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Sunday, Sept, 25, 2016
*GOSPEL LESSON ~ Luke 16:19-31
[Jesus said:] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
Reflection “Minding the Gap” Pastor Val Colenso
Our First Timothy text contains one of the most well known verses or at least one of the most well known philosophies in scripture. Paul says, “For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” We typically shorten that to say, “You can’t take it with you.” We may all nod our heads in agreement with that idea. We may all say it is true, but we often live like we really think we can get around it.
There was a man who thought there might be a chance he could “take it with him.” He knew he was dying so he called together his pastor, his doctor and his lawyer. He admitted that it was a rather strange request, but he gave each of them an envelope containing $20,000 and he asked them to place it in his casket at his funeral. That way in case he could take it with him he would have it. The man died and each of them approached his casket just before it was closed and placed their envelopes in it. After the funeral the three got together for coffee and talked about the oddity of this event. In the course of the conversation the pastor said, “I have a confession to make. Our church building needs a new roof and we don’t have enough to pay for it. I know our friend will never have any use for that money so I took $10,000 out. There was only $10,000 in the envelope I placed in his coffin.”
The doctor said, “Now I don’t feel so bad. I have a young patient who needs some very expensive surgery. She can’t afford it and so I too took out $10,000 and only placed $10,000 in the casket.” The lawyer said, “I am really shocked at you two. I don’t know how you could cheat our friend like that. I will have you know the envelope I put in his coffin contained a check for the full amount!”
I think we all know in our heads that we can’t take it with us, but we sometimes live like that wasn’t true. It’s awfully easy for us to become enamored with things. We go on the Parade of Homes and drool over houses we could never afford. We see a Mercedes or a Lexus on the street and we think it would be pretty great to own one. We dream of a cabin by the lake, or new golf clubs, or a new bike or some prize possession and we think that is what would really make us happy. If we get it, however, we sometimes discover that the joy derived from it is fleeting and now we want something more.
Like Paul says in this text, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Being rich is not the problem here. Abraham was rich. King David had vast wealth. Yet both of them had an intimate relationship with God. Solomon, on the other hand, let his possessions possess him. He got caught up in all that he owned and all that he wanted. His own power blinded him to his need for God and led him away from the faith.
It truly is our love of money that gets us into trouble. Sometimes our desire for wealth and money leave us short sighted and unable to see what is really important in the life.
One day a rabbi paid a visit to a wealthy man who was not known for his generosity. The rabbi pointed to the window and said, “What do you see?” The rich man said, “I see people walking around.” Then the rabbi held up a mirror, and again asked, “What do you see?” The rich man said, “I see myself.” “Yes,” said the rabbi. “There is glass in the window and glass in the mirror. How strange that when you add a little silver, suddenly all you can see is yourself.”
As someone has put it, “Our love of money often gives us ‘I trouble’.” They don’t mean the kind of eye trouble that can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. They mean “I trouble” that causes us only to see what “I want”, what “I need”, or what “I desire”. Our drive to accumulate money or possessions can prevent us from seeing why we should ever help anyone else. We can choose to believe the message of the world which says, “God helps those who help themselves”. Many people even think that message is scriptural. They accept that message instead of the message of Jesus which says, “God helps those who cannot help themselves.” They ignore God’s call to us to be the instruments God uses to help those in need.
The prophet Micah reminds us of that call when he says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” God wants us to help those in need. God does not want injustice, callousness and uncaring attitudes to prevail.
The idea that you can’t take it with you and that you should use your possessions wisely and share them generously is reinforced by the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel text. In this parable there is a rich man who dressed in fine clothes and ate gourmet food every day. However, he did not get to take it with him. In fact, he ends up suffering in torment and is eternally separated from God.
While this is not meant to be a literal picture of heaven or hell, it does speak to us of the fact that even though we can’t take our possessions with us what we do take with us is our relationships. Lazarus and the rich man recognize each other in the after-life. Lazarus, who was close to God in his life on earth, is now even closer to God in heaven. And the rich man who separated himself from God and failed to use his wealth to help others is now permanently separated from both.
One of the interesting points about this parable is that it is the only parable Jesus tells where anyone is given a name. The poor man sitting and suffering at the rich man’s gate is named Lazarus. Lazarus means “He whom God helps”.
Tradition has named the rich man “Dives”, which is simply a word that means “Rich”. Jesus gives Lazarus an identity. The rich man is simply identified by his possessions. Could it be that we are meant to plug our own name in? Could we be the rich man in this story?
We often don’t feel very rich. There may be many times when we wonder where the money is going to come from to cover our bills. But while we may not all be oil barons or oligarchs, the vast majority of us are better off than we realize, and by the world’s standards we are certainly rich. While global poverty has decreased by more than half in the past 30 years, in 2015, 2.7 billion people (50% of the population of the world) lived on less than $2.50/day. 1.2 billion (22%) live on less than $1.25/day. 34,000 people around the world die every day from diseases complicated by malnutrition, 22,000 of whom are children. Here in the United States, 47.7 million people were living in poverty (14.8% of the American population). 31.5% of Americans live at twice the poverty level. The 2015 income gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of U.S. society reached the widest point in our recorded history. The poverty threshold for a single person is currently $11,770, or $32/day. For a couple it is $15, 930 ($43/day), and for a family of four it is $24,250 ($66/day). 21.5% of American children under the age of 18 live in poverty. To keep it in perspective, however, a person living in the United States at the poverty threshold is in the top 14% of people in the world by income. It would take the average laborer in Indonesia 13 years to earn that same amount of money. While Americans comprise only 5% of the world’s population we control more than 35% of the world’s wealth. Americans own 40% of the cars in the world, 15.5% of the TV sets, and 17% of the telephones. There is no question about it, by the world’s standards we are rich.
Having wealth is not evil. There is nothing wrong with being rich. Remember, Lazarus went to dwell in paradise, resting in the bosom of Abraham – probably the wealthiest man of his time. What is wrong is letting our wealth blind us to the needs of others. The rich man in this parable was not an evil person. He was not mean to Lazarus. He did not abuse him or drive him away from his gate. He simply ignored him. He looked right past him without ever seeing this homeless man in desperate need. Even the dogs were more compassionate.
We are often guilty of doing the same thing. There are so many homeless people. There are so many who are hungry in the world that we are overwhelmed by the problem. One solution is to simply ignore it. According to Jesus, it is sinful to fail to see the hungry, the poor, the people in need of some help. Lazarus is the one raised up by God. The Rich one is brought very low indeed. It is the fulfillment of Mary’s song, the blessings and woes of Jesus spoken on the plain.
There is nothing intrinsically spiritual about being cold, sick, hungry, sleep- deprived because there is no safe place to sleep, or dirty because there is no place to wash. There is nothing intrinsically unspiritual about having enough money to pay the bills and also enjoy some extras. The rich man’s fault is not that he was rich, but that he was indifferent to the needs of his neighbor. This is Jesus’ warning: Mind the gap between you and your neighbor. Mind the gap that your wealth, your resources and your way of life can create. Mind the gap between what you profess to believe and how you act. Pay attention to what money does in your life. Does it isolate you? Does it build a chasm between you and your neighbor? Does it come between you and God? Money is not bad in itself. It becomes bad when we let it and what it can buy, blind us to the gap between how things are and how God intends them to be.
Note that even after death, even in Hades, the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him and his family. “Send Lazarus to me. Send him to my brothers.” But just as there was in life, in death there is a gap between the two of them which prevents Lazarus from doing his bidding, even if he wanted to. And then the rich man and Abraham have a conversation about how to warn his brothers, still alive on earth, so they will escape this torment, but Abraham says that they have the Bible, they have all the warning they need if they will just listen.
There are people with all kinds of needs all around us. Their name could just as well be Lazarus. As followers of Christ we are called to notice them, to care for them, to reach out to them and serve them.
No matter how we read or Gospel lesson this morning, there is a clear and unquestionable warning laid out for the followers of Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to preach pie-in-the-shy salvation. He did not come to preach some kind of warped “prosperity gospel”. No. Jesus came to preach “good news to the poor”. He spoke out against the inequalities of his day and unrelentingly warned the rich to share their earthly resources and stop their putting down of those who did not have what they had. What Jesus condemned was an attitude of privilege. With that attitude of privilege, no one could expect to reach God’s kingdom.
Between the rich man and Lazarus there is a gap; a deep and wide chasm. It is a chasm caused by the rich man’s lack of compassion and lack of action. It’s clear whose side God is on in this story: God, through Abraham, is on the side of the poor; the Lazaruses of the world. For them, this is good news.
For us? Are we prepared to hear?
“Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”
Will we? I pray it may be so for each one of us. All honor and glory be to God!
Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016
GOSPEL LESSON ~ Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
MEDITATION Being Faithful
Henry Ford, the inventor of the automobile, was visiting his family’s ancestral village in Ireland. Two trustees of the local hospital learned he was there, and managed to get an appointment to see him. They talked Ford into giving the hospital five thousand dollars (this was the 1930’s, so five thousand dollars was a great deal of money). The next morning, at breakfast, he opened his daily newspaper to read the banner headline: “American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital.” Ford wasted no time in summoning the two hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces. “What does this mean?” he demanded. The trustees apologized profusely. “Dreadful error,” they said. They promised to get the editor to print a retraction the very next day, declaring that the great Henry Ford had given not fifty thousand, but only five. Hearing this, Ford offered them another forty-five thousand, under one condition: that the trustees would erect a marble arch at the new hospital entrance with a plaque on it. For Ford the statement on the plaque had a double meaning. It read, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
The shrewdness of these two trustees reminds me of the steward in today’s gospel. They took an opportunity that was presented to them and used it to their best advantage. They used the supposed error of the newspaper headline to put Henry Ford in a position where he did not want to look like a cheap-skate. Their quick thinking brought in a considerable amount of extra income for the hospital.
Which brings us to the parable of the unrighteous or unjust steward. Today’s gospel passage has been called by some theologians the “most difficult parable to understand in all of the gospels.” Certainly this is one of the hardest stories for me to grasp in the Bible.
A wealthy man owns a lot of land. He leases out his land to small farmers, to peasant farmers or sharecroppers, who work the fields and give the owner a portion of their produce. He has a manager for all of this and the tenant farmers claim that this manager is squandering the owner’s property. We don’t know if it’s true or not. Perhaps the claims are false. We don’t know if he is doing anything illegal or not. He could be siphoning off money, taking more in commissions than he is entitled to, or he could simply be a poor manager and his poor management is costing the tenant farmers. It could even be that he’s doing so well at extracting money from the peasant farmers for his boss that they are angry at him. We just don’t know.
We do know that the owner summons the manager and says, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”
Did you notice that he does what some people do in other parables? He “said to himself..” He is talking to himself. He isn’t talking with God. He isn’t talking with his friends and neighbors. He is talking to himself. In the parables that is a sign of what Saint Augustine calls “incurvatus se” – of being “curved in” upon oneself. It’s a clue for depending only on one’s own wits and being concerned only about oneself. Keep that in mind as we hear more about the story.
The manager responds to the owner’s demand for an accounting by summoning, one by one, each one of the peasant farmers who owe the owner money. He asks the first, “How much do you owe my master?”
He answers, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.”
The manager says, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”
Then he asks another, “And how much do you owe?”
