July 16th 2017- Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Fighting Babies

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‘Ohana’ Means Family

Genesis 25: 19-34

I spent a couple of days last week helping out at the Michigan Congregational Summer Camp.  A few of you, I know, have helped out at Church Camp in the past or have had children attend.  As I posted pictures on Facebook of the kids singing about the camp fire with Claude, and climbing the rock wall and zipping away down the zip line… I appreciated reading your encouraging/ memory filled responses.

This week, it was a true camp experience, ( I gotta tell ya) it rained (like, torrential rain) every day- so the kids had plenty of time to bond in the cabins or at the arts and craft pavilion.  When those big/ heavy clouds finally parted there was always this manic dash down to the beach for swimming… oddly enough…

One little moment that will stick with me… was on Thursday morning during the staff meeting, the “counselor of the day”/ who was perhaps a junior in high school, he stands up to lead the group in devotions. And says simply this:

“To quote my favorite Disney movie – Ohana means family!  And family means that no one gets left behind! – So, folks… May God help us not lose any campers today!  Amen.”

It was my privilege and joy to led our congregational kids from around the state in Bible study and discussion for a couple of days…

Let’s pray:

Good and Gracious Lord, we thank you for the opportunity to open your Word and receive it’s inspiration and truth.  May you guide and redeem this message today for your glory.  Amen.

Our Genesis passage, is an Ohana story/a family tale.  But… This is definitely not a tale in which “no one get’s left behind”…

Rebekah, after years of waiting and worrying and praying, she gives birth to twin boys.

These two won’t grow up to share a special twin language, or swap identities to pull hi-jinx on their teachers (they are defiantly not Fred and George Wesley).  In fact there is nothing identical about them.  Not in their appearance, not in the nature, even their parents prefer one twin over the other.  Scripture tells us that the only thing that binds them is enmity.  Even in the womb they were at war with one another.

Esau and Jacob.

Right after Isaac marries Rebekah… Abraham dies, at the young age of 175.  So the pressure is on for the newlyweds to carry on the Covenant.  They have to have some kids, and fast…  And to make this task even more urgent, Ishmael (if you can remember him, the other son of Abraham that he had with the servant Hagar)… well, he already has twelve children by this time!

Now for a slight tangent:

You may have noticed that infertility is a common story in Scripture.  The Bible is filled with strong figures that have struggled to bear children, or had problem pregnancies and difficult births. There is Sarah before Rebekah, and Rachel after her.  Later on the same struggle would be shared by Hannah, eventual mother of Samuel.  Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.

By the time that Isaac and Rebekah are pushing 60 years old, the biology of this situation is not looking good.  It is at that point that Isaac takes a spiritual risk and hands the whole situation over to God.  He let go of any control…

Rebekah and Issac, had to learn an important lesson.  One that Sarah and Abraham had to learn before then… When it comes to God’s work, we have to get out of the way.

But this isn’t a lesson that can be taught or wisdom that can be shared… it’s only one that can be experienced.

The very idea of telling a young couple that is struggling to have children to trust and get out of God’s way… it’s just cruel, isn’t it?

To pat someone on the head and say, “All in God’s timing, my dear.” Seems like an empty platitude- one that leaves no room for fear, or grief, or frustration.  At best it’s artificial. At worst it implies that someone isn’t faithful enough.

And in Rebekah and Issac’s era having children was more about security and identity and status than a happy extension of a family… In this culture the platitudes would have been utterly unbearable.

Know that this theme in Scripture of “the barren women” is meant to be a spiritual metaphor far more than it is a physical reality.

In the Hebrew language, fertility is spoken of as God opening and closing the womb.  In Genesis, for Abraham’s descendants, the ability to bring about the next generation of God’s people is about struggling and finally accepting the Lordship of God.

When Rebekah finally become pregnant, she and Issac knew that these children were part of God’s plan to move the covenant forward… rather than simply the product of biology.

Tangent complete!

And it’s a good thing that Rebekah is described as a physically strong woman… for as the story goes: “The boys pushed against each other inside of her, and she said, “If this is what it’s like, why did it happen to me?”  And the Lord said to her, two nations are in your womb; two different peoples will emerge from your body.  One will be stronger than the other; the older will serve the younger.”

Even as babies Jacob and Esau were war-ing against each other.  This wording in the Hebrew pops up again in the Book of Judges when there is talk of skulls being smashed (Judg 9:53; Ps 74:14), or in Isaiah referring to reeds being broken (Isa 36:6).

Poor Rebekah.

When the children are finally born.  The first child comes out red and hairy – and named Esau, meaning “Hairy One”.  The second baby emerges hanging on to his brother’s heel, and is named Jacob, meaning “The Heel.”

If anyone of you wrestled back in school, you may know that there are wrestling moves that involve grabbing on to a person’s heel to make them unstable/unbalanced.  That’s exactly what this is.

The events of their birth, characterizes the rest of their young lives.  Filled with divisiveness, and attempts to unbalance the other.

The story tells us that Esau would grow up to be an outdoorsman.

One commentator that I read this week said, “I think if Esau were around today, he’d be driving a 4 x4 with massive tires on it and a gun rack in the back window! …  And if you went to his house, he’d have a magazine rack filled with Field and Stream.”

Esau is more brawn than brain.

But lucky for Esau, his father liked him.  Isaac had a taste for wild game, and Esau kept him well supplied.

As they say, “The quickest way to a man’s heart…” (is what?)

But unlucky for Esau, his brother Jacob was more brain than brawn!

The birthright is naturally passed on to the eldest son: this is a double portion of the inheritance, but more importantly the one with the birthright becomes the head of the family- both in governance and spiritual leadership.  

Jacob was not okay with Esau being the intended recipient of the birthright.

So when Jacob, The Heel, sees his opportunity to unbalance Esau, he takes it.

After a long hot day of hunting, Esau comes back to the tents and sees Jacob cooking up his favorite stew.  Esau demands to be served, saying he is inches from death.

“Here’s my chance!” Jacob thinks.  Again, “The quickest way to a man’s heart…” (is what?)

Well, it turns out that the quickest way to a man’s birthright is through his stomach as well.

“Sell me your birthright.”  Jacob says.

“He ate, drank, got up, and left, showing just how little he thought of his birthright.”(CEB Genesis 25:34)

Back in the late 1800s, in Mayfield County, KY.  There were two deacons at a small Baptist church.  These two men, they hated each other!  Always trying to get in each other way.  On one particular Sunday, a deacon put up a small wooden peg on the back wall of the church near the door so that the minister had a place where he could hang his hat.  When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged!  Absolutely furious that he wasn’t consulted.  The congregation was forced to take sides and eventually the church split.   And to this day in that county, there are Peg Baptists and Anti-Peg Baptists…

This congregation is a little like the twins.  The deacons had one task, to let God lead.  But they let their rivalry get in the way, which tore the family apart…

The next 12 chapters of Genesis are devoted to Jacob’s story.  He is a compelling anti-hero.  He is smart and cunning, driven and insightful… And he has Issac’s birthright and blessing.  But it takes him a long time to accept God’s Lordship in his life.  In the chapters to follow, we see God’s hand seeking to guide Jacob, and often it is spurred/ only being accepted if it gave Jacob what he wanted.  It get’s to the point where God meets him, in the flesh, on the banks of the River Jabbok to physically wrestle him.  As the Scripture goes, “A man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.  When the man saw that he still did not prevail again Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint…” But still Jacob hangs on saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”  Jacob is always twisting things to his own will!

Nevertheless, he would eventually receive God’s blessing, and be given a new name: Israel.

His name would eventually become synonymous with God’s people.  And for good reason… perhaps we are all a little like Jacob.  Always trying to have our way.  Only accepting God’s guidance when it points us in the direction we want to go, or open doors to opportunities that serve us.  We too are locked in a wrestling match with the Lord.

Frederick Beuchner wrote this:

“Luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who he is.  It’s on the house is one way of saying it and it’s by grace is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.”

Children of God, Jacob and Esau’s story reminds us God never abandons us to our own fickleness or self-interest or scheming.  In fact, it would seem that throughout the Bible, God is always gravitating towards those in need of redemption.  Those with much to learn: the proud, the powerless, the bruised and vulnerable.  While these people, may not be any better than the powerful or naturally humble… they are nevertheless those who God generally chooses to work through to move the covenant of God’s relationship with humanity forward

It would seem, through the work of the Holy Sprit, no one, not even a trickster like Jacob, is unqualified to do God’s loving/merciful work on Earth.

Amen.

July 9th 2017 – Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

the Tug

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Pull Together Now

Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Rebekah’s online dating profile would read like this: strong, independent woman, filled with compassion and a cunning spirit.  Willing to travel, accompanied by a nurse and maid, to care for babies to be one day.  Able to ride camels and dismount gracefully.

Isaac’s would read something like this:  40 year old mamma’s boy bachelor with the keys to the kingdom.  Intelligent (although sometimes naive), exceptionally loyal, and seeking wife with a very specific set of qualities- She must be willing to move and accept my marriage proposal through a mediator. Sight unseen.  Must be a cousin.  And must worship the one true God.

Isaac and Rebekah.  The scene that Erik read for us this morning is their “meet cute.”  That moment when a future couple, first encounters one another.  In the film world, this moment is sometimes adorable/ sometimes awkward and yet… always filled with hope.  Isaac and Rebekah’s “meet cute” is all that.

Remember when Rebekah first laid eyes on Isaac?  The verse simply say that, “She got down from her camel.”  In other translations it suggests that she quickly dismounted… but the translators are all being kind to her, for in the Hebrew there is no mistaking the fact that she fell off her camel.  The story goes on to say that she then put on a veil and covered herself for modesty sake before meeting her future husband… but I think we all know that she was really just hiding her embarrassed blush and righting her tumbled clothing…

Isaac and Rebekah’s story is meant to charm us.

There are a lot of little nuances of their meeting that are just wonderful:

Abraham’s servant found Rebekah at the well… the place where women went to find partners.  It was the eHarmony of its day.

It wasn’t Isaac’s choice to send someone out to fetch a bride, it was Abraham’s.  Isaac wan’t even consulted.

