10-20-19 Our Ministry Together

Our Ministry Together

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday October 20, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

Text: 2 Timothy 3:1-4:5 

 

Hi everyone, I’m Timothy.   

Yes: that Timothy!   

Your associate pastor recently noticed that he has somehow managed to overlook me in all his studies of Scripture.  He noted rather abashedly to me that he knows next to nothing about me other than my name attached to the two letters from Paul.  So he worried, if this is true for him chances are he’s not the only one.  So he asked me to speak to you today.  And so here I am. Who better to talk about Paul’s final letter ? I mean, he wrote it TO ME

So where to start?  Well, I’m a third generation Chrum, what’s the term you all use …  Christ ee  yunThird generation is hardly impressive to you given that you all must be, what, double-digit generation Christ-eens. But back in my day we were quite rare I assure you.  You moderns assume that passing on this faith in Jesus Christ from one generation to the next was automatic back in my day. Not true.   

People tell me this is also the case for you folks in the 21st Century too.  Interesting ...  

The fact that I’m a believer at all and a follower of Jesus Christ is somewhat miraculous.  My father was a Greek, a gentile—what you folk call, oh what’s that funny word you moderns use for this: zeroes? Wait no: nones that’s it, n-o-n-e-s; I’ve also heard spiritual not religious-whatever that means.  Anyway, that’s my father. But my grandmother Lois and my mother Eunice were both faithful Jews. They raised me to be a faithful Jew just like them. Thanks to them I know the Scriptures backward and forward.   

As my mother tells the story (I’ve been hearing this since my youngest days): one day by the grace of God grandma met a man named Paul at synagogue. She was immediately drawn to Paul’s preaching and teaching of Scripture (Mom adds that grandma also admired Paul’s chutzpah). They shared a love for Torah and what you folks call “the Old Testament” (we call it Scriptures).   

Grandma was most intrigued by Paul’s testimony regarding Jesus of Nazareth. She’d heard people talk about Jesus before, but not like Paul.  Paul showed grandma how Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant--not only to Jews like us but to everyone, even my father too! … all of humanity!  Grandma took her time pondering and Paul respected her for that.  One day Paul shared his own conversion experience.  According to mom, that’s when grandma said, “count me in.”  My mom met Paul too and over time was equally convinced.  

So it was probably inevitable that my life merged with Paul’s. He’s been like a father to me for as long as I can remember.  As an adult I’ve worked with Paul for, gosh, it must be at least twenty years now [1] -- let me think-must have been about ‘46—yeah that sounds right I hit the road with him back in ‘46 (that’s the year zero, zero, forty-six!).  Paul participated in my ordination service with the church elders. I was blown away by their consensus that God was calling me to accompany Paul on his missionary travels.  Paul relied heavily upon me as we went from town to town.  From the middle of all the trouble in Corinth to the wonders of the church in Thessalonica.  Given the troubled leadership and false teachings in Ephesus, Paul and the elders agreed the situation required me to stay and I’ve been there ever since.  I fully realize now just how much I’ve learned about people and about all of the practical problems and issues involved with passing along the faith in Jesus Christ in places he’s unknown, while also supporting the next generation.  

I have many astonishing stories from traveling with Paul all these years but I’ve been told I get only a sliver of a shadow on the sun-dial. I hate to skip any of it, but it’ll have to wait.  There’s something more important right now.  I have to tell you: I’m quite shaken after reading the final paragraphs of this letter.   

Paul has been in prison for years by now. I don’t mean those other times he’s been in prison.  I mean in the same prison in Rome. We heard Paul was previously set free but with strict orders to stop proclaiming Jesus and teaching Scripture.  Paul would never stop so of course he was arrested again.  But no word from him for at least a year, maybe longer.  Please understand, life in a Roman prison is terminal.  The damp, dark, unsanitary conditions and occasional food and water can kill the strongest, healthiest person.  But we know he has endured repeated beatings and torture.  And we also realize that he’s avoided the executioner’s axe this long only because of his reputation in the synagogue along with his status as a Roman citizen.  

So while I’m relieved to hear directly from him that he’s still alive, my mind is racing and reeling.  In Paul’s final paragraphs he implies that his prison cell is his last stop in this world. There’s an urgency to his words we’ve not seen in any of his other letters.  This includes his order to come to Rome before winter (summer just started here so if I leave now I might make it in time before winter and the end of travel season).  I take some comfort is his request to bring his heavy coat and his scrolls. This reassures me that expects to see me again and also that his hope and faith are as strong as ever.  Even so, we realize there are no guarantees in life.  

I guess I knew this day would come one day, but now that it’s here I don’t know if I’m ready.  This changes everything.  For me.  For every community we’ve visited.  For the future.  And so this last letter from him is an absolute treasure. He provides wisdom, instruction and knowledge that I’ll need - that we’ll all need - to continue what he started. This letter gives us good counsel for how to transmit our received tradition (Apostolic), how to organize and revitalize faith communities (churches) and their leadership, but maybe most important: Paul’s rigorous resistance to false teaching (p.11).  You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we’ve seen being offered for faith and instruction these days.  Some are teaching that the Resurrection is a lie; that salvation comes to only a select few, usually self-appointed according to some secret, agreed-upon knowledge or standard(s). Paul says all of that stuff insults God whose Love for all in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is hiding in plain sight, no special knowledge or spiritual standards required. 

Together Paul and I have seen up close just how confusing and dangerous the world has become, how much more brazen and ruthless the authorities have all become. We breathe the air of suspicion and distrust they’ve created.  So much uncertainty and fear is stealing the hope of good people everywhere, and, worse, their compassion.  We see how easily the church can appear irrelevant or disinteresting to younger generations.  

I know I’m just passing through here, but what I can see here in the 21st century, our concerns from the first century are still valid.  So Paul’s final instructions still apply to the living of these days too.  Notice there’s no panic in him. Even hidden from view in prison.  Paul’s deep and abiding trust is that The Lord will rescue the church from any and every threat just as the Lord has always done starting in Genesis. But Paul stresses the importance of our continued, personal involvement.  It’s the way Jesus loves to show up when he’s most needed.  This makes us the lifeline Jesus relies upon to be extended in every place and circumstance of human need. 

If I could choose only one thing to underscore from Paul’s final letter it’s his command that you and I continue to DO ONE THING:   

Preach The Word.   

I can hear what you’re thinking, “who me? Yeah right! No way, not me.” To which I (and Paul) say, “yes way!  yes, YOU”     

I learned early on from Paul that we all preach something every day--we’re just not aware that we do. The choices we make each day—what we spend our time and our money on, the way we treat others, the people we choose to spend our time with, etc., these daily choices preach some kind of gospel message. So it’s not whether or not we preach but which gospel are we preaching: the gospel of Self or the Gospel of God? 

Paul always says the greatest gift God gave us aside from Jesus himself is Scripture.  It equips us, sustains us, engages us, unites us.  Oh, I know: “Scripture has issues,” but that’s not so much a problem for God as it’s a problem for people. Imperfection has never bothered God. God has always worked through imperfection, whether it’s human imperfection and limitation, imperfect timing, imperfect attitudes and assemblies, even the imperfections appearing in Scripture!  

