Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Armistice at Our Table

Colossians 3: 12-17
The eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918 there was silence.  There was a temporary cessation of hostilities, an armistice,  between the Allied nations and Germany thus ending ‘The Great War’ or WWI.  Kurt Vonnegut speaks of this armistice in his book, “Breakfast of Champions”:

“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy… all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”[i]

In the silence of armistice, God speaks.

In fact it is in the sheer silence and cessation of embittered talk and battle that our still speaking God comes to us and utters words of hope and encouragement.

Our scripture this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  They too were a community in conflict, dispute and despair as is our nation.  Among them were doubters as to the efficacy of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  They wondered whether what was accomplished in Christ had actually liberated them from the powers of the universe since things pretty much were the same as usual.   They questioned whether or not Christ helped them achieve access to God.  Paul, in his inimitable way reassures them that they are loved and he tells them to be thankful because they ARE connected and that is through Christ.

Hear now the word of God through Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Ironically this passage is one of the passages that lovebird couples often choose as the scripture for their wedding homily.  What they don’t often know is the context in which it was written and what Paul was trying to accomplish within his community.  And I suppose that is ok because the essence of the passage speaks to how we are to treat one another regardless if we are a conflicted community or some star-crossed lovers. It’s good words and values for all times and circumstances.

Treat one another with compassion, which is to be kind and fair, and loving and forgiving, to show mercy, and to be as a conduit of God’s benevolent grace to others. And above all to clothe ourselves in love – not the syrupy, romantic, Hallmark sort of love but the kind of love that will roll up its sleeves and toil hard working through things when times get tough, as they are destined to do when in relationship.  Life, you know has its ups and downs as the familiar cliché reminds us, it’s disappointments and satisfactions.  And through all of this Paul encourages them to be thankful, to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.  Truly God was with them.

If ever there was a passage that is downright essential for our lives right now it is this one.  Because who among us has not been adversely affected in one way or another by negative political expression no matter if your candidate won or loss the election?  We are tired as a people.  This election and these weeks after have put a drain on us all.  I am weary and so very apprehensive about our future as a nation and as a people conceived in liberty and justice for ALL.

And so this passage is apropos for our nation divided right now too and for us as we sit down to our Thanksgiving tables - tables that have the potential for divisive talk, hard feelings about those we love and care about because of who they voted for, and potential potato slinging barbs.  Tables that could possibly turn into metaphorical food fights rather than a coming together to give thanks to God our creator of diverse thought, diverse skin color, diverse sexual orientation, diverse ethnicity, diverse religious affiliation and belief and diverse political party and opinion. 

Civil discourse has taken a turn for the worse.  Codes of conduct and the lines of mutual respect for others have been relaxed almost to the point of non-existence.  Where will we go as a people and as a nation if this continues? What will all of this do to our spiritual well-being if it continues?  How will we sit down at a table of Thanksgiving and look into the eyes of someone who, perhaps, thinks much differently than you? How will we ever find hope?

Do not despair, our country and our thanksgiving tables have survived the civil war, 2 world wars, the great depression and Vietnam and we will survive this tumultuous time too but undoubtedly will be changed.  So we have to work hard at civility, and the simplicity of kindness and fairness. It is the time to practice armistice.  To call for a cessation of damaging rhetoric and listen for that still small voice of God.  It is to focus on words that heal and strengthen us as families, as communities, as individuals and ultimately as a nation.  To bring out the flag of peace and call truce because it is in that truce, that armistice, a beautiful silence can be heard, when God comes to us and speaks words of wisdom and hope.  In this silence God’s spirit, the dove of peace infuses our hearts with faith, and resolve to form a ‘more perfect union’ as our constitution tells us.  A union based in love as we endeavor to love one another.

Let us remember what scripture tells us,…. clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 

Taking these words into your heart and remembering them will help you to achieve a bolder sense of civic engagement.  One that is not damaging but uplifting of all people for we live our lives in community and with others and our Christian heritage calls us to be harbingers of justice, peace, understanding, and acceptance.  

I leave you this morning with the few ending verses of Maya Angelou’s Inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”:

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
Into your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.[ii]
I give thanks for you and pray that your table of gratitude be blessed.