But it was Rebekah’s choice to get married.  Even Rebekah’s father, who traditionally had the final say, placed the decision solely in her hands.

Did you notice the exchange of jewelry?  While today we exchange wedding bands.  Rebekah was give bracelets and a nose ring.

And finally, Abraham’s servant asked God for a sign as to who should marry Isaac.  He asked God to send him a woman that would offer him a drink and water his camels.  Watering the human was easy, camels on the other hand drink about 30-50 gallons of water at a time- and he had camels, as in plural.  She would have been drawing water all day long for this stranger.

Isaac’s name means laughter.  And so, it seems that Rebekah is his fitting partner. The Scripture tells us distinctly that he married her and he loved her.

While this story is meant to charm us, it is also meant to fill us with confidence. 

Abraham and Sarah were adventurers and dreamers, they were the first open to hearing God’s whispers.  They would overcome the odds to begin a holy nation together.

Isaac and Rebekah would pick up the baton from them.

Together they would take this vast concept of “God’s people”- as vast as the stars, and they would give birth, quite literally, to the distinct nation of Israel.

I love Genesis.  From the very beginning of God’s story we are taught that God invites unexpected people/ unexpected encounters to pave the way for God’s will in this world.  The extraordinary through the o’ so very ordinary.

It’s a truth that is woven into nearly every tale that the Bible has to offer- and today’s Gospel lesson is no exception.

As much as I would like to linger over Isaac and Rebekah’s romance… It’s Jesus who has the better lesson for us today.  And just to warn you, our gospel reading stands in stark contrast, as Jesus is doing a fair bit of yelling.

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another…”

As he rants you can practically feel the migraine coming on…

You see, John the Baptist had just been arrested… and knowing that his death is likely… John directs his disciples towards Jesus… but they have their doubts.  They ask him, “Are you really the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” In other words: are you really the Messiah?

If I were Jesus… there would have been a major eye roll at this moment.

And so he responds (perhaps kindly, perhaps yelling- your choice).  He says, “I have given sight to the blind, I have healed broken bodies.  I have cleansed those with leprosy, I have opened the ears of the deaf. Shoot! I’ve even raised the dead. I have proclaimed good news to the poor from one end of this desert to the next, you brats!”  *I added that last part.

Jesus failed to fulfill their expectations.  And quite frankly I think Jesus may have been proud of that fact, proud of the fact that he was utterly unexpected.  The text tells us that they called him a drunkard and a glutton- maybe because he always knew where the best parties were, but more likely because he was determined to meet the people wherever they were.

They called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners- scandalous!  But he was, unabashedly, a friend to all.  He even invited a few disgraced sinners to be his closest disciples.  He didn’t care about the baggage that people brought with them into their friendship… he only cared that the friendship existed in the first place. 

Jesus was weary of proving himself.  Especially when they were so bent on trying to pound a square peg into a round hole- forcing him to fit their image of a King.

But, Jesus was Jesus.  A backwoods, Palestinian preacher from no-wheres-ville.  A child of humble parents- who were not exactly nobility.  He had dirty feet from the miles he tracked bringing good news.  He was surrounded by a band of loyal misfits.  He had nothing more and nothing less to offer this world than himself.

And Jesus, I think he liked in that way.  The purity of it all.  The sly unexpected nature of his Godliness.

He would die for these people he loved them so.  Even for the disciples of John who wanted more magic tricks so that they could possibly/maybe/perhaps then believe.

Isaac and Rebekah.  Jesus and the leery disciple.  Somehow… they are love stories both.

But then, once Jesus calms down and has had some time in prayer… we have this nugget of brilliance from him:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest from your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Seeing their own fear, skepticism, weariness/ seeing their earnest desire to know…  Jesus passes the peace and he offers an invitation.

But… perhaps you noticed this… Jesus doesn’t offer to unburden them, but to burden them with something completely different.  Jesus wants to change out the yokes around their necks.  They are offered a light burden and and easy yoke– oxymorons if I’ve ever heard them before.

It seems that with Jesus there is still a yoke, there is still a burden.

With the children we talked about the purpose of a yoke… That they allowed animals to pull together on a heavy load when working in pairs or teams.

So, in essence we are invited onto God’s team.  But through this yoke imagery, we are reminded that there is work to be done, we are reminded that we are part of something far greater than just ourselves.  To be yoked will require our focus, our everything… and we are held accountable for our effort.

Think again of Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist.  He has invited them onto his team.  But he makes it clear that they can only be yoked to one cart at a time.  Their expectations, their fear, their allegiances…  They have to be shed/ given up… so that they can now be burdened with the yoke of Christ.

Lance Pape wrote this:

“What Jesus offers is not freedom from work, but freedom from onerous labor…The easy yoke means having something to do: a purpose that demands your all and summons forth your best…It means work toward a certain future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true. To accept the yoke of the gentle/ humble Lord is to embrace the worthy task that puts the soul at ease.”

Taking on the yoke of Christ is a celebration in the fact that we are part of a vision that went back all the way to Abraham and Sarah/ Isaac and Rebekah.  We are yet more unexpected people pulling the cart of God’s will in this world.  We are the ordinary, for the sake of the extraordinary.

Together, in our yoke, we pull towards the kingdom of God!

And in that collective effort, there is joy, there is spiritual assurance and rest, there is a true freedom for our often captive hearts.

Children of God, it’s true.  We pull towards the kingdom of God!  It’s our job, together. It’s our purpose as God’s Church.

In giving to the Smile Train, our summer mission partnership…we pull towards a more just world.  We make a monetary effort to bring sustainable medical care to children in developing worlds.  For all people deserve to be healthy and never feel they must hold back a smile.

In caring for this wonderful earth/ in being good stewards of our resources… we pull towards a world that is whole and viable, where God’s creative work can continue.

In Biblical study and discussion… we pull towards a more enlighten community, one where God’s truth can be heard and shared.

In our commitment to fellowship… we pull towards a kingdom where the dignity and worth of all people are celebrated, where differences are not seen as a threat but an opportunity to encounter this (sometimes absurd) culture from a new vantage point.

Together we pull towards the kingdom of God.  Just as Rebekah and Issac made way for the nation of Israel, we do our work now to carry God’s story and will forward.

July 2nd 2017 – Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Faith, Freedom, Fellowship

Matthew 10: 40-42 & Genesis 22: 1-14

NACCC Annual Meeting.pngI nicknamed June, “The Parade of Previous Pastors.”  We have been blessed to have had the Rev. Dick Haferman stop by to co-lead a memorial service, Rev. Liam Battjes led worship on Father’s Day (which I know was a very special worship service for him) and then last week, of course, we had the Rev. Bruce Vander Kolk leading our service.  All familiar faces.  What an incredibly special time this has been for our church community to celebrate our “previous pastors” this way, by having them visit and lead us once again in our time of prayer and reflection.  I’m so glad that we can maintain such a friendly, strong relationship with each of these men.

In the wake of “The Parade of Previous Pastors” I just want to say thank you to the congregation – for blessing me to be able to go on a much needed little road time. I had a day in Chicago to explore a new museum, and a few days in Nashville to spoil my niece and nephew by taking them to Chuck-e-Cheese and their other favorite hangouts.  Then it was on to Demorest, Georgia (to Piedmont College) for the Annual Meeting and Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.  Which never fails to be wonderfully life giving, inspiring, and educational – this year especially as our Bible Lecturer was Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor.  If you were following my Facebook postings of the conference you would know that she is the Beyonce of the preaching world and I was star stuck all week!!   (At the worship service on Sunday I was helping pass the communion trays and as I was handed the tray of grape juice cups I just had this horrible vision of turning to her and dumping them all on her lap.  *I didn’t though!*)

Just before I left for this road trip to GA, the Reformed Church of America the RCA.  They had their national annual gathering, called General Synod.  It was hosted in Holland this year, so I heard a lot about it.  And I know that a lot of pastors, lay leaders, and whole congregations walk away from that meeting a little frustrated- for they spent ample time in their business meeting quibbling over the Heildelberg Catechism of 1563 that eventually led no-where really.  Just around again in a circle.

While I mean no disrespect for our RCA brothers and sisters… for they are seeking to faithfully steer a massive barge of a denomination… I am reminded to be thankful to be a part of the NACCC, where we can steer our nimble little canoes in and out of choppy social and theological waters with much more spiritual freedom and communal agility.

In fact the biggest squabble that we had at our business meetings this year in Georgia was over upholding the voice of the little church.  It was about how we vote and are represented. Someone moved that we do all that we can to make sure that everyone maintains an equal voice.  And then a hardy debate began between the Robert Rules of Order following purest and the (ach-em) true congregationalists.

I’m so thankful that there is an air of trust and transparency whenever our sister churches get together to talk business.  It means that we can quickly navigate boring budget talks and committee reports to get down to what is truly important- fellowship.

On Sunday afternoon, the youth conference came together with the – ah, old people conference, I don’t know how to separate it – And we packed meals for the Rise Against Hunger program.  We packed just shy of 21,000 meals together in an hour.  And throughout the room I saw hundreds of youth from all over the country standing side by side with people 2,3,4 times their age packing meals and dancing along to the Jackson Five.  As we gathered to sing and pray before each of the business meetings I was delighted to look around and see our Samoan church from California was there, proudly wearing their tradition dress, our urban churches from LA, and Chicago, and Brooklyn were all there.  I shared a meal with Pastor Hardy from Church of the Valley in Chandler, AZ a traditionally black church with just 30 members- and we both gushed about our communities and the programs we’re excited about.  Interestingly, there were two new churches there who’s membership is completely online, their weekly worship services are all done through Facebook Live!  How cool!   We had churches present that have just eight faithful members in the whole congregation and churches with thousands of members. There were national task teams circulating information about encouraging special needs people in the worship space, there were workshops on revitalizing historic churches, on family ministry, church safety, future thinking churches, and creative preaching… The conference was a celebration in diversity and thought!

