with sorrow, and a purpose that is grounded on the truth that the love of God will carry us onward to wherever it is we will end up… It is a mission that will hopefully lead us to a place where we will have learned to love in the same manner that Christ loves us.

As we move ahead in this congregation in this time of shaping and reshaping and focusing and honing our attention on who we are, perhaps we can take up the mission of love that is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Maybe when we form small groups to vision a future for our church, we will take up the task of listening with intent love. Perhaps when we are beginning to use our hands and feet, we will feel more connected with the world that God has called us to be stewards of and build relationships with those whom Christ has called us to care for.

I know that today is the Super Bowl, but maybe you’d be willing to take some time this afternoon, or perhaps time this week, to just stop for a moment and recall a time where you have felt the kind of love that Paul wrote about in the letter we read from this morning. Maybe it was someone who practiced the kind of radical hospitality that Pratt wrote about in her book… Perhaps it was a time where you stopped to listen to the underlying words that someone was saying or maybe it was a time where your words influenced your actions.

The mission that is set before us runs opposite to what is at the core of our culture today. It asks that we about consider the words we use and take ownership of our actions. It asks that we abandon the mentality of scarcity and live into a life of abundant love. For we do now see in a mirror, dimly, but when we live a life that is filled with the light of God that darkened mirror breaks into shattered shards… We need to be bold, we need not be afraid, because God is there with us as we grow and as we live into who we were created to be.

Maybe our mission will take us to our co-workers who are uncertain about their future or a classmate if you’re in school who feels like no one understands them. Maybe it’s that person who has been a thorn in your side, but they look like they require help. Perhaps it’s that person you’ve been meaning to visit but just haven’t had the time. It may even be a complete stranger who you encounter this week which you might have otherwise just walked by and ignored. So how will you live out the mission of your heart this week? Take time to listen, take time to act, take time just to stop and take in the world around you… For we all have hope, we all have faith, and above it is love that guides and holds these things together. Amen.

Putting It All Together

I Corinthians 12:12-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

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How many here this morning are familiar with the term “internet troll”? For those who aren’t familiar with what an “internet troll” is, an internet troll is a person who leaves caustic comments on the internet with the sole intent of being provocative or abrasive. Patton Oswalt, a comedian, known for his own aggressive style of comedy, was the recipient of an internet trolls comment this past week. Instead of returning the favor, Patton Oswalt looked through the commenters Twitter feed and saw that he had a Go Fund Me page to help raise money to cover expenses from an emergency room visit. Oswalt donated $2,000 to his online heckler and encouraged his followers to give as well… The man who had thrown harsh criticism at Oswalt wrote back thanking him, and that going forward he would take to heart the impact that his words have on others.

These are the kind of stories we need as we look around and find that the things that divide us seem to stand out more than the things that bring us together. Of course each of us have things that we are passionate about and things that we care deeply for, but as we are reminded by the Scripture reading this morning, we are united together in one body, the body of Christ, and as we represent the various parts of the body of Christ we cannot turn our backs on our brothers and sisters who also offer vital gifts and talents that contribute to the Kingdom of God. We are all apostles, we are all disciples, we are all stewards of this created world and tasked with making sure that gifts we have been given are not hoarded, but instead shared with all.

This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is part of a more extensive section, where Paul is seeking to correct the Church in Corinth in regards to how it viewed spiritual gifts. We don’t often talk about spiritual gifts in our churches today so it might be premature to ask you what is your spiritual gift. But in the passage, this morning, things like speaking in tongues, spiritual healing, and other phenomena were essential parts of the early Church. The problem that arises out of this passage is that the Church in Corinth began to cultivate a disproportionate liking for some spiritual gifts over others, essentially ranking the gifts that God has given to each and every one of us… Perhaps then the Church in Corinth is a place where we can shed ourselves of pride and arrogance, and rediscover what it means to be connected to something that goes beyond ourselves.

