Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Few Thoughts from Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25
It’s time now to leave the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah that we have been hearing the last three weeks.  But before we move on let’s not forget the lovely images that he prophecies for us, the crocus’ blooming in the desert, waters in the wilderness, swords into ploughshares, crooked paths made straight, wolves lying down with lambs – all these images provide for us a look into the future when the salvation of the world will make all things possible, when hope will be the norm rather than the exception, or at least that was the intent.  

Now it’s time to focus on that very salvation, Jesus the Christ and we will do so by beginning in the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew is not very wordy in his recounting the birth of Jesus but he does give us some interesting things to ponder about Joseph.  This is the Gospel where an angel comes to Joseph in a dream, not Mary and after that Joseph has a very large decision to make.

Joseph, to me, always seemed to be an ancillary character in the life of Jesus.  He’s present in his birth, around for the flight to Egypt, does a little carpentry work up in the Galilee, heads on down to Jerusalem with his family with Jesus was twelve and then we hear nothing more of him.  But we can surmise a few things and learn from what little we know of his actions because Matthew provides some provocative words.   
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Let’s be curious together about this passage and unwrap it to see what there is for us learn and grow from.  Mary and Joseph were engaged, more to the point they were betrothed.  We don’t use that word too much anymore but for them it was an intermediary step before marriage.  It was more than a simple engagement, it was a year-long legal contract where a couple becomes husband and wife but refrain from intimate relations with one another. 

This piece of info is important as to why Joseph must divorce Mary.  Betrothal was a binding contract in a strict system of arranged marriages.   And oops, Mary turns up pregnant, which is a dishonor.  Of course she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t know that yet.  All he can surmise is that his betrothed, pregnant wife is an adulteress. 

So Joseph is in a real pickle. You see when two value systems like law and compassionate faith collide, that often spells trouble with a capital T.  He is caught way off guard here and has a tough ethical decision to make. Will Joseph take the conventional route of the law and divorce Mary, or the faith filled route and take care of her and work it all out.  He’s at a crossroad with a decision that will effect a young woman, himself and of course the future of humanity.  But, he doesn’t know that yet either.   

Well Joseph is a righteous and moral man so he tries to blend these two systems together and decides to handle it by divorce, albeit quietly, under the Pharisaic radar screen, so as not to disgrace her or maybe even risk her stoning, and for him not being too politically disobedient is probably a good thing too living within the Holy Roman Empire.  He takes the easy way out for everyone involved.  He decides to ‘dismiss’ her.  The law is satisfied and he is more or less showing Mary compassion.

I wonder if we ever do that, take the easy way out.  It’s easier to not make waves if we can do something quietly and ‘take care of it’ even if it is not quite the right thing to do.  Rather than go full steam ahead and make a decision that is faithfully and compassionately sound we just make things ok, knowing that not everyone will be happy and maybe even someone might be hurt, but just a little. 

Of course, we’ve all done that at some point in our lives, it’s human nature to want to compromise to make it a bit easier.  Who needs difficult lives? 

But what if we acted out of a nurture frame of reference.  A paradigm that cares for the health and well being of another individual over and above taking the easy way out or strictly adhering to law.  

This is the faith filled route that Joseph does indeed finally take but not until he is visited in a dream by an angel who lays it on the line for him, “Look Joseph, I know this isn’t what you expected, things have taken a peculiar turn but see here, don’t panic, don’t be afraid, every little things gonna be alright! It’s the Holy Spirit who has come to Mary and infused her with child.  Name that baby Jesus because he will save all of the people.  Go ahead Joseph, God is with us now, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

Well that’s some dream, and that’s some message.  The angel tells Joseph to do the right thing, don’t divorce her but stay with her and trust the process because God is doing a new thing.  A not so perfect situation turns out ok.  God opens a door, God gives Joseph a vision, all God is doing is asking Joseph to trust. And to follow because when the Holy Spirit is involved new things can and do happen. 

This birth narrative shows us that life is not perfect, even for the son of God.  That there are twist and turns that will test our hearts and minds and will ask us to make decisions for ourselves and maybe even for others.  On which side of the big, wide ethical valley will you land?  Will you let the conventional overtake you and blind you to the suffering of others or will you be open to the movement of the Spirit through your faith, trusting that the faith filled route will lead you to where you need to be. 

