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!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

That One Leper

Luke 17: 11-19
There was no ‘santoosh’, in Telegu, ‘joy or contentment’ that day at the leper village outside of Hyderbad in the Khamman area of India.  There were only elderly faces with blank stares and children with leprosy whose sweet eyes were filled with the inquisitive look of young explorers.  Except they were not able to explore because they were confined to the village. 

We talked with them through a translator and the most that we could do that day was to let them know that they are not forgotten.  That, there are people in the United States who know they exist and hold them in prayer.  That, by our very presence we see them and are with them in spirit and that they are not alone.  The children walked us to the edge of the village, begging us to take their photos.  We waved goodbye.  But that was not the last time that I have seen their faces or thought about their illness, their isolation, or the stigma that these ostracized people face.  All I need do is to close my eyes and in my mind’s eye, I see them.  But what can one person do to help these people?  If you are Jesus, a lot.

Let us now hear the sacred words of our text from the Gospel of Luke the 17th chapter.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
David J. Stewart
Living with leprosy, or what we now know as Hanson’s disease, in the first century of the Common Era was not easy nor was it pleasant.  It still isn’t in some parts of the world as I experienced.  Today there are roughly 4 million people who live with the disease.  It carries the stigma of shame and disgrace because of the deformities to which it can lead.  A person with leprosy back then was forced to live in exile, isolated from community and family not to mention the physical discomfort of this disease that affects the nerves near the skin. 

It’s understandable that these ten men in our Gospel today would do anything to be healed from this devastating disease – even approach, against all odds, some guy who just arrived from the northern parts of Galilee, who made pretty outrageous claims about Torah, who performed miracles and healings just like all the other miracle makers of the day.

Remember this is not the post-Easter Jesus, the risen Christ we all know and love.  This is that man Jesus, from Nazareth and the men with leprosy could not have known the events that were about to happen, his death and resurrection.  All they knew was that Jesus, this Jew from the north could heal and they didn’t want to be lepers any longer. 

So they cry out, “have mercy on us!”.  And, through the power of God, Jesus heals them.  Their scarred and disfigured bodies were made whole once again as they ran to the temple priests for examination and certification that they were clean and pure.  But that one leper, he turns back.  He was a Samaritan you see, not a Jew.  Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem through the region between Samaria and Galilee which was a fairly dangerous route because the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t see eye to eye. So the tenth leper was a despised foreigner, who, by all accounts really shouldn’t have been the one to turn back, but he does so. 

Not only does he turn back but he makes a public demonstration of his thankfulness, he prostrates himself in front of Jesus.  We’re not sure how Jesus received this man’s outburst of gratitude but we do know that he makes note that the other nine lepers are not at his feet.

The nine lepers were physically healed but the tenth leper was wholly healed, both physical and spiritually.  Healing is secondary in this story but faith is not.  All were healed.  In this passage Jesus points us to a more profound understanding of faith.  Jesus acknowledges the one leper’s gratitude and says, “Get up!  Go! Be on your way, your faith has made you well.”

Let us remember that faith is not a cause and effect sort of thing.  You know, you pray for something and it either happens or not.  And it’s not about the amount of faith you have because we recall that Jesus tells us if we have the faith of a tiny mustard seed we can move mountains.  Our prayers don’t ‘work’ or not’ depending on the amount of faith we have, or where we are on our spiritual journeys. 

Here Jesus is teaching us about how to live our faith, “To have faith is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks”[i] as scholar Kimberly Bracken Long says, and that is what ultimately makes the man well. He is living his faith.  When we live in faith and practice a life of faith we cannot help but be grateful for each and every day, each and every encounter of healing, spiritual, physically or mental.  Mercy and gratitude abound in this story and we can learn from this foreigner’s actions as he recognizes the source of all healing and then gives thanks.

How can we possibly not practice gratitude when we know that God is the healer and giver of life?  It is in the turning back and thanking that the one grateful leper is saved.  Gratitude is available to every one of us.  That is one of the tree essential prayers that Anne Lamott talks about, ‘Help, Thanks and Wow!’[ii] 

Saying thanks acknowledges our helplessness in situations beyond our control.  It recognizes that there is something, some ONE much larger than ourselves who ‘has our back’.  Saying thanks takes us out of ourselves and our self pity and into a deeper relationship with God.  Thank you God for this day!

Thank you God for letting me get that parking space.  Thank you God for my neighbor who did not loose their home.  Thank you God that I made it through today unscathed by the storm that just passed through my life.  And even if my body creaks, thank you God for another day of my life on this earth.  Just…thank you God!

Practicing gratitude changes us.  It changes our hearts.  It has the ability to change us as a congregation too.  Thanking God together can transform us and grow us in the spirit of gratitude and love.  Let us be that one leper who turns around and give God all the glory.