[i] Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1979.
[ii] Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning, The Inaugural Poem, January20, 1993.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Ready, Set, Come

2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17
It was October 30th, 1938 when Orson Welles presented ‘War of the Worlds’, an adaptation of the SciFi novel by HG Wells, on CBS’s Mercury Theater. 

I was not yet born so I don’t have first hand experience, maybe some of you do.  However I’ve heard about the widespread panic, the mass hysteria by folks who believed that there were major gas eruptions on the planet Mars and that the earth was being invaded by Martians.  I’ve listened to the broadcast.  It is clearly understandable that people thought this was the end of the world as they knew it if, in fact, they were being invaded by other beings from the third dimension.

Similarly, much further back when ancient people saw the consistently waxing and waning moon turn a crimson red, not knowing that it was a lunar eclipse, they thought that their world was coming to an end, that the gods must have been fiery mad at them.  It is scary when unusual, out of the ordinary occurrences happen and it’s even scarier when you are not emotionally or spiritually prepared.  That is, when your mind, your heart, and your soul are not in tact.

The end times, the parousia as Biblical scholars call it, the day of the Lord, the return of Jesus Christ has both frightened and fascinated people for a very long time.  Even back in the day when Paul, Silvanus and Timothy walked the earth some 25 years after Jesus’ death. 

The Epistle or letter of Second Thessalonians is written in the style of Paul but not by Paul according to scholars.  It’s a mere three chapters long and will leave you scratching your head and saying, ‘huh, what?’  And when I am left scratching my head I go to see how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in ‘The Message’.  Often he adds some clarity to a muddy and baffling passage.  So I want to read the passage to you from ‘The Message’. 

 1-3Now, friends, read these next words carefully. Slow down and don't go jumping to conclusions regarding the day when our Master, Jesus Christ, will come back and we assemble to welcome him. Don't let anyone shake you up or get you excited over some breathless report or rumored letter from me that the day of the Master's arrival has come and gone. Don't fall for any line like that.
 3-5Before that day comes, a couple of things have to happen. First, the Apostasy. Second, the debut of the Anarchist, a real dog of Satan. He'll defy and then take over every so-called god or altar. Having cleared away the opposition, he'll then set himself up in God's Temple as "God Almighty." Don't you remember me going over all this in detail when I was with you? Are your memories that short?
 13-14Meanwhile, we've got our hands full continually thanking God for you, our good friends—so loved by God! God picked you out as his from the very start. Think of it: included in God's original plan of salvation by the bond of faith in the living truth. This is the life of the Spirit he invited you to through the Message we delivered, in which you get in on the glory of our Master, Jesus Christ.
 15-17So, friends, take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high. Keep a tight grip on what you were taught, whether in personal conversation or by our letter. May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.

Quite simply put: Don’t get excited.  Don’t fall for rumors about when Christ will return.  Apostasy will happen, which is a rebellion against God and faith, then the anarchist, a ‘lawless’ one who will be the devil in disguise will have to appear.  (I know, that’s real scary – people upon hearing all of that might have panicked just like the people listening to the ‘War of the Worlds’)  Paul then gives thanks for the people that God chose to be included for salvation, he gives them a pep talk for strength and then he pronounces a blessing. 

Theology and understanding were quite different in the first century of the Common Era.  The disciples expected Jesus to come back within their lifetime.  The ‘day of the Lord’ was imminent; it was looming on the horizon.  They lived with Jesus, they watched Jesus die, they talked with him and saw him after his resurrection and so when Jesus said he would come again, they believed that he’d be back.  Right back.  Like maybe he was going on a trip for a few weeks and would return.  But that didn’t happen.  He didn’t return.  Their generation died, as did their children’s generation die. 

Theology and church doctrine began to change; it really had to because Jesus had not come back expectations had to change.  How do we understand his words in light of the fact that what he said and what we are experiencing are two different things?  Christianity, had to reorient itself and emerge into theology that offered hope for that glorious day when Jesus would return. 

We’ve changed as a people since then even more so.  We, at least I’ll speak for myself, do not live with that acute expectation of Jesus’ second coming.   It just doesn’t enter my mind on any regular basis.  We have become unworried, even complacent with this part of our Christian theology.  Yet it is an important component of our salvation for when the Messiah comes again all things that have crumbled will be restored, the lame will be wonderfully healed, the blind will be sighted again and peace will prevail.  How magnificent that day will be?  But that’s not our reality.