One of my favorite moments was during the ceremony where we uplift and pray for our new seminary graduates.  We celebrated Paul, a gay man who was just ordained two weeks ago at his new church in Nebraska.  And we simply affirmed him and raised his ministry to God with all the rest of the graduates.  And we didn’t even have to hold a vote about whether or not we all agreed with the call that God placed on his heart…. We just received him as a new colleague and friend.

The NACCC is truly a place for everybody.  We boldly gather in the name of Christ to move towards decisive and intentional fellowship, towards freedom of conscious, towards a faith that is never allowed to be stagnant or held up due to the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.  There is a sense of movement, and relevance in the Congregational Way these days that is so palpable.

Sometimes the NA is an absolute island of misfit toys- but, in Christ, it works.

Now, our Scripture readings, given where my mind and heart has been all week long, they are so fitting.

Our passage in Matthew is the benediction of sorts from Jesus’ missionary discourse, he is sending out his disciples to minister to the world.  He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…”  Jesus tells them all to go and welcome strangers and others into their lives.   But also, Jesus tells them to go and be welcomed themselves.  All in all they are to be a living/breathing people of hospitality in the world.  Serve and be served.  Love and be loved.  Welcome and be welcomed.  That is there ministry at its most simple.

And then we have Genesis.  We often call this story “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”  But the Jews call this “The akedah”/  “The Binding of Isaac.”  This story has led to centuries of conversation over the nature of our Creator.

Is this a story of an abusive God?  A misguided Abraham?

Why would we share a story of religious violence at its worst in an age of extremism?

Would we really give our allegiance to a God that could ask this of us?

Why is this story so foundational for Judaism and Christianity both?

This story is a curiosity.  There are little nuances that are just fascinating.  Did you notice that Isaac carries the wood that will build the fire of his sacrifice- just as Jesus carried his own cross – the means of his destruction.  Did you notice that Abraham’s reply to God, Hineni, “Here I am.” He says it three times- he is so steady/ so consistent in his obedience.  Although… I think we can imagine the relief and hope in his voice when God finally calls out “Abraham! Abraham stop!” Even as he raises the knife above his one and only beloved son, preparing to do the unthinkable.

And what do we think of this experiment being a genuine test?  It is stated that Abraham was free to choose to obey or not, that God may not have known how this would play out.  Up until this point in Genesis, Abraham had not been that steady and consistently faithful character… this was a real test.

The story of “The Akedah” / “The Binding of Isaac” while it brings up some mighty questions…  It makes a claim on us:  all that we have, all that we are, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave us breath in the first place.  And yet, thankfully, the Akedah assures us that God will provide, that God can be counted on to deliver. 

Matthew’s Ministry Charge, The Akedah of Genesis… what a perfect paring for this week following our national Congregational gathering. I love it when the lectionary lines up!

Today we see and uphold our call to hospitality- decisive/ intentional fellowship.  And we uplift the message of the Akedah that we are free to trust God, even when it seems that too much has been asked of us.

As we begin to bring our hearts and minds to a place of communion with our Lord… Let us be mindful of the collective family of Christ.  This great cloud of witnesses that we are a part of here, around the country/around the world.  Our Congregational brothers and sisters and those of other faith traditions.  Remember that we all serve a vital role in the ministry of Christ on earth.  And that we are bound by the ever present invitation to look up to God in faith and say, Hineni, “Here I am.”  Sure, and steady, and trusting.

April 16th 2017- Easter Sunday

With Joy Burning In Our Hearts

Luke 24: 1-12

Call To Worship

Where shattered hearts are made whole, where bruised souls are healed,

Where life is stronger than death:

There, the stone has been rolled away.

Where the lonely become our friends, where the stranger is welcomed home,

Where hope is stronger than despair,

There, we find Jesus walking.

Where minds welcome new understandings, where the anxious find serenity,

Where love is stronger than hate.

There, Jesus is opening eyes.

The stone has been rolled away!

Let us rejoice with full voice and bright eyes!

Let us receive this new day, so fresh with possibility, as we encounter the Living Christ!

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Alleluia!  Christ is with us!

Opening Prayer

Living God, rejoicing in this day of resurrection, we have come to celebrate

the strength of your love— a love that triumphs even over death.

As we exult in the miracle of your incarnate love, we thank you for the opportunity

to encounter the Risen Christ here in our midst.

Sermon

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed.

Today we heard the Easter story as told by Luke.

Generally speaking, at Easter morning worship, we are used to hearing from the John, aren’t we?

An empty tomb, confused disciples, a weeping Mary Magdalene, and “Gardener Jesus.”  After the heaviness of Holy Week, this is the story that we want to hear… There is something so full-circle feeling, about a distraught Mary Magdalene slowly coming to her senses and realizing that the Lord is standing in front of her!  Her Savior is risen!  And she runs off down the street joyfully calling out, “I have seen the Lord!”

But, that’s John.

Luke’s story is a little different.

Sure enough we have an empty tomb and confused disciples…But we also have angels asking bewildering and murky questions: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

After the events of the week, the disciples are dealt another blow… no Jesus on Easter morning.  Just angels… and another day of grief.

Jesus takes his sweet time showing up in Luke’s Gospel!

In fact, the first people that Jesus reveals himself to are a pair of travelers heading home from the Passover Festivities in Jerusalem, walking home to Emmaus.  A man named Cleopas and another traveler.  Perhaps a Mrs. Cleopas?

Now, the Cleopas’ are not a part of the twelve… but we get the impression that they were nevertheless disciples of Jesus, for they truly believed him to be the Messiah.

They may not have feasted at the table when Jesus broken bread in the upper room, they may not have been there when Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, or to see Jesus betrayed with Judas’ kiss…

But they probably were there to see the miracles/the healings, maybe they drank the wine at the Cana wedding, or heard Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God from the hill top… They saw enough that their faith was captured by this man they knew to be the Messiah…

They knew it with all their heart… enough to make it a point to be there when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna!”/to wave palm branches and lay their coats along the road.

But sadly, that means… that they were there to witness Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

They had seen the glorious ministry and the brutal end.

And here they are walking home to Emmaus hearts broken, dreams dashed…

Here they walk the seven miles back to their fishing nets or accounting books, back to their 9-5, back to the rhythms of their ordinary lives… they walk home believing that the extraordinary possibility of Jesus had been a mere dream.

And… then… in walks Jesus.

He strolls up to the melancholy travelers and with a smile asks, “Whatcha talkin’ about?”

Like a curious/ friendly stranger on a plane, you have the misfortune of sitting next to when you just want to be left alone… Except the Celopas’ didn’t have ear buds to quickly pop in place or a book to pretend to read…

It took them a moment to get over the shock of the stranger’s chipper ignorance, so they filled him in on the Jesus story.  Told him about the man whom they had put their faith in.  The man of miracles.  The mighty prophet.  They tell him about “Hosanna!”… they tell him about the cross.

And “incognito Jesus,” patient as ever, just let’s them talk…

When their sad tale comes to an end, “incognito Jesus” surprises them again by sharing his own version of the Jesus story.  Maybe it went a little something like this:

In the beginning God created this beautiful earth, God made it because there was just so much love… it had to go somewhere.  God made people, made a holy nation to love and to parent.  Sure, it wasn’t perfect!  They struggled in their relationship… but even through the rocky times/ the times where they felt just so distant from one another… God was there!  God waited with open arms, eager for the homecoming.  Teaching them, encouraging them, carrying them through scary times… God was there.  

And one day God had an idea!  An idea that meant that no sin, no shame, no broken boundary could separate God from the people.  God would come to earth himself.  God incarnate.  And he would face sin and death, face brokenness and sorrow.  God would look it right in the eye… and battle it.  God knew that it would require his life.  His time on earth, where his heart would beat/where he would get to hold his people/ where he could break bread with them, laugh with them…  God knew that it would require all of that.  To have it, that closeness would be so perfect… but then he would give it…  But! It would be worth it!  God knew it would be worth it!  Because that meant that nothing could ever get in the way of love ever again. It would be worth it!  

Cleopas and Mrs. Celopas- Maybe they listened to Jesus.  And the truth/ the beauty/ the perfection of God’s story… it burned inside their hearts!

This had nothing to do with late night nachos… no this was the burn of understanding. A simmer of joy.

They couldn’t get enough of this truth, so after seven miles, they invited Jesus in for dinner.  In fact they press him to stay…

As they sat down for this meal… “incognito Jesus” finally did something that clued them in to his identity.  He reached for the bread on the table.  He took it, he blessed it, he broke it and gave it to them…  We can practically hear him saying… “This is my body broken for you.  This is my body broken for the forgiveness of sins.  Take it and eat it… do this in remembrance of me.”

It took until that moment for the Cleopas’ to see that Jesus was with them.  And that they were right to place their hope in him!  For here again was the Messiah!

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

And then… Jesus vanishes.  Of course, as an Easter story, we needed yet another dose of mystery…

This is Luke’s version of Easter Day.

Each of the Gospel writers saw Jesus’ ministry from a little bit of a different angle.  And Luke’s angle was relationship.  That God wanted a connection with the people/ that God would do anything, anything to keep alive the relationship with each of us.  So, of course, this is the story that Luke would shared!  One where a couple of out-skirt disciples get to hear, in the midst of their grief, just how recklessly and completely they are loved.  Where the weary and brokenhearted, get to experience communion with God.  While looking into Jesus’ eyes they get to hear that it was all for them… it was for them that Jesus came to earth/that Jesus went to the cross.

I was in McDonalds on Friday indulging in some “I really don’t feel like cooking tonight” french fries and I was working on this sermon… thinking about what it would be like to experience Jesus’ love as directly as they did.  And then I remember that we are offered that opportunity each and every day.  Every time we break bread together, every time we come together as the community of God in worship/in service/in fellowship/in solace… there is an encounter with the living Christ.  The Emmaus journey teaches us that God meets us there (wherever ‘there’ may be)… and I started crying.  I was crying over my fries!  I looked like a complete weirdo using those scratchy brown napkins to dry my cheeks.

It burned in my heart, the magnitude of God’s love.

And like Cleopas I too got to experience God in an unexpected place.

In the business and blur of Holy Week, God meet me in the booth at the McDonalds.

