October 14th, 2018 – Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost

Invocation Prayer:

Lord of light and hope, be with us this day as we have gathered to hear your word.  Help us open our hearts to the commandments to love, even when loving is difficult.  Help us to be open to your call to care, when caring is a challenge.  Help us to be generous, even when giving of ourselves feels impossible.  Grant us the courage to be a people who will commit their whole lives to your service and to your glory.  God of Community, Holy in One, hear us as we pray…

 

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 8: 10-18 & Ephesians 4: 1-24

Sermon:  “Trees, Time, Talent and Treasure”

In my teenage years I was part of a club swim team. I was a proud St. Johns Sea Lion!  It took me a while to figure this out… but I was, and remain to this day, a fairly pathetic swimmer.  I can swim.  But just definitely not fast… The thing that I was especially bad at was getting off the block.

Every race I would step up to the diving block with an expert confidence- so poised, and I’d take my mark in perfect form and in total concentration, but as soon as the buzzer sounded I would dive straight out like a frog, limbs splayed in a sort of half dive, half belly flop position into the pool. It was this unique straight out and then straight down kind of plummet while frozen in frog position… So, of course I would sink and have to recover in the water to rebuild all of the momentum that I lost.  Sadly there are picture of this… My coaches, bless them, stayed after practice dozens of time attempting to correct my dive to little avail… 

I have this keepsake box of all of my childhood metals and school certificates. And if you were to look in there you would find a really thick stack of rainbow tie-dye color participation ribbons from my years on the swim team. They affirm the fact that I tried.

I loved swimming! I did! But I was terrible at it!

Well, every October I get that feeling again, like I’m 14 years old crouched on the diving block listening for the sound of that buzzer- feeling prepared. But rather than looking out on the water and the bobbing lane markers -I am looking out at the flood of holidays that await me.  A very different kind of race.

Soon the buzzer will sound and I’ll be diving into costumes and candy, diving into whirlwind trips to make hand turkeys with my niece and nephew. I’ll be diving into a mountain of wrapping paper, and craft projects, and twinkle lights, and shopping!  O’ the shopping, shopping, shopping…

As prepared as I try to be every year for this long marathon of holidays and family “get-togethers”… if history is to repeat itself as it faithfully does …I know that this is going to be another flailing financial belly-flop situation… 

I, together with the whole of America it seems, will issue a groan of defeat as I check my account balances on January 1st. 

I wish they still issued rainbow tie-dyed participation ribbons to adults… something like: “Good job trying to stay on budget!”

This happens every year!  I set aside a little money, and time, and energy for gifts and travels… but I get swept up in the fun and the joy of the race and I just stop caring… even if my credit card and my day planner begins to smoke a little.  Then I’m left to try and regain momentum and control in the middle of the race… Anybody else have this struggle?

Here are some fun (and rather shaming…) statistics for us this morning:

– Last year Americans spent $370 million on pet costumes. (I contributed to that, Brewster makes an adorable Robin Hood- with his little feathered hat and bow and arrow quiver) and we spend $2.8 billion on Halloween candy.

– Americans also spent $5 billion annually on ring tones, and spent $117 billion on fast-food.

– When gyms set sales goals for the New Year they do so with the expectation that only 18% of those who purchase annual memberships will show up to work out.

– Approximately $2 billion worth of gift cards go unredeemed each year.

– And here is the biggy:  Collectively Americans owe over $800 billion in credit-card debit.  And given that the average credit card interest rate is between 13% and 15%… we don’t even have to do the math to know that debt is big business.  

Now let’s put that into greater context:

According to the Human Development Report that is issued annually by the United Nations, in 2016:

– 1.2 billion people attempt to live on less than $1.25 per day. They note that this kind of poverty is accompanied by additional deprivations like: lowered health and life expectancy, inconsistent access to education, and far substandard living conditions.  

– The eighty-five wealthiest people in the world have the combined equivalent wealth of the 3.5 billion poorest people on the planet.  

– Also, the Worldwatch Institute reports that the United States represents a little less than 5% of the global population yet consumes 25% of the world’s fossil-fuel resources.  Each day the US consumes on average 18.5 million barrels of oil.  China comes in second at nearly 10 million barrels per day (keep in mind that China has four times the US population).  And the 203 countries at the bottom of the consumption ranking use less than 500 barrels per day.  

-Lastly, Americans generate about 251 million tons of trash per year, that is 4.38 pounds per person per day.  

We are a consuming culture!  We are a rampantly consuming culture. 

And the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has a lot to say about that.  

One of the earliest stories of Scripture is that of Cain and Able.  Remember them? Children of Adam and Eve. Cain murders his brother.  And God comes to Cain and asks him “Where is Able?”  And Cain, rather snippy like replied, “I don’t know!  Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)  And while God does not directly answer this rhetorical kind of question, God does nevertheless make it blatantly clear that the only acceptable answer is “yes!” 

I think it would be a good bet to say that we too are guilty of this.  Not of murdering our brothers.  But we are guilty of ignoring this directive. 

Yet, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Americans consume the majority of the world’s resources and in turn that we litter it with the majority of its trash.  We cannot turn a blind eye to global (and local) disparities of wealth and opportunity… we cannot ignore the face that our culture of self-indulgence does little to alleviate the suffering and oppression of our brothers and sisters.

“We are our brother’s keeper.”

We cannot, cannot, continue to ignore that our spending testifies to our understanding of God and our relationship to God.  The flow of our resources is the truest indicator of what we worship and whom we worship.

Tim Keller, used this example: If you went to the doctor one day, and you went for a sort of general appointment wanting to improve your health, and you said, “Doctor I feel terrible. I’m tired all the time. I’m constantly getting sick. Can you help me?” The doctor would respond, “Yeah, but your going to have to tell me everything. You need to talk to me about how you’re sleeping, how your eating, about life’s stressors. Are you content at work? How’s your family life?”

And we say, “Woe woe woe, wait. You’re a doctor. Give me a physical check up. I don’t want to tell you about things that aren’t your business. I don’t want to tell you about my stress, or my work, or my family drama. You need to just deal with the health of my body… that’s your job.”

But to that the doctor would have to say, “Listen, I’m sorry, but those things are all connected. You can’t just break your life apart. You have to bring all of that to the table if we are going to talk about bettering your health. … The mind, the body, the soul. They are all connected.”

And in the same way, God says, “You come to me and you want meaning, your want renewal, healing, strength… forgiveness! Then you have got to let me talk to you about this stuff too.  The hard stuff.  We need to talk about how your spend your money, how you use or waste your time, we need to talk about the things that pull your focus away from me.  Because it is all connected.”  

The passage from Ephesians that Virginia read for us this morning talks about how we as Christians “put off our old selves and put on a new identity.”  Paul writes that while preaching that the culture of the world, the way of the gentiles, is futile/vain and ignorant… Paul says that it is a way of hardened hearts, one that is greedy and consumed with the self… But that the Body of Christ is to live a different way/ that Christians are to stand in contrast and model a new way of living.  

Paul tells us that we are not children to be tossed to and fro by the waves of what is fleeting. 

So, what does it look like to stand in contrast to a consumerist kind of world?

Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.”

From our Old Testament reading, Deuteronomy 8:18, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who give you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”

so, again, what does it look like to stand in contrast to a consumerist kind of world?

It’s good godly stewardship.  (Which I put the definition of in your bulletin hand out.)  Stewardship is receiving God’s gifts gratefully, cherishing and tending them in a responsible and accountable manner, sharing them in justice and love with others, and returning them with increase to the Lord.  Stewardship is a complete lifestyle of accountability and responsibility acknowledging God as the Creator and owner of all.  

We are called to be a people who care.  

Now, being good stewards, is what we would call a spiritual disciple.  It is not something that is mastered in a moment, but it is something that we faithfully work at and grow into throughout our whole lives. It is something that we learn as children around a jar of change poured out on the floor… wondering what we could do with those riches.  Being responsible and accountable to what God gives us… that is a big deal. 

God has blessed us mightily.  We have comfortable homes and good jobs.  Loving and challenging families.  We live in one of the most beautiful area of the country. We have a wonderful meeting house that is open to this charming and often odd community. 

We are to receive these things with open hands and open hearts!  We are to praise God with the joy that they bring to us!  But to be good stewards we are not to stop there… but we are to work towards their betterment and growth. 

Practically, this means that:

We are to care about the concerns and sufferings of our neighbor… and to do what we can to help with what we have.  For we are our brother’s keeper.

We are to care about the earth and her resources… to think twice about what we throw in the garbage, to be mindful of wastefulness and to seek ways to live more sustainably.  For we are this garden’s tenders.

We are to care about and nurture our own abilities/ our spiritual gifts… For to use our gifts to further the Kingdom of God is an act of worship. 

Tereasa of Avila said:

Christ has no body but yours, 

No hands, no feet on earth but yours, 

Yours are the eyes with which he looks,

Compassion on this world, 

Yours are the feet, with which he walks to do good, 

Your are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

And if I may add… Christ has no wallet or time on earth but ours either. 

We are responsible and accountable to how we use all of that: our labor and our resources. 

This week, I want you all to carefully consider this. This week I want you to examine your budgets and your calendars.  

These are the two main currencies in our lives: time and money.  And what we do with both is very revealing.  They will tell you who and what you worship.  

They are theological documents.  Ones of our own making, formed through years of practice. 

When you are looking at them, ask yourselves:

How am I spending my money?  My time?

Am I being a good steward of both, being held responsible/ accountable?

Also, for a does of perspective… I included in your bulletin the address for the Global Rich List. It will tell you exactly where you sit in comparison to the world’s wealth.  I’m not going to tell you where I’m at now  (because you all know what I make… and I want you to do this for yourselves… but when I was in seminary and working 25 hours a week for $8/ hour as an office assistant I was the 697,254,427th richest person on the planet.

This will really give you something to think about as we wonder what it is to be our brother’s keeper. 

Through the rest of October we are going to be talking about acting with intention.  Being thoughtful and decisive disciples with our resources- our time, our talents, and our treasures.  To prepare for that: this week, I just encourage you to figure out what stewardship looks like in your life right now.  

– If you open your checkbook/ or your online banking app – what does it say you worship? 

– There are now apps on your phone that will calculate how much screen time you having every day – check it out.

– think about the little moments… how is your time adding up – because how you spend your moments is how you spend your life.

– where are you offering your passions, gifts and talents… are they the right places for you/ for now? 

– what are you doing to be your brother’s keeper?  What are you blessing forward from your income?  Is it right, is it good?  Perhaps in your homework/ your reflection you can identify areas that need a closer look… and we will walk on together from that place.  Amen.