Listen to what he wrote, “every Scripture that’s God-inspired (the Greek wording literally means God-breathed; so Paul is NOT saying all Scripture is useful, etc. but every God-breathed scripture) is useful for teaching, for (recognizing) mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good… (2 Tim 3:16-17) 

Look I know that millennia have passed since Paul’s letter, but people are still people.  The dangers of the world of my time are, practically speaking, much the same here in your time.  Perhaps the only thing that’s changed is people’s expectations.  Perhaps people stopped expecting God to show up.  I see how the historical record discourages people from trusting the Grace and Love of God.  But I also see that God is faithful—in every generation.  God’s faithfulness is evident in your very presence here today.  The actual issues may differ but the overall dangers remain strikingly similar.  And the most important thing: the Lord is faithful to the end. I’m continually inspired by Paul’s practical guiding wisdom:

These are dangerous times. So remain faithful to what you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus

These aren’t empty words.  Paul did this. Paul lived these ideas.  It’s how Paul endured the worst that life can bring.  And if there’s anyone who had an excuse to give up and just become bitter, withdrawn and isolated, IT’S PAUL.  Even in that horrible dungeon, all alone, Paul went deeper into his trust in Jesus.  We can learn from Paul: he placed all of his hope on Jesus. We CAN DO as Paul did: entrusting his life and even his death to the One who rescued him from every danger, toil and snare

The very least we can do to honor this letter: Paul’s effective “last will and testament” is preach the good news use words if necessary!  Share the saving love of Jesus to all of God’s people everywhere.  

And they are everywhere.  Your scrolls and your pocket-windows show only the most desperate people and situations.  But all of us know people who are traumatized or deceived or living in fear or suffering oppression from some thing or some one.  Threats from every quarter are breathing fire upon all of us. But that’s how it’s always been for God’s people. It was no different for Jesus, or his disciples, or the Apostles, or any church.  Jesus proved that God’s love shall conquer all.  Paul believed that with his life.  Don’t give in to despair.  It’s our turn to water and nurture each “plant”—that is, each church.  We do this every time we care for any of God’s harassed and wounded people.  As we persist preaching love--with or without words—we join with people from every time and place who have gone before us, sharing God’s love, which is now and ever shall be, until the Day of Christ, our ministry together. 

 


[1] Thomas C. Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus; Interpretation Bible Commentary, p.4.  This is the source of all factual, detailed elements in this sermon; hereafter indicated in the sermon body by parenthetical page numbers. 

10-13-19 A Eucharistic Life

Thomas J Parlette

“A Eucharistic Life”

Luke 17: 11-19

10/13/19

 

          One the day the boss called one of his young employees named Rob into his office.

          “Rob,” he said, “you’ve been with the company for a year now. You started off in the mailroom, one week later you were promoted to a sales position, one month after that you were promoted to district manager of the sales department, and just four short months later, you were promoted to vice-chairman. Now it’s time for me to retire, and I want you to take over the company. What do you have to say to that?”

          “Thanks,” said Rob.

          “Thanks?” the boss replied. Just “Thanks?!” Is that all you can say? You don’t seem very grateful.”

          “Okay, okay – Thanks, Dad” (1)

          Sometimes we are not as grateful as we could be. Maybe we don’t show our thanks because we think we’ve earned what we receive, or we somehow we deserve what comes our way. Some people go through life with a bit of an entitlement complex. Or maybe you feel like Jerry Seinfeld, when he took a stand against what we felt was all the “over –thanking” required in our society.

          And yet gratitude, a sense of thankfulness, a fondness for giving out praise is at the heart of a healthy spiritual life – and certainly at the heart of a healthy Christian life.

          Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude – not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but thanksgiving. “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?”

          C.S. Lewis, as he explored his newfound faith, observed the Bible’s, particularly the Psalter’s, insistence that we praise and thank God. He also observed the connection between gratitude and personal well-being. “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most; while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” (2)

          Praise and thanksgiving are the really the primary thing we do when we gather to worship every Sunday. In our prayers, in our preaching, in our singing, we seek to do two things

-         We express our thanks to God

-         And we give God praise.

In fact, Martin Luther once defined worship as “the tenth leper turning back”, in reference to the story we heard from Luke this morning.(3)

This is an interesting story, one that only Luke tells. It is once again part of Jesus’ travel narrative. He is getting closer to Jerusalem, in fact he’s almost there. Today, Jesus and his followers are in the region between Samaria and Galilee, kind of a no man’s land. There wasn’t much there.

There was however some sort of a village, because as Jesus and his entourage enter, a group of lepers, condemned to live isolated from others because of their skin diseases, approach him and say “Jesus, Master; have mercy on us!”

Jesus see them from a distance and tells them to go show themselves to the priests – the first step on the way to joining the community again. Jesus never touches them, he doesn’t make any mud to spread on them, he doesn’t say any incantation like “talitha cum”. He just sends them off to see the priest, and as they went, they were made clean.

So up to now, we think – “Ok, this is a healing story. We’ve seen stories like this many times with people healed of blindness, lameness, crippling spinal ailments or unstoppable bleeding. The healing must be the point of the story.

But this isn’t really a healing story. Notice that the actual healing takes place offstage, out of sight, on the road as the lepers made their way to the priests. So the healing – although part of the story- is not the point of the story.

The point of the story revolves around the one leper, a Samaritan leper to boot, who comes running back onstage to praise God and offer thanks. The greek words here are “doxazo” – praise, from which we get doxology; and “eucharisto”, from which we get eucharist, meaning to give thanks. What happens for us to see onstage, in full view, is the thanks and praise offered to God.

It’s interesting that the lepers use the term “Master” when they first call out to Jesus. This title is used only 6 times in the New Testament, all of them for Jesus, all in Luke and all prior to this story. And each time the title Master comes from the lips of a disciple.(4) So, a title previously reserved for use by the disciples, the insiders, is now used by these lepers, the ultimate outsiders. And the leper who is the star of the story, the one who returns to offer the thanks and praise due to God – is a Samaritan! You can almost hear the gasps echoing over 2000 years.

So Jesus not only crosses the borders of Galilee and Samaria, but also the borders between who is in and who is out.

Who may have faith? – Anyone, not just Jews.

Who can act in faith? – Anyone, even a Samaritan.

Who can receive healing and salvation? – Anyone. Anywhere, from any background.

This passage calls us to live a Eucharistic life – a life of thanksgiving and gratitude to God. Loud, humble, enthusiastic, uninhibited gratitude is one of the defining marks of a Christian.

John Burkhart once wondered whether “humans can survive as humans without worshiping. To withhold acknowledgment, to avoid celebration, to stifle gratitude, may prove as unnatural as holding one’s breath.”(5)

Dr. Tom Long tells about a time when he was having one of those frustrating days when he had more things to do than he could possibly accomplish. So he was in a foul mood as he rushed through the store. It didn’t improve his mood to get behind a mother and her young son who were playing games as they strolled nonchalantly down the grocery store aisles.

After passing the mother and son several times, Long noticed that the boy was mentally challenged. As he watched them, he couldn’t help but notice that the mother had turned their shopping trip into a game, a game that allowed her son to participate in hunting down grocery items. They seemed to be having a wonderful time. Much impressed and in a far better mood, Long decided to engage the mother in conversation.

“I was just admiring your relationship with your son,” he said.

And the mother smiled and said, “Oh yes, he is a gift from God.”(6)

She was living a eucharistic life – a life of thanksgiving and gratitude.

As this story ends, Jesus wonders aloud about what happened to the other 9, why they didn’t return to practice a Eucharistic life – but he sends the Samaritan leper, now healed, on his way saying, “Get up and go – your faith has made you well.”