So in the meantime, how do we order our lives as if Jesus Christ was going to arrive tomorrow?  Would you have to change a few things in your life?    There is a bumper sticker and I think I’ve even seen it in magnet form that makes me laugh, it reads “Jesus is coming, look busy”.   It’s a reminder of his return.  To me it gives a sense of urgency when all along you’ve been slacking off a bit.  It’s kind of like a teenager who hears the door of her parent’s car slam shut and she jumps off of the sofa to straighten up quickly when she should have been cleaning all along, that was the one caveat to her staying at home for the night. 

I think it’s probably safe to say that at least sometime in your life, in some area of your life you have probably slacked off a bit.  I have to admit that since I don’t often think about Jesus’ second coming I wonder what would he find me doing?  Maybe I don’t try hard enough or I walk past someone who could use my help.  It not because I don’t care, but because I just wasn’t aware that the person needed help.  My eyes and heart were closed.  I try to live in the ways that he has taught; but let’s face it though being a disciple of Christ is hard work and we all are human. 

This tension that we are asked to live into.  How do we live in expectation of the second coming and also be about our work and our relationships at hand?  How do we live in the here and now with a sharp awareness of the end times without making ourselves completely crazy?  How would you like Jesus to find you if he were to come tomorrow or maybe even later this afternoon?

I believe that what matters most to Christ is that we are ourselves, that whatever we do we work towards developing our greatest potential - not anyone else’s and certainly not beyond your means or your talents.  Don’t be someone you are not, accept the someone that you are.  God has made you uniquely special and you are good and precious in God’s sight.  If you are working at your greatest capacity with an open mind and heart towards the future then God will use you in the most miraculous of ways and the most opportune times.  Then you will be ‘looking busy’ if Christ comes today, there is nothing to panic about.

I also believe and know that Christ wants us to love God with all of our heart.  Love God.  Worship God. Pray to God.  If you are at odds with God, to know that God will still love you dearly and want you.  Christ also tells us to love our neighbor.  This might be a little tougher yes?  But if we live each day at hand with an awareness of the lives of other people, their needs, their wants, their God given abilities too then what might begin as mere tolerance could grow into a mutual respect for the other. 

Let us live as if Christ were coming tomorrow.  Be at peace with yourself.  Reconcile relationships, even your relationship with God.  Go about your business of lifting up each person that you encounter, even the crusty ones.  Do some good.  Resist the bad.  Rest assured that God’s promise of mercy and grace are yours for the taking.


Go and Do the Same

Luke 10: 25-37
The week before Stewardship Sunday, which is today, is the traditional day for me to give ‘The Money Sermon’.  By next week it will be to late because I sincerely hope that you will take this week to prayerfully and earnestly consider the financial gift that you can make for 2017.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We have for our scriptural consideration today the beloved parable of the Good Samaritan, which is what our Stewardship Season has been based on.  Let us now hear this enduring parable from the Gospel of Luke the 10th chapter – the Contemporary English Version.

An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”

The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”

Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.” But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

Jesus replied:
As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.
A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.
A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”
Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

I’d like for us to think about this parable the way in which the Christians of the first century would probably have understood it because I think over the years, the millennia we have glossed over the poignancy of the message of this parable. In context the Greco-Roman listeners understood Jesus’ parables as allegory about God: one character in the story represented God and events in the story pointed toward our rebellion, divine judgment, or God’s forgiveness.[i]  Jesus always wanted them to know about God all of the time.  He never pointed to himself but only to God.

In the Lukan narrative, showing mercy, compassion and giving of oneself is a divine privilege and so the Samaritan, who showed mercy for the man in the ditch, is acting in God’s capacity or as God’s agent.  So if God is the fine Samaritan then this is a parable about God and God’s compassionate acts of love.  And for us it is a call from Jesus to be Godly compassionate in our actions.  Not because it just feels good to be doing nice things for others but because more urgently we are acting on God’s behalf which is serious business, not our own.  Because it’s just what God would do.