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September 30th, 2018 – Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Getting Out Of The Way

Mark 9: 38-50

Opening Prayer: God of what is seen and what is unseen, we live in a world of dichotomies.  A world of right and wrongs… up and downs… his way or mine… sometimes discernment/wisdom is messy.  God walk with us, through it all.  Help us to be a people of clarity, standing on the side of the oppressed/ on the side of justice/ on the side of the peaceable kingdom of God.  Lord, breath your lesson and value into this time of sermon.  Might we hear from you.  Use my words and make them yours.  Redeem this message for your glory.  Amen.  

 

Sermon: In the X-Men series, the two main adversaries, Professor Xavier and Magneto, while they are adversaries, they are also close friends.  They both fight for the rights of their people (mutants – those who have made evolutionary leaps and have developed extraordinary powers), but they fight this fight in very different ways.  For most, Professor Xavier is the “good guy” and the hero of the series.  However, the more you learn about the state of mutants and the more you learn about Magneto himself, the question of who is the “good guy”/ and who is a “bad guy” becomes less clear.  

Both want the same thing — a world where mutants are accepted members of society who can live without fear. The two just have different ideas of how to achieve this end.

Xavier strongly believes that the only way to live peacefully – mutant and human side by side- is to show that while mutants may sometimes look different, that they are still human beings. He believes that aggression only serves to escalate confrontations. Through the X-Men (Professor Xavier’s colorful cast of Superheroes/students) while they often use their powers in combat, they do so almost solely against other powered beings or as a last resort against humans.

To Magneto, the only way to fight human aggressors/ to fight systematic persecution… is with a show of forceful power. If someone throws a bottle at a mutant, that mutant should throw a car at the human. It isn’t that Magneto wants to subjugate the human race, but he sees no reason to suffer/ to withstand/ to tolerate a single abuse when his power and those of his brethren can put an immediate stop to an act of hatred against mutants.  He has a very low tolerance for mutant discrimination.

Both Magneto and Professor Xavier’s common philosophy and split methodology can be traced to their beginnings. Professor Xavier was raised in a nurturing household, his power wasn’t one that he wore on his sleeves- so he could easily hide his telepathic power.  He excelled scholastically, partly because of his powers.  He enjoyed a privileged/wealthy life without any dark incidents that really broke his hope, he never really had a chance growing up to see the duplicitous nature of mankind.  So he grew up to be a passificist, a diplomat, an advocate.  And later reflecting on his safe upbringing – where he could be himself/ where he could be celebrated… he set himself to creating environments like that for other mutants. He built a school to house to educate persecuted mutant kids that has no other place to go.

Magneto, on the other hand, grew up fast in a concentration camp.  A jew, born Erik Magnus Lehsherr, he was meant to die in Auschwitz.   He stood with his parents as they were shot and killed.  The Nazis, seeing a weak little boy, didn’t want to waste a bullet on him, so they just tossed him in the pit of the dead.  He lived, but was nevertheless brought back to Auschwitz.  Magneto’s experience, shaped his philosophy- he swore never again to stand idly by as those who were “different” were murdered.  Sometimes Magneto’s actions and agenda feel easy to condemn, but it isn’t easy to deny the emotional underpinnings of his harsh stance. 

The X-Men world, obviously being a comic book series… brings a lot of combat to the table.  Magneto has his Brotherhood of evil Mutants (seriously that is what they are called) and Professor Xavier with the X-Men are constantly foiling each other’s efforts as they seek a world where mutants can be accepted and equal to non-mutants as citizens and human beings. 

In this extraordinary setting, something that I find fascinating and so human… is that while Professor Xavier wants to teach his students to live side-by-side with humans in peace… he keeps them sheltered. Xavier seems so afraid that should his students be exposed to Magneto’s aggressive agenda and be exposed to the messy nature of humanity… be exposed to abuse or scorn… that they might abandon his peaceful philosophy.  And out of the fear (which may be valid) he tends to manipulate situations and environments according to his agenda of peace.  While Professor Xavier peached communion, he practiced exclusion. 

And while Magneto had a violent agenda and way about him, he also provided a landing place for an anger and societal frustration that would exist with or without him.  He gave the mad a outlet for their outrage.  

Professor X has a surprising arrogance to him.

Magneto has a surprising humility to him.

And yet, they were friends that understood each other best of all.  They saw each other’s faults and in a way honored the symbol that they each provided to their people.

Who is the good guy?  Who is the bad guy?  Is there even a bad guy at all?  Who’s aims are high? Who’s aims are sinister? Who is going to actually achieve their goal?  These become messy questions.

In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus say, “If you are not against us, you are for us,”  Which is one of those biblical one-liners that is often mis-spoken.  It is said more often: “if you are not with us your against us.”  But what the Bible says is “if you are not against us, you are for us.”  Which is very different… but either way this is a pretty binary way of thinking.  A way that is dangerous; it creates a good and a bad side, a right and a wrong side, a high way and a low blow… And if we, humans/Christians/ MidWestern folks… if we are put into situations where we are pushed to choose a side… we will.  And most of the time we will defend it – sometimes more than the choice itself warrant.  We do this for ally-ship, for community, for a sense of moral ground… 

We see exactly this in our reading from Mark today. And I’d like to recap where we were in the Gospel last week… because it’s a continuation that really matters.

The disciples and Jesus are all in Capernaum, Jesus’ hometown. Jesus was just telling them about how he must die- like a seed cast onto the ground- he was to die so that the Kingdom of God may be born.  And it’s in the midst of this heavy conversation that the disciples get into an argument about who is the greatest amongst them… rather beside the point… And then Jesus teaches them that “Whoever wants to be first must be the very last, a servant of all”. Then Jesus picks up a child (because I guess one was handy at the moment) and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

And this week the reading continues when John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving our demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”  And Jesus responds,”Do not stop him! For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything  bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”

So, Jesus has just finished talking about welcoming the least of these and the disciples response is to be exclusive.  

There is another “Exorcist”, someone else was casting out demons,  someone else was helping people to be well… someone else was ministering… and yet that someone else was outside the group. 

He may have been a follower of Jesus… but he wasn’t a follower of the group.

Maybe he looked different.  Maybe he smelled different.  *Gasp* Maybe it was a woman!

In this culture, knowing who was “in”, who was “out”, who was “right”… is a very big deal.

These disciples had been with Jesus, at his side, for the long haul. They had seen his exorcisms and had even tried a few themselves (with limited success).  So when the other guy ministers effectively in Jesus’ name… whoa. 

And yet, Jesus tries to move them away from this binary/ territorial kind of thinking and turns this situation into a lesson on community.

I was at a “Text Study” group years ago, which is when a group of preachers get together to talk about the assigned Scripture passage of the week (sounds boring, but it’s awesome)… I was at this group years ago in Illinois where one of the pastors around this table was remarking at how frustrated he was with his community- because it seemed like Sunday morning was the most divided time in their town.  Everyone picked a side according to which church he/or she worshiped at.  And it didn’t matter the issue- throw a hot topic on the table for conversation at random and people picked their corner of the boxing-ring according to the church they worshiped with.  The churches were so distinct in their style, in their faith doctrines, in their way of doing things and they refused to do any sort of ecumenical, inter-church, work together.  

There are moments when I have a flash of that same frustration here in Saugatuck, but for the most part I think all of our local churches realize that ministry is a team sport and a big picture kind of thing.  

Being exclusive as a church community is a pretty common.

How often do our youth groups come together for mission trips?  How often do we gather our kids together for a common VBS?  How often can we get ourselves organized for community-wide worship services? I’ve tried and will continue to try each of these things…

If Christian Neighbors needs supplies/needs volunteers that’s one thing…but shared programming… that’s another. 

There is a fear of clashing dogma. Of moving the cheese/ trying new things.  

And what if one church’s pastor is a better speaker than the other… won’t they steal people away…?

And what if a church’s children’s programming or music ministry is better… won’t they steal people away… ?

We Christians can be territorial… and jealous.

But Jesus says that ministry is a common matter.  That the Kingdom of God is not breaking into this world by the sole effort of the First Congregational Church of Saugatuck or the United Church of Christ in Douglas, or All Saints Episcopal right next door.  We are all partners in this godly work.

As much as this is right and make sense… it forces us to give up some of the ownership of what we have built for ourselves- for the sake of real fellowship.  It forces us to remember that we didn’t build up all of this for the idol of exclusivity.  That this building, this community, this way of “doing church”… is not for us alone. It exists for us and for the other/ the different/ the stranger/ the one who believes something different than myself/ someone who prays different than myself/ someone who’s upbringing and background is different than myself.

Our Sunday school curriculum, Seasons of the Spirit raises an amazing question in light of all this, it asked us: Is it possible to choose a side while remaining in a relationship with people who have chosen a different path?  What is the commonality that keeps us in relationship?

As Congregationalists, historically, this question has risen itself again and again.  In 1865, in the throws of the Civil War it was our spiritual ancestors who stood atop the bones of the pilgrims at Burial Hill and declared: Recognizing the unity of the Church of Christ in all the world, and knowing that we are but one branch of Christ’s people, while adhering to our own particular faith and order, we extend to all believers the hand of Christian fellowship.  During a time of ultimate divisions in our country, the congregationalist refused to be split (amongst themselves or with any believer of whatever denomination) according to creed or custom… they declared that fellowship was a decided thing.  That it may be difficult, it may be messy, it may seem impossible… but we all stand at the foot of the cross.  And looking out… there is nothing but a sea of opportunities to grow closer to our God in study and prayer.

Children of God!  This is not 1865… and so I ask you: Is it possible (in this time and in this place) to choose a side while remaining in a relationship with people who have chosen a different path?  What is the commonality that keeps us in relationship?  Men and women, democrat and republican, pacifist and activist, Reformed Calvinist and Progressive… can we extend the brave hand of fellowship in respect/ in dignity/ in peace to one another?  Can we see the worth of the other? Are we constantly foiling each other’s efforts?

I’ll leave you with that question to ponder.

Amen. 

September 23rd, 2018 – Eighteen Sunday After Pentecost

Flight vs. Invisibility

Mark 9: 30-37 & James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a

So, what would you choose?  I wonder…

If you had to choose a superpower, which would it be?  Flight?  Invisibility?

I ask this question of every couple that steps into my office for pre-marital counseling, I ask it at dinner parties.  I’ve asked and re-asked my friends over the years as their life situations have changed (and, sure enough, I’ve have gotten different answers).  I ask Tim this question on a weekly basis it seems… I like to think of it as a super Rorschach test.  Flight or Invisibility?  Tell me what you see in the ink blot?  A silly little question, that can actually tell us a lot.

So, to satiate my curiosity… let’s take a poll of the congregation!

But first, some perimeters.  

– You can only choose one.  You can’t have both.

– There are no other powers that come with your choice.  You don’t get to be invincible, you’re not all of a sudden bullet proof as well.  You don’t get super strength as part of the package.  It is just as it is – flight and invisibility.  