You have healing. You have restoration. You have offered thanks and praise. Now you have salvation. Get and go – continue living a Eucharistic life.

There is a wonderful story about the famed actress of a few decades ago, Betty Hutton. Hutton was an award-winning movie star who also found fame on Broadway and in television and radio. But she suffered from depression and an addiction to alcohol and drugs. In 1970, she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Through the spiritual guidance of a priest, she gave up her addictions, gave her life to Jesus and straightened out her life.

Ten years later, in 1980, Hutton returned to show business in the Broadway musical Annie. All the other cast members of Annie had detailed biographies of their lives and careers printed in the program. It was common to include all your film and stage credits, maybe naming your favorite roles, giving thanks to your teachers and dedicating your performance to a loved one. But Betty Hutton didn’t include any of her major motion pictures, none of her awards, none of her starring roles on Broadway. Betty Hutton’s cast biography consisted of just 5 words: “I’m back. Thanks to God.”(7)

“I’m back. Thanks to God.” That’s the leper story, isn’t it? That’s our story as well – “I’m back. Thanks be to God.”

That is a eucharistic life. A life marked by praise, thanksgiving and gratitude. May that be the kind of life we all live. May God thanked – and praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homileticsonline, retrieved 10/2/19.

2.    John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox, 2010, p165.

3.    Beverly Zink-Sawyer, Feasting on the Gospels, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p120.

4.    Richard W. Voelz, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2019, p388.

5.    Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p168.

6.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No.4, p8.

7.    Ibid… p8.

10-6-19 Enough Faith

Thomas J Parlette

“Enough Faith”

Luke 17: 5-10

10/6/19, World Communion

 

          Did you know that every time you take a step, you generate six to eight watts of energy? But then – poof – it dissipates into the air. But wouldn’t it be something if you could capture that energy and harness it’s power?

          There is an architectural firm in London which has been looking into ways to capture that kind energy on a large scale and turn it into electricity. For example, 34,000 people walk or dash through Victoria Station in one hour, rushing toward their trains. That’s a lot of steps. If you could harness that energy you could actually generate a very useful power source.

          According to the business journal Fast Company, this architectural firm is working to develop vibration-harvesting sensors. These sensors would be implanted in the structure of train stations, bridges, factories or any other building frequently rattled by commuters, vehicles or machinery. The devices could capture the rumblings of all this activity, turn them into electricity, and then store it in a battery. Just goes to show that there is power in small steps.(1)

          Power in small places and small things. That is one of the points Jesus makes in this passage from Luke this morning.

          These verses are part of a larger passage that begins chapter 17 of Luke. Jesus is continuing on what is known as the “journey narrative” of Luke. He is travelling from Galilee in the north, down south towards Jerusalem. On the way he is teaching his followers. Verse 1-10 are a collection of four sayings or lessons about discipleship.

          These verses, 5-10, are actually part of verses 1-10, but for some reason, our lectionary separates the passage. Most likely that’s because the first four verses are addressed “to Jesus’ disciples” – meaning the crowd of people in general who were following him. This was a different than “the apostles” who are addressed in verses 5-10. The apostles are the 12, the inner circle – and the disciples included everybody else travelling with Jesus.

          The passage begins with Jesus offering some advice to his followers. Occasions for stumbling in the faith are bound to come along, everybody comes up short now and then. But don’t yourself be a stumbling block for others. Don’t get in the way of someone else’s faith. That’s the first saying or lesson

          The second thing Jesus has to say to his followers is about forgiveness. If someone repents of sin, you must forgive. Even if they sin against you 7 times in a day, you must forgive.

          That brings us to the third saying or lesson. Jesus inner circle of 12 apostles heard this teaching, and they must have recognized how difficult that could be, to forgive that generously. So they ask, or actually demand would be a better word, “Increase our faith!”

          It’s easy to hear Jesus’ answer as him scolding his apostles – and by extension, us – for a lack of faith. Somewhere along the line most Christians seem to have come to expect a steady dose of condemnation from scripture. More often than not, we hear Jesus’ words as shaming and angry words. And it’s true that there are a lot of warnings and do’s and don’ts in the Bible – that’s one of the main reasons I have heard when people explain why they don’t go to church – it’s too negative. Along with such things as “Church is all about guilt and making me feel bad. The church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites.” I know lots of people carry scars of a Bible that has been misused on them. And I don’t want to minimize their experience. But these perceptions are an unfortunate barrier between them and a God who loves them.

          But what if Jesus is not really scolding the apostle at all. What if he is not clucking his tongue and shaking his head over their lack of faith, but speaking these words in a voice of encouragement and love, as one who would give up his life for his friends.

          What if we imagine Jesus with a smile on his face, saying in response to their demand “Increase our faith” – “Why. You have all the faith you need. You do not need more faith. You have enough faith. Even the smallest amount of faith, as small as a mustard seed, is enough to do what God asks.” Understood this way, Jesus isn’t chastising their lack of faith, Jesus is assuring the apostles, and us, that we already have enough faith to do whatever God calls us to do.

          Now we move to the fourth saying that makes up this passage – and it’s quite problematic. Whenever the Bible mentions slaves, it is a sensitive topic. The greek word used here is “doulos”, which can be translated as either slave or servant.(2) Our NRSV bibles go with the word “slave”, which makes this passage particularly hard to hear. Paul is perhaps the most famous biblical figure to talk about slaves, telling the Ephesians “slaves be subject to your masters.” And in the gospel of Luke, Jesus refers to masters and slaves 5 different times. So we should approach these texts carefully.

          In the past, these passage – including this one – have been misused to justify slavery. To be clear, Jesus is not condoning slavery – especially the form of slavery that we have had in the U.S.

          In Jesus time, it was quite common for a household to have slaves or servants who were attached to the household for a certain period of time before their freedom was granted. It is unfortunate that Jesus and Paul did not directly condemn slavery – Paul comes close when he says there is no longer male or female, slave or free, gentile or Jew. But Jesus is certainly not recommending slavery or condoning it. Masters and slaves were just a fact of life in the ancient world. That’s the way things were. Jesus’ teaching style drew on the things that people were familiar with – planting seeds, plowing fields, working in vineyards, drawing water from wells, herding sheep – and yes, the relationship between master and slave or servant.

          So when Jesus asks “Who among you would invite your slave coming in from work to sit at the table with the master and eat,” the obvious answer that everyone knew was “No” – you wouldn’t that. That’s not the servants place to do that. Like wise, part two of the question is self-evident as well. You would say “Make supper, serve me, and then you can eat.” Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded, for that is the job. No, you wouldn’t.

          So the lesson for the apostles is that when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”

          This, too, is a problematic saying that just doesn’t hit our ears right. Not only are we still talking about slaves, but now we have the idea of calling ourselves worthless as well. It just doesn’t seem right. In our modern times, the issue of self-esteem and self-worth is an important one. For most of us, I hope, we’ve grown up with the message that we have worth, we have value – and it seems almost offensive to hear Jesus say this.

          But what Jesus is getting at is highlighting the importance of a disciples duty, or calling. Our duty, according to Jesus, is to do God’s will, show God’s way of life to the world, even when it might cost you. That is our duty. That is our calling, if we are true disciples.

          Yes, the metaphors that Jesus uses here, are troubling – and we need to approach them carefully and respectfully.