He replies, “A hundred containers of wheat.”
He says to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.”
What is he doing? He has been charged with being a bad manager and squandering the owner’s property. So he is reducing the bills of the tenant farmers, the peasants, who owe money to the owner? Why would he do that if he is supposed to account for what he has done to the owner?
There are a couple of possibilities: first, it could be that he has charged the tenants more than they really owed the owner and he is going to skim off his own share from that and so adjusting the bill down is reducing his own commission. Another possibility is that he simply wants to get those tenants back on his side and to get them to stop complaining about him.
Apparently the owner finds out about all of this, and what do you think he does? I mean, what would you do? If your manager had reduced the bills of those who owe you money by half, what would you think you would do? The owner actually commends the manager because he has acted shrewdly.
Jesus paints that picture in the story and then he adds some interpretation. Jesus doesn’t always do this for parables and this time it’s a perplexing interpretation. Jesus says, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
The “children of this age” are contrasted with “the children of light.” The children of this age are those who live outside the Kingdom – the Realm – of God. They are those who live their lives without consciousness of God and God’s desire for justice, mercy and kindness. They live without trust in God. The “children of light” are those who seek to follow the “light of the world” – Jesus.
Jesus is saying that the “children of light” are not very shrewd in how they deal with people and situations. We might think of shrewdness as a quality that we shouldn’t value, but when I looked it up it actually means clever; “keen and astute”. Jesus apparently values shrewdness. Jesus goes on saying, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Now THAT is very very hard to understand. This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” Is Jesus telling us to make friends by dishonest wealth? Is Jesus telling us to lie and cheat and steal in order to use the money that we acquire to make friends because one day that money will run out and at least you’ll have your old friends around to welcome you? And he says that they may “welcome you into the eternal homes.” Does he mean heaven? Lie, cheat, steal, be dishonest and acquire wealth and share it with your friends so that when you die there will be someone there at heaven’s door to welcome you in with open arms?
When I was thinking about all of this, I was thinking that this is absolutely preposterous. Jesus is encouraging deceit and dishonest? I can’t preach this! I can’t tell this story! There is a strong possibility, I do believe, that Jesus never said this. It sounds so wrong.
But, then I realized that a key for me comes in that last line, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
First, I don’t think that Jesus is encouraging dishonesty. But, if you’re going to be wealthy at least use your wealth to make friends. Being wealthy in Jesus’ day was almost always seen by the common people, the ordinary people, the 95 percent of the population who were lower class peasants, as a consequence of dishonesty. If you were wealthy then your wealth was gained on the backs of those 95 percent of the people who were peasants.
But, if you’re going to be wealthy then at least use your wealth to make friends and not enemies because even the most dishonest wealthy person is going to enter into the eternal home. The owner, the squandering manager, the peasant tenant farmers are all going to enter into the eternal home one day. How will they be greeted?
Remember that I said that there is a strong possibility that Jesus never said any of this? Well, no matter how difficult it is to understand it, Jesus ends the story in a way that we can understand it. He says that, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
Jesus is talking about being “faithful” with dishonest wealth. The manager of the property who changed all those bills was being “faithful” with dishonest wealth. He was making decisions to build relationships, to relieve the tenants of the burden of their debt. He may have been motivated by a desire to save his own skin, but he was making choices that benefited others.
Maybe Jesus is trying to say to us that all of our concern about money and about who has it and who doesn’t and how one has acquired it may cause us to miss the larger point – that money is simply a tool for loving God and neighbor.
Jesus said, “If you can’t manage the little stuff, like money, who will entrust you with true riches.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, laughed and scoffed at him. Now, we would have said just the opposite, “If you can’t handle important stuff like money, who would trust you with real responsibilities? Our culture thinks that money is so important. If you can’t handle money, you are in big trouble. Jesus had the opposite point of view. To Jesus, money was part of the small stuff.
Many people “love” money and use God. They also use people. God’s plan is just the opposite: we are to love God and love people but use money. People who love money rather than God and other people will never know the true wealth of loving God and loving others. What greater wealth is there than that? Anyone who loves money and what it can buy above people and relationships will never know true love and true riches. That’s just the way it is in God’s world.
Jesus said: “Give me an account of your money. Are you managing your money? Is it managing you? Do you love money too much? Do you? Could it be that you love money more than me?”
Finally, Jesus reminds us that, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” So if you are wealthy, serve God by loving your neighbor. Which brings me to a final story- a true story:
Oskar Schindler was a businessman who was described in his hometown as Gaunero which, in German, means “swindler” or “sharper.” A member of the Nazi party, he moved his business interests and abilities to Poland after it fell to the Nazi forces in 1939. Taking advantage of a cheap factory for sale, Schindler reactivated it to produce enamelware for the German army. Over time, he increased the number of Jews working in the factory, thereby allowing them daily relief from the dreadful Cracow ghetto. He warned them of Nazi reprisals and raids. He smuggled his workers extra food and medicine, and allowed more and more Jews to work for him. He allowed a Jewish underground network to operate in and through his factory. He falsified his records of Jewish workers, listing old people as younger and children as adults in order to allow them to work and remain off the extermination lists. Auschwitz was only 60 kilometers down the road.
In 1943, Schindler seized an opportunity to operate a larger factory, which increased the number of Jews he was able to keep alive. In 1944 the German army began retreating from the Eastern Front. The 25,000-person camp where Schindler’s factory was located was ordered evacuated to Auschwitz. Schindler gambled, cajoled and bribed his way into an agreement that allowed him to take over 1000 of his workers to a new location in the former Czechoslovakia, where he would spend the remainder of the war turning out bombs that were manufactured so as not to work.
Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, and no one has yet fully explained why he behaved the way he did. He was rich in money, charm, influence, bravado and courage. He used everyone and everything at his disposal to save as many Jews as he could. He used bribes, cheated, lied and drank copious amounts of schnapps. At the end of the war, 801 men and 297 women were alive because of his shrewdness. They were Polish, Dutch, Belgian and Hungarian. Schindler returned to the life of businessman after the war. But his marriage failed and his businesses did the same. For many years the people he had saved, saved him. He died in 1974. Israel named Oskar Schindler a “Righteous Gentile.” His remains are buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
Both the manager from the parable and Schindler looked at the resources they had before them and used them to turn a bad situation into a situation that bettered the lives of others.
Jesus tells us that how we manage our worldly possessions has eternal complications. If we love God, we will use our wealth and our resources as an expression of that love; but if we love wealth, and hoard what we have, we will be unable to seek God, as our wealth will be more important.
We are to be faithful-even in small things. As Fred Craddock puts it, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.” I would add, we will not save hundreds of lives. Craddock continues, “More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much. My friends, so may it be for each one of us. Amen.
Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015
*GOSPEL LESSON ~ Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
Then Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?”
Jesus said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many people will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ They will deceive many people. When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be earthquakes and famines in all sorts of places. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Reflection It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming! Pastor Val Colenso
Listen to these predictions from the past: Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
There was an inventor by the name of Lee DeForest. He claimed that, “While
theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and
financially it is an impossibility.”
The Decca Recording Co. made a big mistake when they made this prediction:
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” That was their prediction in 1962 concerning a four young men from Liverpool – the Beatles.
The future is not that easy to forecast or foresee, but people keep trying. For centuries people have been taking texts like this one from Mark and trying to determine when the world will end. Jesus warns of “wars and rumors of wars.” He says, “For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines….” It sounds a lot like what is happening in the world today doesn’t it? All of those things have been happening ever since Christ walked the earth.
The disciples wanted to know when this is going to take place. People today want to know the same thing, but no one really knows. At the end of this chapter, Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.”
The disciples were afraid. Wars and earthquakes and famines are all frightening. Jesus is trying to calm their fears. He is telling them and us that “when these things happen it is the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Being a woman who has given birth to five children, I know quite a bit about birth pangs. Many of you women here know as well. And while I know that some of you men here were in the labor and delivery rooms with your wives as they gave birth, it was still something you experienced second hand. For those of you who want to know what it’s like to give birth, the closest I can come is what Carol Burnett prescribed: Grab your lower lip and pull it over your head…
Birth pangs are tough. But birth pangs are not the end of something – they are the beginning of a new life. When the end times come it is not so much about the end as it is about God making all things new. God doesn’t want us to be afraid. God wants us to be faithful. God asks us to trust in him to love us and take care of us. The author of our Hebrews text says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is staring out the window with a worried look on her face. “It sure has been raining a long time,” she says to Linus. “Do you think it’s going to flood the earth again?”
Linus says, “No. God promised that wouldn’t happen again and the rainbow is a sign of that.”
Lucy replies, “That sure takes a load off my mind,”
Linus says. “Sounds theology has a way of doing that,”
Sound theology tells us that times have been tough; times are tough; times could even get tougher; but we are to trust in the promises of God.
On the large scale we do go through times of war and rumors of war. There are social and political upheavals. There are earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and floods. There are terrorist attacks such as the ones we have seen around the world in the past several weeks, including the downing of a plane over Egypt and the horrific attacks in Paris a few days ago.
On the small scale, as individuals and families we can face tough times. Accidents and illness and sorrow can devastate us. Loved ones may get cancer and die, marriages fall apart, teenagers may ruin their own lives and break their parent’s hearts, physical and mental illness can afflict us or loved ones, investments can collapse, best friends may inexplicably turn against us. In short it can seem like our world is coming to an end.
Either way, on the larger scale or on the smaller, personal scale, Jesus says: “Do not despair. The end is not yet. Your story is not finished. Both your life and this world are still held in the hands of a loving God. Don’t be afraid. Be patient. Be faithful. Go on loving one another. All that I taught you and showed you remains sure: ‘Heaven and earth may pass away but my words will never pass away.'”
Whenever we fear that everything has wound down, that nothing good lies ahead of us, then by God’s grace something new is ready to begin. We only need to believe in and totally trust the God who promises to make all things new. The Son of Man is always near at hand, coming on clouds of glory in ways that we could never predict. No matter what goes wrong, Christ comes with new opportunities.
Christ call us to faithfulness. He doesn’t tell us when these things will happen. But he tells us how to live, how to use our time.
It is significant that rather than signs of an s Fridaysimminent end, Jesus tells about things around us in the world, things that demand a Christian response. They demand not forecasting, but faithfulness. Jesus confronts our fears of living in dangerous times. He does not promise us rescue from the world’s distress. Rather, disciples are called to serve in a suffering world, bearing witness to the God who will not let suffering have the last word. Jesus gives us signs, things to watch out for, not because they help us predict how long we have, but to tell us there is no more important day than this one. The wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecutions remind us that there is a need for a witness to God’s love. Jesus is telling us that
we are ones who can bring God’s love to people who hurt, people whose lives have been torn apart when nation rises up against nation, or when hurricanes hit and terrorists strike, when people are hungry and sick and their lives are slipping away.
Jesus gives us signs, but they are not useful for predicting the end. They are useful for showing us where God needs us to be, where God is: among the poor, the lost, the least, the lonely, the weak.
Some seminarians were once playing basketball in the school gym, when they
noticed the janitor sitting in the stands reading. A few of them wandered up to him and asked, “What’cha reading?”
He replied, “The Book of Revelation,”
“Ohhhh,” they said wisely, nudging one another and winking. “And do you know
what it says?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “God’s gonna win.”