So when Jesus says, ‘Go and do the same’, he is challenging them, and now us, to be agents of love and compassion for God in all situations, because that’s what God would do in ALL circumstances.  Acting on God’s behalf is weighty and mighty work, so there are choices to make and this ancient story becomes a mighty call upon our lives.

In this parable there are so many ways in which God’s compassion becomes real.  The Samaritan man showed compassion by stopping and being present to someone quite different than himself.  He showed compassion by bandaging his wounds and using his own donkey to transport the man to shelter.  He stayed with him and he provided for this man’s needs and then, through his compassion, he promised to return and to pay for whatever this man’s needs were while he was gone.  The Samaritan man gave compassionately, in all ways, of himself, his time, and his financial resources.  It came from his heart.  Might we ‘Go and do the same’?

Today’s worship is about the church, OCC in particular. It’s about the saints of the church who have acted on God’s behalf witnessing of their love of God and their dedication to all aspects of the church.  It’s an important day as we honored the saints who have gone before us and as we honor the newest members of OCC and respectfully and lovingly honor all of the current members and friends. 

I have been so moved by the incredible stories that have been told over the past six weeks during our Candles of Witness time.  I hope that you have been as well.  They have been powerful stories of faith, of witness, of compassion, and of how OCC has made a difference in their lives and of how God’s abiding compassion is always with us.

George talked about Pauline and her unassuming financial generosity to the church. As a trustee it moved him to realize how spiritually important it is being a good steward of other people’s resources is and of how one woman, the tiny one that she was, sowed compassion in her life.  Go and Do the Same!

Terry told us about when she first came to OCC and was greeted warmly by someone in the congregation, a time in which she still remembers and that she endeavors to do now for others as an usher and deacon – knowing that hospitality, like Christ’s extravagant welcome makes a difference.  We experience God’s love through others and OCC is that beacon of God’s love.  Go and Do the Same!

Chrissy told us the story of lemon cake and of serving men and women at Columbus House and how one woman was ecstatic that she had brought lemon cake.  Chrissy, by her work through CS&O and example hopes that her love of service and the simplicity in the act of giving something even as insignificant as lemon cake is passed on to her children.  Go and Do the Same!

Renee is inspired by the shared faith stories of congregants offered during Lent.  The first time there was just a handful but the last time it was offered there was standing room only.  That’s the incredible redeeming power of witness.  We all have a story of faith to tell, and each one is unique, beloved,  and inspiring. Renee knows that through her work with adult education.  Go and Do the Same!

Lauri shared a reflection of a powerful time when she knew and felt that God was with her.  She recently lived through what could have been a fatal accident.  But she knew God was with her, that God was watching out for her and for all people involved in the accident.  She knows first hand of God’s abiding love, strength, presence and compassion.  That’s what moves her to work with our children, she wants to instill that knowledge of God and compassionate belief in them.  Go and Do the Same!

Chris too witnessed the love of God through other congregants particularly Ernie Moritz who reached out to her and Ron during a difficult time in their lives.  That’s compassionate, Christian community folks, at it’s very best.   Chris’ all encompassing love of others and of God is expressed for her through her love for music.  Each note she sings is a gift to God of thanksgiving and community.  Go and Do the Same!

And finally Bev.  Bev fully admits that she had a fear of serving the folks at Columbus House when she was on CS&O – seeing them face to face. Why?  Well we don’t know and that’s not what is important here.  What is important is that when the metal door was raised to feed the residents, so was Bev.  She saw face to face – she saw the face of Christ in others and those just like herself.  It was her ‘aha’ moment of compassion and grace. This is why she does the work that she does here at OCC through Stewardship.  She knows that WE are the real deal and she wants to keep the momentum going.  Go.  And Do The Same!

It’s up to us now.  Will we, will you Go and Do the Same?  Jesus talked often about financial matters and we need to do the same.  Making a financial pledge or gift, whatever the size allows the Candles of Witness stories emerge and be told.  Might they happen otherwise?  Well yes.  Where there is spiritual work to be done, God has a way.  But what good are inspiring stories of compassion unless they are told?  Unless they are shared among friends and kindred spirits? 