          I rather prefer the way Paul puts it in the second chapter of Philippians. In the section of his letter that encourages us to imitate Christ’s humble, servant attitude towards life, Paul says – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” I like that way of putting it rather than thinking of yourself as worthless servant. Jesus’ intention is to point out that we should do our duty to God with a sense of humility.

          You might know the name Albert Pujols – he is a well known baseball player with a World Series ring, an 8 time All Star and 3 time National League MVP. But perhaps even more impressive is what Pujols has done off the field. For one thing, the Pujols Family Foundation he started offers support and care to people with Down Syndrome and their families. The foundation also helps the poor in Pujols’ native Dominican Republic. But Albert Pujols seeks in other ways to practice what he preaches.

          While speaking at an event at Lafayette Senior High School in Missouri, Pujols read Philippians 2:3 to the crowd, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” And he said, “One way for me to stay satisfied in Jesus is for me to stay humble. Humility is getting on your knees and staying in God’s will – what God wants for me, not what the world wants. It would be easy to go out and do whatever I want, but those things only satisfy the flesh for a moment. Jesus satisfies my soul forever.”(3)

          Albert Pujols takes his duties as a disciple of Jesus seriously – and so lives to do what God would have him do, not what the world would tell him to do.

          As we gather at the table on World Communion Sunday, let us remember that even the smallest amount of faith is enough for God to do remarkable things. So let us take our duty as disciples seriously and do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves.

          In that, God is pleased.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homileticsonline, retrieved 9/28.

2.    John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p143.

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, p3-4.

9-29-19 The One Whom God Helps

Thomas J Parlette

“The One Whom God Helps”

Luke 16: 19-31

9/29/19

 

          I know I’m not the only one in the room who is a fan of the British show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It’s been a big week for Downton fans. The long awaited movie came out last weekend to give us our first fix of new stories about the Abbey and the doings surrounding the Crawley family in the 1920’s, since the show finished production back in 2015. I will say I haven’t seen the movie yet, so don’t tell me any details.

          For the past few Sunday afternoons, Juliet and I have been catching up on the final season of Downton through reruns. Last week there was a surprise visitor to the Abbey for lunch. A former housemaid named Gwen came for lunch with her husband, an upper class gentleman John Dawson.

          When she first arrives, most of the family does not even recognize her. A couple of the ones who knew her best greet her quietly, but the master and lady of the house do not recognize her. Before the meal is over, it is revealed that Gwen used to work as a maid at the Abbey until one of the sisters helped her get a job as a secretary and her life continued to move ahead on a very different course. The family is embarrassed that they didn’t know her when she came in, but they are thrilled for her good fortune.

          Something similar happens in this well-known story from the Gospel of Luke – although it does not end as well. The first part of the story about the Rich man and Lazarus introduces us to the two main characters. First, there is the Rich man, an incredibly self-indulgent character who lives in a gated estate, dresses himself every day in purple robes and fine linen. He no doubt had other clothes, but purple cloth was extremely expensive, and only the truly wealthy could afford it. This guy wanted to make sure everyone knew he had money. In short, he was a clothes horse, with an inner need to constantly remind everyone of his wealth. He also wore fine linen. This is an interesting detail because the word refers to quality Egyptian cotton used to make the best underwear you could buy.(1) When Jesus tells this story, this little detail is a bit of a joke. As he tells it, he does so with a wink and a nod, a wry smile on his face, “This guy not only had expensive robes, but just in case you were wondered, he wore the best underwear too.” It was akin to saying the rich man wore only custom-tailored Italian suits and silk boxers.

          In addition to his fine clothes, the man feasted sumptuously every day. Therefore, he did not observe the Sabbath. His servants were never given a day of rest, so the rich man was publicly violating the Ten Commandments every week. His self-indulgent lifestyle was more important to him than the law of God. The injustice he inflicted on his staff meant nothing to him.

          And then there’s Lazarus, a poor man, covered in sores, who is laid by the gate every day. The rich man ignores Lazarus, never bothers with him at all – a little like the downstairs servants from Downton Abbey. Lazarus is the only individual with a name in all of Jesus parables. Major characters move in and out of the parables, but are never identified by name. The good Samaritan, the Pharisee, the father, the older son and the sower – all famous, but nameless. Lazarus is the sole exception, and therefore his name must be significant.

          The name Lazarus is a Hebrew word that means “the one whom God helps.”(2) Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic, sort of like called a big man “Tiny”, because Lazarus does nothing but lay at the rich man’s gate day after day. He was so sick he could not even stand, and so poor he was reduced to begging. On the surface, he appears to be a person whom God did not help.

          But Lazarus is not completely abandoned. The community around Lazarus apparently respected and cared for him as best they could. The phrase “at his gate lay a poor man” is better translated “a poor man was laid at his gate.”(3) So every day Lazarus had someone who was helping him by taking him to the rich man’s gate. He was, after all, the only man in town with the resources to help Lazarus, so it would make sense to take him there and hope that the rich man or some of his wealthy guests would feel some compassion and give some food or assistance.

          And then we stumble on one of the most graphic details in the story – “the dogs came and licked his sores.” It’s tempting to see this as one more demeaning part of Lazarus’ existence, but it is? A better translation of this phrase would “BUT the dogs came and licked his sores. The word used here, “alla” always indicates a contrast. The NRSV and the NIV state “even the dogs came”, which would place the dogs on the rich man’s side, tormenting Lazarus. But for more than 1000 years most Arabic versions have accurately translated “alla” as a contrast, and thereby emphasized that the dogs were not joining the rich man in tormenting Lazarus(4) – they were doing just the opposite, offering comfort and compassion.

          Dogs lick their own wounds. They lick people as a sign of affection. Recent scientific scholarship has found that dog saliva actually contains antibiotics that facilitate healing. Somehow the ancients discovered that if a dog licked wounds, they would heal more rapidly.

          In fact, in 1994, Professor Lawrence Stager of Harvard University discovered more than 1,300 dogs buried in ancient Ashkelon. The graves dated from the fifth to the third century BC, when Ashkelon was ruled by the Phoenicians. These animals were probably linked to a Phoenician healing cult. The dogs were, in all likelihood, trained to lick wounds or sores and the ailing people would pay a fee to the owners.(5) A little gross, but effective.

          So this rich man will do nothing for Lazarus, but these dogs sense that Lazarus is a kind soul and they do what they can – they lick his wounds.

          Both men die. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to a place of honor with Abraham. The rich man was buried and went to Hades where he was in torment. Part of his torment is the fact that he can lift his eyes and see Abraham and Lazarus way off in the distance.

          The second half of the parable is a dialogue between Abraham and the rich man. Amazingly, the rich man doesn’t even speak to Lazarus. Perhaps the audience is amazed to learn that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name, despite ignoring him all those years. Which just makes him look even more callous and unfeeling. The rich man’s first demand is nothing short of unbelievable. When Lazarus was in pain, he was ignored by the rich man. But now that the tables are turned, the rich man wants action immediately – “Send Lazarus to bring me some water.” Instead of offering an apology, he demands service, as if Lazarus is his waiter in a restaurant.

          At his point we might expect to hear from Lazarus himself. We want to see some revenge, hear Lazarus say something like… “Why should I do anything for you? You never even gave the scraps from your table. Your dogs were nicer to me than you were. You are a terrible person, I’m glad to see you in torment – you deserve it!”