– And if you choose invisibility, the clothing you wore would become invisible along with you… but not things that you touch.  You can’t just pick up a hot dog and all of a sudden it’s invisible along with you.

– If you choose flight, you can fly anywhere in the earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to 1,000mph.

OK!  

Who would choose flight?…

Who would choose invisibility?…

Ok.  What would you do with your powers?  Honest.  

Let’s pray…

Gracious God, Lord of all, we gather before your Word ready to learn. Open it for us… and Lord, help us to be reflective here today/ to examine our hearts, our minds, and our very souls for how you would have us become truer more grace filled disciples.  Christ, we invite you into our presence here and now, Amen. 

There was an episode of This American Life a few years back that explored this timeless debate: Flight vs. Invisibility.  And it mostly focused on how un-flashy and un-heroic we can be when presented with the opportunity to be super/ or heroic… 

One guy said, when asked what he would do with his newfound ability to fly, said that he would fly over rush hour traffic in order to pick up his kids to then fly them to their doctor’s appointment…

Another guy when asked what he would do said that he would fly to the bar and pick up ladies, because, after all, there was bound to be some “flight” groupies.  

A lady, when asked what she would do with her invisibility gifts said… thievery:  To quote “I’d go into Barney’s. I’d pick out the cashmere sweaters that I like. I’d go into the dressing room. The woman says, how many items? I say five. I go into the dressing room. I put those five sweaters on, and I summon my powers of invisibility in the dressing room. I turn invisible. I walk out, leaving her to wonder why there’s a tag hanging from the door that says five and no person inside.”

And the stories go on from there… Typically, people who want to turn invisible will sneak into movie theaters or onto airplanes, spy on their exes, be peeping toms.  People who want to fly will stop taking the bus, show off for the groupies… But for the most part… no one ever said that they would fight crime.  No one cares about crime apparently.

One guy that was interviewed said this: “I don’t think I’d want to spend a lot of my time using my power for good. I mean, if I don’t have super strength and I’m not invulnerable it would be very dangerous. If you had to rescue somebody from a burning building you might catch on fire. Just having the power of flight, I don’t think it’s necessarily quite enough because you don’t have the super strength. I’d still be weak when I got there. I don’t fight crime now.” He finished with — “I’d go to Paris, I suppose. I could be ‘Going to Paris Man.’”

“Going to Paris Man” is not a superhero. 

But his answer is telling. Nobody interviewed on This American Life took responsibility for others less fortunate than themselves by using their super powers for the common good. Helping the underdog, saving a drowning kitten, beating up bad guys, foiling terrorist plots — nobody’s interested. It turns out most people secretly, or even openly, are kind of selfish… really selfish… sometimes a little devious, sneaky… boastful.

Not all of us, of course…. You all are the exception, I doubt there is a single “Going to Paris Man” among us.

James knows this.  In our Scripture passage today, James talks to us of two kinds of wisdom- the unsurprising, unheroic, in-generous wisdom of the world – the kind that would have us stealing cashmere sweaters and picking up groupies… and a wisdom that is something more.

Verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”

James is well aware of our desires for self-aggrandizement/ our self-interested- James is aware of the fact that we can readily walk through this life with blinders on… and if nothing else that we are each fiercely protective and preserving of ourselves and our own bubbles.  The world applauds us for it.  Reenforces it in us…

But as James says, we are called to a new wisdom.  A different way.  That we are to be truly wise of heart, mind and spirit. 

Verse 17: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

It would seem that the superpower that we really need is wisdom.  Holy wisdom.  Proverbs tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  And James would take that a step further and say that wisdom grows in moments and places of purity and peacefulness, gentleness and being willing to yield, wisdom comes from mercy and welcome and being without hypocrisy.  

There is this moment in the movie Rudy where Father Cavanaugh and Rudy are talking in the sanctuary… Rudy complains to him that his efforts seem to be for naught, that soon his dreams of playing football at Notre Dame will be over.  “Have I done everything I possibly can?” He asks, and Father Cavanaugh replies: “Son, in all my years of religious studies… I’ve only come up with two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God… and I’m not Him.” 

Again, Proverbs says that, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And it is this simple humility of Father Cavenaugh’s and that peace and a sense of kneeling before the unknown in gentleness that speaks a needed kind of wisdom into this world.  

Wisdom, in our world/in our culture/ in our lives today is a poignant topic.  

When we turn on the news and hear about politicians that no longer seem to care about violence again women… that speaks…

When we face an election season where basic human rights and dignity seem to be on ballots across the country… that speaks… 

When we face a system of our own making where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, where the working class struggles to earn a living wage… that speaks…

When the educated and the able forget that there are hundreds of thousands of little girls out there that aren’t allowed to go to school because of their period… that speaks… 

When our thriving, urban communities realize that they have built themselves into food deserts… that speaks..

When the privileged are able to think about how best to leverage the ability of flight or invisibility to their own advantage… that speaks…

We are surrounded by things that don’t make sense.  That seem impossible.  That should make us rage and ask how did we get here?

But again, we were called to something more.  A different kind of wisdom.  One that is pure and peace-loving, considerate and submissive, full of mercy… a wisdom that bears fruit.

The wisdom of Father Cavenaugh saying, “There is a God… and I’m not Him.” Is a wisdom of positioning, I would say.  One that gives us a right orientation.  A righteous orientation towards life.  

James goes on to say that we do not have, what we do not ask God for. 

So it would bode well for us all to be asking God for a constant help to orient and re-orient our lives.  To bring us back and back again to a place of gentleness and simplicity, welcome and sincerity.  For that is where wisdom is born/ where wisdom grows.  

Thankfully, the possibility of ever having to choose between flight or invisibility is unlikely. Evolutionary leaps and X-Men style mutations are sadly still fictional… So for now our question can remain the super Rorchach test for now.

But I ask you to consider today, the abilities that you have been given.  The ability of resources, the ability of intelligence, the ability of mercy and compassion and community and prayer… what would you do with such things?  Because these are the true superpowers of our time.

May we ask God for a holy wisdom to do our best and trust God with the results. 

Amen.

September 16th, 2018 – Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Taming The Tongue

Mark 8: 27-38 & James 3: 1-12

My mother and sister are both elementary school teachers.  Well… my mom just retired this year from teaching in the Flint Public Schools… but a teacher never stops being a teacher… Anyway on those, rare occasions when we all get together I always end up in the middle of a “teacher talk” gabfest.  Those two can talk about how to teach a particular math principle, or discuss district politics, or a specific child’s behavioral issues, or how to set up a learning station or decorated a bulletin board… for hours!  And I usually just end up tuning them out.

But, through the years, as a bystander to all the “teacher talk” there is one topic I’ve always been intrigued by… I’m always entertained by the stories of their attempts to maintain Law and Order with a bunch of nine year olds.   Their list of classroom rules as it grew and grew throughout the year was always interesting.

It always starts out as a pretty short…. But as they account for fidget spinners and cell phones… kids that dare to play Red Rover or bring, unthinkingly, peanut butter with them into the classroom… it grows and grows and grows… and conciquences get more and more creative. 

Well, these are the basics (at the start of the year at least):

  1. Be respectful of others and their property.  
  2. Listen to one another and the teacher, don’t talk over top of people
  3. No put downs
  4. Inside voices for inside, outside voices for outside 
  5. Stay on task

Sounds familiar from your school days?  These are the basics for corralling thirty some students during the day….  

I don’t know if you noticed but four out of five of these rules are about how we use our words and voices, aren’t they? Be respectful, listen, no put-downs, volume control. 

Well, I think that these classroom style rules might be a good reminder for all of us adults today.  Especially in a world as loud as our’s is today…

Would you please prayer with me before we dive into our Scripture texts?

Gracious God, Lord of all, sometimes it seems like our mouths have a mind of their own!  We say things every now and again that make us cringe as they escape our lips.  Lord, help us to be reflective here today.  Help us to examine our hearts, our minds, and our very souls for how you would have us become truer more grace filled disciples.  Christ, we invite you into our presence here and now, Amen. 

Who here has heard the old adage: “Stick and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Did you hear it on the playground yourself?  Did you tell it to your kids after they had a run in with class bully…trying to cheer them up?

Now, does anyone here actually believe these words?

Truly, it is one of those little white lies that we tell ourselves.  But, not only do words hurt, the hurt can stay with you for a long time.  Cuts heal!  Broken bones… they heal!  But words can cut deeper and cause far more damage than any break… as they power through someone’s heart, mind or soul.  Words leave scars.

We may say that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…”  but the old saying really should be something like: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will have such a lasting effect that I may end up in therapy for the rest of my life…  So thank you!  Thanks for that.”

I remember walking home from school.  I think I was 11 years old.  When a classmate of mine called out from behind me on his bike, “Get out of the way Rhino!  Honk Honk!”  

And here I am more than two decades later still sour about that mean little kid.  

A while back, this particular classmate asked to be my friend on Facebook.  It felt really good to hit that “ignore” button.  

Words have power!  Staying power!  

In Genesis, the story of beginnings, we see that God called forth this world with words!  That’s power!  Adam, the first man, blessed animals and nature and all that was around him with names… he exercised the power of dominion.  Long after that… Jesus healed with words.  Just last week we read about the time Jesus healed the deaf man.  He spoke his ears open by just saying “Ephphatha.”  Jesus raised the dead back to life with words!  “Lazarus!” he called, “Come out!”

Words can heal.  Words can build and restore.  Words can affirm and bless and give life.

But words can also break down and destroy.  

If we are not careful with our words…If we are not following those classic classroom rules: Be respectful, listen, no put-downs, volume control.  Then we risk marring the image of God in ourselves and in our brothers and sisters.  

Now, the Book of James, reads like a practical guide to Christianity.  And it has long been said to be the New Testament equivalent to the Book of Proverbs.  Because it’s purpose is to impose some wisdom on the church…   It’s a tiny little book, written by Jesus’ very own brother, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem.   James’ wisdom book teaches us that when Jesus talked about the law, or how Christians were to behave… he boiled the entire law down into just five words.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  In doing that, we honor our Lord.  In doing that we are faithful.  In doing that we uplift the image of the Almighty in God’s own Creation.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But James also issues the church some words of caution:

“Look at the ships…” he says, “though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”

Words are powerful!  They are sparks!  They can ignite the Gospel, bringing it to life… They can help us uplift and love our neighbors… but if they are not tempered/reigned in – they will burn down the forest.    The human tongue, a small muscle in the grand scheme of the human body, dictates much of our personality.  Our words are everything, as we relate to our brothers and sister.  As we seek to uphold that greatest of laws:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Our tongue leads the way…

There was a church in Princeton, IL where I was serving a church before Saugatuck, where in their fellowship hall they have these old, “Thank you for not smoking” plaques on the walls.  But some years ago, they covered up the word “Smoking” with a label that reads “gossiping.”  I commented on them to the pastor over there one time and he said, “Oh yes!  Now that people don’t smoke in churches anymore… we thought that we’d… ahhh… that we would change them to something more relevant.”