God called Joseph to do the unexpected and in the end he did, in faith.  How about you?  When God calls, will you follow in faith too?  Will you, against all odds, make decisions that are based in sound faith filled ethical thinking?  It’s tricky to be sure.  Yet this is the legacy of thought and action that Joseph leaves us with today.
May the Spirit of God guide each and every decision that you make.
May you, through that very same Spirit, see the new path that God is setting before you. 
May you follow Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in faith trusting that this tiny child in the manger is your hope and your redemption.

And let the people say, Amen!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holy Ways are Ours Wholly

Isaiah 35:1-10
Tis the season of lights and fantasy and miracles. It’s a season where almost anything can happen…and sometimes does!  It is a time when the whole world breathes in deep extended breaths and exhales collectively a relative harmony, for peace and joy, for hope, healing, for reconciliation and redemption. 

Tis the season when folks try to find these things in glitzy and artificial ways.  The lights and music of the season, the inflatable snow globes and Santas that are larger than life on front lawns, which by the next day look like little deflated dead soldiers. The decked out halls of holly and flying reindeer might bring smiles to our faces.  But they are not the real miracles that transform our living, not really.  And so we continue to long for the day.

There have been times in history when the world has longed for redemption and peace, not so much different than today.  After the expansion of the Assyrian Empire the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered along with other nations.  Many people, the Israelites in particular, were exiled to Babylon. 

They longed for familiarity and their native soil.  They wept to remember their heritage and culture.  They wondered how they could sing out to their God in such an unfamiliar place. (Ps.137)  They needed to hear that one day they would return to Zion; that once again they would be restored in God’s favor and all would be ok, all would be healed.  They needed just a sliver of hope and a miracle of epic proportion!

So it is the prophet Isaiah who reassures them that they will again come home, that God will redeem them and show them favor.  Listen now to the poetic words of the prophet Isaiah from the 35th Chapter...….. 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.
 He will come with vengeance, 

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
 and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

 For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
 and streams in the desert; 

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;

 the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
 and it shall be called the Holy Way;

the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people;

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,  but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Crocus’ blossoming in the desert, waters in the wilderness, burning sand becomes a pool of cool, refreshing water…these images that Isaiah uses are nothing short of a miracle.  The Israelites never dreamed that they would be going home after so many years in exile, that would be like a crocus blooming in the desert, the impossible made possible and that is something to celebrate.

But what I am struck by most in this passage is that after the way home is made plain, the healing of the people can take place.  God’s way, the holy way makes them wholly healed.

The blind shall be opened,
 and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

I want to tell you another story of God’s restorative love and perhaps even a miracle of some proportion.  I have a second congregation!  That’s right, right here in Orange I have a second congregation that I tend to once a month.  Didn’t know, did’ya?  Each month I go over to the nursing home and offer a worship service to about 15 residents there.

Now I didn’t realize that I began to look at them as ‘my’ congregation to pastor until two weeks ago I went over for the monthly service and one of the residents had died.  She was a spry, and I use that word loosely, woman who knew what was happening (more than the others), she could sing along however softly and she could find her own pages in the large print, home made hymnals. Plus she was always dressed up with her dyed hair in place and jewelry that she had made in craft class.  She was a lovely woman and I was shocked and saddened to hear the news and that’s when I realized that after 11 months of going over there I had begun to look at them differently, I had began to love them.

Well this service was our Christmas service.  We sang familiar carols.  Mostly it’s just Gracie, the rec director and myself that you can hear sing, but we sing out loud and strong!  We think most of the folks are following along but it’s hard to tell.  We pray and hear a story and recite the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer together; those prayers they recall from childhood.  I can tell because they pop their heads up and I can hear audible sounds following along.  It’s a meaningful time although I often wonder how much of it they really get.    

So when I hear Isaiah’s words, “The blind shall be opened,
 and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy,” I have to wonder.  Really?  These people whose eyes are so glazed over will be able to see?  All of these elder ears will be unplugged?  And God, you’ve got to be kidding me, these wheel chair bound and walker laden men and women will leap like deer?  Come on!