God is going to win and that is what Jesus wants us to know. The author of
Hebrews urges us to hold fast to our hope for God is faithful. He also says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” We are to be about the business of encouraging one another and supporting one another.
It has always been interesting to me how many people tell me that they can feel the support of people praying for them. It buoys them up, gives them strength and helps them to keep on keeping on.
A pastor tells about his old black cat who comes around needing attention. This pastor says, “If you have a lap handy, he’ll jump into it; if you don’t, he’ll stand there looking wistful until you make him one. Once in it, he begins to vibrate almost before you stroke his back. Then his motor really revs up. Our daughter puts it simply: ‘Blackie needs to be purred.'”
Cats aren’t the only ones who need to “be purred.” We all need encouragement. A pat on the back, a hug, a complimentary word can go a long way toward making a bad day better.
Jesus wants to encourage us and give us hope. He wants to remind us that even though we don’t know what the future holds we know who holds the future. Therefore, we are freed to be faithful – to live every day as if it matters. Not because it might be our last, but because God holds the last day, and every day until then. We can live as if this is the most important day of our lives, because it is a precious gift from God, an opportunity to show love, not fear; to be aware, not alarmed.
There is no doubt that bad things happen in this world. There are times when
it seems like our world is ending. That is when we need to trust the most. When others are enduring those days that is when we need to encourage them the most and remind them of the hope they have.
I love the story told by Baptist pastor Tony Campolo about his home church. It was Good Friday and there were seven preachers preaching back to back. Tony said after he preached he was on this huge high because the congregation had given him such encouragement. He basked in all the hallelujahs and amens. After he finished preaching he didn’t think that there was anything left to say.
Then his old pastor got up and enthralled the congregation with just one phrase, which he kept working over and over. He started softly “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming”. One of the deacons yelled, “Preach it Brother! Preach it!” That was all the encouragement he needed.
He came on louder as he said, “It was Friday and Mary was crying her eyes out. The disciples were runnin’ in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday, and Sunday’s coming!” People in the congregation were beginning to pick up the message and there were lots of “Amens”.
He picked up the volume a little bit. “It was Friday and on Friday Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin’ around, laughing and pokin’ each other in the ribs. They thought they were back in charge of things, but they didn’t know that it was only Friday! Sunday’s coming!
He was getting more forceful as he went along. “It was Friday and Jesus was
hanging on the cross, suffering, bleeding, dying. The forces of evil thought they had won, but it was only Friday! Sunday’s coming!
He just kept working that phrase until the congregation was in a frenzy. At the end of the message he just yelled, “IT”S FRIDAY!” and all five hundred people in the church yelled back, “BUT SUNDAY’S COMING”
Jesus wants you to know that Sunday is coming. It is coming for you and for me. We try to predict so many things that are unpredictable. We get frightened by wars and rumors of wars, by nation rising up against nation, by terrorist attacks, by earthquakes and famines and floods. But sound theology will tell us that we have a God who can be trusted. Even when the end comes it will merely mark a new beginning. We are called to be witnesses and messengers of the hope that we have in a God who is “gonna win.” So be an encourager. Be someone who provokes others to love and good deeds. Be someone who knows and trusts that even though today looks like Friday, “Sunday’s coming!” So may it be for us all!! Amen.
Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Reflection Pastor Val Colenso
Have you ever wondered how it was that this widow caught Jesus’ attention? It was close to the time of Passover, one of the largest festivals of the time. Faithful folks from all over Israel would have been arriving in Jerusalem and coming to offer sacrifices and offerings. Who else was in the temple that day? I suppose there were the first century equivalents of teachers, police officers, librarians, accountants, small business owners, butchers, bakers, farmers. Maybe some prominent rabbis and scholars giving their tithes. Maybe even someone like Bill Gates offering his annual pledge all in one lump sum.
There were 13 collection boxes in the Jerusalem Temple. Scholars believe that they were shaped like trumpets with the funnel pointing upwards, so that the money spiraled down into the bottom. Paper money had not been invented yet. Can you imagine the noise there must have been? How quiet those tiny coins must have been in the midst of all that. And yet, in the middle of all the noise and bustle, Jesus noticed the widow. My guess is that he observed everyone, but he only commented on the widow and her gift.
The widow gave two lepta, the smallest coins in circulation. The two together were worth about 1/64 of a day’s wage, so we’re just not talking about much money here. It might have been all she had, but even if she’d hoarded it for herself, it wouldn’t have helped much. It might have paid for her next meal, but for the one after that, she would be dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Rev. Mary Anderson says, ” The two little coins in the woman’s hand were probably all she had. The truth is — and the extremely poor know this well — those coins weren’t going to change her life. When you’ve got so little, a few small coins aren’t going to move you from welfare to work. She could be at peace and joyful in knowing she was able to give to the temple treasury, because with the coins or without them, she was still a dependent person. . . . . The widow wasn’t dependent on her money or her status in life; she had none of these. She was dependent on God and her neighbor for everything.
She didn’t have two feet to stand on, she didn’t have bootstraps to pull up. She was totally dependent — and that’s what Jesus pulls out of her story like a pearl of great price. This is what we are to be like before God — dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy.”
Where do we find ourselves in this story? I have to think long and hard about that – Jesus has just warned the disciples to watch out for religious leaders who wear long robes and like the best seats in the sanctuary. I’d like to think that I’m more like the widow than those scribes, but . . . hmm.
The widow is poor. She is poor because she is a widow. Women in that time were totally dependent on their husbands, and then on their sons, for economic survival. In contrast to the scribes and to the rich people who were giving their offerings, she has no social standing. Except for Jesus’ careful observation, she would be virtually invisible in this crowd.
The people with status are well-dressed. They greet each other using the appropriate titles for social rank. Hello Dr. Smith. How are you today, Your Honor, Mr. Jones. They attend to how others greet them. And yes, they put money into the offering. Some of them put in a lot of money. There’s no reason to believe that they’re hypocrites. They are probably just as faithful as the widow.
But here’s the difference. The widow knows her need of God in a way that the others may not.
As I look out among us, I’m aware that if you’ve lived any time at all, you’ve known some difficult times. Those difficult times tend to be when we are closest to God. When a marriage fails, when our health deserts us, when we suffer what seems unbearable loss, when we can’t pay the bills and don’t see a way forward – for many of us, these are the times when we find ourselves praying without ceasing, knowing our dependence on God in the most urgent of ways.
Outside of those times, many of us live under the illusion that we control our own destiny. We rely on our education, our competency in our vocations, our scientific understanding of cause and effect, our family and friends, our status in this community – all of which may be very good things. But remember that Jesus doesn’t praise the folks in charge, the ones who seemed to be the movers and shakers. He commends the widow, the one who knows and acknowledges her dependence on God.
Rev. Gordon Cosby is the founder and pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. When he was a young man, he was the pastor of a small congregation in a railroad town just outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. He tells this story:
A deacon sent for me one day and told me that he wanted my help. “We have in our congregation,” he said, “a widow with six children. I have looked at the records and discovered that she is putting $4.00 into the treasury of the church each month – a tithe of her income. Of course, she is unable to do this. We want you to go and talk to her and let her know that she needs to feel no obligation whatsoever, and free her from the responsibility.”
I am not wise now [says Gordon]; I was less wise then. I went and told her of the concern of the deacons. I told her as graciously and as supportively as I know how that she was relieved of the responsibility of giving. As I talked with her the tears came into her eyes. “I want to tell you,” she said, “that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.”
This widow, like the one in Jesus’ time, possessed a certain counter-cultural wisdom. She knew herself to be wholly dependent on nothing but the riches of God’s grace. And she participated in God’s work, acknowledged God’s sustenance, even leaned into that sustenance, by giving back from her meager financial resources.
When I take a long hard look at myself, I have to admit that I am not nearly as much like either of these widows as I might like to be. And I wonder, it is possible to be relatively healthy, financially secure, with all our loved ones safe and sound and still be deeply in touch with our dependence on God? Human nature being what it is, I’m not sure. I think that for many of us, our default will still be self-reliance, trusting in our own strength. But I wonder if I can learn from their example and be more intentional in recognizing God’s presence all the time. Each of these widows has found a way to act out her faith, With the simple ritual of putting money, even a small amount, into an offering plate she demonstrates to herself and to anyone who is paying attention, how deeply she relies on God.
Are there other rituals, other actions, that might help some of us do that as well? Gathering for weekly worship is one. The fact that we have chosen to be present in this place today is a good indication that we are aware of our need for God. The wisdom of the church for the generations before us has been that spiritual disciplines, practiced in and out of season, provide a very practical way of maintaining that relationship with God. Daily prayer, Scripture reading, financial stewardship, singing praise to God in the shower, your office, or elsewhere – these basic activities have the power to shape us, to remind us, that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. If we’ve been doing those and they’ve become stale, some of us may look for other disciplines – fasting or journaling or intentional service to the ‘least of these’. And some of us will want to create our own rituals, actions that express our unique relationship with the Author and Sustainer of our lives.
A young Kenyan woman and her two small children are frequent worshipers in their village church. Every day is a struggle for her and her poor family. At a recent services, as the offering plate was being passed, this poor African mother removed her ragged sandals. When the offering basket was passed to her, she took the basket and placed it on the ground beside her. Reverently, humbly, gently she stepped into it — her whole body in the middle of the basket. As she prayed quietly, a hush fell over the small congregation. After a few moments, she stepped out of the basket, picked it up and passed it on.
Like these women, may we know in our depths that God is our rock and our redeemer, the source of strength and hope and courage and life. And may we continue to offer up all that we have, all that we are – indeed, our very selves – in response to the one who offered himself for us. So may it be for each one of us. All honor, glory, and praise be to God! Amen.
Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015
Reflection Saints Old and New Pastor Val Colenso
More than any other day of the year, today is family reunion day for the church. The Sunday after All Saint’s Day is the day for pulling out the old family photo albums and remembering where we came from. Open one, and you may find Saint Francis, standing there barefoot in the snow, with birds on his shoulders and his pet wolf by his side. Or maybe you will turn to Saint Joan of Arc, who led men twice her size into battle. She preferred armor to petticoats and puzzled everyone by dressing like a man, but the voices of her critics were nothing compared to the voice of God in her head. If you keep turning pages, you may come across Saint Christopher, hiking through a swollen river with his tunic hitched up around his knees, his right hand on his staff and his left around the feet of the child he is carrying on his back.
These are some of our more famous ancestors, but if you keep on looking you will find others, not as well known but no less intriguing. There is Saint Maximillian, the first conscientious objector, who was drafted by the Roman army but refused to serve. His only loyalty, he said, was to the army of God. This was a great shame and sadness to his father, a veteran, who knew that his son’s decision meant death. At his beheading, Maximillian noticed the shabby clothing of his executioner and, calling to his father in the crowd, asked that his own new clothes be taken off and given to the man.
A similar story is told about Saint James the Greater, brother of Saint John, who was so full of grace on his way to his death that the guard assigned to him fell on his knees and confessed faith in his prisoner’s God. James raised him up by the hand, kissed him on the cheek, and said, “Peace of the Lord be always with you.” Then both men were executed together.