When it comes to tempering and reigning in your speech in a church setting, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the power of gossip.   

Here’s a story for you: A woman goes to her pastor one day and says, “Pastor, I have a big problem,  I just can’t stop myself from gossiping.”  The pastor thought for a moment, and then she gave her some sheets of paper from her drawer.   “Take these,” the pastor said, “tear them into small pieces this evening, and go around town and put a handful of those pieces on the door step of each person you have gossiped about.  Then come back and see me.”

The woman did as the pastor told her.  When she came back she asked the pastor what she should do next.  “Go round town again tonight, gather up all the pieces and glue them back together again.” “But that is impossible,” said the woman.  “The wind has surely blown them all away by now.”   “Yes,” replied the pastor.”  “Now you know why gossip is so deadly.”

Children of God, you are accountable to how well you love your brother and sister with your speech…  You are accountable to how you speak to them/ how you interact with them.  

As you search your heart in the presence of God today, ask yourself:  “How are my words affecting those around me?  How is my attitude building up my community/ my church/ my family/ my spouse?”  ask yourself, “How am I doing?  What can I do or say to breathe life/ speak hope into the world around me?”

If you are thinking that perhaps this is an area in life in which you might need a bit of work…  this is for you:

The field of counseling tells us that our language and our “person” are connected. If we can change the language we use… we can actually begin to change the person using those words. Exercising positive language, engaging in the discipline of silence upon occasion… can help heal places in us that may be sour or irritable or short tempered. 

For example, if you have a bad habit of cursing, swearing and cussing… just being lazy with your words (and I know some of you have problems with that…).  When you start to wake up to that habit, and consciously pay attention to your words, you will actually begin to change the way you feel as a person inside.  

Or if you have a problem with being critical, complaining, or being constantly negative about others… or if you are picky with the faults of other people… watch your words!  

Then watch what God can do in your heart to heal you.  And bring you into closer relationship with Christ.

Let us remember our classroom rules.  Be respectful, listen to others, no put-downs, and volume control… Let’s remember these before we open our mouths. Because bones and cuts heal… But scars to the heart and soul don’t mend as quickly.  May we be mindful of the power of our words… seeking only to use them as building blocks to uplifts and give life.  

September 9th, 2018 – Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Be Open

James 2: 1-10, 14-17 & Mark 7: 24-37

Opening Prayer: Creator God, we thank you for gathering us as family today: To study your Word, to worship the still and patient presence of the Spirit, to be inspired towards understanding and justice.  Lord, draw us closer in relationship with you. May we be strengthened in our discipleship.  Lord may this sermon speak your words, not mine.  May it deliver your Gospel, not mine.  Redeem it God, turn it towards you.  Amen.  

Sermon:  This week we find Christ in the Gentile region of Tyre, where Jesus is searching for some down time.  He had just finished a long tour of healing, and teaching, and arguing with the religious establishment of the day… Jesus just needed a little Sabbath time… some time to rest and reconnect with His Father in heaven.  So, he deliberately leaves the Jewish region for the peace and relative anonymity of getting lost in the Gentile town of Tyre.  I think we can all relate.

So there Jesus is, mid-vacation, probably kicked back with his lemonade and his disciple buddies… when a local women, a Gentile, recognizes him… and having heard of his power… she falls at his feet and implores him/ begs him to come heal her daughter.  For her daughter is filled with an unclean sprit. 

To which Jesus responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The reason that hits our ear… horribly… is because it is. 

Now, let’s flesh this out a bit.

The “children” Jesus references are the Children of Israel- the Jews.  The food?  Him!  His miracles, his ministry, his power, his salvation, his grace.

So Jesus is honestly saying to this poor woman: “To bless you, to heal your daughter, would be a waste!  To see to your needs is not my problem.”  Then to top it all off, he calls her a dog.  Which sounds bad now… but in that era would have been so much worse.

As much as I would like to spin this verse.  As much as I would love to say that there is more to it than what we see on the surface… As much as I would love to do some creative exegesis and uncover beautiful divine wisdom here so that we can keep our Children’s Bible/ squeaky clean image of Christ. That’s not possible.  

This interaction is exactly as it seems- Jesus’ vacation was interrupted… and he snaps at this woman… using an idiom of great prejudice.  

Theologians have tried for centuries to come up with an explanation as to why Jesus is so flippant in this moment… 

Most often they have said that Jesus was just testing this woman!  Which to me is kind of worse than taking this interaction at face value.  Imagine that you are a desperate mother… racked with fear over the wellbeing of your daughter… then you find the source of your daughter’s deliverance- and he tests you?  He puts hoops in front of you?  Not cool, Jesus!  Where is your compassion?

Then other theologians say that this is Jesus just being consistent with his mission.  After all, Jesus was sent to deliver the Jews.  This woman is a Gentile, someone of Syro-Phoenician ethnicity.  So, it’s a square peg/ round hole situation.  But then I think, did Jesus really have to call this fearful woman a dog?  That seems really unprofessional.  Again, where is your compassion, Jesus?

And still others would say that Jesus is sort of playing to the air of the room.  Maybe Jesus was surrounded by his disciples… and he was purposely sinking to their prejudices… and in a way naming the elephant in the room.  He treats her like anyone else in that room would treat her… perhaps to see if she/ and really all of them can raise above it.  But again, that a high stakes game to play Jesus, where is your compassion?

    Whatever the reason…. instead of getting offended.  Instead of being discouraged by Jesus’s seemingly harsh treatment.  She surprises Jesus by pushing back… pressing on and even matching wits by bending his own idiom.

She says, “Fine, you can call me a dog, but even dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.”

She begs even for the casts offs. 

And with that, Jesus relents (changes his mind maybe) and frees the woman’s child from her demon.  And as far as we know they both live happily ever after.  I don’t know if this was the prize for this woman passing the test, or if she just boldly checks Jesus on his attitude and Jesus realizes the error of his ways… but she accomplishes her goal.  She pushes back.

I’m sure you can tell by now… this passage causes a major double take, it’s kind of a stumbling block for those that have a high Christology (belief in the perfection and infallible nature of Jesus).  It messes with my tame/ children’s bible image of Christ.  

even I struggle with it a bit… I tend to expect Jesus to beckon people to come to him at all times.  I expect Jesus to never get worn-out and need a break.  I expect Jesus to always have a miracle up his sleeve/ at the ready.  

This passage in particular reminds me that while my Savior was indeed divine, he is also very human.  Jesus shares our human journey.

Jesus is a little grittier than we would like to image.

Throughout the Gospels, especially in Mark’s Gospel… we see Jesus getting annoyed with his disciples.  He gets overwhelmed by the burden he is called to bear.  He gets tired of having to be “on” all the time.  He even sticks his foot in his mouth on occasion. 

Now, the challenge of Mark’s Gospel… the challenge that is embodied so powerfully in this story… is the idea of looking beyond the interaction to see what God is doing in the Kingdom.   

As much as it troubles me to say this.  I don’t think we, the audience, are meant to be tripped up by the blatant prejudice or the patriarchy… they were the norms of ancient culture.

What is supposed to stop us in our track is that Jesus’ eyes and heart are opened by the truth of God being spoken by a Gentile woman.  This desperate Mother looking for help for her daughter, she is the speaker of truth in this story.   She is the bearer of the Gospel today!

Mark’s gospel, more than any other gospel, leans into this fact that Jesus is very human.  And during his time on earth he wasn’t always in control of the Kingdom of God.  He was surprised by God every now and then. Our Savior had to lean on and trust His godly father- just as we need to lean on God.

This scene is a turning point in Christ’s ministry on Earth.  Up until this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus ministry was exclusively in Jewish regions.  His interactions were with the Jews alone.

But it is this mom, who opens up the kingdom of God to the world.  She calls upon the Savior of all to break down his boundaries and rules to include the Gentile people.  

She blows out the walls of the church.

The Kingdom of God just got a whole lot bigger.  

Perhaps Jesus was setting her up to do just that, stacking the deck so that she would make this teachable moment for the community… I don’t know… honestly, I hope so… but maybe (and this wouldn’t be at odds with Mark… maybe she teaches Jesus about justice.

Either way, the Kingdom of God just got a whole lot bigger!

This is shown to us again in what happens directly after this scene.  

Jesus sets down his lemonade, shakes off his mood and gets to work!  He heads straight for the Decapolis!  A cluster of roman/ gentile cities.  He pretty much walks into Gentile town square and sets up his miracle practice!  

And the first person he heals, is a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment, and he puts his fingers to this man’s ears and says, “Be open.”

From the interaction with the Syro-ponecian woman, to this healing in the Decapolis… Jesus is opening the gates of the Kingdom of God!  “Be open!” Jesus proclaims!  

  Ok, that was then- but let’s think about now… Have no doubt that God is on the move in this world even today… God is at work, even know, opening the kingdom.

So, knowing this, I ask you: Who are the truth sayers today?   Who are our Syro- Phecian women pushing back?  Where do you see God on the move?  That is the question for us this week…

A couple of years ago, at the height of the Syrian War… that were 8 million refugees displaced internally in that country.  And another 8 million refugees displaced around the globe.   All fleeing the atrocious violence that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  

The issue of refugee resettlement is a global hot topic and one that is notoriously messy… but I remember reading an article about how the tiny nation of Iceland, was working to address this need!  

At first, the welfare commission of Iceland stepped up to the plate offering to take in 50 refugees.  They are a tiny county… so they said they could only handle a tiny amount. 

Well, an Icelandic children’s author caught wind of this and started a Facebook page that was an open letter to the national welfare commission asking if she could house five more refugee.  She offered to purchase their plane tickets and provide them with a good home.  Well as this page began to circulate and the 330,000 citizens of Iceland caught wind of this idea… and almost immediately 12,000 other people raised their hands to help!  Some have offered to provide food, others clothing and language lessons, some employment and many more brave families are offering housing and money to help cover transportation expense.  

So the welfare commission, in response, doubles their commitment- they will take in 50 more… 

Well… the citizens of the nation kept advocating – they kept putting on their fierce faces and pushing back, until the government doubled it again… and again… last I read Iceland 791 families having been resettled or in the process of resettling in their county of only 300,000 people.  

As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sister of mine, you did for me.”  

As I look at Iceland today, and think about their response… I see the walls of the kingdom of God being pushed out… I see their efforts of love bearing real fruit.  

I encourage you this week to be open to looking for those places where the Kingdom of God is coming alive!  As you watch the news, or even just as you go about your day- look for those places where God is throwing wide the gates of the kingdom of God.  Amen.

September 2nd, 2018- Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

It’s Tradition!