Well, as usual, I was wrong.  Lois is a woman who looks to be in her late 70’s.  She is slumped over to the left and drools like a teething one year old.  She can barely lift her arms to put them on the hymnal, she really has no control of her body and lives in a wheelchair.   As I was leaving that day, I turned around to say one last goodbye to the group and wish them God’s blessings for a nice Christmas, then I waved.  Well much to my surprise, Lois smiled and waved.  She lifted her arm up to her shoulder and just sort of swung it around.  I knew it was a wave goodbye, we made eye contact, and it was the best Christmas blessing ever.

How wrong I was second guessing God.  Yes, the lame leapt, and the tongues of the speechless sang out for joy and I believe a miracle occurred that day for both of us.  Lois felt love and strength and comfort in the story of God’s transformative and healing love through the incarnation of little baby Jesus and it moved her ailing body to transcend itself; a miracle occurred.  And of course, God treated me to a different understanding of healing in that moment.

This is the healing and restoration that Isaiah prophecies about, a spiritual healing, a spiritual transformation that would move the people from one place to the next, God has promised to restore their lives and make them well.  God will heal all of their spiritual disabilities so that they can be a faithful people in their land again.  The lame will leap, the deaf will hear and the blind will see. 
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we are not in control as fully as we think we are.  Yet, amid the chaos of our lives, God exists with constant concern and care, and a promise to be with us always.  The delicate reality of our lives is that once we willingly relinquish control, God can begin that divine and redemptive work of spiritual healing and restoration.  It just may be though that our healing won’t be in the way we expect so be open.  What a surprise it will be!  Perhaps even a miracle can occur.

Soon another miracle will occur of a virgin who conceives a child. Mary was open to the miracle that Gabriel foretold and at that moment the history of the world changed.  Will you be able to recognize this miracle in your life?  God incarnate comes to us in the small and vulnerable Christ child and speaks the language of love, pure love. 

Advent is a time for preparation.  Let us prepare our lives, open our hearts, be attentive to the spirit and be ready to receive the greatest miracle of all.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

In the Light

Isaiah 2:1-5
There are memorable speeches that have moved nations and marked significant world events.  Who can possible forget Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech back one day in August, 1963 in Washington DC?  You don’t have to have lived during that time to know that his speech, “I Have A Dream”, was a prophetic word at a time when our nation was at its dimmest in terms of racial inequality.  And King offers light in the words of Isaiah…

 “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together”.

His dream like Isaiah’s, lines out a vision for a discouraged people in rocky political terrain.  He showed the nation a way to walk in the light of a God who loves all people with every skin color imaginable, and we have not looked back.
Being a prophet is not easy work, not now in our lifetime or back in the 8th BCE when the prophet Isaiah lived.  Isaiah of Jerusalem, rooted in the Zion tradition, celebrated God as the king of heaven and earth and Jerusalem is where God declares the royal dwelling for  the Davidic kings to follow.  The major problem was that this ‘royal dwelling’, Jerusalem, that Isaiah was trying to ‘sell’ was a chaotic slum, besieged from one conquest after another; the city was in turmoil.  It was grim.  And God was not happy.

God gets weary of bearing the burden of the people’s pagan festival’s and tells them so. (1:14) The prophet pleads with the people to come clean, to wash themselves and remove their evil. (1:16) God even wants to reason with them, to “argue it out” but to no avail. (1:18) Then, the unthinkable happens; God says that God will pour out wrath on the people; that God will smelt away your dross as with lye. (1:25) This is anything but pretty and comforting.  One could say that perhaps it was the darkest of times. 

And yet Isaiah, the prophet of unwavering hope speaks out; he intercedes between God and the people as prophets often do.  He offers a different vision for the people, a vision of peace, hope and light.

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house 
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
 and shall be raised above the hills; 
all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say,
 ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, 
to the house of the God of Jacob;
 that he may teach us his ways 
and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
He shall judge between the nations,
 and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
 and their spears into pruning-hooks; 
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah shares his vision for a new world order, a new existence for the people of God.  Jerusalem shall be lifted as high as Mount Sinai and all nations will stream to it.  Lot’s of people will say, ‘let’s go to God’s house’ because they know that they will receive blessing and the word of the Lord in that place. Swords will be pounded into ploughshares and nations will not fight and war will end.  Wouldn’t that be something!