When you start meeting these saints, one of the first things you notice is that they were not, well, saints. Legend has it that Saint Francis rolled naked in the snow to guard himself against his lusty thoughts, and Saint Christopher was on his way to work for the devil when a mysterious hermit recruited him for God’s work instead. Saint Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years before she became a desert mother for the next 50, and Saint Bernard was one of the organizers of the 2nd Crusade, which collapsed into an orgy of pillaging and looting. Generally speaking, the saints are not distinguished by their goodness. they are distinguished by their extravagant love of God, which shines brighter than anything else about them.
“In God’s holy flirtation with the world”, writes Frederick Buechner, “God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” This seems to suggest that saint-making is more God’s business than our own, but either way the main thing is that they do exist. There really are ordinary men and women whose love of God has led them to do extraordinary things, which means none of us can shrug our shoulders and say sainthood is beyond our reach.
Take Absalom Jones, for instance, born a house slave in Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read from the New Testament and was eventually sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia. Then he went to a night school run by Quakers and married another slave, whose freedom he bought with his savings. 18 years later he was able to do the same thing for himself and became a lay minister for black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
He did such a good job in bringing in new people that the vestry became alarmed and voted to seat black members in the balcony. No one told Absalom Jones, and when an usher tried to pry him from his pew the following Sunday, he and the whole black membership of the church walked out the door. 7 years later his congregation was admitted to the Diocese of Pennsylvania as St. Thomas African Methodist Episcopal Church. It grew to more than 500 members during its first year and in 1804 Absalom Jones was ordained a priest in Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Or consider Constance and her companions, a group of nuns from New England who had not been in Memphis, Tennessee, more than 5 years when yellow fever swept through that city for the 3rd time in a decade. More than half the people who lived there packed their bags and left when the sickness began, but Constance and her companions stayed put. Soothing the dying, they laid cold rags on hot foreheads and emptied bedpans full of contagion. Maybe they thought God would protect them from the virus, or maybe they were not thinking about themselves at all. If you look for it, you can find the round marker with all their names on it in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that you must be dead to be a saint. That is one of the requirements for canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, but the truth is that there are living saints all over the place. Think Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu- or Osceola McCarty of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Almost no one in town knew that she was a saint until fairly recently. She did not look like one. She was just a laundress, an old black woman who had never married, dropping out of school when she was in the 6th grade to begin a lifetime of washing clothes. That was the year her maiden aunt came out of the hospital, unable to walk, and moved in with her family. Twelve-year- old McCarty left school to care for her and to help her mother with the backyard laundry business. By the time her aunt recovered a year later, McCarty thought she was too far behind to return to school. “I was too big”, she says, “so I kept on working.”
For the next 75 years that is what she did, scrubbing the dark clothes on a washboard and boiling the whites in a big black pot in her backyard before hanging them out on the line to dry. Her day started when the sun came up and stopped when the sun went down, and it was not until she was 87 years old that anyone knew fully who she was.
That was the year she gave $150,000- her life savings- to the University of Southern Mississippi for scholarships for black students. Reporters and photographers began crawling all over her, local business people pledged to match the gift, and the young woman who was awarded the first McCarty scholarship all but adopted her. McCarty said the one question she was asked more than any other was why she did not spend the money on herself. “I am spending it on myself,” she answered, smiling.
On All Saint’s Day we make the very bold claim that all these people are our relatives. In the words of one beloved hymn- which we’ll close our service today with- “They were all of them saint’s of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” We have the same blood running in our veins- Christ’s blood- and the same light we see shining in them shines in us too. We need to understand that being a saint means, first and foremost, belonging to God.
Whether you give yourself an A+ or and F- on that count, you cannot take it back. Once you are baptized, you belong to God and all that remains to be seen is what you will do about it. Just remember that you do not have to be famous, or perfect, or dead. You just have to be you- the one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated human being whom God created you to be- to love as you are loved by God, to throw your arms around the world, to shine like the sun.
You don’t have to do it alone, either. You have all this company- all these saints sitting right here whom you can see for yourself, plus those you cannot- Francis, Joan, Christopher, Maximillian, Absalom, Constance, Jim (Flesher), Stan (Johnson), Ruth (Raihl), Bettye (Madison), Beth (Hohn) – all of them rooting for you, pulling for you, calling your name and shouting themselves hoarse with encouragement. Because you are a part of them, and they are a part of you, a long line stretching back some 2,000 years, and all of us knit together in the communion of saints- God’s handkerchiefs- dropped on the world for the love of Christ. So may it be for us all. Amen.
Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015
*GOSPEL LESSON ~ Mark 10:46-52
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Reflection What Do You Want? Pastor Val Colenso
Have you ever thought that you were invisible? When I was a child, I used to worry about that a lot. Not that a blind person has any real idea about what it means to be visible or invisible.
But there’s nothing like blindness to enable you to focus more clearly on the visions of the heart. I suppose every child knows what it’s like to be talked around – to have the adults in a room act as if your presence wasn’t significant enough to acknowledge. But being blind in my culture implied something far more significant than just a lack of maturity. After all, maturity is something most
people grow into, while blindness is lifetime condition – at least it is for most.
In my time, we understood vision in different way than you do. We thought that light flew out from a person’s eyes, bounced off whatever they were gazing at and then returned to their eyes, which is why physical blindness was usually seen as a sign of a darkness inside.
Surely a deadness of the eyes was a mirror of a deadness in the soul. So they said. And so they assigned blame after the terrible childhood accident that claimed my sight. Was it something I had somehow done or was it a punishment for some dark, secret sin of my parents?
As far back as I can remember, I would sit quietly in a corner of the room while a succession of the leading figures of our city would come in and debate with my father as to the cause of my sightlessness.
Some would quote King David from the Fifty-First Psalm, when he says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” To them, that was proof positive that God must be holding me accountable for some unimaginably outrageous sin.
Others would point to the Ten Commandments in which the LORD warns his
people that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
They would say, surely this is proof that God will not hold one’s descendants blameless when the parents willfully turn from the LORD. Although my father – a man of strong but quiet faith – would gently deny that such a heinous thing had ever happened.
And so the debate would fly back and forth as if I weren’t there -each pronouncement etching yet another wound in my heart, each judgment
hardening my heart ever more firmly against a theology that could dream of a god capable of such punishment. And yet all this damage was inflicted invisibly as I sat unseen in the corner.
In the midst of all this, my father’s faith remained solid as a rock. In the face of the hardships imposed by my condition and by the painful attempts at “consolation” of his friends, he took comfort in the story of Job.
My father saw Job as one who clung tightly to his faith in the midst of the shards of his destroyed life – only to rebuild that faith on the foundation of a blind trust in God’s providence and overall sense of justice. Thus did my father live up to his name Timaeus, which is based on the Greek words timeo theos, or “Lover of God.”
And he became my bulwark against the painful “compassion” of the townspeople of Jericho. But when he died, I was forced to depend on their compassion, for I had to turn to begging on street corners just to survive.
And then it began in earnest: the taunting and ostracizing. Even my name was transformed into an insult. A subtle change switched the meaning from its from its Greek origins into the Hebrew word Bartimaeus, which literally means “son of filth” but perhaps it may best be translated as “scumbag.”
It was no longer a name to honor the faith of my father, but an epithet hurled at me by those who feared contamination from the secret sin they thought must have caused my blindness. And that name of shame would skip across the dirt of the road, boring its way into my ears, only to ricochet violently inside my skull before dropping like a lead weight into the bottom of my heart.
And so I built massive walls around my heart to protect it in the only way I could against this theology of fear. You see, the people of Jericho believed that the holiness they were granted as the chosen people was like the precious oil of a lamp, which had to be kept from being contaminated and had to be carefully rationed so that the lamp could continue to burn brightly in private for the Lord.
And yet, I began to hear stories of a rabbi from Galilee – Jesus of Nazareth – who saw faith in a different light. They said he taught that faith wasn’t something that had to be carefully conserved, but rather faith was something that replenished itself when it was given away – much like the miraculous way the widow of Zarephath’s single-day supply of flour and oil fed Elijah and the widow’s family through the long years of an extended drought.
Could this teaching be true? Was a shared faith a living faith or a contaminated one? The people of Jericho said that Jesus must have the ear of the LORD for he was able to make the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead live and even the blind see. But, if that were so, then surely God had not turned away from those of us who are afflicted.
Could there be hope for me? If I were to meet this Jesus, would he debate the cause of my blindness like the others or would he share his healing power with a person like me? I wasn’t sure, but for the first time in a long time, a feeble ray of hope peered over the walls of my despair.
Then one day Jesus came through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. The whole town was a-buzz – not that anyone stopped to talk with me about it, mind you. There were whispered questions on every street: could this Jesus be the long- awaited Messiah? I thought about the possibility that God’s healer just might take pity on me – if only I could get his attention.
So when I heard him passing by, I began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who happened to be standing next to me tried to shut me up for fear that the Roman soldiers, who always seemed to be evident whenever any type of crowd gathered, would hear me, recognize the meaning of that greeting and begin to arrest people.
And then they said, who are you, the “son of filth” to call to the son of the great king? But this was perhaps my one chance. I was not to be deterred. I had to get Jesus’ attention. So I cried out again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Somehow, in the noise and chaos of that great crowd, Jesus heard me. And,
perhaps just as surprisingly, he stopped and called me to come to him. Someone in the crowd gently told me, “Take heart, for he is calling to you.” But I barely heard them in my haste to scramble to my feet and rush Jesus’ side.
In that haste, I threw down my cloak because in that heady moment of hope, I knew that cloak was a potent symbol of my life as a beggar. It was the blanket that kept out the chills of the night air and the bag I spread before me to catch the meager coins of charity that came my way.
Even as I threw the cloak down, I knew that it was a gamble. If Jesus could not or would not heal me, the odds were that in such a large crowd, I might never find my cloak again. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t want anything standing in the way of accepting the healing he might offer.
You see, in that instant that Jesus called to me, the walls of self-defense surrounding my heart came tumbling down – much like the mighty walls of Jericho itself had fallen before the faith of Joshua and the people of Israel centuries before.
When I got to Jesus’ side, he brought me to a halt with a single question, “What do you want me to do for you?” What would you have asked for? If you came face to face with someone who was so obviously filled with the power of God, what would you say? Would you ask for power? prestige? wealth? I asked for none of these.
By simply stopping and recognizing my presence, he had already restored my dignity. What was left but the physical miracle itself? So I said, “Master, let me receive my sight.” No sooner had I asked than it was answered. Jesus’ next words, “Go, your faith has healed you,” merely served to confirm that fact to the crowd gathered around us.
I’d forgotten the beauty and variety of the world around me. It was so intense that for a moment, I thought my eyes might melt under the onslaught of colors and sights. It was almost overwhelming in its impact. But I managed to avoid being inundated by focusing on the gentle face of my healer: the one who recreated my eyes, the one who brought the holiness of God into the life of an outcast. I would have followed him anywhere. It wasn’t just that he restored my sight.
The healing he gave me went far beyond just giving light to my dead eyes. He gave me God’s shalom – a peace and health and wholeness and unity that I hadn’t even noticed I was missing in my life until he gave it back to me.