James 1: 17-27 & Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Opening Prayer: Gracious God, Lord of Color and of Life, thank you for this time of worship!  What a privilege it is to open your Holy Word.  As we talk about tradition… and as we talk about identity.  Help us to be still in your presence so that we might examine our hearts.  Be with us, Holy Father.  Strengthen us to be your disciples.  Grant us ears to hear your Good News today.  Lord of all, I ask that this message not speak my words but yours.  Redeem these thoughts to your glory.  

In Christ name and in his presence we pray… Amen.

Sermon: One day, while a Buddhist monk was in deep meditation at his monastery, he felt something fuzzy brush against his leg.  But he was determined not to be distracted or disturbed so he ignored it.  Then moments later it happened again… a furry little something brushed against his leg.  

But again, in an attempt to remain diligent in his daily meditation he ignored it.  And sure enough the furry little something started bumping into him repeatedly.   So reluctantly, he opened his eyes… and looked down to find a little black kitten had gotten in and was looking for some attention.  

The monk got up, picked up the little cat and took him outside and shooed him on his way.

Well, of course, a few minutes later, just when the monk had returned to his deep meditation, what happens?

He feels that furry little something brush against his leg. 

So, the monk gets up again and takes the cat outside.

Well this became a pattern.  The little cat just kept sneaking back inside and bothering the monks while they were in meditation.  

So, he decides, that if the cat insisted on being inside that much, he was going to get a leash and tie the cat up during meditation time.

So, he did!  He put the cat on the leash.  Attached him to a pillar nice and out of reach.

Time went by… the monks continued to tie the cat up… And after many years, the monk in charge of the monastery, a guy known as the abbot, he passes away, and a new abbot is brought in. 

When the new abbot goes into his meditation his first time there, he obviously notices a cat tied to a pillar.

But out of respect… maybe out of the simple fact he was the new guy on campus… he didn’t ask.  

The cat lived a very happy/healthy/attention filled life… all while the monks keep tying him to the pillar during meditation… but the cat inevitably grew old and his day comes too. 

Well immediately upon the cat’s death, in honor of this now apparently important religious practice, the abbot convenes a group of monks to go out searching the countryside for another black cat to tie to the pillar.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have witnessed the birth of a church tradition.

Sometimes we do things like this, don’t we?  We “religious-ize” and “sacred-ize” things that had very practical beginnings. 

We apply meaning to ordinary things… us church goin’ folks, we love to do that.   

At the first church I pastored, I remember there was a long conversation at one of the deacons meetings about the cost or altar candles, and how we might cut the cost.  It was a very long and much repeated complaint…  and so I rearranged the communion table so that there was just one candle on the table.  One candle at the center with the cross and flowers sort of tucked in around it – it was very nice.  And more importantly, I instantly split our candle expense in half. But next thing I know there is a conversation happening about having lost the meaning of the two candles on the table.  Can anyone remember the Biblical reason there was two candles on the table!  Maybe there was a light for the father, and one for the son, while we hold the light of the spirit!  There must have be a reason why we did this!  We must return the second candle for the sake of all of our immortal souls!!!!!!

There is a little bit of this going on in our Scripture passage today, isn’t there?

Before we start poking fun at the Pharisees and start pulling apart their seemingly “sacred-ized” traditions of cleanliness, I need to issue us all a warning (me included):  It is easy, when we start talking about the law and other people’s practices and traditions… to fall hard into the trap of trivialization.  

This is not a trivial matter.  Our traditions… our ways…the rules that we follow… they are important matters of the heart.  

As hard as it is to love a Pharisee (and even sympathize with him)…  If we pause and try to see things from his point of view… well, I think we might be able to tread lightly through this passage.

So let’s step into ancient Galilee for a moment.  The Pharisees of Jerusalem had gotten word of a miracle man in the back woods of Galilee.  They have heard all about how he has healed the blind, how he has fed the masses, how he has walked on water- and they are intrigued enough to send a delegation of “spies” to Galilee to check things out. 

And what do they find?  They find Jesus with his ever-growing band of disciples.  

As they follow him…they witness miracles; experience his teachings… but they also see a Rabbi and his flock not obeying the rituals of their people/their kind! Specifically they see Jesus and the disciples eating a meal without washing their hands.

And what’s worse! The Pharisees know that Jesus and his folks had spent all morning at the marketplace healing the sick and the lame and the blind… and they dared to not clean themselves of those people before they touched their food… 

From the perspective of the Pharisees and the Scribes they see a teacher of the law, defiling the law!  

If the Pharisees had a manta, or a family motto it would be this:  “Conserve the Law!  Conserve our way!  Conserve! Conserve!” 

When we think about the Cleanliness Tradition of the Jews, we might be temped to draw a direct parallel back to the cat tied to a pillar in the monastery… It just seems so inconsequential… yet, we have to remember that this seemingly simple rule can carry great meaning under its surface.   

What likely started as a rule to protect the people of God from unnecessary sicknesses while they wandered the desert… became over time to be an issue of identity.   

Reverend Ryan Price, a pastor in Lubbock Texas, pointed out something in a sermon I read a while back: If you can picture in your mind a map of the world for a moment, and you zoom in on Israel, you will notice that it sits at a global cross roads.  Over to the West you have Europe, to the South you have Africa, and to the North and East you have all the different cultures of the Ancient Near East and Asia.  The nation of Israel was an important nexus that you would have to pass through to get to anywhere else.  Not to mention they were constantly at war because other big powerful countries saw the value of owning that nexus… 

The Pharisees were constantly concerned about assimilation. 

There was a great fear of being swallowed up by the other cultures around them.  The Jews, during this time, were holding tight to their practices in order to maintain their identity.  Things like keeping dietary laws and upholding purity rituals… it gave the people identity, and made them distinct.

During the Exodus, God lead the Israelite people away from oppression… but God also led them all away from everything that defined them.  Their homes were abandoned, their work (even if it was forced) was left unfinished.  Their world, their sense of culture…fractured.

So, it is no wonder that one of the first things God does as the people wander the dessert was to give them laws.  

First, they receive the big ten! The commandments.  They teach us about a God that is jealous for our love and attention, and gives us boundaries on how best to relate to each other and to keep in close relationship with the divine.  And then through the years as the people wander and wonder and experience… they are (dare I say…) gifted with hundreds more rules!  Why?  Because God wanted them to have that structure, that culture again… God loved them enough and understood them enough to bless them with an identity.  It kept them united.  They upheld the law together- that was their collective mission.

It gave them something to cling to when their world was fractured!

Think of Fiddler on the Roof…

It’s the same story!

Tevye, a poor man in a rural town, faced an era of big time political unrest (a culture fractured)…  The poor guy, he has five daughters! 

Everyday he wakes up in a world where he just seems to be a little in over his head- as a father, as a Jew, as an oppressed citizen.  But he tries so hard to be a man of integrity!  He tries so hard to be an upstanding Jew.  And, bless him… just about every time he attempts to quote the “Good Book” he’s wrong. 

And if you asked Tevye how he holds it together, how he keeps his balance in an ever changing world… 

He would say: “That I can tell you in one word!  Tradition!

Tevye goes on to say: We have traditions for everything!  How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear our clothes…” he pulls on his prayer shawl and says, “This is to remind me that I am God’s!  And this hat, it reminds me who I belong to!  You might ask; how did this tradition get started… I’ll tell you.  I don’t know… But it is a tradition.  And because of our traditions, (and this is the part that I love…) everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do… Without traditions our life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” 

I feel for poor Tevye.  It would be really trying to have three of your five daughter, all in “marry-able age”, bucking the system.  All three of them find their own husbands!  They reject the tradition of the honored matchmaker.  And it drives him batty.  The first daughter, after she is already betrothed to someone by the matchmaker… gets engaged to a childhood friend who she is head over heals for.  The second daughter, gets engaged without even consulting her father… and her fiancé doesn’t even want permission… And each time… Tevye is faced with this situation of having to bend his rules… bend his traditions!  He loves his daughters, he wants to see them happy and successful… but Tevye certainly doesn’t like having the traditions of their people challenged.  

But God is faithful!  Opening Tevye’s eyes to the gift of love right in front of him.  

But the third daughter, goes too far for poor Tevye, she wants to marry a Gentile.

Tevye has this inner war. On the one hand, he loves his daughter.  But he fears that they will lose their identity as the people of God.  But on the other hand he says, “No!  There is no other hand!  There is only so far I can bend before I break.”

Have you ever had a moment like that as a parent?

Well, the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark,are unyielding even in the best of times.  They do not tolerate the bending of traditions… lest the whole identity of their people break with them!

They might have a lot of cats leashed to pillars (so to speak)… a lot of traditions that seem silly and are distracting to the big picture… But a tradition is a tradition.  An identity is an identity.

Stories like this one in Mark, and like the Fiddler on the Roof invite us to look at our hearts- to examine our traditions, to reflect on our identity.  But, even more than that, they push us… they push us to examine our lives for those things that distract from our purpose as Christ followers.

So, I ask you, what are those things that clutter our hearts?  When have our rules, our beloved traditions leaned dangerously into the territory of legalism?  Worshiping the tradition or the rule itself… rather than Christ?

When Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees for his lack of integrity and for flouting the Jewish identity… this is his rather stinging response (and I want us all to hear this, with our own traditions in mind), “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me…”

When I first read that with an open heart this week, it felt like I got smacked upside the head.

And you know what (oddly enough) I think Jesus might be right.  Every time I have clung to a false identity… God has found a way to challenge it with the audacity of grace.  Teaching me yet again that the brevity of God’s love cannot be contained or experienced through traditions or rules.  But only in messy messy relationship with God and other.

As the Pharisees cling to the law for the sake of who they are… What if I told you that our identity as Christians does not lie with the law… But our identity lies in Christ? 

As Reggie Weaver said, “It’s okay to have rituals.  It’s okay to have traditions.  But our rituals and traditions must never become our god.  Rituals and traditions will not save us.  They will not make us clean.  If we want to be clean we must look, not at the works of our hands, but at our hearts.” 

To be truly clean, that comes from our heart.  It comes from clinging to our identity in Christ.  

Tevye, would say that discerning what is right is a balancing act.  We try and live righteous lives balancing like a shaking Fiddler on the roof.  

But Children of God… here is the Good News!  With Christ, we don’t have to be shaky.  The grace of God in our hearts is the firmest of foundations. 

As I told the children earlier during the Kid’s Talk.  Rules are important they tell us who we are and how we are to act.  They are so very important… but we are ultimately held accountable to the greatest of all rules:  Living by love.

Christ was very clear on what he expects of us:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul and Love your neighbor as yourself.  The greatest commandment of them all.  As Christ said, any law, any prophecy hangs on this…  It all hangs on love.  

 Amen.