He is asking the people to believe the impossible! That’s what our faith is about!  The impossible made possible.  That in the middle of the disillusionment, the chaos, the horrors of sin, that when their world seems the darkest, peace can be realized, intimate relationships, healed, and light will come.   Oh that we had a prophet like Isaiah or King today.

Transformation and to Live in Light
Isaiah issues a grand invitation on behalf of God, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (2:5), it’s a vision of transformation yes, but it also is an invitation to live a certain way, “let us walk in the light of the Lord”.  Not just for one day but for a lifetime.  One step at a time into the valleys and up the mountainsides, one foot in front of the other in light, in God’s light. 

It may seem to you and it certainly does to me that this congregation has been besieged with so much loss in the past six months.  That, we just pick ourselves up and we are hit with another significant loss and that’s not to mention the world events that are less than uplifting.  All of this could have a disastrous effect upon our collective psyche and our individual souls if we let ourselves sit in darkness.

But we cannot, we have to walk hand in hand and listen to Isaiah’s command.  Let us always remember that we are a people of the light and must walk in the light, and towards the light of the Lord. 

There is power when you walk in God’s light.  When you walk in the light of God you can see and express your deepest human sadness and longings.  You can convey your genuine and very real dreams for your life and for those around you.  Walking in God’s light enables you to dream a world like Dr. King dreamed, like Isaiah dreamed and to envision a future that will lift up all people in hope and peace and most of all make real for you the ultimate promise of God’s grace.   

Warmth, strength, and energy emanates from God’s light.  It is your warmth on a cold winter’s day, it is your strength when the anvils of life are just too heavy, it is your energy when your batteries are depleted.  The light beckons you, even when it is just a pindot and in a darkened room.

Living in the light means that when the world is at its ugliest, most hateful and war torn we can see the tiniest shred of light that the world is good just like God spoke it in the beginning.

Walter Brueggemann, theologian and Biblical scholar describes Advent as “an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’…it’s an utterly new year, new time, new life.  Everything begins again.”  For us church goers we know that Advent is the beginning of the new church year.  What a peculiar time to begin again. When it’s the darkest time of the year we lift our eyes beyond our challenges and afflictions and affirm God’s light to come, Jesus the Christ.  And this is the light that we walk towards and into.

This is the healing invitation of Advent.  To watch and to dream, to observe and to wait, to walk and prepare the way for when the light dawns a Savior will be born.  We will no longer have to sit in darkness or hurt because healing begins, and a light shines.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Three Magic Words

If you have children, or if you have ever been a kid, which should cover just about all of us, then you probably know the ‘the magic words’ and they are not hocus-pocus or abracadabra or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!  What are they?  PLEASE and THANK YOU.  That’s right. 

I can remember hammering in those three magic words into my children especially when they were bugging me for something, which seemed to be most of the time.  “Can I have a snack?” “What do you say?  What are the magic words?” and they would dutifully, tinged with an edge of sarcasm, say, “Please and thank you”.  Then I would have to say, “Say it like you mean it please!”  Then they would repeat the magic words again with a bit more sincerity, as I would usually hand over whatever it was that they were asking for.

Please and thank you.  Three enchanting words that unlock all of Ms. Manner’s etiquette in one breath.  I’ve decided that the only words you really need when you travel to another country that doesn’t speak the English language is, please and thank you.  And maybe ‘where’s the WC’.  Because with please and thank you you can make your way through whatever country you are in with kindness, civility and even a portion of gratitude and love because at that very moment in time you are dependent upon a stranger to get you what you need and to get you where you need to be. 

Please and thank you.  What’s so magic about these words anyway?  How does saying please and thank you unlock a mother’s heart or a stranger’s empathic response?  You have to admit that when you do something for someone and you don’t even get a gratuitous ‘thank you’, you are miffed.  Right?  I extended myself for you and you can’t even say thanks?  Admit it, it’s always nice to hear thank you.