[i] Kimberly Bracken Long in ‘Feasting on the Word’, Proper 23 Year C
[ii] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks Wow.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bread Enough For All

Luke 24:13-20, 28-35
I am a baker’s daughter.  Now there are many upsides to being a baker’s daughter and there are some downsides too.   The downsides are that I never learned how to bake because I never had to and I’ve had to maintain a lifetime membership at Weight Watchers.

The upsides of being the daughter of a baker far outweighed the downside however.  It was a treat to go to the baking plant and help out the bakers.  It seemed that the rotary ovens always had something in them baking no matter what time of day or night.  And it was great fun to watch the huge, gigantic mixers that stood on the floor because they were so big.  The paddles of the mixer whirled round and round mixing the batter into a smooth and creamy concoction that would, voila! turn in to some sweet treat.

The one other good thing…Daddy brought home a fresh loaf of bread - EVERY DAY!  Every night at supper there was a plate with a stack of bakery white bread on it and a stick of butter on the side.  Dad used to claim, “Bread is the staff of life!”
Bread IS the staff of life.  Bread is a staple in people’s diets and each culture and tradition has its own special type of bread that they savor too.  Swahili Buns from Kenya, Chapati from India, Banana and Pineapple Nut bread from the Caribbean, Pita from the Middle East, Tortilla’s from Chile and South America.

No matter where you are on this earth sitting down at the table with friends or family, with a fresh hot loaf of your favorite bread is a delight, a symphony to your taste buds, a common link to others who are in need of sustenance.

Bread guides us and comforts us, brings us back home again when we’ve been out on a journey. Whether it’s slathered in butter or warmed herb infused olive oil, its comfort food that fills you up, and satisfies the body as well as the soul.  And, above all, it fulfills one of the very basic needs of life, hunger. 

I realize now how lucky and blessed I was because now I know that many children in this world don’t have that luxury and that the bread they eat might be the only food that they will receive that day.

Today’s passage is about bread and some friends who sat down at the table to eat.  That night bread, for them, was to never be the same.  From the Gospel of Luke, the 24th chapter……

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us? ’That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This post resurrection story is a defining moment for these followers of Jesus.  Cleopas and another disciple were heading to Emmaus which is just about a seven mile walk from Jerusalem out west.  It was late in the day and the sun was setting.  As they walked someone appeared.  Now, the Bible lets us in on the secret, that it was Jesus, but the disciples didn’t know.  They just thought that this stranger who joined them walking was someone who hadn’t heard about all the recent activities and turmoil in Jerusalem, that is the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Because it was getting near evening the disciples were going to stop for the night and they asked Jesus to join them, his plan was actually to keep heading out.  But he didn’t.  He stopped with them.  And they sat down at the table for a little supper.

On the table was a loaf of bread.  Jesus picked up the entire loaf and then he blessed it as was his custom.  And when he broke the loaf of bread to share it was at that very moment that Cleopas and the other man recognized Jesus.  And then just as suddenly as Jesus appeared to them on the road he vanished from their sight.  All they had left in front of them was a broken loaf of bread. And a memory.

They knew from the moment that they started talking with this stranger that their hearts were burning inside and when Jesus tore the bread into two pieces and they heard Jesus’ blessing they remembered, they knew that they were in the presence of the risen Jesus.  Bread for them, at that moment took on a whole new meaning.  
Today is World Communion Sunday.   By sharing in the grains and wheat of the earth and grapes from the vine we share our common humanity with all Christians no matter what the size of the loaf is or what it tastes like or looks like.  We partake in the bread of heaven together as a sign of our unity and belief that Jesus died, rose, and will come again, simply put.  But I think it’s more.

When we share in this bread we are saying to one another that I too have hungered in my life for love, for satisfaction, for acceptance, for sustainable living.  I, too, just want to be fed.  These are the basic needs that men and women in Botswana and Bridgeport, Algeria and Alabama, Saudi Arabia and South Dakota, Oklahoma and Orange yearn for.

And so how can we fill the needs of people who long for the same elements of life that we do?  What more can we do as a church and as individuals to help those who hunger?  The Confirmands and PFer’s learned about world hunger and sustainable living at Heifer Farm this weekend.  No human being should be hungry On. This. Earth.

Each moment, each new day births expectation for a fresh start at becoming who we are and for fulfilling our greatest potential to help others be fed.  When we take THIS bread we see the other and we strive to love the other and to feed the other because that is what Christ calls us to do.

The refrain from our final hymn manages to lift me up and remind me in a very joyful way of what this ‘Christianity thing’ is all about.  “Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the bread around, loaves abound.  With the light of Christ LOAVES DO ABOUND, there is bread enough for all.  Let’s put our heads together and figure it out.