August 26th 2018, Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Living Wisely

Ephesians 6: 10-20 & John 6: 56-69

Opening Prayer: God of reconciliation and new beginnings.  God of connection and relationship, it is a blessing to be gathered here today as the Body of Christ- sitting side by side with our community, with songs on our lips, with a thirst for your Word on our mind.  As we talk about the armor of God- being a people that is distinctly different… help us to be still in your presence so that we might examine our lives in light of your message.  Be with us, Holy Spirit.  Strengthen us to be your disciples.  In Christ name and in his presence we pray… Amen.

Sermon: Our Scripture passages today are the conclusions to a couple of series that the lectionary has had us on for most of the summer.  

Our portion from John 6 is the final words in the Bread of Life discourse which we have been exploring together for over a month now.  And, I don’t know about you, but I have grown a little weary of the carbohydrate binge. I’m so ready to move on from all the bread-y metaphors.  And so too (it seems) are the people in this scene because here we again have Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life… please eat my flesh, please drink my blood.”  And what happens in response?  Many people leave, they just get too grossed out.  Maybe they don’t want to look beneath the surface of such a request – or maybe they have just ran out of patience being told to “bite me”… I don’t know.  But many people get scared off from their discipleship journey, which is interesting.   

It almost seems too real.  People stepping away from discipleship, stepping away from the teachings of Christ because they are too much:  Too radical, maybe.  Too supernatural, perhaps. Too demanding.  Too unsavory.  Too inclusive.  Too exclusive.  Too… something.  We will give any number of excuses… 

And yet the 12 remain.

And then our passage from Ephesians (which I’d like to focus on today) is the concluding statement to the letter.  Ephesians has been our supplemental reading all summer.  Mostly exploring this book’s wisdom during the Kid’s Talk. 

But I’d like us to focus on this passage today, because I think it’s a passage that gets a little used and abused by the Christian culture at times.  The armor of God makes for a nice meme… it even makes for an easy/tidy Sunday school lesson… but it’s a messy concept, really.  So, let’s talk our way through the text.

In first century Ephesus, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire.  Christians were a minority.  And it is no doubt that Christians in small house churches experienced persecution and harassment if they were “outed” as Christ followers. They stood in direct confrontation with the empire.  An empire that lived and breathed militarism.  An empire believed in peace by threat of warfare. An empire who’s masses believe in a community of gods that were jealous for attention- who were manipulative and cunning, and certainly not shy about violence and revenge.  And yet the Christians believe in a God (a single God) who gave himself (his bodily self) to bring peace through compassion, forgiveness and love – it did not compute in a Roman world.  

Consider the contrast:

– Think of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. Unlike our God of Love she used her powers to make people that defied her fall in love with the one thing they can’t have.  Like Hippolytos a prince of Troizenos.  He refused to worship and praise Aphrodite, he ignored her and eventually payed the price when she made his own step mother, Phaidra, fall in love with him… eventually Hippolytos’s own father cursed him out of jealousy… which lead to all their demise. 

When this is your god… when this is the kind of divine expression of power that you know… the Christian God of Love sounds impossible. 

What Ephesians has to say about God’s character, about Christian practices, about a fellowship of peace… it stand as a perfect opposite.

2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

2:10 “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”

4:1“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

This book has so much to say about integrity, walking the walk/ talking the talk of faith, words of wisdom.  It implores us to respect the gravity of grace.

So to hear this miraculous, soaring, loving letter end with words of war… is surprising.  Surprising to say the least.

This passage sort of stands alone in a way… (and to use a preacherly word) it seems to be an attempt at“making the great hermeneutical leap”.  Hermeneutics being the study of preaching.  The leap refers to the fact that in a sermon, or in a letter like Ephesians, it is all good and well to wax on about the goodness of God… but at the end of the day a preacher has to make the message relevant to someone’s life in the here and now. 

And the here and now, for the church of Ephesus, was a culture of militarism and warfare and jealous gods. 

The Amour of God is almost an anthem of this reality.  An anthem that reminds this infant +Christian community to stand distinct in their messy setting.  To be different.  To be boldly loving.  To let their grace elevate them above the drama.  To let their ethic as Christians keep them holy and just.

I want to walk through the armor imagery more fully in a moment.  But first we need to understand it’s need first.   Why would we ever need armor?  Our passage today talks about girding ourselves against rulers, authorities, the powers of the world, and the spiritual forces of evil.  

I don’t think that any one of us would deny that there are evil leaders in this world.  That there are systemic evils and violence places, and vast social injustices the world around.  

We see it everyday when we turn on the news.  We see leaders abuse their power and influence, we see systems in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, where the sick get sicker and the marginalized get forgotten.  

But what about the spiritual forces of evil? The far more close and personal evils of this world?

This is a far more loaded concept, on which there is a vast array of belief. 

Now, I believe in the Devil, I believe in forces of evil.  Just as I believe in angels and in the power of God’s love.  

I believe that God’s kingdom is elbowing for more room in this world, and that it meets resistance.  

I don’t believe that there are little demons wandering around with horn and tales, interfering with our daily choices- trying to ruin our lives.  Just as I don’t have a strong belief in providence.

But I do believe in the greater struggle of good vs. evil in this world.

And perhaps you are with me in those believes.  Perhaps you think I’m nuts… and thank God we are Congregationalists!  For we uplift the freedom of conscious and can still worship side by side.

I remember years ago listening to a muslim cleric talk about Islam’s teaching on the two different kinds of Jihad – their version of spiritual warfare.  There is a greater jihad and a lesser jihad. The greater jihad is the spiritual war, fighting again temptations, and navigating within oneself to better one’s life.  Muslims have a very strong belief in “right” moral practices- and being accountable for their life choices and actions. Resisting the temptation of drinking (for example) and slander, to resisting promiscuity and laziness.  This is a BIG deal in the Islamic faith.  Then there is a lesser war, which is a physical jihad, fighting to defend one’s existence… like in a physical conflict.  Islam teaches that the spiritual war is far more important than the physical jihad.  

I read in Ephesians, the author telling us to be prepared for a spiritual conflict. The greater Jihad.  Which in the Roman Empire, a deeply militarized culture… would sounds very familiar- the perfect metaphor for the local people.

If you look on the cover of your bulletin, there is a picture of a suit of armor, it labels the many many parts. 

Ephesians today, lists off a bunch of these armor pieces… things that we will need for our defense and protection in this great spiritual struggle.  But the author sort of “turns” the meaning and intention of the piece in very interesting ways.

– The belt of truth.  The belt on a suit of armor is meant to hold our weaponry.  It hold our sword.  What happens I wonder when truth holds our weaponry hostage.  When we are only able to unleash a weapon in light of absolute truth- when we face an honest to goodness injustice?  I think this is about discernment.  That we aren’t to be a people that are easily provoked- get lured in by gossip, or misunderstanding or by the concerns of the masses… but that we are a thinking people. 

– The breastplate of righteousness.  The breastplate protect the heart, and most of the other important stuff really.  It isn’t steal or iron that protects our heart, it is righteousness.  It is being in “right” relationship with God.  

– The shield of faith.  The shield is arguably the most important part of any armor.  It is both weapon and a safe place to retreat into for a moment of battle time chaos.   And if you watch way to many viking documentaries like I do, you will know that your shield is more powerful when it comes together with your partners in battle.  Together you can advance in safety.  Our shields of faith is a call to community. 

– The helmet of salvation.  Confidence that we rest our eternal selves in God’s care.  That is what protects our mind and underlies our decisions. 

  • The sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. What is the Word of God? A person, a book, a promise of life abundant.  Far from a forged piece of metal. 

These are hardly things that protect our physical bodies.  

These are rules for living a distinctive, peaceful, discerning, thinking, empowered, trusting life in the community of God. 

All aspects that stand in deep contract to the Roman culture that ruled over Ephesus in the day.

And so, to make another hermeneutical leap.  

What does wearing the armor of God look like in our world?  Does this metaphor still have a place?

This passage certainly tells us that we have all that we need to insist on a just world.  We can push back at evil.  We can quell violence, we can demand that poverty is eased, we can walk along skid row and proclaim God’s presence. 

For those of you who came to hear Rev. Lindstrom speak at the spaghetti dinner last week, you heard her share about ministry in the jail.  Her congregation is young – about 45% of the jail population are kids in their late teen/ early twenties.  Her congregation is addicted – the majority of offenses in Allegan County are drug related.  Her congregation is poor – locked in generations of cyclical poverty.

And yet, there are programs in place to help these inmates recover their armor, so to speak.  To take the time to rediscover discernment, to hopefully be empowered to change their community or even to step out of their community, to be decidedly peaceful and confident.  They are given that breastplate of righteousness, that belt of truth… and they are released into the same world where they got in trouble in the first place.  And then the battle begins.  

This in where this metaphor soars.  

children of God, Perhaps the armor of God story is one for us all to store away for a season in life in which we are confronted and drawn into battle.  For a time when we asked to be distinct, to be different, to be exposed in a way… when we are asked to navigate hard places.  Maybe that is not today… then again maybe it is.  

Either way, the first thing that is asked of us in any battle is to acknowledge that God is in control. 

Amen.

August 19th, 2018 – Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

In Gory Detail

John 6: 51-58 & Ephesians 5: 15-20

Opening Prayer: God of reconciliation and new beginnings.  God of connection and relationship, it is a blessing to be gathered here today as the Body of Christ- with songs on our lips, with a thirst for your Word on our mind.  As we talk about being a communion people- a community of the Living Bread… help us to be still in your presence so that we might examine our hearts.  Be with us, Holy Spirit.  Strengthen us to be your disciples.  In Christ name and in his presence we pray… Amen.

Sermon: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” 

We continue our carbohydrate marathon in John 6, for the past four weeks we have been hearing Jesus share about how he is bread, how he (himself) is nourishment,  how he is meant for the masses, (and in a weird way) how he is ours to consume…

I had a rather stern faced ministry colleague tell me once about an experience she had while overseeing communion.

She served in a really high-church tradition, where they served communion each and every Sunday- and the act of coming to the table was done as a very solemn/serious way… only after a time of deep contrition and confession.  

Well one particular Sunday she stood behind the altar as usual…draped with a beautiful starched white linen cloth, set with the silver chalices and plates and a crystal flagon- looking very crisp and stately…  and as she raised the bread into the air saying, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed, took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, Take; eat; this is my body which is given for you.” (words many of us know by heart…) As she said those words she heard a strange noise coming from someone in the congregation… like this (noise) so she looked up… distracted for just a moment… But she continued.  She poured the wine from the flagon into the chalice… and raising the cup into the air she said “In the same way he also took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, Drink of it, all of you. This cup is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  Then she heard it again, that shocked intake of breath came from out in the congregation.  But she continued again.  Raising both the bread and the cup into the air, she said.  The body and blood of Christ.  Come and join me for a feast at God’s table.