There was a video floating around social media a while back called, “Sharing a Twinkie with God.” It showed a little boy, maybe six-ish, coming downstairs with his Spiderman backpack and he goes into the kitchen and he packs two twinkles and two juice boxes and he heads out the door.  His mom calls after him, “Where you goin’?” and he says, “I’m going to find God.”

“Ok, have fun.” she says.  And off he goes.  He walks down the busy city street, Spiderman backpack bouncing along.  And he looks carefully at all the people he crosses paths with, he seems to study their faces at the cross walk, he watches a few that have their eyes glued to their phones…  Until he comes across this homeless woman sitting on a bench at the park.  He bounces right up to her, looks at her studiously, and after an awkward moment she smiles this big toothy grin at him.  And then the boy just lights up, like “ahhha!”  I found God.

And sure enough he hops up on the bench and promptly opens his backpack and pulls out a Twinkie for himself, and he takes a bite.  And then he reaches into his pack and pulls out a Twinkie for her.  She looks surprised, confused, but delighted.  And they sit there, eating Twinkies and laughing on a sunny day.  After a while, the boy gets out the juice boxes and he cautiously put the straw in both boxes…

After a while he walks on home.  His mom asks, “So, did you find God?”

“Yup,” he said, “Turns out God is a lady.  And she has the most beautiful smile.”…

Then the video shows the still-smiling woman outside a shelter, “What did you do today?” She is asked.

“I shared a Twinkie with God… He’s younger than I thought he would be.”

Children of God, that’s Easter.

That’s the resurrection of Christ in Luke’s Gospel.

God meets us where we are.  Coming to us in unexpected times, in unexpected places, through unexpected people.

God meet us there breathing new life into our worlds.  God meets us there offering connection and love… and occasionally even Twinkies.

Our problems may not have been fixed by the encounter… but what is left in its wake is joy.  What is left is relationship. What is left is the resurrection.

In just a moment we are going to sing our Song of Response.  And while we sing, I’d like you to think about a time when God brought hope/encouragement/joy/life into your world when you needed it.  Think of a time when God meet you on a melancholy walk to Emmaus.

Think of that time… and then bring your flower up the cross here.

Together, with joy burning in our hearts, we are going to turn this symbol of suffering into something beautiful.  Amen.

April 2nd 2017 – EnjoyLENT, Week 5

Complete Joy

Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & John 16: 16-24

Call To Worship

Our God is a gathering One.

God gathers the broken and the bruised, the faithful and the certain.

God calls each and everyone of us towards community.

For it is in community that our joy is made complete;

In community we are granted a vision of God’s work in the world around us.

Our God is a gathering One.

May we, in this time of worship, be open to the Sprit’s life restoring breath!

So that our dry bones might be filled with purpose once again.

So that our weariness would find relief.

And so that our questions be met with hope abundant. 

Opening Prayer

Gathering God, throughout time and across the wide world you have brought people together for instruction and inspiration.  We thank you, Lord, for your steadfast invitation.  Open our eyes to catch your vision. May we see this world through your lens of redeeming love – seeing just what this dry valley could become. May we be a people of Kingdom joy and possibilities….

Sermon

Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around,
Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around,
Now hear the Word of the Lord. 

Remember that one?

Growing up, we would sing “Dem Bones” in worship every Lent when Ezekiel 37, came up in the lectionary texts.

We would sing this song usually with the attitude of appeasing the minister.  For we always sounding pretty silly singing spirituals.  We were the ‘frozen chosen’ pushed beyond our lyrical comfort zone of Isaac Watts ad Bill Gaither.

I remember “Dem Bones” as the weird little song about an even weirder passage of the Bible. And yet, the song (and the Scripture) hold a powerful message of hope- hope in a creative, life-restoring God.

Our passage opens with the hand of God scooping up Ezekiel and flying him off for a little lesson

Ezekiel was a Hebrew prophet during a time when his people, were exiled to Babylon.  Their temple: the capital of their civic life, home base for their religion and culture… had just been reduced to ashes… Their identity had been slaughtered around then- another victim of war.

The Israelites were a displaced people… many were taken as slaves, like war-time spoils.

And now Ezekiel was the prophet to a hope-less people.  They had lost their hope.  It had gone down with their temple.  They were alone and grieving, with nothing to invite them forward.  From captivity in Babylon, they were resigned to the fact that Israel (the nation, the identity, the relationship with God) would likely never be recovered.

Psalm 130 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you… I wait for the Lord, my soul waits.”  My soul waits.

There was likely a similar prayer on the lips of the Israelites…

But, God has something to say about all this…

Having scooped up Ezekiel, the Spirit sets him down in the middle of a mass grave.  A valley of dry bones… this was going to be their classroom.

Giving Ezekiel time to consider his icky new environment, God asks him… “Mortal, can these bones live?”

There is a church in a small village named Sedlec in the Czech Republic that was long ago nicknamed “the Bone Church.”  Back in the 13th century, the monks that kept the church ran into an over-crowding issue when a Bishop from Rome came for a visit and blessed the burial grounds in Sedlec.  After word spread of a blessed grave yard, people from all over were signing up to be buried in Sedlec.  And on top of that, a decade or so later the Black Plague came through killing thousands.  They were running out of room to put the dead.

To remedy this space issue, the monks decided to create an Ossuary to hold the bones of these people. The bones were dried and placed on shelves in the basement.  But all to soon that ran out of space too… And so the monks again had to put on their creative thinking caps, and they came up with the idea to start working the bones into the church its self… Up the wall, stacked around pillars… and then they got even more creative… they built an alter of skulls, they began to pattern the bones artistically across the aches, the monks even built a massive coat of arms out of bones for the entryway (maybe out of arm bones… teehee…). There was one wall in the church that really stood out to me when I was looking at pictures, at a glance it looked like polka-dotted wall paper… but it was really a wall of knee caps.

And the piece de resistance is this massive chandelier in the sanctuary featuring a display of every bone in the human body.  They are fans of pelvic bones, and chimes of tiny toe bones.

Over hundreds of years, the monks made their ossuary into a truly macabre interactive art piece.

When looking at pictures of this church all you see is the medium now.  You see the craftsmanship of the monks, you see the sun bleached, aged bones… But you don’t really see the remains of individuals, there is nothing that witnesses to the persons present… it’s impersonal.  There are no headstones, no placards… Just bones.

But they weren’t always like that, were they?

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet there is this scene in the graveyard just before the burial of Ophelia.  Hamlet and his friend Horatio, come upon the gravedigger who is preparing Ophelia’s grave.  And in doing so he digs up other remains, he digs up a skull… Hamlet asks him whose skull this was, and he answers “Yorick.”  Hamlet picks up the skull and he cradles it in his hands and he lifts it to his eyes and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him…a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy… Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.  Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?”

Bones, can be an artists medium, they can be artifacts, they can carry the memories of those we have loved with and laughed with…

God had asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

But Ezekiel knows that God wasn’t just talking about the bones in the dry sun-baked mass grave where they now stood…

God was talking about much more…

Could Israel be restored?

Could their wartime scars heal?

Could they recover from being victimized and enslaved?

Could they live again from the heart wrenching lose of their temple?

Could they be resurrected?  Resurrected body, mind and soul against towards God?

God asks all this to the ‘prophet of hopeless people.’  Ezekiel knew the pain of his former Israel, he had experienced the lose of all they was.  He knew their anguish, their fear and doubt…

Maybe he wanted to answer “no” for the sake of his heavy grief… but he just says, “Only you know, Lord.”

And to this… God put on a little show…

God calls upon the Spirit, who rattles the bones… They start to move and rejoin… toe bones, and ankle bone, leg bones, and back bones… They stand.  The Spirit wraps them in sinews and flesh and then… breathes life into their bodies again.

“Only you know, Lord.”

And God does know…

For this is the Lord- Creator of All.

This is the Lord who brought forth a nation from an elderly, childless couple – Abraham and Sarah.

This is the Lord who freed their children from the living death of slavery in Egypt.

This is the Lord who made promises to them, taught them, cared for them.  The Lord who brought them manna and water…

This is the Lord who raised up kings and judges and prophets… all while Israel strayed away again and again.

So, of course these bones can live!  God is not done with them, and God never will be.

In Genesis 1, the first thing we read in Scripture is that that Spirit of God hovered over the waters/ the Spirit hovered over the chaos.  This is where God began to create.  Chaos was God’s chosen medium.

And still today God’s creative energy gravitates towards the mess, the hurt, the broken, the confused… all that is in chaos.  God gravitates there to bring forth life.  God is our great Creator, the Creator of what was, is, and will be.

Revelation 21:5, says “Behold, I am making all things new!”  Even when the book ends… God isn’t done.

This is good news for our world!

Think of all the bones!  The wartime mass graves of Darfur and Syria.  The bones of gun violence and drug abuse and that bully Depression.  The bones of poverty and sickness.  The bones of a hurting earth…

If we consider our lives… there are so many bones… Loved ones who have gone, relationships broken, mistakes that have taken their toll, abuse- done to us and by us. Sin that has left us burdened.

The bones are overwhelming…

And yet, God asks, “Mortal, Can these bones live?”

While we think it is impossible/ while we want to say “no” through our logic or our grief… God say, “Of course they can.  I’m not done with them yet.  The bones that surround us might be decades old, having sat drying in a sunny valley for decades… But, give them to me and I’ll restore them.”

Today, we hear a promise only God can give:  “Thus says the Lord God: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.”

The Breath of God, the Ruach… The creative Spirit that hovered over the waters of chaos. This is the healing, life-restoring work of God.

Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of the dry bones in one that we must carry with us.  We must keep it in our hearts and in our minds, for that moment when we find ourselves gasping for air, struggling to stay alive/ that moment when we are asked to navigate the impossible landscape of grief… This is the vision that calls us forward from that place.

“Thus says the Lord God: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.”

There is a poem by Khalil Gibran that says this:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that through their sorrow and grief… one day their joy will be made complete.

So, if we believe in a creative God, who made all this…

If we believe in Christ who died and rose for us that we might have abundant life…

If we believe in that curious Divine Breath, who brings new life wherever she blows…

Then when God asks us, “ Mortal, can these bones live?”