And so we will sit around a table this Thanksgiving Day and say please and thank you.  Because it’s a day for the gobbler, goodies and grace, your prayers of thanks steeped in your family tradition and your faith tradition.  We will gather together to ask the Divine for blessings and give great thanks for the blessings that we have already received.  It will be warm, it will be satisfying, and we might feel as if we are the most blessed people on this planet without a care in this world.
The Thanksgiving Table by Norman Rockwell
Yet we know that’s not entirely the truth.  The Thanksgiving table is not only a place with fancy decorations and flowers, succulent turkey, stuffing, pie and enumerating all of the good things about your life.  The Thanksgiving table is also the place you will bring the not so good aspects of your life, your worries and concerns, and your fears, you know how they follow you everywhere like catalogs arriving in the mail every fifteen minutes.

The Thanksgiving table is a place where you can recognize those worries and perhaps even give voice to them.  The table is scared and holy ground where our common bonds of humanity, that is suffering and pain, joy and contentment for one brief hour is perfectly aligned and we can give thanks.

Thank you God.  Thanks God for picking me up in that ally way last week, what was I thinking?  Thank you God for having my back, I couldn’t have done it without you.  Thank you God that my child didn’t get any sicker, thank you God that during the last storm I wasn’t hurt and I still have my house to live in. Thank you God.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

In one of author Anne Lamott’s books, “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”, thank you, thank you, thank you is one of her prayers and in her inimitable way she shortens it to just ‘thanks’.  She knows that a thank you is good but a life of gratitude is even better so she takes thanks to a deeper level of understanding when she says, “‘You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too’.  She says…. ‘My general-purpose go-to mystic Rumi once said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”’[i] 

In other words, there are more ways then just these magic words to express our profound gratitude to God.  Giving ‘thanks’ is good for a day but then to live into the gratitude expressed around our tables on Thanksgiving Day is how this day can transform our living.  

We can express our gratitude to God for all those pick me ups, all of those close calls, all of those reprieves from potentially bad situations, we can express our gratitude in so many more ways than solely around the proverbial Thanksgiving table once a year.  There really is more than one way to kiss the ground and there is more than one way to say thanks.  My friends, no words are even needed.

When we breathe in gratitude and when we breathe out our gratitude there is no other alternative than to put that gratitude into action.  Thank you God, now what can I do to help you out?  What can I do to help other people?  Heaven knows, the world does not lack for opportunities for us to convey our gratitude and thanks way beyond Thanksgiving Day through our action because there is hurt in this world and people, maybe even your neighbors, who are in need of something. 

That’s the real gift of Thanksgiving.  After we wake up from our tryptophan induced naps and rub our sleepy eyes we can see all of the possibilities there are to put our gratitude into action.  There is a world out there that is in need of us…of you, and of me however we can contribute. Thanksgiving opens our eyes to the blessings we have and the incredible blessing that we can be to others.  That is the treasure of Thanksgiving. 

So let us resolve today to exhale our profound gratitude in this world through our actions.

Pass the stuffing please, and thank you God for letting the grain grow abundant and for the blessings of harvest to be plentiful.  Now let me work for just and equitable wages and sustainable living for all.

Pass the gravy please, and thank you God for giving us gravy and food at this table that is surrounded family and friends.  Now let me be a part of the solution to end homelessness and starvation so that others can enjoy the most basic of human needs.

Pass the cranberry sauce please, and thank you God for intervening in my life, for hearing my cries, for accepting my sorrows, for healing my aches, for forgiving my sins, for making me a better person, for opening my eyes to the world around me.  Thank you God, just thank you.  

Three magic words.  A life of gratitude.

And let all of the people say, Amen!

[i] Anne Lamott, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers’. Penguin Books, 2012.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grace, Gratitude and Abundant Living

Matthew 25: 31-46
Who can possibly forget the photograph by Dorothea Lange entitled ‘Migrant Mother’? I think the image is singed on the hide of American history because it reminds us of a not so pleasant time when the least of these, the poor, the disposed, the migrant workers became even more marginalized because of the Great Depression.
 Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
 Taken in 1936 it is a black and white photo of a woman flanked by two children.  Her hair is tied back and the furrows in her forehead are deep from the work and the worry.  She looks off in the distance, her right hand cups her chin and her children with their unkempt hair, face in the other direction as if to hide their faces but tenderly rest their heads on her shoulders. 

This one photograph tells a poignant story; that mothers love even when they cannot provide adequately, that the effects of the Great Depression took its toll on all people in ways that you and I cannot possibly fathom, that she is not in this position because of her own doing, and that the inconvenient truth of our economy is that we are all dependent upon one another.  And that the least of these could be you or me because we share in the human experience of despair, love and grace.