Just as I had impulsively throw my cloak aside in my rush to meet Jesus, now I thoughtfully cast my old life aside and pledged to follow him in the way he was traveling. That’s what we were called – followers of TheWay – Jesus’ way, for I became one of his followers, his disciples, learning to sing the song the Psalmist sings, “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” How do you praise the Lord on the dark days, on the days when things overwhelm? How do you praise the Lord when, like Job, you lose it all? How do you praise the Lord when you hurt? I learned that the answer is to turn the question Jesus asked me into a prayer, “What do you want, Jesus?”, so that instead of only asking God to hear what I wanted, I listen for what God wants. For the truth is, we all do have a cloak; we all have a security blanket, something we cling to, something we believe will keep us safe and warm. We all have a choice, you know: cling to our cloak or fling it away and come along the way with Jesus.
And that faith is built not on telling God what we want but embracing God’s promise of presence and following on the way, asking what God wants each day. Job says to God at the end of the long account of having, losing and regaining everything that he has learned one thing:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you… What Job learns losing everything is that God can do all things. With God, all things are possible when you live the Way of Jesus.
I went from Jesus asking me, “What do you want?”, to living from the question, “What do you want, Jesus?” And to me, the answer is clear. What Jesus wants is life overflowing, abundant, lived from faith in God’s promise. God promises one thing, from Abraham to Jesus: to be present with us, for us, among us. God never guarantees things will go smoothly; God says instead that whether things are smooth or rough, God will be there with us. Every day we have a choice: cling to our cloak or fling it away and live trusting this promise, trusting the promises of God. Every day offers this choice: we can live trying to get what we want—or we can live from God’s answer to our question, “What do you want, Lord?” Trust the promise of God’s promise; listen for what God wants today.
May it be so for each one of us. All honor, glory, and thanks be to God! Amen.
Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015
GOSPEL LESSON ~ Mark 10:17-31
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Reflection What Must We Do? Pastor Val Colenso
A toad had moved into our garage. I’m not sure what the attraction was, but almost every time I raised the garage door in preparation for leaving, a large toad sat in the corner near the door, his mottled gray/brown skin nearly lost against the gray of the concrete. The toad hopped away if I approached, slowly as though unconcerned, but then, I’m not sure what normal toad hopping speed is. After a while, I began to watch for him when I backed out and when I returned home, not wanting to find him flattened under my tire. Several times I “herded” him (or her) out of the way.
Some people aren’t particularly fond of toads or other “creepy, crawly” things— bugs, spiders, snakes. I was a tomboy when I was young, convinced that my father wanted a boy instead of the girl he got, and was determined to be as good as every other boy in the neighborhood at doing “boy” things. While I was not entirely successful at that, I did learn that catching garter snakes was great fun and that if I squatted down, held out my hand, and didn’t move, the tiny green tree frogs that lived in the flowerbeds would sometimes hop into my hand, their cool moistness almost weightless.
The year I was seven, my favorite birthday present was a horny toad my sister gave me. I kept him in a big box full of sand and caught flies and grasshoppers and fed him meal worms for his supper. I discovered that he would lay very still if I stroked his belly and he would actually ride around clinging to my sweater, a feat that greatly impressed the boys and made the other girls squeal and cover their eyes.
Then one warm afternoon I took the box out to the back yard and set the lizard free. I tipped the box up. The horny toad just sat there. I actually had to push it out of the box onto the dirt under the pampas grass. It looked around, took one step, then another, then scurried away and was gone.
Watching the lizard scurry from one end of the shoebox to the other, again and again, I had realized that wild things aren’t meant to live their lives in a box. They aren’t meant to be tamed, domesticated, held captive for our pleasure, amusement, and convenience. They aren’t meant to be taken out of their natural world and put somewhere safe and secure and hand-fed a few tattered flies.
Sometimes I think that’s what we’ve done to the Gospel, maybe to Jesus himself. I think we’ve tried to domesticate him and tame his message, to make the “good” news the “safe” news—we’ve tried to put him in a box and take the risk out of being his followers. Oh, certainly, we talk about how dangerous it was to be a Christian back then, back when the Romans ruled the world, back when Jesus’ followers hid in the darkness of the catacombs or died in the dust of the coliseums.
We even talk about the dangers of being a Christian today, but mostly we speak of the Christians who must worship in secret or in places like Communist China, the Middle East, parts of Asia or in certain parts of Africa where fundamentalist Muslims rule, or we tell stories of the missionaries who risk their lives in Central America or serving with the people who live along the Amazon.
The truth is, practicing our faith here at Clancy United Methodist Church, Montana, U.S.A. is pretty safe, isn’t it? There won’t be any soldiers breaking into our service some Sunday morning to cart us off to prison. There won’t be a hooded mob that comes to our homes to burn us out some night. We won’t find ourselves thrown to the lions while the crowd leaps to its feet and cheers. We can sing and pray and preach, listen to the scriptures, gather around the communion table, never worrying about the dangers of what we do.
But I think we’re mistaken. If we take it seriously, the Gospel should be dangerous; “the way” Jesus showed us should be risky business, not business as usual. If we take it seriously, the call of Jesus is no small thing because it means change, profound change, for us as individuals, for us as the church. The “safe way” is not his way—to try and live as Jesus lived puts us in the difficult position of going against the rules the world is run by, the values set by society.
Remember the man we heard about just a couple of minutes ago who asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This man has done what was expected of him as a faithful and observant Jew; however, he is struggling with a deep hunger that tells him that there is even more to life than just doing what is expected of him. When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give to the poor, and then he would have treasure in heaven, the man went away sad, “for he was very rich.”
Hear another version: As he went out into the street, a man came running up, greeted him with great reverence, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus looked him hard in the eye – and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell your stuff and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.” The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to his stuff, and not about to let go.
This is not a shaming story about a miserly man whose greed kept him from following Jesus, but a sad story about a man who missed an opportunity to be made whole and alive, to swim in God’s grace rather than slogging through life weighed down by his stuff. It is one of the few places in the New Testament where someone asks Jesus the Important Question- ‘how do we inherit eternal life.’ When we hear that phrase, “eternal life,” we may think he is asking, “What must I do to make sure I go to heaven when I die?” But “eternal life” in the Gospels has a definition deeper and more immediate than that. It means a life of fullness, value, and meaning beginning now and continuing in the world to come – a life of eternal consequence. It is no complex or nuanced or obscure teaching for specialists in theology. This is the big question, the heart of the matter, and in its answer Jesus lays out the path for us to follow.
Its simplicity, however, does not make it any easier to swallow, for the rich man or for us, his descendants in faith today. Perhaps that is why the story is particularly poignant, because Jesus does not deliver this instruction in a way that is harsh or oppressive. As he looks tenderly at the man, seeing into his heart and knowing him at his deepest level, we sense that his teaching is meant to free the man from everything that holds him bound, all the possessions that possess him: both an invitation “to join the inner circles of Jesus’ family” and a challenge to do the difficult thing that will restore his relationship to those on the margins of his life, those most in need of justice and generosity.
It is a story that appears in all three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, so it must have been an important and central story to the early church. Tradition says that the man was grieving (yes, grieving) because he was unwilling to pay the price of having eternal life; letting go of all his stuff. But you could also interpret the story as the man grieving because he had decided to get rid of his stuff and follow Jesus. His tears were not of sorrow but of acceptance because he understood that his his stuff had become more important to him than his relationship with God, and he knew he had taken the very first step into a new future. He realized that joining Jesus in kingdom values could be excruciatingly painful.
While Jesus identified the man’s barriers to wholeness as his possessions, that may or may not be the universal message. There are likely to be other accumulations that keep people from following in the way: power, status, ambition, a storehouse filled with self-righteousness, bales of over-indulgence, a ledger where the score of wrongs is compulsively kept, an attic full of dusty resentments, barrels full of anger, or whatever it is that consumes us and comes between us and God. Give it away, says Jesus. Give it away and come, and follow me.
Taking that first step of letting go of much of our stuff can be painful and difficult. Material things – our stuff – holds such power in our lives, and in the eyes and workings of the world. It is as painful and difficult as attending that first AA meeting, the first call to a therapist or a marriage counsellor, talking with your son or daughter about the drugs you found in their jeans pocket, confronting an abuser, or even hearing a call to ministry. It is the realization that we are literally parting with much of our stuff to follow Jesus. It is absolutely against the rules the world is run by, the values set by society.
Now I want to be clear – I am not suggesting that we leave ourselves destitute or do this all at once. It begins with the first few steps. Life in God’s kingdom is about transformation and change, and it is a process, not a big one-time-only step. It starts with identifying with Jesus, and then nestled and nurtured in a company of believers – like we are here – people can begin to live a new life; a life of kingdom values, where stuff has less of a concern and the relationship with God is the first thing in our lives.
Go sell whatever you own and give to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. Then come, follow me. That’s what Jesus tells us to do with our stuff. Sell it and give it away. Because it belongs, in the first place to God. Just like we do.
Of course, there are all kinds of reasons for why we don’t have to go that far, right? After all, we do good and wonderful things—we visit the sick, we give money to missions, we bring food for the Food Bank to help out folks who might go to bed hungry if we weren’t there, we sit on committees and volunteer in the community, we might even share the Gospel with someone in a parking lot. But Jesus’ call is to live like he lived, to love as he loved, as the kids say,“24-7”. It’s a call to give our lives to his work here on earth, an invitation to a different way of living, a different way of being.
I have been asking myself this week, “What is the one thing I feel that I need in order to consider that my life is complete and has meant something?” What is it that I want or need? What can I not yet part with? What must I do? Sometimes I wonder whether one day I’ll find myself face to face with the realization that all these years I kept my faith and my life in a nice, safe little box. Will I do nothing then but turn away sad?
There is a happy ending to this story although the rich man wasn’t around to hear it. When the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus overhears them. He throws his arms around them and gives them a bear hug that, to tell the truth, feels a little like a shake, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” There’s our good news – hope for the rich man, and hope for us. There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you pray for.” Today I take a deep breath and pray, Help us, Lord, to let your Spirit free—in our lives, in our church, in the world. May that Spirit set our hearts on fire with love and mercy, compassion and justice. I pray that it may be so for us all. All glory and honor be to God. Amen
Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015
*GOSPEL LESSON Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Reflection Tearing Down Walls Pastor Val Colenso
Walls. I want you to think about walls. Walls keep things out– and walls keep things in. We are celebrating communion today and now I want you to think about our communion- not Communion proper, but what we often call the ‘communion of saints’. Today is World Communion Sunday. Okay, you may be thinking– what do walls have to do with communion? I want you to think about the communion that we have that extends beyond our walls. I also want you to think about the walls that we have built and how they might affect what God has planned for us. As we gather here today inside this sanctuary, inside these four walls and pray and sing and lift up the bread and the cup and take and eat and drink in remembrance of Christ Jesus and how he showed us God’s love, tens of thousands, indeed tens of millions of our brothers and sisters around the world are doing the very same thing.
Some of these people will be in churches like our own in nations like our own, but many of them will be places like Africa, South America, and the Philippines, and they will be celebrating the sacrifice made by God, the offering that Christ made freely on our behalf, in single room schools made out of sheet metal, wood scraps and cardboard, or in village squares in which the sound of chickens and the smell of goats will mingle with the sound of hymns and the sweet aroma of candles and incense.
Some even now are in magnificent cathedrals with vast pipe organs and huge choirs and paid musicians, others, throughout this day, will be gathering together in straw huts, where a simple wooden cross tells those who come what the place is, and where the music is supplied by oil barrel drum or a tambourine, and all the songs are sung without benefit of hymn books or music directors.