Our only possible answer is, “Yes, Lord, most defiantly yes.”

Amen.

Litany of Confession 

Source of life, send your redeeming breathe into the world today.

For we are surrounded by dry bones, 

a world that is held captive by despair.

a world where we place our hope in structures, systems, ourselves before you. 

We hear you, Lord, calling us forward to resurrection.

So often we are spellbound by the dry bones in our midst,  

they pull our gaze, mesmerizing us with the sting of their loss…

and we stand there too dumbfounded to call forth life in your name!

We hear you, Lord, calling us forward to resurrection.

As with the Prophet Ezekiel, awaken us with your life giving power!

So that we would not be stalled in despair. Send us on toward a joy rooted 

in the eternal, on toward a hope that is assured, on towards life anew.

Through this Bread and Cup may we be washed cleaned, drenched with purpose and vision to see the Spirit’s movement around us. Call us forward, again Lord, towards resurrection.  We are ready to follow.  Amen.

March 19th 2017 – EnjoyLENT, Week 3

A Wise Joy

Romans 5: 1-11 & Ecclesiastes 9: 7-11, 13-18

Call to Worship

Listen!  Wisdom is calling!

We hear it! Ringing its truth through the ages of God’s creation.

Singing from the tops of mountains and from the depths of the forest.

Listen!  Wisdom is calling!

We hear it! In the stories of those who have come before us. 

Testimonies of hope born of struggle, legacies of trust in the Lord of All.

Listen!  Wisdom is calling!

We hear it and we celebrate its enduring melody!

In this time and in this place, we join in the joyous song of grace!

Opening Prayer

Ever-Present Lord, as we gather this morning in your house of worship and rest, may we be emboldened to once again fix our eyes upon your cross.  May it be for us a North-Star drawing us onward.  We walk this path of suffering and triumph together, praying that the journey yields endurance and character and hope. Lord, be our wisdom and our guide.  May your name be glorified today.

Sermon

A boat docked in a tiny Thai village, and the fisherman aboard, began to unload his catch-of-the-day to take into town.

There was an American tourist standing near by and he called out a compliment to the fisherman on the quality of his fish and walking closer he asked how long it had taken him to catch the fish.

“Oh, not very long at all,” answered the fisherman.

“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the puzzled American.

The fisherman explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a nap with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs…”

But the American interrupted, saying, “Listen, I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Bangkok, or Singapore, or even Hong Kong! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“…How long would that take?” asked the fisherman.

“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.

“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a nap with your wife and spend your evenings drinking, playing guitar and enjoying your friends.”

Perhaps, you have heard that little wisdom parable before…

It’s a story that reminds us there is joy to be found in simplicity/ that far too often we over complicate those things that are truly important in life.

Our Scripture passage today is another wisdom writing, and it carries a similar message

book of Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth in the Hebrew, its true name- meaning Preacher).

David Hubbard once said that, “Anyone to whom the book of Ecclesiastes is not a puzzle has not yet read it.”  The book of Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth in the Hebrew, its true name – meaning The Preacher) is to be approached with great humility…

The teachings of the Qoheleth come together in a confusing and often depressing kind of way.  It declares that life is fleeting, that “all is vanity!”  … And any effort that one puts into studying the book itself, parsing out its words, mapping its themes and structure… trying, earnestly, to get to the bottom of why the Qoheleth is saying these hard things… is itself a demonstration of what it has just declared- for all is futile.

It reminds me of the 90’s movie Mallrats, where William stars for hours at one of those Magic Eye posters trying to see the hidden image in all the noise… and people keep walking by, stopping for just the briefest of moment in front of the poster, they tip their head in consideration… and then… “Oh, look!  A sailboat.” William just gets more and more frustrated.  A few of his friends try to coach him saying, “Dude, you just have to relax your eyes.  Take it in.  Don’t work so hard trying to see it.” By the end of the day he just ends up kicking down the poster stand.

If we just “take in” the teaching of Qoheleth without trying to pick them apart… We will find that its grim trues are leading us somewhere important.

So, its lessons:

    • Life really is fleeting.
    • Little is guaranteed to us during our time on earth, except for struggle, pain and toil.
    • Those deemed wise and powerful in the world are often the most foolish.  And that the poor, like our Thai fisherman, posses a wisdom the world often overlooks and is far too quick to dismiss.

But Qoheleth (the preacher) after stating these bruising reality checks echoes again and again that enjoyment – living with an indwelling of joy through all circumstances- is God’s gift to us.

In a book that is generally set aside because it is just far to pessimistic for polite society, or merely dusted off at funerals to read: “for everything there is a reason, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  It’s message is really about joy.

Granted, the warm and fuzzy moments are few and far between… but if we sit with the stark realism of Qoheleth, if we honor its tale of sorrow and turmoil… it will show us a path to joy.  A kind of joy that is gritty, and strong, and can endure all things.

Elsa Tames, may explain it best, writing,

“The book of Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes has become timely again today, when horizons are closing in and the present become a hard master, demanding sacrifices and suppressing dreams… we see Qoheleth’s saying as rays of light, shining through the cracks in a dark, depressing room.”

Qoheleth offers us a gift, if we are patient: that gift is a joy, birthed of wisdom.  A joy that has withstood the labor pains of hardship – perhaps those well known by our fisherman friend.  A joy that has been tested and found to be enough. 

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long approved what you do.  Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.  Enjoy loving community… whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.

We have enough.  We are enough.  God is enough.

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to be enough?

In a world that constantly pressures us to do more, be more, buy more, achieve more… the wisdom of enough is like a burst of fresh air to a drowning man!

Qoheleth reminds us that in our flaws, and finitude… we are completely whole through our Creator. When we dare to acknowledge that we are enough, and that God is enough… there is a joy in us like a backbone made out of steel.  It allows us, in hard seasons of grief, in places of oppression and frustrating listlessness, to savor even the most fleeting moments of bliss.

When we acknowledge that we are enough, that God is enough… we will find that we can do far more than we ever thought possible.

Consider Sophia Scholl, she was a twenty-one year old college student in Munich in 1942.  She, and a group of others at the college, produced and distributed pamphlets called The White Rose.  This pamphlet blatantly named the evils of the Nazi regime.  It called for the end of a nationalist ideology and tyranny.

But, Sophia and her classmates were eventually arrested and put on trial.

The judge, couldn’t understand how such nice, educated German young adults could be “corrupted” into speaking out on behalf of Jews and against the government.

True wisdom is often seen as foolishness in the eyes of the powerful…

And Sophia responded, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.  What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.  They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”  Looking straight into the judges eyes, she said to him, “You know the war is lost.  Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”

Sophia and the others were sentenced to death.

Witnesses there that day wrote of her interaction with her parents, their final goodbye.  They say she was calm and clear eyed, and when her mother offered her a candy, she smiled, delighting in it, and said “Gladly! After all, I haven’t had any lunch.”

It was just a piece of candy.

And yet, on the day of her execution Sophia still found gladness in something.  Even in something as simple as a piece of candy.

Wise Sophia knew that the work she had done, that her resistance to tyranny was enough.  She was enough. She had the strong backbone of God given joy.

Qoheleth opens and closes his book with a declaration that, “All is breath.” Meaning that all is enigmatic (that is difficult to understand) and mysterious.  Trying to get our minds around all that God is doing in this world, is like trying to grab hold of breath, like wrangling the wind. Anytime we think we’ve got, it will surely blow in another direction.

Coughs and car accidents, miscarriages and cancers. Violence on the news and violence done to us.  Jobs lost.  The foolishness of the powerful… they send us flailing, frantically trying to grab hold. Yet, “all is breath.”

Qoheleth, tells us to trust the mystery and be joyful. Easier said than done at 3am, when the baby just won’t be consoled.

But the joy given to us by God is not bound to circumstances. The joy given to us by God is not mere happiness.  The joy of God is a strength that endures and carries us forward. 

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:5 “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens again to the place where it rises.”  God is the One that carries us quickly through the night’s darkness to greet the new day.

If you are someone who feels lost in that darkness, be assured that you are enough to meets its challenges.  Know that God has placed in you a joy that will see you through.  The dawn is coming.

But if you are someone that has no problem in seeing and naming the light of God’s goodness today, soak it all in.  Embrace it, remember it, for it will serve to sustain you when storms come your way.

Wherever we are, may we all be reminded to savor the sweetness around us.  Go for a walk, and breath in the clean air.  Get on the floor to play with the grandkids (trusting that help will come when we need to get back up).  Take the time to be thankful before your meal.  Go out of your way to hug and hold and say I love you.  And, most of all remember your Creator.  Trust in the mystery and just be joyful.

Amen.

 

 

March 12th 2017 – EnjoyLENT, Week 2

Choosing Joy

John 3: 1-17

Call to Worship

For God so loved the world…

That God gave us Jesus, the only Son.  

So that the whole earth would see the glory and splendor of our God. (Isa. 35:2b)

For God so loved the world…

That God gave us Jesus, the only Son.  

So the weak would be made strong and the fearful would be defended. (Isa. 35:4)

For God so loved the world…

That God gave us Jesus, the only Son.  

All grief and groaning flee before him, leaving an overwhelming happiness. (Isa. 35: 10)

Opening Prayer

Holy One, you called your disciples to join you on the way to the cross. Since you first walked that road to Jerusalem, countless million have followed after.  And as we walk this path now, save us from a sense of false familiarity.   Fill us instead with wonder and awe as we follow your footsteps.  May our worship today strengthen this community of Lenten travelers and glorify your name!

Sermon

There was this Professor of Religious Studies at a small Christian college, who taught the required survey course in Christian Discipleship.  And although he tried hard to communicate the essence and beauty of the Gospel to his students, he found that most of his students looked upon the course as nothing but required drudgery.  This frustrated him to no end.

Well, one year he had a student named Steve. Steve was a freshman, he was well liked, he had this unfailingly jolly presence to him, and… he also happened to be an imposing physical specimen (shall we say). Steve was the starting center on the school football team.

One day, the Professor asked Steve to stay after class so he could talk with him.

So, after class he asked,”Steve, how many push-ups can you do?”