OCC needs your financial gift to allow for God’s work to be done.  Each and every gift, whatever the size, is a way of encouraging each other in the Spirit and supporting the greater community just as the kind and generous Samaritan did so long ago. 

Please take some time this week to pray and to think about your gift.  I have already done so.  Next week we will bring forward and dedicate our gifts to the glory of God.  May the compassionate acts of the Samaritan saturate your thoughts, the stories of faith and witness so told inspire your giving so that you can Go and Do the Same.  And may God’s grace infuse your life and the life of this beloved community that we call home.


[i] “Hearing Parables with the Early Church” in The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. 2006. Kruschwitz, Robert

Doing Our Best

2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
You may or may not remember that shortly after I came Carol T got sick once again.  We had many good conversations getting to  know one another covering topics from kids to grandkids, from cowboy boots to birds.  As her life came near to the end we had a conversation about her memorial service – not something everyone is willing to do.  But not Carol!  She was very clear on a several hymns and anthems to be sung and several scriptural pieces to be read.  Today’s passage is one of them and in fact, the one in which I based my reflection.  It was one of Carol’s favorites and when I hear these words I think of her.

Written in the Apostle Paul’s name, the passage for reflection today is written to Timothy to encourage him, to not give up, to endure faithfully as Paul had to the end.  Hear now these words of encouragement.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory 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 and they 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 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, to live by 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?  That we just made it to the end being the best that we could be?

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 early belief in Christ was really difficult and it 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’ and unheard of 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 what’s important.  What’s important here is he started and finished the race, completion is key.  We always think that winning is the goal but it’s not.  It’s first having the courage to start the race to begin with! Not all people do.  I think first time bold 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.  Once after his conversion experience he knew how he wanted to live his life to the end.   And that was following Jesus and telling his story of transformation.

We wrestle daily don’t we?  There is some sort of fight that we have to face and to struggle with each day.   And if not a fight, a difficulty that holds us back from living fully into who we are and what brings us joy deep down in our hearts.  Life is never easy, there is no guarantee that life will be lollipops and roses.  As I look at my newborn grandbaby I know that all the hopes and dreams of this world are upon him and he has great potential.  But I also know that there will be disappointments in life for little Beau. I wish it were different but it isn’t.  There will always be some obstacle in our way.  At times those obstacles are rather small like Stop N Shop being out of chocolate chips just when you had a hankering for and the time to bake cookies.  And sometimes obstacles are gigantic; they are the fight of our lives. 

Once when I was doing chaplaincy work at YNHH I was with a man 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 there wasn’t much time at all.  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.

My friends, it’s not about winning the race, it’s about completing the race.  How do you want to complete your life?  How do you want to live your days, however many you may have?   You don’t have to wait until your days are numbered to live into your fullest.  The time is here and the time is now.  Today is a given, tomorrow is not.  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, they say, it’s a marathon that we need to complete.  So develop your lives 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’.  After the day you were born God said, ‘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.”


Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Heart Embossed

Jeremiah 31: 27-34
A.  Grey’s Anatomy
I’m a Grey’s Anatomy fan.  I look forward to the television show each week like it’s a matter of life and death; if not mine it’s always someone whose life is on the brink of death.  The storyline takes place at Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital in Seattle, Washington with a group of curious characters, one whom is Meredith Grey.  Its steamy romantic plotlines of the residents, doctors and interns interplay with emergencies and life threatening medical maladies.

There was an episode a while back where an elderly woman was admitted to Grey-Sloan who was in the active process of dying.  But she had a pacemaker though that kicked in overtime when the rest of her body really wanted to go.  Her family said she had been knocking on death’s door often in the last year and each time her niece and two nephews would gather by her bedside; they were her only family. Somehow though she would pull through, and they were getting annoyed with this pattern.

So when the woman was being examined by the doctor this time they wanted to know if she was going to die immediately and if not immediately, would it be in the next 24 hours; one had a very important board meeting to attend.  They all had more important things to do.  They were cold and, it seemed unsympathetic and callous. They explained that she had ‘pulled’ this so often that they were tired with all these false alarms. You could tell by the doctor’s faces that they thought the three of them were heartless.  The niece explained that they had been through this before and that their old auntie always pulled through.  Her ‘almost dying’ was a recurring annoyance in their lives.