The immensity and the diversity of the family that we have beyond these walls is truly mind-boggling. We should take note of it and we should remember it and we should celebrate it as often as possible.
We have a communion, we have a family, beyond these walls. And it is good, and it is beautiful and it is a gift of God to us – and to our world. It is something to celebrate, this week, next week, and indeed every week.
I invite each one of you to consider the walls around you today, and to think about what they might represent, to think about how they may be barriers to our communion with others, how they might even be a barrier to our communion with God.
Each one of us has a way of shutting things out, a way of shutting other people out. We see that in our scriptures readings today – the passage in Job which includes his wife telling him to curse God and die shuts out not only Job but God; Jesus talking about our hardness of heart with regard to men divorcing their wives in a time when all that was required for a man to divorce his wife was for him to write it out on a piece of paper, and she was out in the street; the disciples trying to chase off the children and their parents as nuisances.
Last week’s Gospel lesson had John and the disciples of Jesus telling Jesus how they have come across a man driving out demons in his name and how they told him to stop, because he was not one of them. The answers of both Job and of Jesus should be instructive for us today. Job chides her for being foolish before God, and asks her if they should only receive the good from God and not the bad. Jesus words are directed towards the men who throw away their wives and, on occasion, their children, and at the disciples attempt to exclude children from the kingdom of God. And Jesus said to John in last week’s reading, “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward”.
We’re so small and we’re so frightened, and sometimes we are so damaged and broken, that we tend to want to retreat into a place of safety, a place where we cannot be hurt- a place behind walls. We go to a place of comfort, a place where we will not be judged, a place where, if we don’t have the answers, no one will mind- a place where things are predictable, a place without too many surprises, without unexpected danger. And this is understandable– at times it is even necessary. All of us need a place of healing, a place of peace, a place where we do not have to struggle every moment- a place where we can rest secure in the knowledge that we are safe in a place where we can gather strength.
I believe that this church with its warmly embracing walls is such a place for many of you. That is one of the things the church is for. It is meant to be a place of refuge – a place of strengthening – a place where we are fed and are prepared to serve God in the larger world.
But is also meant to be an open place – open for others to come in – and for us to go out; a place where children are welcomed instead of being told to mind their place and not to bother you or me; a place where those whose lives have been shattered by the agony of divorce may feel that there is hope for a new life, instead of being told they are offensive to God; a place where those who have experienced the ripping, tearing, and breaking that life can put us through might experience the mending power of God; a place where strangers who seek to do good in the name of Christ might be affirmed rather than told that they are not known to us and do not belong. A place where we learn that God is not only with us but with others as well; a place where we offer Radical Hospitality to all, inviting, welcoming, receiving and caring for friend and stranger alike so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the possibility of a relationship with God through Christ.
The church is more than a building- it is more than a denomination, and it is more than one particular way of doing things. We have a communion beyond our walls and I think you already know that if we don’t get in touch with it, if we don’t understand that it is there and open our hearts to it, then all that we do and experience inside these walls is futile.
In short – the places of safety that we enter into should not limit our vision of where God is and of how God is working. What we celebrate today when we lift up the cup and the bread and eat and drink the symbols of the body and blood of Christ Jesus is the fact that God reached out past the walls that surround heaven and entered into communion with us, extending to us Radical Hospitality. We celebrate in the Lord’s Supper the fact that Christ Jesus loved us so much that he was prepared to give up his safety, his peace, his strength, his joy, indeed his very life so that we might become whole and be able to enter fully into God’s kingdom. Our walls – our definitions – our understandings have a purpose- they serve a function, they are necessary to us. But the communion God calls us to so very often extends beyond our walls and our definitions. It calls us to offer to others the same Radical Hospitality that Jesus offers to us. It takes in those prophets who speak in the places where our rules say they should not be; it takes in those disciples who heal others in Christ’s name even though they don’t belong to our group. It takes in our brothers and sisters of all denominations from around the world.
Today- as you receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation- remember why it is given to you – savor the moment. Take strength from the time that God gives you to build up your strength, and enter into the fullness of the communion God has called you to. See and feel as you meditate, the wideness and the breadth of the family that God has created. Understand that diversity need not lead us to division, that those who are not against us are for us, and that God would have us all full of zeal to do God’s work. Thanks be to God for the fact that the power of God is in God’s name and not in us. And thanks be to God that God has chosen – and God calls us – to tear every wall and barrier down and to unite our hearts with God’s heart – and with all who call upon God, offering them Radical Hospitality. We are one body in this one Lord. Blessed be God, day by day. Amen
Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015
GOSPEL LESSON ~ Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Reflection Real Followers Pastor Val Colenso
As many of you know, I’m on Facebook – an online social networking site. I’ve located former high school and college friends and made new ones, which I’ve really enjoyed! Some of you are my Facebook friends, and if you haven’t already, feel free to invite me to be your friend on Facebook — we even have a Clancy United Methodist Church Facebook page for the congregation.
The one strange thing that’s occurred is that a few of the people I went to high school with have invited me to be their friends. Truthfully, my memory of some of them is a little slim, but at least one of them was definitely in the “in” crowd. I definitely was not. As I looked through his list of “friends” I saw all of those names and faces from that crowd and did not see a single one of the kids I hung out with listed, it brought back all of those adolescent feelings of who was in and who was out. Yuck!
Some things never change. Talk with any young person about some about the various groups of which they are a part. While they’ll mention a variety of different clubs, teams, etc., they will also acknowledge there is still an “in” crowd – more prevalent at some schools than others. Honestly, I am glad I am not back in high school right now! As a friend said this week, “I already lived through that once.”
Our gospel lesson this morning is also about those who are in the “in” crowd and those who aren’t. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. Last week we heard the disciples arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. They just couldn’t let go of that competitive streak (but of course, none of us here this morning are like that!). Now they are upset because someone had the audacity to use Jesus’ name to relieve someone of a demonic possession without getting their permission first.
We need to understand that the issue of demon possession was extremely significant in Jesus’ day. Many maladies – physical and mental, fell under that heading. It was one of the reasons Jesus’ actions were so noted by the crowds. He sometimes exorcised demons with a single word. If someone came along and could free someone possessed, someone whose life was bound by an illness of body or soul, you can bet that he or she would garner some attention.
But the disciples are not so happy about this turn of events. Actually, they are ticked off. A bit competitive? Perhaps their emotions also include a bit of jealousy, as the disciples had found themselves unable to heal a young boy just a short while ago. How dare this unknown outsider work without the proper credentials! Who does he think he is? Why he hasn’t gone to seminary or passed ordination exams or been questioned by the Board of Ordained Ministry? We don’t know if his theology is sound, or if his moral life is up to snuff. And he isn’t following us.
Last week we were dealing with the individual egos of the disciples and now we are dealing with their group identity. They were in Jesus’ inner circle. They had been with him from the beginning. They were more faithful followers than this interloper! This had to stop now!
Was the man taking the Lord’s name in vain? No. Was he spreading false rumors about Jesus? No. Was he taunting the disciples, making fun of them? No. Was he hurting people? Was he teaching falsely? No, no. What was he doing? Exorcising a demon in Jesus’ name. In Jesus’ name he was offering healing and wholeness to those in need. Oh that we were so accused!
So what exactly is the problem? Why are John and the other disciples in such a huff? Because, friends, he wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. He didn’t belong to their group, to their club. He has moved in on their turf and they are not happy about it. Yup, he sure sounds dangerous, no good – a major problem. Better get rid of him!
The disciples were indignant. So they take their concern to Jesus, certain that he will stop this outrageous lack of proper decorum. So what does Jesus say? Does he put this outsider in his place? Does he tell him to get lost, to go back to where he came from? No. He turns common understandings on their head yet again, “Those who are not against us are for us.” What?
Essentially, Jesus’ answer to the disciples is, “Don’t worry about him. Leave him alone – he’s OK. He may actually be helping to spread the good news! If any one is doing good in my name, they’re with us.”
2000 years later, we are still struggling with what to do with followers of Jesus who are not like us. I think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on our door yesterday, convinced that only they have the truth about God. I remember a group who somewhat aggressively accosted me as I was going onto the Claremont School of Theology seminary campus 11 years ago – United Methodist name badge clearly in evidence. Was I saved? Clearly, they didn’t think that United Methodists fell into that category!
Some of us get irritated that non-Catholics are not allowed to take communion in the Catholic church, or that some Baptist and Missouri Synod churches insist that you have to be baptized their way in order to be a part of church. I remember a youth group from Minnesota who shared a mission space at La Puente, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Alamosa, Colorado, with our youth group from the First United Methodist Church of Fountain, Colorado. They made it very clear that they didn’t think the Fountain youth were real followers of Jesus, because they didn’t share the exact same beliefs. Our daughter Jennifer encountered the same attitude when she dated the son of a Baptist pastor who informed her sadly that she was going to Hell because she didn’t believe as he did.
The Rev. Dr. David Galloway tells the following story in a sermon on this text: “One afternoon a rather obnoxious, loud Texan, known to my golfing buddies and me came up to my table at the 19th Hole and started talking loud, the only volume level he had, so loud that the attention of the room naturally turned to him. He bellowed at me, “You Episcopalians don’t believe in the Bible, do you?!” Rather than take the bait, I just looked at him and smiled weakly, hoping he would pass on by like an East Texas thunderstorm.
He was referring to a recent decision by the church on some topic that was not to his liking. He went on, “David, I want to go to a church that is Bible-believing. Do you understand me? A place where the preacher is not trying to tippy-toe around the hard lessons of Jesus, a preacher who will lay it on the line, not try to water down the Gospel. I want a preacher who will be bold and put it out there, the full measure of the Bible, not hold back a lick. I want a preacher who will not let sinners slide and will call them out by name. I want the full Gospel. I don’t want a preacher to pussy-foot around the message of Jesus.”
I do not know where my response came from, but I heard it issuing forth from my lips after taking a long sip from my glass. “You want the full Gospel, Hugh? You mean the part about selling all you have and giving it to the poor?”
A pregnant silence fell over the room, after which Hugh responded, “Well, not that part!”
The room broke up in laughter. Hugh slunk out of the room as quietly as possible. Everyone was high-fiving me for having put Hugh in his place. “Way to go’s” from Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews. David had slain Goliath once again, and all was right with the world.”
Galloway continues, “I went home that night particularly proud of myself and proceeded to tell the story to my wife. Mary, a better Christian than I am, laughed at the story with that laugh that I had grown to love over the past 25 years. But then my partner asked the evident but avoided question: “David, what part of the Gospel do you avoid?” ( “Getting Serious” the Rev. Dr. David Galloway, Day 1, 2006.)”
It is so much easier to see the ways that other people are exclusive or think only they have the right answers. But no one has a market on cutting others out of their particular circle. We all do it. Think about the groups you belong to. What clubs? Take note of your reactions as I call out various groups of people:
conservative, liberal, Democrat, Republican, Socialist, pro-life, pro-choice, American, Russian, Fundamentalist, homosexual, Hispanic, Baptist, Iranian, Wall Street Executive, blue-collar worker, Vietnamese, schizophrenic, Pentecostal, pagan, nerd, jock, Syrian, Union organizer. If you are like me, I would guess that you react affirmatively to some, and negatively to others. But take note: there are Christians who fall into every single one of those groups.