Steve smiled, and in a rather confident tone he replied, “I do about 200 every night.”

“200? That’s pretty good, Steve,” The Professor said. “Do you think you could do 300?”

Steve’s cocky smile wavered for a moment, “All at once?  I don’t know… I’ve never done 300 at one time.”

“Do you think you could?” The Professor asked again.

“Well… I mean, I could try,” said Steve.

The Professor, with a rather challenging tone, asked again… ”Can you do 300 in sets of 10? I have a class project in mind and I need you to do about 300 push ups in sets of ten for this to work. Can you do it?… Steve, I need you to tell me you can do it.”

With a smile, and a characteristic shrug, Steve finally replied, “Yes, Professor. I can do it.”

On the last day of the semester, Steve got to class early and sat in the front of the room. When class started, the Professor pulled out a big box of donuts. He opened the box, and every one of his students seemed to lean in as they smelled a potential sugar rush…

The Professor walked up to the first desk in the first row (donut box in hand) and asked, “Cynthia, would you like one of these donuts?”

“Yes, please!” Cynthia said.

The Professor then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you please do ten push-ups so that Cynthia can have a donut?”

“Sure.” Steve jumped down from his desk to do a quick ten.  The Professor then put a donut on Cynthia’s desk.

And he went on to the next person…”Joe, do you want a donut?”

A little surprised, Joe said, “umm…Yes?”

The Professor again turned to Steve, “Steve would you please do ten push-ups so Joe can have a donut?” Steve did ten push-ups, Joe got a donut. And so it went, down the first row of students, Steve did ten confident pushups for every person before they got their donut.

And then on down the second row, until the Professor came to Scott.

“Scott would you like a donut?”

Scott’s reply was, “Well, can I do my own pushups? I am perfectly capable of doing them myself.”

But the Professor said, “No, Steve has to do them.”

Then Scott said, “Well, I don’t want one then.”

The Professor shrugged and then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you do ten pushups so Scott can have a donut he doesn’t want?” With perfect obedience Steve started to do ten pushups.

“HEY!” Scott said, “I said I didn’t want one!”

The Professor said, “Look, this is my class, my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don’t want it.” And he put a donut on Scott’s desk.

By this time, Steve had begun to slow down a little, and he just stayed on the floor between sets because it took too much effort to be getting up and down. As the professor started down the third row, the students were beginning to get angry.

The Professor came to Jenny, “Jenny, do you want a donut?”

Sternly, Jenny said, “No.”

“Steve, would you do ten more pushups so Jenny can have a donut that she doesn’t want?” Steve did ten, Jenny got a donut.

The tone of the room was… uneasy… there were all these uneaten donuts on desks.

In sympathy, the students were all saying “no!” to the Professor’s offer of a donut by this point… and they continued to watched their friend Steve become a red-faced pile of sweat at the front of the classroom.

Now, due to the gravitational attraction between college students and sugar… more students from other classes had wandered over and were lurking in the doorway, some came and sat along the side of the classroom. The professor, of course, noticed this, and he did a quick count and saw that now there were 36 students in the room.  He started to worry if Steve would be able to make it. But still he went on to the next person and the next…

Around the 27th student, Steve asked the Professor, ”Do I have to make my nose touch on each one?”

He thought for a moment, “Well, they’re your pushups. You can do them any way that you want.”

A few moments later, Jason, a recent transfer student, came in and was about to sit in one of the desks by the door… when all the students yelled in one voice, “NO! Don’t come in! Stay out!”

But Steve picked up his head and said, “No, let him come. Give him a donut”

The Professor ask, “Jason, would you like a donut?”

Jason, new to the room and a little oblivious said, “Cool, Free donut! Thanks!”

“Steve, will you please do ten pushups so that Jason can have a donut?”

There was this collective groan throughout the room!

But, Steve did ten pushups…slowly/ with great effort. Jason was handed a donut and sat down.  The Professor finished the fourth row, then started in on those visitors lurking by the door… paying no attention to the protesting shouts behind him!

Steve struggled to lift himself against the force of gravity. But, nevertheless he did all that he could to maintain good form and complete every one.

By the time the Professor reached the final row, the final two students.  The angry/ protesting energy had been sucked out of the room. There was no sound except Steve’s heavy breathing.

“Linda, would you like a doughnut?”

Linda, with her arms crossed in front of her and with tears running down her cheeks… said, “No, thank you. Not like this.”

“Steve, would you please do ten pushups so that Linda can have a donut she doesn’t want?”

Grunting from the effort, Steve did ten very slow pushups for Linda.

“Ben, would you like a donut?”

Pushing at the sting in his eye lest he too cry, Ben said. “Why can’t I help him? Professor, why can’t we do our own?”

“Steve has to do it alone,” He replied.  “I have given him this task; he is in charge of seeing that everyone has an opportunity for a donut whether they want it or not…. When I decided to have a party this last day of class, I looked at my grade book. Steve, here is the only student that really seemed to give this course 100%. He clearly studied for the tests, he never skipped class, he always turned in his assignments… Steve told me once that in football practice, when a player messes up he has to do push ups. So, I told Steve that none of you could come to my party unless he paid the price by doing your push ups. He and I made a deal for your sakes… Now, Steve, would you please do ten pushups so Ben can have a donut?”

Steve, faithfully, obediently, and very slowly finished his last pushup.  Having done 370, his body buckled beneath him/ he fell to the floor.

After a pause, the Professor turned to the room and quoting the Gospel of Luke, he said. “And so it was, that our Savior, Jesus Christ, called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” With the understanding that He had done everything that was asked of him, he yielded up his life. An effort, a gift, for each and everyone of us.”

Two students helped Steve up off the floor and into a chair.  He was exhausted, but still wearing that unfailingly jolly smile.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.“

Children of God, there is a donut laying on all of our desks.

The gift of God’s salvation- the gift of grace.

No cost, no catch.  Just ours.  It might not seem fair.  It might not seem deserved.  But there it is.

Nicodemus, in our Gospel reading today, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He came to Jesus in secret bearing a hopeful curiosity.  Yet, not quite able to believe in what was right in front of him.  Nicodemus had an inkling of the truth/ he had glimpses God’s love and glory in this man… but something held him back from embracing what God was doing in his midst.

So, Jesus told him to be “born again.”

Jesus urged him to see, to have the faith of an innocent child.  Unburden by skepticism, not yet jaded by this world.  Believe in him… free of the expectation of others, free of shame, free of all that hold us back and causes us to be hesitant. Be born again, Jesus says.

Again, there is a donut laying on each of our desks… will we ignore it, protest that it is unjust and undeserved?  That that cost was too high?…  Or will we savor it?  Will we respect that it was given in love because (for some amazing reason) God thinks we are worth it?  Will we rejoice?

It’s ours, either way.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

I urge you, as Jesus urged Nicodemus… Choose joy.

Litany of Confession

(From Joyce M. Firth’s poem, “Move,” Says the Spirit)

“Move,” says the Spirit.

“and respond and grow,

leave the past behind you

there’s yet more to know.”

“Move,” says the Spirit.

“and begin to love,

you have worth and value

to the Lord above.”

“Move,” says the Spirit.

“to the rhythm of life,

work for peace and justice

and an end to strife.”

“Move,” says the Spirit.

“be alert and speak.

Give God’s gracious message

to the poor and meek.”

“Move,” says the Spirit.

“at your Lord’s command.

He give strength and power

for the work in hand.”

Lord, for those times when we are stuck and wavering, we ask for your forgiveness.

For those times when we ignore the Spirit’s invitation, we ask for your mercy.

Help us to “move” fearlessly when we hear your call, knowing that you are the source of life and joy.

Amen.

March 5th, 2017_ Enjoy Lent, Week 1

Saving Joy

Isaiah 12: 1-6

Romans 5: 12-19

Call to Worship

Lent is no time for misery.
Lent is a time for careful self-reflection and re-connection with Christ.
For God is indeed my salvation. So I will trust and have no fear.
Lent is an opportunity for repentance.
A time for having God remake our hearts and reshape our aims.
In loving kindness, God’s anger turned from me.
I was drawn close again and comforted.
Lent is a season for joy abundant.
Exhilarated by defying sin, shattering indifference and turning our faces back to God.
I will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation!
I will sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things!

Sermon

Once upon a time, sin came to earth…. That is story number two in our Bible.

Right after we delight in God the Creator, and marvel at the vast “goodness” of the earth… we are quickly introduced to the problem. The problem the rest of the book seeks to resolve. Once upon a time, sin came to earth.

In our passage from Romans, Paul recalls the story of Adam and Eve; a tale that has long been referred to as “The Fall of Mankind.”  It’s one that we all know well. In Eden, God created a boundary for Adam and Eve to obey. But what are boundaries if not curious things just begging to be explored? And through the influence of sin, a creature of sin, Eve dared to defy that boundary. And (as thousands of years of “the patriarchy” have taught us…) she pulled Adam across that boundary with her. And together, they tumbled from Paradise. Tumbled into a world of shame and hardship/ pain and sin… tumbled into our reality.
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor, of course, describing what it means to belong to a humanity that is in broken relationship with God/ that is is broken relationship with the world. In Paradise, sin was this slithering tempter/ a creature that invaded God’s happy place to invite destruction. In reality, sin… just is… it’s rooted in each of us- it’s there in our self-serving evolutionary instincts, it’s in the disposition of our will to oppose God, sin is there when we push against our own well-being… sin is just there… it is deep and unavoidable and devastating.
But as Adam and Eve tell us, we are not meant for sin. We are not meant for a broken relationship with God. If you think back to the details of this story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve walked through the garden of Eden they walk side by side with God- naked and unashamed. When they took their tumble from Paradise, they were now naked and very ashamed, one of the first things God did (after giving them a talking to), was lean down and fashion clothes for them out of animal skin. Their shame was a testament to their sin- having defied God’s boundaries, and yet they are still loved by a God the wants their every need to be meet/ loved by a God who can’t stand to see them hiding away. A God of compassion and mercy.

Contrary to that old adage, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” To err is not human, to sin is not human. Sin opposes the goodness of God’s creation. Sin is very much not what God intended us for. It is not human- it is dehumanizing.