Then the woman coded again and the intern tried to revive her with cardio conversion, or the shock paddles.  It didn’t work and the woman showed all signs of dying but the intern was confused because on the cardiac monitor the woman’s heart continued to beat.  The family wanted to know, is she dead or is she alive?  With that a doctor comes in and electronically stopped the pacemaker and pronounced her officially, unequivocally gone. 

The camera panned to the family.  You could see that they were grieved.  Tears came to the eyes of the niece, the one nephew drew closer to his aunt and took her hand and the one who had that important board meeting to attend, he asked if they could stay longer and have some alone time with the woman. 

Their exterior actions and words from before did not convey the inner workings or feelings of their hearts.  Their self indulgent behavior overrode the great possibility of empathic love.  They had lost their way, and lost sight of the important things and people that make this life worth living.  In the end though, the love that they really did have for their aunt was displayed.  Their inner heart was exposed for all to see.

B.  The Heart
The heart is one of the vital organs of the human body if not THE most vital organ for without our tickers, we don’t tick, it grants us life.  It takes in de-oxygenated blood, swishes it around and sends it to the lungs.  It receives oxygenated blood from the lungs and sends it out to the far reaches of our bodies.  The heart is a work of magnificent art.

Healthy hearts keep on beating like a clock ticking the minutes away.  Pacemakers, procedures and medication keep not so healthy hearts beating at consistent intervals.  But the regularity of the beat doesn’t regulate our emotion or what’s going on inside of us. 

So the human heart has another vital function.  It is the place where our emotions take up residence.  All of them.  Love, joy, empathy, sympathy and their evil counterparts, hate, greed, or jealousy.  Our hearts are regular emotion machines!

It’s no wonder that it is here in this very spot, on this critical organ of the human body that God puts the covenant of law and life, “I will put my law within them, I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they will be my people”.   God embosses their hearts with hope and truth.

C.  Jeremiah and the Israelites
Jeremiah, in last weeks lesson, came to the exiled people and told them to settle in, that it’s going to be a long, long time before they were going to be able to go home again. And so they did and many years passed.  But then Jeremiah’s oracles changed from doom and gloom to redemption and hope.  Restoration is promised.

So it is here that God says to Jeremiah, ‘the days are surely coming’, meaning not quite yet but in the not so distant future I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  This covenant is not going to be like the other one, which, by the way, they broke (a divine dig, right?!).  No, say’s God, I’ll write it on their hearts that I will be their God and they will be my people.  I’ll forgive them and let bygones be bygone.  God is ready to forgive and forget.

AS compelling and oddly dreamy as it may sound this God writing the covenant on their hearts, the people didn’t open up their hearts.  The Israelites weren’t asking for a new covenant, they didn’t so much even care or pay attention to the old one, the ones written in tablets of stone.  And that was just the point. 

They had turned away from God on many occasions.  God was frustrated and tired of their misbehavin’.  So as Walter Brueggeman points out, this new covenant was given by God without warning or explanation.  God is determined to have a relationship with the Israelites and will do whatever it takes.  Even if it means unsolicited, prehistoric invasive ‘surgery’ on the most important organ of the human body.

It’s not an external covenant like the rainbow or the tablets of commandments but it’s an internal covenant inscribed upon their hearts.  They won’t be able to turn away from my rainbow, or say that the tablets are too heavy or inconvenient to carry around, says God.  No.  It’s within.  I will be YOUR God and you will be my people, all people, this covenant is for everybody.  The people now have the love of God, but as covenants go, they too have some responsibility in this relationship.  They need to turn from their old ways and embrace new ones.

D.  Matters of the Heart
You’ve got to hand it to God and those divine brains. Looks like God is always learning how to deal with us humans.   Sticking the covenant where it matters the most, where the people just can’t get away from it is pretty ingenious!

While we might want to romanticize this passage there is an edge to it that we must have a look at.  As we accept the love of God we also must accept God’s will within us.  We are no longer left to decide what’s right and wrong for ourselves but we now make those decisions in tandem with God and the intention of God for us.  That’s the nature of covenant.  Not our will but your will Holy One we pray that each time the words of the Lord’s Prayer seep out of our mouths like the nieces and nephews on Grey’s Anatomy.  We too must turn from our self serving ways so that we can envision what God’s intention might be for us and for those around us by our words and actions.