Or closer to home, are there walls of division that exist here in our own community, our own church?
Like the disciples, we don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. Matters of God’s kingdom are not issues of control and having the correct label attached to us. It’s about faith, never mind the nit-picky things, those things that Wesley labeled, “nonessentials.”
The fastest growing churches in the world are in Africa – independent churches, who aren’t affiliated with any particular denomination or group. What do we do with them? Can we handle that degree of ecclesiastical freedom? Surely they are not operating “decently and in order!” To stretch it even further, what do we do about the world’s other religions – Judaism, Islam, Hindi, Buddhism, to name just a few. Are they outside of the circle of God’s love?
One of my Seminary professors, Dr. Greg Riley is a renowned New Testament scholar and passionate evangelical Christian. I have never met a more ardent believer. At a conference several years ago, someone asked Greg if Jesus was the only way to God. I don’t have his exact response, but the essence of his answer was this, “Jesus is the only way I know. But I’m not God.”
It broke my heart that some of his life-long colleagues decided that such an answer placed Greg “outside” the circle of “real followers.” From my perspective, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The disciples were wrong about elitism in the kingdom, and they are wrong here about exclusivity. Neither are features of God’s way. Don’t build walls, he tells us. Who is in and who is out is not a thing to be obsessing over, Jesus seems to say. It’s not the point. It may even be none of our business. It’s for God to worry about – not us.
What it comes down to is understanding that being different does not equal being deficient. Any put-down of other disciples comes from our own insecurities – it says nothing about them. Our vision is simply not the same as God’s. Spiritual author Anne Lamott cautions us about too much certainty, observing the divide is never between people who believe different things, but between those who have different interpretations of the same thing. She writes: “You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” (Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. Random House, NY, 1994. p. 22).
So how can we tell the real followers of Jesus? Jesus means for relationships in the community of faith to be utterly different than those of the surrounding world. Imagine something different! What if the first aren’t first and the last aren’t last? What if there are no elders or deacons or local pastors? What if the dividing lines aren’t cast in stone? What if God’s world is not so much about doors and walls and hall passes? Jesus tells us that whoever is not against us is included. We can see real followers when kindness is done in Jesus’ name or the demons of our day are cast out. (That’s a whole other sermon, friends – I’ll spare you for today!) Real followers care more about “the little ones” – the lowly ones – the least of these – than about who is in or out. Or as Fred Craddock said 25 years ago, to be a real follower “means to be willing to empty your pockets for somebody else’s children. I think it means to treat as father and mother those who are not really your mother and father. I think it means to claim as brother and sister people to whom you are not kin. I think it means to reach out and touch untouchable people…I think it means to sit at table with people who live far outside the social circle of some of our friends…It means to witness to Jesus Christ when evangelism is being laughed at everywhere. It means…to speak the gospel as though something were at stake.. I think it means that.” (Fred Craddock, “The Last Temptation of the Church,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin [Nov. 1989], p. 198.) By the grace of God, may we live as real followers of Christ! So may it be for each one of us! And all of God’s people said, Amen!
Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015
GOSPEL LESSON ~ Mark 8:27-38
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Reflection The Greatest and the Least
As they walked home to Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples had some time alone. Jesus had made sure of it, because there were some things he wanted to teach them. For the second time, he tried to explain to them what would be coming up for him-telling them about his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.
But as before, it didn’t compute. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him to explain. Maybe they were like we sometimes are and don’t understand something- each of us is afraid we’re the only one who doesn’t get it, and we don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone else, so we keep our mouths shut. What we don’t realize- what the disciples didn’t realize- was that not everyone understands, and if one of us would ask the question, all of us would benefit.
But the disciples didn’t do that. Instead, they talked among themselves about it. I wonder if their conversation might have sounded like this:
“Why does he keep saying that? He knows the Messiah won’t die- he’ll establish his kingdom here, throw out the Romans, and rule forever.”
“Beats me, but it’s kind of alarming.”
“Remember when he said this to us before,” Peter might say, “and I tried to help him understand what it really meant to be the Messiah-and he called me Satan! There’s no way I’d ask him about it again after that.”
“What if something does happen to him? I suppose one of us will have to take over as the leader, and keep this going.”
“Yeah, but which one?”
And then maybe they fell silent, imagining what it would be like on that last day, Jesus placing his hands on the chosen successor’s head-and, of course, each one thought it would be him who got the nod.
Then the conversation would resume.
“It sure couldn’t be Peter. He’s too much of a loose cannon, always speaking before he thinks.”
Peter might answer, “But I’m the only one who knew he was the Messiah without him telling us. And I’m one of the few he had up on the mountain with him that one day when Moses and Elijah showed up.”
And John might chime in, “Well, James and I were there too on that day. I bet he’d pick one of us.”
Then James might turn to his brother and say, “Well, it would have to be me, not you, because you’re too young to be in charge.”
And maybe Judas would interrupt this argument before it turned physical, saying, “Well, you guys are all hicks from Galilee. I think Jesus would pick someone a little bit more sophisticated, someone who could relate better to people in Jerusalem.”
“So I suppose you think you’d get to be the leader, then, Judas,” Thomas might chime in. “You’re the only Judean. But why would Jesus think a Judean was better than someone from Galilee? Remember that he’s a Galilean too!”
Then Matthew might jump in. “I think he’d pick someone who’s financially secure, who maybe could support all of us. Running all over creation teaching people takes money, you know. And I’ve got more money than any of you.”
“Well,” Peter might say. “I think your past would probably come back to haunt you. There’s no way the Pharisees would listen to a former tax collector. As far as they’re concerned, you’re still a filthy collaborator.”
Now, I don’t know how long this argument might have gone on, with each of the twelve giving their reason why he should be the leader, and each one of them getting shot down by someone else, but you get the idea. Maybe it went on until they got home, as Jesus walked ahead of them a few paces, and they all figured he was lost in his own thoughts, or even in prayer, and probably- hopefully!- not listening to them. Because they must have known somewhere in their heart of hearts how ridiculous the argument was.
But no such luck. When they got home, Jesus asked, seemingly innocently, “What were you guys talking about?” I remember my mom asking similar innocent questions when I was a kid and doing something I shouldn’t have been doing- and knowing full well she knew the answer before she asked.
And the disciples probably looked very intently at their feet right then. But Jesus didn’t chew them out like he had not too long before, when they hadn’t been able to do anything for a father who brought his epileptic son for healing.
Any of us who’ve ever been parents or teachers know about “teachable moments”- those times when something happens and we throw out the lesson plans because we’ve just been presented an opportunity to teach something we hadn’t planned to teach. Jesus saw a teachable moment here. The disciples’ reaction when Jesus asked them what they were talking about told him they were ripe for being taught another way to think about greatness. So he sat down- as a rabbi would to teach.
He said, “You know, the world thinks about greatness the way you were doing on the road. Who’s the most qualified, most powerful, best at the stuff on the job description? Who has money, who has the right ethnic background, the best political savvy? But you guys have been around me long enough to know that’s not the way I see it, and that’s not the way my Father sees it.
“In the Kingdom of God, the one who is the greatest is the one who serves everyone else. In the kingdom of God, the ones given special honor are the weak, the broken, the insignificant, the powerless.”
And then, for the visual learners among them, he called a little child who happened to be walking through and took that child into his arms. Maybe he had the young one sit on his lap for a second. And he said, “If you welcome one like this in my name, you are welcoming me- and in welcoming me, you welcome God.” That’s true greatness, he said. Some preachers are using this text to talk about how we treat children in this country. And that’s certainly a worthwhile conversation to have. But it’s not the whole point.
To understand Jesus’ point we need to know a little bit about what it meant to be a child in his day. Childhood wasn’t seen in those days as an ideal time of innocence, a time of play and wonder. Children weren’t seen as precious, but as necessary nuisances, to be fed and clothed and put up with until they were old enough to be of some use to the family. In a time when many kids didn’t survive even to age five, it just didn’t pay to get attached to them. They were weak, powerless; they had no say in what happened to them. They were lower on the social scale than women, and were sometimes sold into slavery. They were completely at someone else’s mercy, and like children today, completely dependent on someone else to provide for them.
So when Jesus said, “Be servant of all, welcoming all- even a child- and you will be great,” he was really saying, “True greatness is welcoming and serving the lowest of the low.”
We learn from Jesus- not just from his words but from the way he lived his life, the Son of God coming as a baby to an ordinary, poor family who lived in the sticks of Galilee, taking as his followers fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, broken people, poor people, even women and children; and eventually dying naked on a cross- that the way of the Kingdom is the way of service, of humility, of being prepared even to give up our lives for others, some of whom we might think don’t even deserve to be served or welcomed like this.
The way of the Kingdom is to welcome and serve the lowest of the low. In serving these, we serve Christ, and in serving Christ we serve God.
Now, I think it’s easy to welcome and care for some children, at least- the ones who behave, who have manners, who are cute. But that’s not all Jesus meant. It’s not as easy perhaps to welcome and care for children who don’t look like us, who don’t know how to behave, who have issues, who aren’t cute, who are obnoxious. But those are the ones we need especially to welcome.
And he might have set a child on his lap to teach them; but he wasn’t talking just about children. He was talking about anyone of low status- the powerless, and all those with whom we’d rather not associate. He was telling his disciples- telling us- that how we treat these little ones, these poor ones, these weak ones, these invisible ones is how we treat him.
In a way, when we encounter one of these who needs us to welcome and love them, we are encountering Jesus; we have a chance to welcome Jesus, to care for Jesus. I am reminded of these words from Matthew 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? And Jesus will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” And he tells us, “love one another, as I have loved you”.
This week I’ve been thinking of a specific action to illustrate this, a thing to do, a mission to recommend, and while I see such opportunity in the refugee crisis, I am at a loss to know specifically how to help. We do have a number of mission projects we are involved in, however, and our church is rich in its support of them. There are the various collections: for food, for school items, Christmas gifts for local families and children on the reservation, financial aid for natural disasters around the world. There are things to which we contribute like the One Great Hour of Sharing. We are a welcoming church. So I’m like a loving spouse, choosing from the bouquets in a florist shop, overwhelmed by all the blossoms. And yet, I think perhaps this is a moment that calls for looking beyond these actions. What Jesus seems to be teaching is something deeper, something about the heart, not just the hands; about being, not just doing. He means to open our hearts to others, to teach a compassion that mirrors God’s love. That opening of hearts is a day by day thing. It is beyond a mission project; it is the mission of teaching us to see our brothers and sisters around the world as precious children of God, embraced by God, and so, for us to embrace each other.
This summer I read a remarkable novel called, All the Light We Cannot See. We are going to be reading it later this year for Book Club. The main character is a blind girl whose father works at a museum in Paris. Like many children, she has hours and hours to wait for her father and she fills those with the people and objects in the museum, experiencing these things not by seeing them but by touching them. The story says,
To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Entomology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.
We are most nearly following Christ when we listen to each other, reach out to each other, share with each other, pray for each other, embrace each other, see Jesus in each other- and in all of God’s children, including the least of these.
So the question for each of us is this: How will we treat Jesus when we meet him this week?
All honor, glory, and praise be to God! Amen.
Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015
*GOSPEL LESSON Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Reflection It’s Personal Pastor Val Colenso
And Jesus looked at his followers; his believers; his friends…. And he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” I want you to think about that question for a moment…. I want you to think of how you would respond…
There’s a joke often told among clergy when this passage comes up in the lectionary regarding graffiti on the bathroom wall at St. John’s University:
And Jesus said, “Who do *you* say that I am?”
And Peter said, “You are the ontological ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationships.”
And Jesus said, “What?”
Jesus looked at his followers; his believers; his friends…. And he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”
What a question. What a moment.
I’ve been imagining it a lot this week… let me take you where my imagination has wandered.
At our house I cut the grass.
We do have two sons and three daughters, but they are all far away – and so I cut the grass. When they were living at home, however, I still cut the grass. I could roll my eyes and tell you that they were just lazy and that I had to do it myself, but the truth is… while I don’t necessarily I like cutting the grass, only I knew how to do it right. I knew that you carefully trim before you cut, that with a mulching mower you kept the blades sharp and you cut slowly so that no clumps of cut grass are left behind…. I knew the right pattern to cut so that the lawn looked its best when I’m done.
But I still rolled my eyes and blamed our kids for making me cut the grass.
A number of years ago, I let go…in a magnanimous gesture of kindness and love, I invited one of our sons to cut the grass. He didn’t seem to sense what a monumentous occasion this was… what an honor I was bestowing upon him… what an incredible trust I was investing in our son… I’ll always believe that he was hiding his enthusiasm behind a detached coolness… “yeah, Mom, whatever… I’ll do it”.
He didn’t do it that day…
But he did do it the next day.
He didn’t trim before he cut…
He didn’t trim at all.
All the along the fence grass grew with abandon… almost sneering at me… “ha ha, missed us!”
The tomato plants were damaged by the passing lawnmower…
The pattern was all wrong… like some kind of Rorschach test… and trust me, what I saw in it was not pretty…
And worst of all… clumps of cut grass lay all about the lawn… it looked like we were about to start haying season… It was a mess.
Well, our son was nearly grown, but he could still learn a few things… I headed for the back door to find him and throttle… I mean teach him the right way to cut a lawn…
Jesus said to me… “Who do you say that I am?”
It took me aback ever so slightly… Sure, I know that Jesus has appeared as a Gardner before, but not in my back yard and not in this century. But there he was, dirty jeans, torn t-shirt, but the shiniest hair and softest brown eyes… looking right at me.
“Who do you say that I am?”
“You’re Jesus, the Christ. Son of God. Begotten not made. Emmanuel, God with us..”
“You’re not listening… I know the theology… I asked you, ‘Who do YOU say that I am”
Feeling a little chastened… I looked at myself, ready to go to battle with my son, the sacker of lawns…and then back to Jesus standing there, looking just like all the pictures… and tried again.
“You’re the one who expects patience of me… the one who invites me into real relationship, not just with you, but with others. You’re the one who invites me to respect my son and to realize that sharing and trust are two way streets… and that time and patience are the real foundations of relationships not dictated values and imposed conduct.”
Jesus just smiled. Our son went on with his life assured that he been helpful and supportive of my efforts to keep a tidy lawn and I went for the weedwhacker and a rake.
I found a little money. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was about a hundred and fifty dollars more than I thought I had. It was actually money that I thought had been stolen or simply lost during one of our moves. But there it was, in an envelope in a box of other papers marked “current”. I was giddy with the excitement. I could pay down a bill! Nah.
I could get Stan some new books- or even a Nook… yeah… maybe
We could go out to dinner… and I mean a seriously nice dinner! Yeah…
The TV was rattling on… something about children hungry… somewhere.
I was trying to read restaurant menus from unfamiliar new places. Did we want to go to a steak house, or eat Italian or Chinese… I turned the TV off, because it was making it hard to think.
Jesus said to me, “Who do you say that I am?”
I jumped…. (Well, wouldn’t you?)
“What? Umm… you’re the…”
Not wanting to repeat the last embarrassment, I kept my theological training to myself.. . I considered the situation… “you’re not much of a restaurant guy, are you? You seemed to like to eat in people’s homes and way out in the middle of nowhere… AND You’re the one who invited the children to come unto you; the one who tells me to love my neighbor as I love myself….”
Jesus handed me my check book… I wrote a check to the Heifer Project, a charity that we have supported for years… and through Heifer’s Dream Basket managed to get shares of a sheep, heifer, goat, rabbits, and a flock of ducks and chicks to a few hungry children and their families. There was still a little left over for my Stan and I to go out for a modest dinner…. Jesus came to say grace.
So, I was at the grocery store … I just needed a couple of quick things one the way home: Dog Food, toilet paper and some milk. I didn’t have a basket – I forgot to get one. I just had the items in hand as I got into the 8 items or less line. I was third in line… just a couple of minutes and I would be home in time for NCIS. The woman in front was paying with her bank card. It didn’t work. Not for her – not for the cashier. They tried some clever magic with plastic bags… nothing….oops, then something – hurrah. Suddenly she realized that she had bought conditioner and not shampoo… almost as suddenly, the big package of toilet paper is getting hard for me to hold along with the dog food and the gallon of milk… All of the sudden I have to become a juggler because the older gentleman in front of me hasn’t left me any room on the belt.
Wait a minute… there isn’t any room on the belt because he’s got so much stuff…. I’m counting, 1,2,3,4,5,6,…14, 15, 16, 17…even if the three cans of cream of chicken soup were counted together, he’s still way over 8!!
Rules are rules.
17 is not 8 or less.
It’s time for me to explain the rules to this horribly inconsiderate – NCIS-hating – out to get Val – old man.
Jesus said to me… “Who do you say that I am?” I don’t even flinch – I was getting used to it.
“You’re the one who gave of himself that I might know that God is with me. The one who suffered pain, humiliation and even death… but never stopped loving me; never even stopped loving the ones who persecuted you.”
He just smiled and picked up a copy of US magazine.
I let the man – a very nice man, probably, who just couldn’t count – go ahead of me. Jesus carried the dog food and NCIS was a repeat anyway.
I’ve asked around… quietly and carefully of course…wouldn’t want people to think that I was strange… It turns out it not just me…..
It had been a long labor. Why is it that first children are never predicable? After hours and hours of contractions…waiting… breathing… pushing… screaming… A little baby girl was in her arms. A baby woman. All warm and scrunchy. 10 little fingers; 10 little toes… but oh my God, how little those fingers were. And yet, how perfect. And she smelled just like a baby…. There was no way that anything in life could have prepared her for this moment….
Jesus asked her, “Who do you say that I am?”
“You are the fulfillment of every hope… the promise of life… you are the one who can dance with joy for me, because I’m a little too shaky to do it myself. “
And Jesus began to dance.
He was on his way home from the bank. The bank that couldn’t… or wouldn’t help… he knew that next week he would be going to bankruptcy court. He felt defeated… ashamed… betrayed…foolish… and just cheated. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Walking across the parking lot to his car, he wanted to cry. How could he have failed?
Jesus was getting out the car next to his… “Who do you say that I am?”
“Unless you can lend me some money, I don’t really care.”
“C’mon… really… who do you say that I am?”
“You’re the one who was betrayed and persecuted, humiliated and beaten.”
“That’s right… that’s all that the powers of this world could do to me”
“and it wasn’t enough…” ”That’s right… it’s never enough. Your life will always be more important, more valuable and more lasting than anything that the world can do to you…. Who do you say that I am?” ”You’re the one who shows how limited the ideas of success and failure really are… you’re the one who promises resurrection….”
She was sitting in the living room, wondering what to do next. She had just finished another bottle and hid it in a garbage bag in the basement… and she still felt lousy. The world wasn’t getting any better. When her children got home, they would know that she was drunk… and that would make her want to drink even more. She didn’t feel like a mother; she didn’t feel like a wife; she didn’t feel like a woman… on her best days, she didn’t feel at all… but today she felt weak, ashamed, guilty… she knew what the drinking was doing to her family; just a glance over to the mirror on the wall and she could see what it was doing to herself. She was crying and moaning… but the real tears were so deep inside, they would never come out, never be seen or shared.
Jesus said to her, “Who do you say that I am?”
“I don’t know you” Was all that she could say.
“I am the one who loves you. The real you. There is nothing for you to prove to me. I know your tears – the tears that you hold deep inside… and I love you. I am with you…. And I’ll even go to a meeting with you, when you’re ready to be alive. I am the one who wants you to feel; can help you feel and knows that you will feel…. Better”
“My lord, My God” she said.
She called a number that she’d kept in her purse for months now… she met some people and began to feel… better.
He sat in the hospital after his father died, wondering why he felt like an orphan… he was 60 years old for goodness sake… but he felt so alone.
Jesus said to him, “Who do you say that I am?”
She wondered if this person really was the one to share her life? Could it really be as good as her hopes and dreams? Would they make a life together?
Jesus said to her, “Who do you say that I am?”
Every day, Jesus is with us asking the same question, “Who Do You Say That I am?” Right now… in this moment.
And as our moments change, so, too do our answers to the question. Some days we don’t hear the questions- we’re too busy to notice the divine presence. Some days, we choose not to answer, not welcoming the divine presence into our lives, our paths already set with no desire to hear about another – a better – way. But the presence never changes.
And so I would invite you to consider: ~ Who is Jesus in your life? ~ What is it about Jesus that he would have us believe? ~ Who are we in Jesus? ~ What is it about us that is different for being in Christ? The first question goes beyond asking what may be the obvious, challenging us to go deeper and wider than “theological linguistics” such as ‘Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior’, to an honest appraisal of what our life is a witness of. How well do we represent Christ to others? Do others have the opportunity to meet something of God within us? The second question is one of motive. Having the right answer is not always enough. There is something to be said about having the ‘right answer’ for the ‘right reason.’ Our motivation for trusting in Christ- is it to get into heaven, or is to make the world a better place, regardless of what we ourselves might need to give up, sacrifice, or leave behind?
The third question searches the heart and mind and soul for anything that resembles the transformation of human life that is an expression that something new of God is happening to us, with us, within us and through us. Do we look strangely different, not primarily in our outward appearance, but in our way of being in the world? And, the fourth question is in regard to the specifics of that process of transformation. What is there to be found in us that is evidence of a life lived in Christ? For we are often aware of the reality that actions do speak louder than words. And, we are too often less than able to walk our talk.
Remember who Jesus is… as a matter of faith we say that Jesus is God in our presence; The Divinity in our human existence. So every day, we are confronted by the Divine… by dreams beyond imagination; strength beyond power; love beyond experience… we are confronted by God. And the question is always the same… “Who do you say that I am?” or perhaps more simply, “How will you respond to me in your life” What will you do because of me…?
Let us respond by living so that the hungry get fed, the ill and injured get healed, the lonely get befriended, the despairing get hope, the confused get faith, the inaccessible get trust, the un-welcomed get hospitality, the mighty get humble, the humble get confidence, the Pharisees get beyond the law, the church gets values of justice and peace, and all God’s people get to say, “Amen.” So may it be!
I’ve imagined some encounters… but you will live real encounters – and if you are willing to consider the presence of God all around you and dare to respond to that divinity, your experiences will be far more profound and life changing than my stories could ever be.
That’s the promise of our faith. That’s the gospel this morning. I pray it may be so for each of us. Amen.