But thankfully, Paul tells us in Romans, God came up with a solution to this problem of sin. Grace.
That same God who bent low and sowed clothes together for his beloved, yet wayward, Adam and Eve… that same God bent low again in Jesus Christ. Taking on sin himself, he overcame its consequences! Death and shame are no more.
Grace is meant to reclaim us for relationship with God. Grace is meant to reclaim us for the goodness that we were made to be. The free gift of Grace is meant to reclaim us for a life of joy.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is perhaps one of the most directly translatable to the 21st Century church. The church in ancient Rome was at the heart of the empire- a cultural crossroads. Rome was a vital trading destination that saw people from all over the world, it was a place for the exchange of ideas, the birthplace of new movements. It was a city where the world felt very small. But the Romans were also a society of very indulgent people- where everything and everyone had a price.
The church of Rome was understandably focused on staying rooted in all the hustle and bustle around them/ staying grounded in a changeful world. Paul knew this, and so in his letter he offered them this reminder of their identity: They were a people of grace. In a world where sin… just is… Paul reminds them that sin does not have dominion over them.

And this is the truth that remains for us today.
This passage is for every Christian who has had to wrestle with sin; a sin that remains even after baptism. This is for the faithful church leader who has struggled with addiction to painkillers, or gambling, or internet porn. This is for the self-righteous bible thumper wracked by long-held hatred for certain sinners they condemn. This is even for the survivors of combat or domestic abuse, those who carry within their bodies the legacy of someone else’s sin. This passage is for them. It is also for the church member long enmeshed in the deadening comfort of privilege and for those long stuck in the webs of oppression. (Christopher Grundy, Feasting on the Word)
In a world where sin… just is… we are all reminded that sin does not have dominion over us. For we are a people of grace.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts of Solitude)

To Merton, anything that brings despair has to be challenged. Even though sin remains a reality in our lives, it must not have our consent. We were made as part of God’s good creation, and if we are to honor that… then sin must be challenged. And when we do, it is in those attempts that we find Christ at our side: The great giver of second chances. Grace is meant to reclaim us, wash us, and remake us for a life as generous as the love that created us in the first place.

Our Lenten theme this year is “enjoyLENT: Fasting from fear, feasting on joy.” Lent is a season of reflection and confession. It’s a time of waging that war on all that is despairing with courage.
As we honor this season, may our hearts are set on the promises of Easter. That we are enlivened by joy/ a soul deep confidence in God’s love for us.

Amen.

Litany of Confession

(From Walter Brueggemann’s poem, Revise Our Taking)

You, you giver! You have given light and life to the world;
You have given freedom from Pharaoh to your people Israel;
You have give you only Son for the sake of the world;
You have given yourself for us;
You have given and forgiven, and you remember our sins no more.
And we, in response, are takers:
We take eagerly what you give us;
We take for our neighbors near at hand as is acceptable;
We take from our unseen neighbors greedily and acquisitively;
We take from our weak neighbors thoughtlessly;
We take all that we can lay hands on.
It dawns on us that our taking does not match your giving.
In this Lenten season revise our taking,
That it may be grateful and disciplined,
even as you give in ways generous and overwhelming. Amen.

Words of Assurance

Friends, our sins are washed away in the Spring of Salvation.
Be assured today that God’s grace is multiplied for all.
A gift given through the work of the cross so that we may have life and joy abundant.

February 26th, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

Don’t Be Afraid

Exodus 24: 12-18 & Matthew 17: 1-9

In the magical world of Harry Potter, the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry take a class called Transfiguration, with the brilliant and sassy Professor McGonagall. There they learn how to transform their pet rats and pet birds into teacups/ they turn flowers into candles. There is one memorable scene where a student attempted to turn himself into a shark, but he only half succeeds.
When we hear the word “transfiguration,” for the most part, this is what we have in mind- the change of state from one thing into another. And, indeed, the Greek word in Matthew 17 for “transform” is the very same word from which we derive “metamorphosis.” Like, caterpillars into butterflies.
But, today, we need to look past our understanding of Transfiguration. The hard to explain/ supernatural events that unfold in our Gospel reading are not about mere change. Rather they are about seeing/believing/ grabbing hold of what has been there all along.          Today we see Jesus. Son of Mary, Son of God. Today we see Jesus as the glorious/exalted Lord of Lords who has been with the disciples day in and day out for years as their teacher, Messiah, and friend.
If there is a metamorphosis/ a transfiguration in this story. I dare say it is not Jesus’, but our own.

Let’s pray to begin our time of message:
 Light of Light, as you spoke from the pillar of cloud to Moses and the Israelites, so you spoke from the bright and powerful mountaintop cloud to Jesus and his disciples. May your word live through us today, that we might bear your light and love to the world. We pray this message be redeemed for your glory, Lord. Amen.

The story begins with a long climb up a windy mountain side in the early light of day. Jesus, along with his disciples James, John, and Peter, they all search for a place that will be their church for the day/ a place where they can pray.

There’s a reason, I think, as to why so many of humanity’s most sacred places are high up on mountains. There is something about the climb to get there that is clarifying, like praying with your whole body. The strain of your muscles, the focus of your mind all work together for a singular purpose – to get higher. To tangibly draw closer to the heavens. To climb is to pray.
When Jesus sought to be with His Heavenly Father he often did so atop a mountain. Going some place that was above it all, some place that left the business and the needs of the world far below. He would find a place that was set apart, holy. One that felt closer to God.

And so… with aching calves, and wheezing breath (and with that little buzz that finds it’s way into your ear during a good long climb)… Jesus and his disciples let the distractions of the world fade with elevation. As the morning wanes they finally find what they are looking for- their church. And so they get on with what they came there to do, they sit and they pray.
Now, imagine with me that you are in the shoes of one of these disciples. Through your mind’s eye, I invite you to step into this scene.
You find a comfortable looking place out of the sun. You sit with your back against a tree trunk, and settling in you let your heart catch up with your lungs…
Once you body finds a calm again, you pray what you know to pray and you sit in silence with eyes closed. After a while, you begin to simply listen for God/ for inspiration… and if you are like me… thats when you begin to feel the annoying allure of sleep pull at you. So you let your mind wander and wonder for a bit.

Just six days ago, Jesus had told all of his disciples, that a dark time coming your way…
He had said that, soon, you were all going to Jerusalem, a place everyone knew you were very unwelcome. (As the movement Jesus had begun in his ministry was seen as an assault on the established Jewish way.) Jesus went on to say that in Jerusalem he would suffer and be put to a brutal death. And then, if you weren’t already overwhelmed, he said that after this death, he would rise back to life. Jesus spoke plainly about such things. He spoke plainly of suffering, death, and the impossible.
That night, you remember, Peter was so shocked that he practically shouted at him, “Never, Lord! Never will this happen to you!” And in reply, Jesus shouted back, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns…”. And looking around at all of you he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”

That news/ that evening’s troubling revelation had been hanging in the air for six days now. And so, as you sit in your mountaintop sanctuary, you lean into the worry you had been holding in check. You let your confusion and your fear flow to God. Perhaps, not knowing the words to pray or what to ask… you offer God the only thing you can- your presence. Prayer enough. Peter, who had dared challenge Jesus on his plain spoken announcement that night, is there at your side, eyes likely closed in prayer. Surely, he too must be thinking of what’s ahead…
But then a strange glow hits your eyelids and draws your attention away from the worry.
You open them just a crack… and past your lashes you see Jesus- You see your friend as you have never seen him before. Standing there radiating light. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white. Arms raised in intercession.
Reaching out to the other disciples- you get their attention. Peter’s eyes open and widen, his jaw drops (which seems to mirror your own reaction). They all join you in marveling at this radiant light. Somewhere between terrified and curious, you take it all in… you stand and move just a little bit closer… through the light, the figures of two more men emerge from the glow. Moses and Elijah. Dead men come back to life, standing at the side of your friend. Standing at the side of God’s glory. Somehow, they are here and yet this feel like the old story of Mount Sinai. They are here on earth and yet you know that this is somehow a part of the Kingdom of God.
Peter, at least, has sense enough to recognize the holy ground you now stand on. “Tents!” he says, “We need tent! Remember Mount Sinai? The glory of God came and camped out! We need tents for worship!” Peter was always quick to say something… at least this was an attempt at reverence.
But it would be light capturing a firefly in a jar, you think. It’s not meant to be contained. Something in your heart tells you to just take it in… just receive… the moment. This light wouldn’t last. The Glory of God!
As you marvel, a cloud comes. You can feel it’s cool, wet air wrap around you.
But like a brewing mountain storm… the cold wet air suddenly intensifies. The wind begins to whips the fog around you. It becomes heavy and pressing. This is not the cute little cumulus clouds that you admire high in the sky on a beautiful day… this cloud is active and alive… everywhere! It smells of lightening and waves as it swirls heavily around you!
Peter finally stops yammering about tents, as the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
Through the dense foggy thickness… the light of Jesus/the light of Elijah and Moses pulses brighter than ever. The cloud shades your vision. You strain to see, but then then a rumbling/thunderous voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved!” The voice come from everywhere. From the very fog that is wrapped around. It sounded close and far away.      “Listen to him!” It rattles your bones. “Listen to him!”
Not, listen to me… but listen to him.
Listen to Jesus, the glorious Messiah at the center of it all…. The One who came to save and to serve. The One who was born to die, so that all might have life.
It will be just as He said, you fear. Jesus, your friend, son of Mary, yet also Son of God. He will be brutalized in Jerusalem, he will die… But also, he will defy possibility. He will be resurrected. This man, isn’t only man… he is God. Emmanuel, God with us. And it will all be as he said.
The cloud dissipates as fast as it came, leaving you to exhale so hard that it brings you to your knees. You and the other disciples find yourself facedown in the dirt, overwhelmed and terrified, at what you had just seen and at the prospect of what is to come.