You would think we should be hearing today’s scripture reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving time when and our hearts are filled with generosity, and completeness.  But today we end the church season of ordinary time and next week we enter the season of Advent and you can’t have a beginning without and ending.

Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession and we know that later in the week he will be executed.  He purges the temple of the money changers and merchants.  He is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem.  Then he tells a parable as he is so good at doing.

Hear now the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter…

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’   AMEN!

It’s clear that there is essential information that Jesus is trying to get through to the people before he dies.  The kingdom of God will come.  You don’t know when that will be so, be ready.  In the meantime, and it’s that ‘in the meantime’ that we all need to be concerned with, be a decent God loving human being.  Jesus wants us to be the face, hands and heart of his life to others.           

Hearing today’s text is unsettling because it clearly speaks of judgment. The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand.  Yet the shepherd calls them home together, he gathers them in; and separating is part of shepherding. 

While Jesus warns us that judgment will come he uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of compassionately ministering to others. We are to care for the least of these, the poorest of the poor, who by circumstances beyond our understanding and most likely not of their making cannot do it on their own or carve out a very meager living.

The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that (will be offered at the 10 am service) we will hear shortly ….is an expression of deep gratitude for the harvest from a providential God.  The Promise of Living is from Aaron Copland’s opera entitled The Tender Land written around 1952.  The libretto was written by Horace Everett and you will find the words in your bulletin so that you can reflect upon them later.[i]

Copland was moved and inspired to write this music after he had seen photos by Walker Evans, who documented the Great Depression in poignant and heartrending black and white photography similar to Dorothea Lange.  Despondent adults with empty eyes, a mother with a barefooted child at her breast, dilapidated wooden porches, the blank faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers…Evans depicted the horrors of the depression that it had particularly on the ‘least of these’ men and women who already were downcast and had practically nothing. 
 by Walker Evans
Well Copland was stirred by these photographs to write The Tender Land.

Set in the Midwest in the 1930’s the farmland folks and migrant workers were hit the hardest.  Yet the Moss family of the Opera finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest in the middle of the adversities of their lives.  The ‘least of these’ are giving thanks because God, the source of all things has been so good to them and that they can share their abundance with their neighbors.

They have had an abundant spring harvest and are living working, growing, loving, and sharing all of this with their friends.  They were thankful for what work they had which wasn’t much and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors.  The least of these doing for the least of these.  This is grace and gratitude.

In part their prayer of thanksgiving….

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain, Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain, O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

I commend this entire poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving when you are surrounded by those you love. We can be warmed by its touching words and we can also take a lesson from it.

We are dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor we call life.  The least of these and the greatest of these, the sheep and the goats, are at times interchangeable.  We are they and they are us and we share in life’s most basic needs.  So let us be thankful that we can offer each other, and those less fortunate the bounty and blessing of the harvest, the very gifts of our lives that God has given to us.  Because that’s what God wants us to do.  That’s how Christ wants us to live.

Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia of life.  It’s an every day way of living.  Gratitude flows NOT from the things that we have or have obtained in life.  It is a human response that flows out of the gift of divine grace that God has extended to us in all circumstances and all times. 

There is promise of growth when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.  We grow beyond ourselves and into the world when we thank God for all that has been done in our lives.  Then we are truly free to live our lives in grace and in gratitude. 

If the farmers and migrant workers can sing with all of their hearts a great song of praise and thanksgiving surely we can lift up our voices to.

May the promise of living be our prayer of thanksgiving to the God who loves us deeply, who provides for us in profound ways, who will gather us in each night, protect us from all harm, and renew us in the light of Christ.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Doing Our Best

2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18                                                                       

We will continue following the lectionary as Ernie did last week in the Epistle of 2 Timothy the 4th chapter.  Written in the Apostle Paul’s name, this passage is written to Timothy to encourage him, to not give up, to endure faithfully as Paul has to the end.  Hear now these words from the Contemporary English Version.