          But Lazarus doesn’t say any of that. In fact, he says nothing. He is quiet. This gentle, long-suffering man has no anger or resentment to express. He seeks no vengeance. Like a New Testament version of Job, Lazarus creates meaning by his response to what happens to him. Lazarus is a model of mercy, as Jesus described when he said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Lazarus has his chance at revenge, but he remains quiet, showing kindness an utterly ungrateful and self-absorbed rich man.

          All eyes are on Abraham to see what he will say. “No can do,” says Abraham. “You had your good things in life – now it’s Lazarus’ turn.”

          And then Abraham says something surprising: “And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been fixed, that those who would pass from here to you cannot, and none may come from there to us.”

          The fact of a great chasm is easy enough to understand. But why does Abraham remind the rich man that “those who want to pass from here to you” cannot? Who, for heaven’s sake, would want to journey from heaven to hell? Obviously, Abraham has a volunteer. There’s only one other person on stage. It must be that Lazarus is whispering in Abraham’s ear and saying something like, “Father Abraham, that’s my old neighbor down there. I’ve known him for years. He’s in such pain – I can take him a glass of water, I know how it feels.”(6)

          More of Lazarus’ nature is now revealed. He not only refrains from gloating over the rich man’s well deserved predicament, but shows compassion for his fallen oppressor. Truly stunning!

          So once again, the rich man becomes a beggar. He pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. It is noble of him to show an interest in his brothers, but they are presumably of the same class in society that he enjoyed, and for him such people matter most in the scheme of things, while the poor – like Lazarus – do not. And that doesn’t change, even in the afterlife. The rich man couldn’t use Lazarus as his table waiter, so then he tried to turn him into an errand boy. Once again, no sign of repentance, no hint of an apology. The rich man’s class-structured world remains intact. He still does not see Lazarus as a person.

          “Can’t do that either” says Abraham. “Your brothers have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them. Even if someone rises from the dead, they will still not get it.”

          A rather stark place to leave the story. This parable is a particularly scary one, especially for those with any semblance of wealth or privilege. Luke’s great reversal theme is certainly at play here. Those who have it easy in this life, will suffer in the afterlife – and those who have nothing now, will be comforted in death. That is one of the interpretations that are possible for this story.

          But there is more we can say.

          This story reminds us that what we do in this life matters. The choices we make in life will follow us to the afterlife. God will judge. As Abraham Heschel teaches, “God is not indifferent to evil.”(7) Evil, self-indulgence and a lack of compassion will be judged.

          We see in this parable that we have a responsibility to notice the need at our doorstep and do something about it.

          But moreover, this story encourages us to answer the question, “How are we to respond to both the grace and the pain of life.” The question is not why do we receive blessings or pain, but rather, what do we do now? What we DO with the good gifts we receive and the pain and disappointment we all run into is what really matters.

          The rich man responded to the good things given to him with self-indulgence, indifference to the needs of others, arrogance and class pride.

          Lazarus responded to is pain with patience, gentleness and implied forgiveness.

          The focus of this parable is not on a form of justice that evens the score in the afterlife, but rather on discovering the ways in which meaning is created by our responses to the good gifts and the suffering that life brings to everyone. Lazarus’ silence is eloquent beyond any words that might be used.

As commentator Alfred Plummer has written: “The silence of Lazarus throughout the parable is impressive. He never murmurs against God’s distribution of wealth nor against the rich man’s abuse of it, in this world. And in Hades, he neither exults over the change of relations between himself and the rich man, nor protests against being asked to wait upon him in the place of torment, or to go run errands for him to the visible world.”(8)

          In the end, Lazarus truly lives up to his name. He was indeed Lazarus – the one whom God helped.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” Intervarsity Press, 2008, p382.

2.    Ibid…p383.

3.    Ibid…p383.

4.    Ibid…p385

5.    Ibid…p385.

6.    Ibid…p392

7.    Ibid…p396.

8.    Ibid…p396.

9-22-19 Hard to Believe

Thomas J Parlette

“Hard to Believe”

Luke 16: 1-13

9/22/19

 

          Throughout the history of the Christian Church, this passage has confused, baffled and frustrated every theologian who comes into contact with it. Back in the 1500’s, Tomas deVio Cajetan declared in “unsolvable”. In the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann agreed with him. In 1936, Charles Torrey wrote that “This passage brings before us a new Jesus, one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a program of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life which is generally recognized as inferior; “I say to you, gain friends by means of money.” This is not the worst of it; he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him; and then appears to say to his disciples, “Let this be your model!”(1) Hard to believe!

          No less of an authority than St. Augustine himself is said to have remarked about this parable, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.”(2) The parable of the Unjust Steward is indeed hard to believe.

          This passage, as the lectionary presents it, is really at least two separate pieces. The first 8 verses were almost certainly a parable that Jesus actually told. It appears in all our ancient manuscripts and frankly, why would you add this particular story, and attribute it to Jesus, if it weren’t authentic – it’s just too hard to believe.

          The second part of the passage is really a poem on God and mammon, a term usually translated as “money” or “wealth”. There is a very clear break in this passage between the story of the Unjust Steward and the sayings about God and wealth. It’s almost as if Luke had some note cards filled with things Jesus had said and he wanted to work them in somehow. So he very carefully wove the sayings into a 3 stanza poem on trusting in God instead of money, and tacked it on at the end of the story where the master commends the manager because he acted shrewdly.

          So, looking at the parable on it’s own, there is rich man who has a steward, a manager who was looking after his estate, and charges were brought to him that this manager was “squandering his property.” What he has done, we don’t know exactly. Was he stealing? Was he overcharging the tenants? Was he ignoring necessary maintenance on the property? We don’t know. What we do know is that he is going to fired. But first, the rich man asks his estate manager for an
“accounting of his management.” Let me see the contracts, let me see the books. Turn in your computer and gather up your keys.

 But he’s not fired yet. No one knows about the owners intention to get rid of the manager. At least not yet. In this brief exchange between the owner and the estate manager, the manager learns two things about his master…

First – the master expects obedience and judges those who fail him. It’s interesting that the manager never defends himself, he does not dispute the charges. He makes no excuses or arguments whatsoever. He evidently knows he is guilty and he deserves to lose his position. He doesn’t seem interested in changing his masters mind. His only concern is his future, “what’s going to happen to me now? I’m not strong enough to dig and I am too ashamed to beg.”

On the long walk back to the estate, the manager dwells on the second thing he just learned about his master. He discovers that the master is extraordinarily merciful. The master could have fired him on the spot, or worse, had him thrown into jail, but he didn’t do that. He showed mercy and simply asked for an “accounting of your management.” As the manager thought about this, he came up with a plan. He decides to risk everything on the mercy of his master. He figures that when he is dismissed from his position as manager, people might take him in – if he can do something for them.

 

So he summons each of his master’s tenants, one by one, and meets with them individually. He doesn’t mention that he is going to be fired soon, so none of them have any idea that he doesn’t have the authority to act on the owner’s behalf. In the meetings, the manager reviews what each tenant owes the master – and then reduces their bill. We aren’t told for sure, but we can assume that the tenants were surprised and quite pleased with the new contract.

The tenants in this story would have 1 of 3 different arrangements with the landowner. They would either pay a percentage of whatever crop they were growing or they were expected to pay a set amount. Or, they might just pay rent in cash. Most paid with crops, because the farmers were very poor – they didn’t have the cash to rent the land outright and still have enough to pay for seed and supplies.