Laying there in the dirt, again letting your heart catch up with your lungs, you wonder if you dare raise you head/ raise your eyes to see… Fear, or awe maybe, makes your movements slow and cautious.
Before long, your hear the unhurried steps of a man in sandals walk across to you. He puts his hand around your upper arm and he lift you to your feet. “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” Calming words spoken close to your ear. Jesus moves on to Peter and on to James and John… each time saying “Get up. Don’t Be afraid.” You dust the dirt off… And with a breath of courage you finally look up… Just Jesus, there. Regular Jesus, alone again. Not glowing. Just the dusty, smiling, bearded, itinerant teacher you thought you knew so well. Your Messiah.

He looks at each of you and says, “How about we don’t tell anyone about this for a while? Not until I do what I came here to do. Don’t be afraid. The Son of Man will be raised from the dead.”

Together, they walk down the mountain. And in doing so, it seems they are transfigured. Having shed the fear and the worry at what lay ahead, they were raised again into a since of restored purpose. With each step of the decent the disciples knew that the work of God was at hand. Work that would bring restoration, would bring renewal and far more to the whole world. They stepped with courage even as their feet were pointed towards Jerusalem.
They were all different men, now. Except for Jesus, of course. The time on the mountain revealed who he was, who he had always been. The holy, powerful, glorious Lord of All had been with them the whole time. When he spoke kindly at the Samaritan woman sitting by the well, when he had reached out a healing hand to lepers, when Jesus wept over the death of his friends Lazarus, when he smiled gently at the misguided Rich Young Ruler… each and every day as they all simply broke bread, swapped stories, and traveled down dusty roads as friends.

The disciples had seen the fullness of God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit – radiant and holy, giving a victory cry of resurrection before the Son would be stripped bare and emptied at the hands of humankind on the cross.

This is a story that we take with us into Lent.
It reminds us that we never journey alone. “It tells us that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Bright Cloud of Unknowing). It tells us that God’s glory is evident among us even when we can’t see it or comprehend it. It tells us that when darkness and difficulty come our way, we don’t have to be afraid.

This Lent, I pray that we all have hearts of transcendence. That we lean into the solemnity of Lent, while at the same time we embrace the solemnity of joy. That we might hold Lent and joy in tension with one another. For even as we journey to the cross… journey to the dark place where a crown of thorns will be placed on the Godhead, we go knowing that it is God’s redeeming work. We do not journey unassured.
May our hearts transcend difficult and darkness, having now been filled with holy, transfiguring light.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John
looked upon the majesty of your glory,
and from the mystery of a cloud
heard a voice declaring you to be God’s Son.

Though we do not live on mountaintops,
Grant that we too may glimpse your glory.

In the mundane/ ordinary rhythms of our live
may there be for us moments
when sights give way to insight,
And the paths of earth become the road to heaven.
Amen.  (An Iona Community Prayer)

February 19th, 2017 – Sixth Sunday After Ep

Perfection: A Donut Theology

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5: 38-48

 

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” Winston Churchill

Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That is what Christ has to say to us this week. At the apex of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are told exactly what is expected of us as disciples. Perfection. Teleios in the Greek.
Hearing this, we are tempted to jump right to acknowledging the impossibility of this expectation. For as Romans (3:23) confirms for us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I admit I was tempted this week to write a sermon on forgiveness instead of perfection.
But. I think we can be brave in the face of un-attainability… and consider that there might be something to this notion of perfection for God to reveal to us today.

Let’s take a moment to bless this imperfect sermon on perfection:
     Lord, we approach your Word with the heart of a student. Help us to learn, to grow. Place in us an openness of mind and a softness of heart for we wish to understand your truth. Lord, bless this time of message today, might it be redeemed for your glory! Amen.

Now… for the task of pondering perfection I present to you… a visual aid.
(unveil a plate of donuts)
I have been looking forward to this sermon all week… (take a bite.). A greater example of perfection I have yet to encounter.
Did you know that the most popular donut in the world is the simple/ classic glazed donut? I prefer one with a bit more pizzazz as you can see from my sprinkled selection. (Take a bite.)
This may be a cause for debate… but my sources say that donuts originated in the 16th century Holland. And they were so greasy from the oil they were cooked in that the Dutch called them “oily cakes.”
The Pilgrims, our Spiritual forbearers, who had lived in Holland, brought the cakes with them when they came to New World. It is hard for me to picture Puritans indulging in sweets… but if you read it on the internet it must be true, right?… Their version was a round doughy ball about the size of a nut… thus the first “doughnut.” (Take a bite.)
The origins of the donut hole is particularly intriguing. Captain Hanson Gregory, in the 19th century was eating a doughnut while sailing through a storm… And suddenly, the ship was rocked violently and he was thrown against the ship’s wheel impaling his poor cake on one of its spokes!
(Take a bite)
Seeing how well the spoke held his cake… Captain Gregory began ordering all his cakes with holes in them. Which made them rather convenient for snacking…
I should probably stop there, but I have one more donut story: Doughnuts were popularized in the US after the Salvation Army began feeding them to the troops during the Second World War! The Salvation Army folks had doughnut cooking stations assembled out of garbage pails and they served them to the soldiers by looping them over the end of a bayonet…
(Take a bite)
The Soldiers got so hooked on them that they were called “doughboys.” And in my research this week… I wasn’t sure if that was in reference to the cakes or the soldiers… probably both.
(at this point the whole donut has been eaten)
Now for the riddle… So, what is left of the donut?

The donut hole, of course…

To say that “perfection” is the same as being sinless is like saying that a donut is the same as the hole.
(Grab another donut). I’m not going to eat this one…
Is this donut real? Yes. Is the hole real? …
The hole exists in relation to the donut.
The hole exists only if the donut exists.
And now, because I ate the donut, our donut hole no longer exists.
No donut, no hole.

The donut hole represents my perfection, and yours. It exists only in relation to the actual perfection of Christ. Christ being the donut in this illustration, of course.
We, as human beings, are not capable of perfection…
Although, Pelagius did dare to believe that perfection was achievable. Back in the fourth century the doctrine of Original Sin was all the rage. And this theologian taught that contrary to this Original Sin idea humanity was untouched/unwounded by the sin of Adam. It was his thinking that humanity was perfectly able to fulfill the laws and teachings of Scripture without divine aid if they were just dedicated enough. To Pelagius, the grace of God was an unnecessary charity for the faithful. Something pitiable almost.
But, what does he know! Pelagius was labeled a heretic by the church and exiled to the deserts of Egypt for this “doctrine of self-sufficiency.”
We know we aren’t perfect… And so, It is hard to hear the command, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” So much so that we want to immediately discount it and move on.
But, Scripture also tells us that there is perfection to be found in Christ – and for us, in our relationship to Christ.
The donut hole exists in relation to the donut.

The Greek – Teleios, appears often in the New Testament (48 times). Teleios is translated as perfect (as we read here), as mature, complete and persistent.
The root of this word does not come from blamelessness or sinlessness or even purity- the root is in the concept of maturity or a developed wholeness.
“Be mature, as your Heavenly Father is mature.”
“Be complete, as your Heavenly Father is complete.”
“Be persistent, as your Heavenly Father is persistent.”
Our Teleios is something that becomes. Our perfection is something that is sought. It grows though practice and activity.
So the obvious question is, what practices and activities develop perfection?
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other… If anyone sues you and takes your shirt, hand over your coat as well.. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two.
You have heard it said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Our perfection comes in putting the teaching of Jesus into action.
– We are to surprise the angry with our peace.
– We are to defuse a bully with our humility.
– We are to be so generous that our behavior encroaches on recklessness.
– We are to discount our very human gravitation towards fairness in exchange for mercy.
– We are to love even when it challenges our boundaries of what is/ who is lovable.

The way you are perfect is by the way you live, living in a way that is different/ in a way that is countercultural/ living in a way (even) that may seem counter-instinctive… in a way that is holy (set apart for God). And for what purpose? Jesus.
Our job as Disciples is to rain down mercy, compassion, kindness, peace and radical loving action – because… Jesus. Because of the Emmanuel. “God with us.” The end goal of growing our perfection/is to bear the Emmanuel to the world.

Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person.” That portion of this passage always stops me in my tracks. It just doesn’t seems to jive with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. How are we to live into our instructions to be a people of integrity, and justice, and truth… if we are not to resist/ to stand up to, evil? How can that possibly be a teaching of Jesus?
As frustrating and as powerless as this sounds: Evil is not ours to conquer. It is only God that can really squash evil.
But, as my preaching professor in seminary once told me. “Jesus is sneaky. He is Sneaky Jesus.” In our discipleship/ in our living out the gospel, Emmanuel is made present. “God with us.” The Kingdom of God is revealed- its light and hope breaks through.
Evil is resisted not by us alone. Evil is resisted in God made present in this world.
We are the hole to Jesus’ donut.
In our perfection in discipleship/ in our persistence at being good disciples/ in our effort to be complete disciples… God works.
It is in these effort that love is conquers the evils of this world and the Kingdom of God is made manifest.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Discipleship can be difficult and costly. When all we want to do is meet anger with anger, Jesus demands that we be better than that. When all we want to do is remain blissfully unaware to injustice, Jesus invites us to draw close/ to open our eyes.
Discipleship often costs us our bliss and our pride, and our desire to get the last word in in a fight. It costs us our calm and our comfort.

The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes, a vision of the Kingdom of God. A reality where the poor in spirit are filled, the mourning are made glad, the persecuted are released and the peacemakers are uplifted. A reality that God intends for our world. Jesus is not asking us to be perfect, as in without error. But Jesus is asking us to be persistent towards bringing the Kingdom of God to bear. So we must ask ourselves… is it worth the cost?

It was to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When essay “The Power of Nonviolence” he wrote:
     We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is non-aggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.

And this a little later:
     Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding… The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.

The end if the Kingdom of God.
Our discipleship is costly and can be difficult. And in our attempts hindsight often has much to teach us. But our perfection (our persistence) is not ours alone. Persistence belong to the one who went to the cross for me, for you, for the the world.
And in the effort and actions that we are able to offer… perhaps it is at least a shadow of the ‘pefection’ Jesus demonstrated in his living and suffering and dying on our behalf. That was the truest example of perfection- to love that much is what it is to be perfect for our heavenly father is perfect.