Well that did it apparently, because the next thing the whole congregation heard was “Eww Yuck! No way! I’m not eating it!” coming from a little girl in the third row, arms crossed, sitting with her horrified grand parents.

Kids have their ways of humbling us…

So many of us find the words of institution to be so beautiful, to be so comforting.  We look at the ritual and act of communion to be one of utmost peace… something set aside and… filling.

But when was the last time that we stopped to think about what we were hearing: “This is the body and blood of Christ”?  When was the last time we thought about what we were doing? 

From an outsider looking in, it’s a wonder we don’t have more people being shocked and grossed out on a regular basis-  saying “Eww yuck!  No way!  I’m not eating it!”

It seems to me, that Jesus in our Scripture passage today, is actually trying to get a rise out of his disciples and followers. He says in Verse 53:  

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

There are two words for “body”in the Greek.  There is Soma – which is the whole of a person.  A body intact.  Or, meaning their essence, their being.  Then there is Sarx – which mean our fleshy bits. Our tissue, our organs, our blood and bone.  The language of Sarx is usually reserved for when Paul is talking about setting aside the sins of the body for the righteousness of God’s ways… or when there are mentions of sexual actions.  Sarx treated in a baser/ignoble kind of way.

And as much as I want to tell you that Jesus is inviting us to devour his bodily essence, his being… he’s not.  He is saying take a bite out of my flesh- like my fleshy flesh.  

The early Christians were accused by Romans and Jews of being cannibals! And it’s no wonder…

Jesus is saying, “Eat me!”  And, of course, his followers think he’s nuts!

It is fascinating to look back through the history of the church and read how theologians have navigated their understanding of the communion act/ the Eucharist through the centuries.

Martin Luther, who is the father of the Protestant church universal, back in the 16th century wrote in one of his many sermon: people, this is not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made,” “not flesh such as purchased in a butcher shop or is devoured by wolves and dogs,”  this is “not veal or beef found in cow barns.”  And he later talks about the difference between Jesus’ blood and a good German beer… He was a man of the people.

Martin Luther goes on eventually to say that Jesus is not talking about literally eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but making a connection between following Jesus and eating and drinking.  Just as eating and drinking are necessary for survival, so following Jesus is necessary to live fully and abundant as God intends.

John Chrysostum in the 4th Century, one of the early Christian fathers… describes the communion act as God’s love becoming incarnate in the flesh of Jesus that we eat.  Literally eat.  He writes that we can do more than look upon or observe Jesus, we can actually, “fix our teeth on his flesh and become commingled with Him.” He goes on to say that by uniting our flesh with Jesus’ we unite ourselves to his presence, his body, and his love.  

That sounds super gross… but all the while the theologian’s heart inside of me just soars hearing that.

You know, the Gospel of John as a whole was written for “insiders”, for the close knit little group of believers that followed Jesus to the point of crisis.  To the point where it has separated them, in a way, from their neighbors and families, the “Jews” hated them as the text says… This was a group that followed Jesus to the point where it gave them a new language, a new narrative, a new way, and new ethic… This little band of believers hear this gospel story read to them…and they know it all so well.  Just as we all have those Words of Institution ready on our lips “Jesus broke the bread, saying this is my body broken for you… eat of it in remembrance of me…”. They, like us, hear an echo of that communion meal every time bread or wine is mentioned in the scriptures- even the feeding of the 5000 rings of the gathering table of Christ.  That table of abundance. 

Whether you are a believer in Transubstantiation- Like Chrysostum, believing that the bread and the cup are the actual body of Christ that we fix our teeth into.

Or a believer in Consubstantiation- Like Luther, who believed that communion made us one with Christ.  

Or neither… perhaps we are just looking to remember Christ’s sacrifice… anyway you approach it, The gift or the Living Bread is all the same: The bread of life, Jesus, was given/sacrificed to reveal God’s way of abundant life for all people.  

Perhaps for some we are biting into the Soma, for others it’s the Sarx.  But either way there is an invitation echoing in the Living Bread – when we hear Christ pleading with us to indeed take a big old bite of Gospel…

We know that:

– When we live in a way of self-sacrifice, of love and grace and wisdom – we receive Christ’s gift.

– When we live as Jesus lived, eat as Jesus ate, love as Jesus loved, act as Jesus acted, provoke and Jesus provoked  – we receive Christ’s gift.

– When we serve in unity, when we dare to love one another even when we don’t understand each other or annoy the heck out of one another – we receive Christ’s gift.

– When we endure the sarx, the base things in life, while striving for the soma, the essence – we receive Christ’s gift.  

We celebrate communion to remember Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection – AND- to remind us that Jesus dwells within us, even today. 

O Benjamin Sparks wrote in his commentary, “One avenue of interpretation is to take the institution of the Lord’s Supper as Jesus’ gift to the church (and” through the church to the whole cosmos) for life abundant now, and for life with God everlasting…” Remember, “Eternity keep on dipping into our time.  Our memorial feast of bread and wine joins us with the living Christ, who is forever – and thus joined to him, we are forever.”  That is Christ’s gift to us. 

I really wish this passage had fallen on a first Sunday of the month when we share communion as a family.  Or as Sparks said, when we celebrate “eternity dipping into our time.” I’ll have to dog-ear that quote for a couple of weeks. 

But let us remember today, children of God, that Jesus dwells in us.  In our hands, in our feet, in our guts, in our gore… Jesus in there.  So live in respect of that.  Live in an integrity that honors the ever-presence of our Lord.  May our Lord, be welcome (be comfortable even) in our sarx and in our soma.  

Amen.  

August 12th, 2018 – Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Uncommonly Common

Ephesians 4: 25-5:2 & John 6: 35, 41-51

Opening Prayer: Gracious God, Lord of All, what a privilege it is to open your Holy Word.  To discover ancient texts that are still vibrant, compelling, and perhaps trying for us even today.  God as we talk about your ways… help us to be still in your presence so that we might examine our hearts.  Be with us, Holy Father.  Strengthen us to be your disciples.  In Christ name and in his presence we pray… Amen.

Sermon: When I think back on the neighborhood of my youth there are a few faces that I think would be impossible to forget.  

– There is Katie Harris, we were in the same grade, and she lived just two blocks away, she buzzed with energy (she was like a puppy) and her family had a mulberry tree in their back yard which we would climb around in for hours eating berries and talking about the Power Rangers.  She would then come over to my house and she would eat every Little Debbie in the pantry.  If there was a Cosmic Brownie or an Oatmeal Cream Pie in sight… it was in her mouth or being stuffed into her pocket for later.  

– Then there was Robby Hunter, who, when I was four years old, ran me over on his mountain bike.  I scrapped up my little knee, and I had a wheel print across the front of my orange summer dress… and later that day Robbie’s mom made him come over and apologize.  

– And there was Leah Husby, a grade older than me, two houses down and way out of my coolness league… she had a water bed!  A WATER BED, PEOPLE!  She was awesome.  We would make beaded key chains and braided bracelets on the weekends.  

– And of course the Karek boys right across the street.  Three boys, pretty close in age to my sister and I… one fourth of July I remember they shot fireworks at our house when their parents weren’t watching…and every winter they would build this epic igloo in the front yard.  They would carve stairs into in and shape a slide into it and everything.  They would ice it down… it was awesomely dangerous.

It is hard to believe that now…today… one is a concert violinist, another an author, another is wall street investment banking guru, another a surgeon, another a teacher, another a physicist… 

It’s been years since I have spoken with any of these people, but I know them.  I know the posters they hung on their bedrooms growing up – Which Backstreet Boy was their favorite. I know what they looked like as acne ridden and grumpy tween-agers.  I know they favorite TV shows, what they wanted to be when they grew up.  I was probably there for a couple of their most embarrassing moments.  I was there to sign their casts when they broke themselves.  I know them. Their roots, their families, their values at least.

In our Gospel reading today we find Jesus in Capernaum- in his old neighborhood.  In a place where he is known. The Capernaum-ites what they saw when they looked at him was “Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph.”   They knew his siblings.  They had watched him learn his trade as a teen, they had watched him as he grew up and left home.  If this were a few millennia in the future… They probably would have known who his favorite Backstreet Boy was and been there to sign his casts too.  

Jesus walked into Capernaum as a teacher, as a rabbi, as a miracle worker… and while they, (the people of his hometown) might have been proud of him/ or admired his devotion to God… even if they were deeply confused by his rhetoric… It’s unlikely that they saw him as something all that special/ different from themselves.  At best, he was the best of them.  He certainly wasn’t the one God had sent for redemption… not in their eyes.  They knew him: this roots, his family, his values… or so they thought.

And honestly, can we blame them- the people of Capernaum?  When we are in need/ when we find ourselves walking a dark valley way/ when we are hurt, afraid, vulnerable… we want to call out to a God that is as unlike us as possible, don’t we?  We want a God who is big and mighty, who answers us quickly and clearly, we want a God who is strength and miracle, who is there any place/ any time we need… We want the OMNI God – the everything God.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly never find myself calling our for a backwoods Palestinian preacher who had a talent for ticking off the authorities when I close my eyes at the end of a hard stressful day while looking for clarity and healing and blessed sense.

I want that old wise man in the clouds who can answer my prayers like Santa opening his Christmas sack – doling out blessings to those who at least try to be good.  Santa makes much more sense.

The people of John’s story here… got offended, angry even when Jesus suggested that he… he!  A man just like them… was the one whom they had been praying for and praying too all their lives.  He was the one that was there to meet their deepest longings/ he was to be their redeemer.

Of course they were offended!

“Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they are supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.” Causing them so much… of everything.

Of course they were offended!  Aren’t we?

We are each flawed, our lives a mosaic of failures, and successes.  Tapestries woven out of fear and doubt, hope and promises, grudges and fickle loyalties. There are bright, bold dignified strands just as there are deep stains and weather worn patches.  We are mixed bags… and it is hard to fathom that God could want anything to do with us, let alone be one of us.

So, if Jesus is like them (like us) then aren’t we doomed?  For how can someone like them (like us)… save?  

Just as that question escapes my lips…I think of God’s extraordinary pattern of unexpectedness. 

Throughout the Bible – God has never done the easy/logical thing.

God crows the runt of the litter – David.

God chose a man with a stutter to speak for his nation – Moses.

God chose a young girl, not married, not from privilege, not secure to bear God’s Son – Mary.

And so it fits that Jesus would continue the legacy of unexpectedness.

Jesus chose a tax collector to be his friend.

Jesus went to the well to offer his grace and forgiveness – far more often than the temple. 

Jesus chose a stumbling block, Peter, to be the rock of his church.