It is most likely that these tenants were already committed to a set amount of their crop, no matter what the harvest was like. So when the manager renegotiates the deal, without even being asked to do so – they are thrilled. And the manager can take the credit – “Look what a great deal I got for you…” Think of how grateful the employees of a factory would be if the factory foreman had arranged for generous Christmas bonuses for the workers. The foreman would be a hero.

Word spread quickly around the village that the owner had been very generous and the manager had done right by the villagers. Celebrations no doubt ensued.

The manager finishes his daring plan to make both his master and himself look good, gathers up the freshly changed accounts and delivers them to his master. The master looks them over, he sees what the manager has done – and he reflects on his alternatives. He knows full well that in the local village there has already started a grand celebration in praise of him as the most noble and generous master that ever rented land in their district. He has two alternatives…

1.    He can go back to the tenants and explain that it was all a mistake, that the manager had been dismissed, and thus his actions were null and void. But if the master does this now, the villagers will turn on him and he will be cursed for his stinginess.

 

2.    Or, he can keep silent, accept the praise that is even now being showered on him, and allow the clever manager to ride high on the wave of popular enthusiasm.

 This master is a generous man. Remember, he did not jail the manager earlier. To be generous is a primary quality of a nobleman in the Middle East. He reflects for a moment, and then turns to the manager and says, “You are a very wise fellow. You’ve acted shrewdly.”

Keep in mind, one of the Old Testament definitions of “wisdom” is an instinct for self-preservation. When the master tells his steward “you are a very wise fellow,” what he means is “you are a survivor.” In a backhanded kind of way, the actions of the manager are a compliment to the master. The manager knew the master was generous and merciful. So he risked everything on that aspect of his master’s nature. And he won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price for his manager’s salvation.

When the master commends his manager, he is not praising his dishonesty. He is praising his wisdom in knowing where his salvation lay – in the generous mercy of his master rather than in whatever wealth he might have been able to steal.

On the surface, this parable of the unjust steward is hard to believe. Like St. Augustine, we might think – “I can’t believe Jesus told this story.” But when we consider it’s context and it’s setting, we can see that this parable can be understood as a warning of sorts. Our God is a God of judgment and mercy, like the master in the story. Humanity, like the unjust steward, is guilty of sin and is caught in the crisis of the coming Kingdom. Excuses will not help – you can’t argue with God. Our only option is to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of our generous God, who will pay the price for our salvation. Jesus was advising his disciples to have that same kind of wisdom. Know where your true salvation lies – not in wealth or money, the mammon of the world, but in God alone.

 

Yes, that can be hard to believe – and yet it is the truth.

Our salvation is found only in our generous and merciful Lord.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983, p86.

2.    J. William Harkins, Feasting on the Gospels, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p92.

3.    The line of reasoning used for the interpretation of this passage can be found in Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983, p86-118.

9-15-19 Reality Check

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday September 15, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

Texts: Psalm 14 and Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 (NRSV)

11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights[a] in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— 12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

 

22 “For my people are foolish,

    they do not know me;

they are stupid children,

    they have no understanding.

They are skilled in doing evil,

    but do not know how to do good.”

 

23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

    and to the heavens, and they had no light.

24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,

    and all the hills moved to and fro.

25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,

    and all the birds of the air had fled.

26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,

    and all its cities were laid in ruins

    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

 

27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

 

28 Because of this the earth shall mourn,

    and the heavens above grow black;

for I have spoken, I have purposed;

    I have not relented nor will I turn back.

 

 

Reality Check

“First there was nothing. Then there was everything.”

These are the first eight words of a novel I just started reading, The Overstory by Richard Powers. His opening words reminded me of the creation story in Genesis. What a great paraphrase, I thought. First there was nothing. Then there was everything. But I had to postpone further reading of this novel in order to hang out with the prophet Jeremiah. In the passage for today, Jeremiah, if you noticed, also refers to the creation story. What I noticed as the hair stood up on the back of my neck was, I thought I was doing two presumably separate tasks, but both make intriguing allusions to the sacred essence of Creation.

Hanging out with Jeremiah, pondering this passage and his words, I was haunted by the crisis of climate change. I know the original context Jeremiah addressed, but I also hear his words speak to this generation, to this moment in history, hearing him speaking to the unprecedented threat climate change poses to undo Creation.

In every generation, the routines and demands of everyday life in the world filter what people are willing to “see” and whether or not they respond. Unlike previous generations, today we bring a news reporter’s sensibility to life in the world. We’re adept at determining the who, the what, the where and when of most any problem or crisis. But when it comes to responding to information, to understanding the implications we seem less willing or able perhaps to take action.

The prophets of Israel see life in the world differently. The prophet sees human life in the world with its problems and crises through the lens of the Creator and Creation. The prophet seeks to remove the blinders and the complacency brought on by daily routines and demands, to awaken people from conditioned complacency. Contrary to stereotype, a prophet’s “job” is not to predict the future--even if an implied result actually happens. A prophet represents God’s concern, God’s vision and God’s hope. And God’s hope is ultimately that people change, repent, allow God to save us even from ourselves.

Different prophets have their own distinctive vibe, style and technique. But one important feature most of us overlook is that the prophets all “speak” primarily in the language of poetry. I credit Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann for opening my eyes to this detail which has helped me in terms of how I hear and interpret these passages—particularly disturbing passages like we have today.

Brueggemann asserts that here in the 4th chapter, Jeremiah is engaging in “poetic invitation.” Jeremiah “does not want to change political postures … for that is not the work of the poet, but to penetrate the religious indifference … from which policy comes. Thus the language is bold and daring, without responsibility for being factually precise.” (Exile and Homecoming, A Commentary on Jeremiah, Walter Brueggemann, p.56)

In its original context, today’s passage from Jeremiah addresses the generations-long, steady decline of Israel. Particularly the impact of poor leadership from Israel’s kings, accompanied by a long-running, collective neglect of ethical and moral integrity among everyday citizens and believers. As a result, Israel has become indistinguishable from any other nation, content to live like all the other nations rather than as God’s chosen people. It’s the beginning of the end of Israel as God intended, and any hope for the world along with it.

God could tolerate open contempt for only so long. There comes a time when doing nothing or looking away only prolongs and enables the harm. The warning issued through Jeremiah invokes disturbing and harsh metaphors meant to wake up the people and leaders, … a hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. (Jer. 4:11-12).

The people have squandered God’s blessings and ignored God’s expectation to care for others and the earth. The hot wind is nothing less than a sign that God's anger is kindled against a people who have forgotten who they are and Whose they are,

For my people are foolish

they do not know me;

they are stupid children,

they have no understanding.

They are skilled in doing evil,

but do not know how to do good. (Jeremiah 4:22)

This is a side of God that’s difficult to accept or even acknowledge. The notion that God can be angry is challenging. And yet there it is. And in all fairness to God, to deny God the permission to feel angry seems inauthentic. It might actually be good to sit with the idea that God can be angry and still be benevolent. Brueggemann notes, “for all of God’s considerable passion and compassion, God will not be mocked.” (p52)

Jeremiah along with other prophets in other locations give the people ample warning, but their words are dismissed, ignored. Then something unthinkable happens. Jerusalem and the Temple-where God Almighty was thought to dwell!-is completely destroyed by an invading army. With the fall of Jerusalem comes the literal end of the nation of Israel, as the prophets all lamented. Jerusalem and the Temple are reduced to a pile of rubble.