“Now the time has come for me to die. My life is like a drink offering being poured out on the altar.  I have fought well. I have finished the race, and I have been faithful.  So a crown will be given to me for pleasing the Lord. He judges fairly, and on the day of judgment he will give a crown to me and to everyone else who wants him to appear with power.

When I was first put on trial, no one helped me. In fact, everyone deserted me. I hope it won’t be held against them.  But the Lord stood beside me. He gave me the strength to tell his full message, so that all Gentiles would hear it. And I was kept safe from hungry lions.  The Lord will always keep me from being harmed by evil, and he will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. Praise him forever and ever!” Amen.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  What beautiful and encouraging words these are, some of the most repeated words of scripture from the Bible. Paul is presented as a wise apostle who is passing on advice to a new pastor and now has to say goodbye.

Timothy, you see, is dealing with issues of the early Christian community and Paul, who is has been imprisoned and dealing with his own ‘end of life’ issues writes to encourage Timothy to this end.  To be courageous, to fight the good fight of faith and finish life’s race with confidence knowing that he will have done his best because that’s what Paul does, that is how he views his life, and how life should be lived. 

Paul, we know, is not perfect but he is self-assured (sometimes overly confident) that he has done his best to use his faith, to endure his faith, to keep his faith and to share his faith, that God has redeemed him from the dungeons, the dark alleyways, the dark nights of his life.  And in this passage he knows that because he did the best that he could, with what he had and with what God had given him, he will receive the crown of life.  Isn’t that what we all hope for at the end of our days?  A crown of righteousness given to us, personally by the Almighty just for the fact that we tried to do our best in our living.

So what does Paul exactly mean when he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith?”  He means that he has fought the fight of faith in a day and age when our early belief in Christ was trying hard to gain traction.  It wasn’t the given Christianity as it is today, it was a small group of people witnessing to the life, death and resurrection of some ‘renegade’ Jew.  But Paul was determined to fight with all of his might the good fight against the prevailing sentiment and the Empire.  He had a mighty faith and fought an unwavering fight, never giving up, and in the process being imprisoned many times. 

He also says he finished the race.  He didn’t say that he won the race, winning the race is not important.  What’s important here is he finished the race, completion is key.  We always think that winning is the goal but it’s not.  I think first time marathoners hopes and goals are just to finish the race, to say, ‘I’ve done it.’   Paul didn’t have to win, he strove to the end to be a witness for Jesus Christ.  He kept on the path one foot in front of the other always getting closer to the finish line. 

And he kept the faith, he never gave up.  If ever there was someone who kept the faith it was Paul.  He never gave up or gave in.  He never lost faith when all odds were against him. He knew how he wanted to live his life to the end.   And that was following Jesus and telling his story.

For us, this verse means that we wrestle daily, that there is some sort of fight that we have to fight each day.   And if not a fight, a difficulty that holds us back from living fully and into who we are and what brings us joy deep down in our hearts.  There will always be some obstacle that will be in our way.  At times those obstacles are rather small, sometimes gigantic and sometimes they are the fight of our lives. 

About a year ago now I was with a man in the hospital who was just given the news that there was nothing more that could be done for him, he had cancer.  As he sat there in his hospital bed we talked about end of life issues, palliative care, resuscitation measures, then he was quiet.  After some silence I said to him, “Greg, it’s not all about how you want to die, the bigger question is how do you want to live out your days now that you know they are few?”  He was fighting the biggest battle of his life.  And he didn’t give up, he fought it to the end, he completed the race, on a ventilator listening to music that brought him complete joy.  You could even see him tapping his finger slightly.  He was a musician by profession.

It’s not about winning the race it’s about completion.  How do you want to complete your life?  How do you want to live your days, however many you may have?   We don’t have to wait until our days are numbered to live into our fullest.  The time is here and the time is now.  Only you can effect how you live out your days.  Will you fight the good fight of faith, will you endeavor to complete the race without the pressure to be the best or the most perfect, or to cross the finish line first?  Finishing is good enough for God, just finishing.  Being you.  That’s is all that God asks.

Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon that we need to complete.  So develop your gives and use them.  Find joy with what surrounds your and live in gratitude.  Have faith that God will love you to the end for who you are, because that’s how God created you.  After God created for six days straight, God always reflected with, ‘it is good’.  You are good. 

Live your days now that you might also be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.”  Amen!