Words and actions have been on my mind a lot lately.  This has been a rough election season, I don’t have to tell you that.  While, by law, I am not allowed to endorse a political candidate or party from the pulpit it does not prevent me from commenting on social or political issues or the rhetoric, fervor and vehemence of the campaign season because to me it has become heartless.

Do not wonder why bullying is on the rise.  Name-calling and racial epithets whether in the workplace, on the playground, in the cyber-world are becoming the norm for our living rather than the exception of some misinformed, heartless, prejudiced person or two.

Do not wonder why women starve themselves to ‘look good’ or have so much surgery that they no longer look like themselves.  Beautiful women, created in God’s image, have been given all sorts of messages that they are not good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough.

And this needs to stop.    

No one should use their power and or their wealth over another person especially with the intent to harm that person or to make the gap between the rich and poor, male and female, gay or straight, black, Latino or white even larger than it already is.  God gave us creative, inventive minds and we need to use them for the good of the common weal. God created us with free will so the choices we (Christians) make should reflect at all times the essence of the Gospel.

The Gospel is seeped with ways to live ethically and responsibly toward our brothers and our sisters. Please don’t get this confused with the Christian right’s agenda of restoring the country to ‘Christian’ values, it’s not that – Good ethics are good ethics, plain and simple.  Christians don’t have a corner on that market!  Good ethics have been around long before this country was founded and way before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John put their pens to papyrus.

Making decisions for Election Day
So how do we understand all of this through a Gospel lens with Election Day rapidly approaching? I believe in the right of each individual to use their creative, God given talents and minds.  I believe in the Gospel and the ways in which its ethics play a role in our lives and in our lives as the body politic. 

Here are some questions to ponder as you formulate or maybe rethink the candidates that you want to elect: Which candidate pays the most attention to the ethics that the gospel espouses?  That is, which candidate will advocate for all people, for those with means and for those without means?  Which candidate will not be persuaded by special interest groups but will raise up all people for fair wages, affordable health care, safe environmental stewardship, and access to top-notch education for our children?   The Gospels are about equity and justice. Don’t be discouraged, don’t ring your hands and don’t point your fingers.  You need to think and to pray, to use your reason and your intellect and to apply ethical thinking in your decision making and indeed in all of your living.

Fortunately we are not alone in making these tough decisions.  God is always with us remember, I will be your God and you will be my people.  The fact is, the heart IS the best place that God has chosen to impress upon us the steadfast covenant of love and law; you need to look no further than within.


Seeds of Faith

Luke 17: 5-10

When I was a child I used to own a pendant that was a small glass sphere about the diameter of a dime.  Inside of the glass sphere was a mustard seed.  This mustard seed was to remind me of faith and how if I had even one mustard seed size amount of faith, I could do anything.  Well somewhere along the way the pendant went missing along with my fancy doll collection, a stuffed animal from my dad and my Barbie doll that I loved.  My faith however did not go missing.

Years later a friend and I were going through a pretty tough time teaching a diversity class.  The mix of students didn’t gel, the curriculum didn’t fit and we were at our wits end.   One day she gave me a pendant unlike the other in many ways but like the other in that it had a mustard seed.  She said to me, ‘I thought we needed a little boost of faith’.  Indeed she was right!  I needed a boost and all it took was encouragement, and seeing the mustard seed to remind me that God was in charge, just have faith.  Well the students didn’t change but we adjusted the curriculum, and finished the class celebrating our accomplishment of just making it through.  

As you might guess our scripture for reflection today comes from Luke 17 and it is the parable of the mustard seed.  But it is followed up with another parable that will give us pause and so we will examine both of theses parables in context.  Hear now Luke 17: 5-10.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Remember now, both of these parables are a response to the disciples burning request to ‘increase their faith’.  What we need to understand is why did they ask for increased faith?  What’s the urgent rush for more faith for them?  Well just before that in verses 1-4 Jesus warns them that ‘occasions for stumbling will abound’ and ‘woe’ to them. 