Jeremiah recounts the Creation Story with which all his listeners were intimately familiar. The sin of Israel has reached a level of chaos unseen since before Creation. The world before its origins was devoid of light. Jeremiah declares that the consequences of sin are not strictly human consequences; human sin can actually disrupt the balance God established in Creation, even the delicate ecological balances which sustain all life. Because of this the earth shall mourn (v.28)

The mourning of earth is a common prophetic/poetic metaphor, Brueggemann notes. It refers to the failure of Israel’s regimes. It was understood that the “royal-temple apparatus” in God’s mind is legitimate only insofar as it preserves and shares the fullness of Creation for the good of all. “The grief (drought) bespeaks the ultimate failure of the regime to maintain the earth.” (Brueggemann, p. 61)

WOW. It’s astonishing to me how clearly Jeremiah speaks to the crisis of climate change. The world’s leaders, particularly ours, have at every level of government--local, national, and international—proven either indifferent at worst or ineffective at best. Meanwhile the atmosphere is slightly more than 400 million parts per something of CO2 gas, fueling a temperature rise in the coming decades of somewhere between two to five degrees, either Celsius or Fahrenheit, allowing for differences among climate scientists (John Holbert, A Return to Chaos? Reflections on Jeremiah, in Patheos, Sept 08, 2013). Whatever the increment, we know the consequences become more cataclysmic with time: mass population dispersion, gigantic storms, droughts and other disruptions to farming and seasons—it’s already begun.

Worst of all, the prophets would wail and lament, the people who live on the front lines of the destructive effects are the poorest and most defenseless people who have the fewest resources or options. None of this is “news.” What might be is to follow that with Jeremiah’s poetic lament alluding to Genesis,

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

and to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,

and all the hills moved to and fro.

I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,

and all the birds of the air had fled.

I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,

and all its cities were laid in ruins

The phrase “waste and void,” in the Hebrew tohubohu is found in only two places in the entire “Old Testament”: Genesis 1:2 (The Creation Story) and here in Jeremiah. In Genesis, tohubohu refers to primordial darkness and chaos, roaring in an endlessly vast nothingness. From that awful void God introduces "light" then all the wonders of Creation, Alleluia!! (Hebrew word exegesis is the work of John Holbert, op cit)

It is nothing short of miraculous to me how powerfully Jeremiah’s words apply to this twenty-first century crisis which would have been beyond even Jeremiah’s wildest imagination. The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the lush vegetation, the fertile land, human life, all the wonders of Creation—all gone. Nonsense.

And yet here we are. Without concerted change, our grandchildren will be deprived of the generosity of Creation’s earth. The earth they inherit will be markedly different than the earth we now inhabit. We must all become prophets for God, challenging power with truth, convicting hearts for Creation and our Creator. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. (Jer. 4:27)

On the brink of despair behold a word of hope shimmers. Here in this bleak verse from an even bleaker passage (and prophet): eight words shimmer and sparkle with a glimmer of hope,

… yet I will not make a full end.

Here is an easily overlooked glimpse into the very heart of God. Here we meet again the God who endlessly seeks ways to "not make a full end". Here in these eight short words stands the God who longs for us to wake up and repent, start doing good, changing our lives to show that we not only see the truth, we will act on it.

The hot wind blows upon the earth. (Holbert)

First there was nothing. Then there was everything.

O Lord, in your mercy, prevent us from ruining everything and turning it all back into nothing.

9-8-19 Counting the Cost

Thomas J Parlette

“Counting the Cost”

Luke 14: 25-33

9/08/2019

           It’s very important to take time to think things through. For instance, there’s a story about a pro football player who wasn’t very fond of curfews when the team was playing on the road. So this player had a routine that he followed whenever his team was in another city. If he wanted to stay out after curfew, he would take whatever he could find loose in his hotel room and cram it under his bed cover so it would look like he was in his room, asleep.

          However, in one hotel there was very little in his room that would fit under the blankets. The only thing he could russle up that was the right size was a floor lamp. So he stuffed the lamp under his covers and headed out for a night of misadventures. The only problem was that an assistant coach came by to do a bed check and when he turned on the light switch, the players bed lit up like a Christmas tree. The poor guy just didn’t think that plan through very well.

          Some of you are probably familiar with the Darwin awards. The Darwin awards are given out every year to people who do particularly dumb things. One of the finalists for the award a few years back was a teenager who ended up in the hospital recovering from some serious head wounds that he got from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the young man told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he got hit. Well, he certainly found out.(1)

          You can save a lot of headaches in life if you take the time to think things through. And, as with many aspects of our modern life, there is an app to help you out with that. It’s an app called On Second Thought. The developer, Maci Peterson, was out late one night and she sent an embarrassing text. When she woke up the next morning, she realized that she had said some things she shouldn’t have said and regretted sending any text at all. So she developed her app On Second Thought – which has 2 main features:

          -a “recall” function that gives the user up to 60 seconds to reclaim a text before it’s sent.

          - and a “curfew setting” which holds all text messages until a designated time. So if you’re out late and don’t trust the condition you’re in, you might want to review your texts the following morning and make sure it’s something you really want to send before it goes out. The app automatically holds your text for you until the next day. (2) That way you can avoid any rash decisions made in the heat of the moment. It’s always best to think things through and count the costs.

          In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is addressing the increasing crowd of people following him as he makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. He seems to suspect that many in the crowd were just along for the ride, waiting to see what miracle he might do next or hoping to get in on the action if Jesus was going to start a revolt against the Romans.

          It’s not surprising that so many were following him. Right before this story, Jesus told a parable about a great dinner. None of the invited guests wanted to come, so the host invited the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind to come to the feast. That sounded pretty good to the crowds – free food allows draws a crowd – so they followed along with Jesus.

          But then we come to this story where Jesus tells the crowd “You better count the costs of being my disciple.”

          He starts out his warning with another one of those difficult sayings that just don’t sound like Jesus – “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

          Pretty harsh. How can Jesus say that? Does he mean this literally? What is Jesus trying to say here?

          You may remember the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” The plot centers on a writer from New York City who tries to understand a group of rather eccentric residents of Savannah, Georgia. One thing in particular that flummoxes the New Yorker is their penchant for understatement. The film is set in the 1980’s, although a woman nevertheless refers to the Civil War as “that recent unpleasantness.” When an intruder interrupts a fancy dinner party firing a pistol at the ceiling and brandishing the jagged edge of a broken whiskey bottle, he is flatly appraised by dinner guests as “a colorful character.” A man sentenced to federal prison for embezzlement is said to have been snared by “a little accounting issue.”

          What makes the film so amusing is the growing awareness that for all those eccentric characters practiced in the art of understatement, everything they say makes perfect sense. For the visiting New Yorker, who is not privy to their unspoken cultural assumptions behind every conversation, it is impenetrable. He remains mystified.

          Well, if we could visit first-century Palestine, we might have a  similar experience. As the citizens of Savannah were masters of understatement, so the Rabbi’s of Jesus’ day excelled at hyperbole. Hyperbole is the opposite of understatement. It is a bold exaggeration used for dramatic effect. If you are an outsider unfamiliar with the linguistic rules of the game, it can be confusing, and infuriating.