And even here!  Even now.  Think with me about how God continues to work and be present in the church – think with me of the waters of baptism.  The water we use for one the most sacred acts of the Christian life isn’t holy in and of itself- it is the same as what we use of for drinking, bathing, and brushing our teeth.  The same bread that we pass around the dinner table of our family meals/ the same bread that hold our fast-food chicken sandwich that we shovel in frantically as we race the clock to the next meeting/the next kid’s event… it is the same bread that Jesus blessed and broke and gave as a promise of reconciliation.  These are ordinary things.  Hardly worthy of God’s attention- let alone God’s use… 

And yet, if we are bold enough and audacious enough, if we open ourselves to a little divine foolishness… we can see that maybe God uses such things to achieve God’s will of bringing salvation to the world.  Of being present in time of harshness and joy/ those frazzled moments and smooth restful sabbaths… 

How? Why? we might well ask. Because of this very truth: Jesus, who was common, ordinary, mortal like you and me… was also uncommon, divine, the very Son of God. This is the claim Jesus makes in today’s gospel reading, the claim which offended the crowd who followed him then, the claim which still offends any who take it seriously today. For where we expect God to come in might, God comes in weakness; where we look for God to come in power, God comes in vulnerability; and when we seek God in justice… we find God in forgiveness and mercy.

This is our Gospel today: That God took on flesh, became incarnate, became just like us- so that God might save us… that God might build ways for us – through ordinary things- build ways for all people to be invited into the irresistible life of faith.

Children of God, I encourage you today to simply be in awe of God.  To marvel at the unexpected beauty of God’s ways.  To not be fooled by the simple packaging or the ordinary means of our Lord. We are to be in awe… of our uncommon/common, ordinary/extraordinary, simple/divine God today and every day.

August 5th, 2018 – Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

“Building Up The Body”

Ephesians 4: 1-16 & John 6: 24-35

Opening Prayer:  Gracious God, Lord of All, what a privilege it is to open your Holy Word.  To discover ancient texts that are still vibrant, compelling, and perhaps trying for us even today.  God as we talk about your ways… help us to be still in your presence so that we might examine our hearts.  Be with us, Holy Father.  Strengthen us to be your disciples.  In Christ name and in his presence we pray… Amen.

Sermon: Back in 1958, the government of China, led by Chairman Mao Zedong, they were committed to changing the collective identity of China through a process that they called, the Great Leap Forward.  It was their goal move the country from being an traditional agrarian economy towards being a socialist society by way of rapid industrialization and collectivization.  As I was reading about this, I had to look up what collectivization was… and it is a prioritization of the group over the self/ a committed cohesiveness.  

Do you all remember the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics?

There will never be another one like it!  The whole ceremony showcased synchronized movement among hundreds of musicians, drummers or dancers.  These masses of people all moved as one.  It was beautiful.  

That was a real celebration of Chinese collectivism.  

But as you can image… as a governmental policy, collectivization is a bit lacking (shall we say)… there was defiantly a darker side to this Great Leap Forward movement.  For example: all of a sudden private farming is prohibited – those seeking to hang on to their old family farms were labeled counter-revolutionaries… and they became subject to persecution and prosecution.  This hit the rural communities especially hard. The rural poor were ordered away from agricultural work and forced to join the iron and steel production workforce. 

The millions of people who resisted were put into forced labor camps and made to experience “struggle sessions”, which were these public displays of humiliation.  Like the stocks… but worse.  If a person was famous enough they would bring them to a stadium to be humiliated and abused in front of the whole community. 

Anyway, it was an awful time… and to make things worse, the country was experiencing a massive drought.  This drought in combination with a switch to governmentally regulated farming…   well it just decimated the environment.  Gone were the people who knew the land and the rhythms of the wildlife… Gone was all that wisdom, wasted as the farmers were now forced to be steel workers.

It was just mistake after mistake… In hopes of increasing productivity, the government ordered that sparrows be hunted and scared off from landing on cultivated fields… thinking that would protect the seeds… but instead it just left the insect population unchecked- which lead to low yields.  And the government started mandating “deep-tilling” which was thought to strengthen root systems… but in areas of sandy soil… it destroyed any productivity the soil had – bring the sand to the top and burying the good top soil… this plummeted the country into a famine so pervasive that one journalist, Yang Jisheng, reported that 36 million people died of starvation between 1958-1962.  The Chinese government reports the death toll at 15 million.  It was said that people were dying in the doorways of the granary pleading for help… but that officials wouldn’t even batted an eye at the possibility of opening the granary for they had a delivery quota to fulfill.  

Now, it wasn’t until 1966 that public expression of religious life was banned by the communist party in China.  

And so, foreign Christian missionaries still (if just for the moment) were free-ish during this famine to roam under the radar.  And, as much as possible, missionaries were importing rice and grain and water and produce from neighboring countries and distributing it to rural communities that were being hit the hardest.  Which is just wonderfully sneaky!!  

And in response the Christian church in China was booming… kinda. 

You can probably see the issue coming here.

People would come to worship and receive bags of food to take home with them.  Which is some good ministry, bellies are full during a famine- Praise God!  Meeting needs, after all, is an integral part of witnessing to the Gospel.  Christians have been building schools, providing health care, engaging in relief services and acts of justice since the Great Commission… It is our calling!  And it is right and good!

But there can be… in the frenzy of providing during time of suffering/ in the excitement of tallying up converts… an kind of exploration of poverty that happens- an exploitation of hardship. 

Back in the 17th century a French Priest who was ministering in a similar situation wrote: “alms of rice have converted more than their preaching.”

And sure enough… when the famine ended.  The government finally got the hang of farming regulations/ they stopped killing off the sparrows for one… and finally the rain returned…. and with it the church diminished.  

Lots of people stopped coming to worship when they didn’t need that bag of food anymore.  They stopped checking in with their community when they realized that they didn’t have to lean on them anymore.  

It makes sense really.  Humans are remarkable adaptable- we will do whatever we have to do to survive.  But we are also pretty determined to go it our own way.  

Now… it is this that our Scripture passage in John is addressing today.  I don’t know what to call this… inevitable jaded ministry complex? 

I don’t have a name for this.

But let’s look at the text.

Last week we explored the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  We celebrated Jesus’ miracle of generosity and abundance.  Jesus took what he had, a whole lot of nothing, and turned it into a feast to meet the needs of the people.  

That night, after everyone has had their fill, Jesus and disciples head across the lake for a little rest and relaxation… but, what happened when the crowd woke up in the morning?  They were hungry again!  They wanted another pass at the buffet line.  So they go looking for Christ, and they find him.  

       perhaps Jesus saw it in their eye/saw it in their posture… He knew that they were coming to him because their tummies were rumbling- he was their meal ticket.  They weren’t coming to him because they were in awe of Godoy because they were just so taken with Christ.  So, Jesus calls them out (verse 26), “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted.  Don’t work for the food the doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

Jesus is breaking down the transactional quid-pro-qua system that the people are expecting.

He is nipping it in the bud.  

Jesus knows that they want something from him… they even ask, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requites?”

Jesus response, “Believe.”

And again they say, “What sign will you give us so that we might believe? What will you do for us? After all Moses gave the people manna.  You gave us dinner last night, lets give that another try!” 

They are determined to get something from Jesus and so he squashes their expectation.  He breaks down the transactional quid-pro-qua system.  

That nonsense is for the Romans, it is for people who are power hungry, it is used for manipulation/ for exploitation… it will not happen here.  There is no room for that “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours philosophy.”  

Jesus makes an example out of their physical hunger in this scene.  He says no to what they are asking for, in order to help them reorder their thinking.  

(Verse 32) “Jesus told them, “I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

And the crowd says in response, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”  

… that is when I picture Jesus groaning and rolling his eyes.  Again the crowd is so fixed on having their physical needs meet – needs that Jesus knows himself.  He woke up just as hungry as they did.  

But God’s miracles are not about food.   Feeding the 5000 wasn’t about the food.  It was about inviting people into relationship with God.  

Jesus stands before them – Son of God, the Word fulfilled, God incarnate – and they are not really looking for him… they are just looking for what he can do for them.  And Jesus’ response is, “I am.  I am who you are looking for.  It’s not what I can do, it is who I am that you need.”

I heard in a podcast this week someone, sort of, ruminating on the fact that the word “parent” has become a verb.  How society now thinks of parenting as something that we do rather than a relationship we are in.  Parenting is now something that is task oriented, now their is a product that needs raising (which is the child).

Rather than letting a person be a parent/ be in relationship with this other person who is their kid.  All of a sudden it is an action word.  

This is what the crowd is doing to Jesus- they are turning Jesus into a verb.  They assume that being Jesus is about cranking out the miracles and providing… but in truth… Jesus is a person with whom we are to be in relationship with.  

This is not to say that actions don’t count.  The rumble in their tummies matters. 

Just as being a parent moves us from a state a being into loving action on behalf of our children.

Being a Christian moves us from our blessed state of being into loving action towards others to glorify our God.

As Jesus is stating here – Actions must emerge from relationship.

O Benjamin Sparks wrote in his commentary this week about people who come to church looking for the wrong things and he sums it up in light of this Gospel passage so well when he said: “We are accustomed to inviting people into the community of faith for all the wrong reasons: for the “right” kind of worship; for political engagement on behalf of the poor and downtrodden; for the sake of a Christian America; for a strong youth and family ministry; for the opportunity to practice mission in a downtown location, or to go on mission trips to Africa or Central America. Yet what we have to offer—in Christ and by Christ and because of Christ—first and foremost is “soul food,” which lasts forever and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. It is soul food that we desire, and soul food in which we will rejoice, long after our bellies are full of rice and our lives know justice in a free society.”

The missionaries in China who were working hard to feed the people, whoever they could, they were doing good, loving, Christ centered, God honoring work.  But there was a season of deep disillusionment that came when the famine was over – that many let jade them.  It came because they put too much stock in that quid-pro-quo falsehood that they wanted so desperately to believe in.  “I’ll give you food, you give your life for Christ.”

That approach is not going to work.  

We give to celebrate God.  We work hard for our communities because God made us able and has blessed us to be a blessing.  

We pass around the bread of life because we know that it leads to something more.  The “I am.” 

Children of God, how often to we too come to church, hoping that God will do something for us?  Or looking for what God is going to do through us?  Instead of savoring the opportunity to simply deepen our relationship with God.  To deepen it through prayer, through community, through the majesty of singing together, through the exploration of the Word?

How often have we heard, I come to church to be fed?  No, we come to be with God.  To be in relationship.  If our cup is filled in the meantime- that’s great.  Jesus fed the people first, let’s remember!  But what we do here together is bigger than that.  We come here for the ‘soul food.’ 

To be with God. 

       As we move into our time of communion this morning.  Let us remember that this is not just another turn at the buffet line of blessing.  That this is a moment of relationship.  Of savoring soul food.  Imagine yourself, seated across from your God at the table of togetherness.  What do you have to say, Today? How will you connect?