He says if your brother sins you must reprimand him and if that brother repents you must forgive.  And, if that same brother sins against you seven times a day, and repents seven times a day, then you must forgive seven times a day.  Well now that would get trying having to forgive someone seven times or more a day, that’s a tall order.  I think that I, too, would get perturbed at having to forgive someone seven times a day, my patience would wear real thin like the heal of a well worn sock, and my faith might falter a bit.

The life of discipleship or following Jesus is demanding at best and so the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  In essence they are saying, help us Lord we don’t know if we we’re cut out for this discipleship thing so please deepen our faith.  So Jesus, true to form, answers them with two parables, one of the mustard seed and one of the worthless slave.  Following Jesus is just not for the faint of heart, and hearing his parables is sometimes like hearing fingernails scratch a blackboard.

But first about the mustard seed.  It’s pretty small, if you had faith just that teeny tiny amount you could rearrange the landscape!  Luke says that you could replant mulberry trees in the sea and if we were to look at this parable in Matthew it says you could move mountains with just a thimbleful of faith.  (Matt 17:20)  That’s pretty amazing.  But we have to be careful here; faith is not quantifiable.  It would take a supernatural power to accomplish these things or some hocus pocus.   You just can’t measure your life in Christ by the amount of faith you do or do not have.  

The parable of the mustard seed not a ‘prosperity gospel’ that televangelists preach about, that if you believe in your goals and have faith in God you’ll be able to accomplish them because God is so awesome that God wants everyone happy, healthy and wealthy.  We have to be careful in our interpretation.   

This parable is a reminder to do big things with limited resources that we might have.  You know great things have been done by people with very little, who believed in a dream and had faith.  Anglican priest and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu is one such person and he changed the landscape of South Africa.  Educated in mission schools he wanted a medical career but when his family couldn’t afford it he went into teaching.  That later led to his theological training and deep held beliefs in human dignity and rights for all people no matter the color of your skin. 

He held a fearless stance in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime and maintained a nonviolent approach as the path to liberation for the South African blacks.  Remarkable accomplishments from a man of humble beginnings, a dream and a little faith!  So far so good with Jesus’ parable about faith.

Now let’s turn our attention to the second parable that Jesus told the disciples as a response to “Increase our faith.”  This parable is about the underappreciated slave or servant.  Now this is or should be a very large obstacle for us of contemporary culture and faith.  It is perplexing and prickly because slavery pierces the soul of America and we have strived to rid ourselves of our uncomfortable past.  But we can never really rid ourselves of it; it is our history and we can only accept it as fact and then transition to a better way of life because we know that slavery is inhuman and inappropriate.

This is the chasm that exists between the first century and the twenty-first century and us trying to figure out what is going on.  This is why this parable is jarring and to understand slavery in the context of our text is essential.  Just as we need to understand the context of the 6 scripture passages that, on first glance, seem to condemn homosexuality, we need to understand why Jesus would use a slave (or servant) as an answer to ‘Increase our faith’.

Then people worked as servants or slaves before becoming free, it was the norm and not the exception, and hierarchy was monumental to an ordered way of life.  Masters would expect their servants to perform duties and servants would expect that, when their hard work is done, they would receive nourishment and rest.  Slaves were to put their needs on the back burner in order to serve their master.  And when they have served their master they would have done their duty just as when we serve God we will have done our duty as faithful disciples.

Let me say that I do not support structures of oppression in any way, shape, or form.  But to glean from this parable a useful word then we work with what we have in front of us and understand this slave-master thing as communal relationship.

So we look at the entire passage to gain some understanding.  We are to not cause anyone to stumble and we are to forgive those who offend us.  We are to exercise our faith and to be a disciple who does one’s duty.

Jesus is talking about the life of a disciple.  And that is to be in community with others who love God and want to serve God and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  Faith here is less about personal fortitude and more about mutual forbearance because we know that to be in Christian community is not always easy.  It’s got its ups and downs.  How might we, as a community of believers be loving, forgiving, and more caring towards one another?  How might we, together ask God to ‘increase our faith’ so that when times get tough we can tough it out together? 

Faith is a way of life.   It’s about serving and being served in our commonality and our love of God.  It’s about having faith that we can do a lot with so very little all for the good of humankind.