I find the human body to be quite fascinating, not only because it is so complicated, but because it also captures what is at heart our reading this morning. Our lungs don’t tell our red blood cells, “Hey… You just gotta learn to distribute your oxygen better... I can’t keep giving you a ‘free ride.’ Learn to save, so you won’t need to keep coming back.” Our bodies don’t work that way, and neither is the community in which Christ has called us to live in. If we treat others as being less, then we are no better than one part of the body telling the other that, “I have no need for you.” We know that we have been called to participate, to belong to something higher, but that doesn’t mean we are immune to falling back into familiar ways, ways that exclude others, implies that divide the body of Christ instead of putting it back together.

In case you’ve forgotten how it is we are bound together, all you need to do is look at the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As I’ve mentioned before, it is the waters of baptism where we are claimed by Christ and where we are connected with the collection of saints who have come before us. Also, we only have to look at the Lord’s Table to see how we are brought together in one community. In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to sit at the table with one another, a table where we break bread and drink from the cup of salvation where we remember what Christ has given to us so that we may provide to others. It is a sacred calling, a vocation, and it should be powerful enough make you stop and think about how often, if at all, you’ve stopped to appreciate the talents and offerings of those around you.

The spiritual gifts we have received from God are not only for our own consumption or for our own personal enjoyment. What we find that we only have to open the pages of the Bible to see that Jesus calls us to seek out faith continually and to be active in our walk with God, Jesus, and one another. As we are reminded by Jesus’ own words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) Our spiritual gifts of compassion, love, grace, discipleship, forgiveness, teaching, and caring are meant to be paired with hearts that are humble and willing to serve and look for God in both the light and in the darkened corners of the world where we dare not go. Taking this into consideration, perhaps belonging to the body of Christ is not as easy as we thought it would be.

It should go without saying that there are a lot of things that try to stop us from participating in the body of Christ. There are the old hurts and pains from broken or fractured relationships… There are fears that the future that we have hoped and worked for will not pan out the way we wanted them too… And then some molehills miraculously become mountains either by our own doing or by the inexplicable forces of nature. When we find that the effects of hate and negativity try to tear us away from the body of Christ, may we remember that since we belong to the body of Christ, we have a place to seek strength and encouragement from those around us? The collection of Christ is an edifying place, where iron sharpens iron, where the most durable parts support the weak and visa versa.

Putting it all together means each of us has a role to play in the Kingdom of God. Each of us has a place and a value and a talent to offer, that benefits all who are part of the body of Christ. At times it can feel like trying to do a puzzle with a group of friends, and some of those friends decide that it would be fun to hoard the pieces for themselves. We know that’s not how you do a puzzle, we know that the eye cannot say, “I have no need for you,” and that the ear cannot say, “I do not belong,” because we do have a need for one another, and because this body of Christ is meant to be a place where all people belong, whether we want to acknowledge them or not! Putting it all together means that you and I have to hear the call… We have to listen to the voice of God speaking to us, calling us to live in a manner that is honorable, loving, and compassionate.

Our diversity, the gifts of our talents and stories, is what makes up the body of Christ. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As it is, there are many members, yet one body.” The unity, the oneness, of the body of Christ relies on the diversity of its members. And while each of the parts of the body of Christ may be different from one another, they each function in a way that maintains and strengthens the various components. The importance here is that no community, no organization, no church, can survive unless it possesses a diversified symmetry. This picture painted by Paul might be comparable to that of a kaleidoscope… All of the various parts come together to form an object, but the diversity of components results in a luxurious experience because each piece offers something unique and different.

Remember that you, that we, are the body of Christ, and together we represent individual pieces. So how will you live your life in a way the reflects this diversity, this unified community we have been called to live in with one another? Because let's not fooled ourselves into thinking that our faith doesn’t ask for something in return… If we seek to be a member of the body of Christ, then the body of Christ is going to lay some claim to our lives as well. We cannot go through life, thinking that we can overcome all the challenges of this world alone. We cannot go through life thinking that our one part alone can carry everyone else… We need to work together, we need to come together, otherwise why else would we come seeking to be a part of the body of Christ? God has appointed each and every one of us with a task. So may we live into that task, building up and strengthening one another as we together put together the community that God desires.  Amen.