          “Whoever comes to me,” says Jesus, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

          Such a statement sounds ridiculous, even offensive – to those who immune to hyperbole. Like the New York writer from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, we take literally what is meant figuratively. “Hate you father and mother” is a figure of speech used for dramatic effect.(3)

          Does Jesus really mean this? Well – yes and no

          Jesus isn’t telling us to literally “hate” everyone and everything in life. What he means by this is to encourage people to count the costs. Be sure you know what you’re getting into if you decide to become a disciple of Jesus. You have to be “all in,” so to speak.

          To clarify why he says this outrageous statement about hating people, Jesus cites a couple of examples of how we might count the costs. If you are building a tower, you sit down, you make a budget, you draw up plans and you figure out how much it will all cost. If you’re a king getting ready to go to war, you try to think things through and make sure you have enough soldiers and weapons to win – otherwise, it would be better to send a delegation to try and work out a peaceful resolution.

          Likewise, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you need to count the cost and make sure you’re prepared to go all in.

          With these cautionary words, Jesus isn’t trying to dissuade us from following him. Instead, he is afraid that we may spend our lives splashing about in the shallow end of life when the real adventure lies in the deep waters. For instance, there was once a mother who was teaching her young son how to swim. She stood before him as he moved along the surface, his arms and legs moving in rhythm. He was also aware of the dreaded deep end of the pool. As soon as they crossed the floating markers and the water turned a darker shade of blue, he would panic, lifting his head and flailing his arms. His mother would encourage him; “Don’t be afraid. I am still with you. Swimming in deep water is no different than swimming in the shallow end. Trust me.”

          With this strange, disturbing statement, Jesus says, “Trust me. Follow me into the deep. I will be with you.” This is not scolding. It is encouragement. Encouragement to hold nothing back, to be all God has called us to be.

          The alternative is a life of regret. In Anne Tyler’s novel The Amateur Marriage, Michael Anton is an 80 year- old man looking back on his uneventful life. He has made some mistakes, but he has avoided all the big pitfalls. He can say that he never cheated anybody or tossed anyone aside. He has successfully avoided most big risks and mistakes in life. But Michael is filled with regret. He wishes “he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it fuller.”(4)

          In this passage, Jesus uses hyperbole. Jesus exaggerates. He says something shocking as a means to a greater end. He beckons us to count the cost, then go all in and follow him into the deep areas of life with one goal in mind - to inhabit more of our lives, to use our days better and fill them fuller, to experience life abundant.

          Let us be thankful for the invitation!

          May God be praised. Amen. 

 

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXV, No. 3, p52

2.    Ibid…p53.

3.    Mark Ralls, Feasting on the Gospels, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p74.

4.    Ibid…p78.

9-1-19 The Great Reversal

Thomas J Parlette

“The Great Reversal”

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

9/1/19 

          I am a big Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books, I’ve seen all the movies, literally dozens of times, I bought a wand at Ollivander’s in Diagon Alley down at Universal and I even have a Griffyndor tie.

          Whenever Juliet and I watch one of the movies, we always see something new, and we invariably get lost down the rabbit hole that is fan trivia websites. Every question we have ever had about Harry Potter has been answered by someone somewhere in the online universe. We are now pretty fluent in Potterese – my own term for all the insider lingo and shorthand that defines these sort of trivia sites.

          For instance, no one refers to the full titles of any of the books or movies – they always get shortened to “Sorcerer’s, or Chamber, Phoenix or Goblet – a shorthand version of the titles:

          Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or the Philosopher’s Stone as it was called in England”

          Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

          I’ve always thought that each of the Gospels could have their own subtitles like that. If that was the case, I think Luke’s Gospel might be called Jesus of Nazareth and The Great Reversal.

          The theme of reversal is especially important for Luke. In the very first chapter, he reports how people break out in joyous song to proclaim the new order that Christ will establish. Mary declares in her great Magnificat that the Lord “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

          And then Zechariah, the elderly priest, adds his voice to the song: “By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

          Jesus of Nazareth and The Great Reversal, right from the beginning.

          This trajectory of “great reversals” continues in this passage from Luke. A ruler, one of the Pharisees, has prepared a banquet on the Sabbath. Except for Jesus, the guests belong to the man’s inner circle. They crowd around the table seeking a place of honor. We don’t know where Jesus sits, whether at the head of the table or down at the end, but he does not hesitate to use the occasion to point to the new order that he is establishing. He upsets established protocol by speaking boldly to the group, even though he is the outsider. He does not jockey for influence with the host, but neither does he sit by quietly. Rather, he publicly challenges the very order of things at the table.

          His first word is to the invited guests. Those who come to the table seeking honor for themselves have not yet grasped the ways of God. The order at the table should be determined not by the guests, but by the host. To make his point, he turns to a source they all would have known – the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Proverbs, to quote the verses we heard today… “Do not put yourself forward in the King’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

          Good, practical advice for avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation. As Baron Rothschild once said when asked about seating important guests, “Those that matter won’t mind where they sit and those who do mind, don’t matter.”(1)

          Jesus then turns to the host and criticizes his choice of guests. He should not be inviting those who can benefit him but, rather, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” who would be unable to repay or benefit him in any way. In both cases, Jesus issues a call to reverse the normal order of things. A different kind of table etiquette characterizes life before God.

          Philip Yancey tells of a certain couple who had planned a lavish wedding reception. They booked a banquet room at the elegant Hyatt hotel in Boston, and made the required down payment of half the receptions cost.

          It was not long, though, before the prospective groom had a change of heart. He found it hard to commit, he said to his fiancé. He asked her if they could put the wedding on hold, so he could think about it.

          She knew what he meant, he didn’t really want to think about it. He just wanted out. So, after a very unpleasant scene, they parted company for good.

          One of the bride’s next stops was the office of the Events Manager of the Hyatt. The manager said she was sorry, but most of the deposit was non-refundable. The former bride-to-be had only two options, she explained : she could either forfeit the rest of her down payment or go ahead with the party.

          As Yancey tells it, “It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had gotten back on her feet, found a good job and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

          And so it was that in June 1990, the Hyatt in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken – “in honor of the groom who had ditched her”, she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters.

          That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-eaten pizza off cardboard boxes dined instead on Chicken Cordon Bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.” (2)

          Jesus makes clear that no one deserves to sit at table in the Kingdom of God; everyone is an unworthy guest. Those who follow Christ will be exalted only by the virtue of God’s free gift of salvation. Our posture before the Almighty should therefore be characterized by humility and supplication. God invites to the table not those who pride themselves on their power and social connections, but, rather, those who know just how weak and helpless they are because of their sinfulness and brokenness.

          There’s an old story about the funeral of Charlemagne, the French King who unified his country and was named the first Holy Roman Emperor. As the emperor’s funeral procession drew up to the cathedral, the members of the nobility were shocked to find the gate barred by the bishop.

          “Who comes?” called out the bishop.

          The King’s herald replied, “Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire!”

          The bishop responded, “Him I know not! Who comes?”

          So the herald tried again, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”

          Again the bishop replied, “Him I know not. Who comes?”

          “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”

          “Him I know,” said the bishop. “Enter!”(3)

          For Jesus, those who make their own honor the goal of their lives will be ashamed of themselves in the end, and those who are humble, repeatedly putting others first, will experience the true, deep, and lasting honor of the kingdom of God.

          Throughout the whole of the New Testament, Christian discipleship is understood to entail a fundamental break with the powers of sin and death. Those who belong to Christ have died to one life and risen to another. They have renounced the selfish values of worldly existence in order to embrace the self-giving love of God. The Gospel establishes a new order: a Kingdom of justice and peace. Human relationships are no longer characterized by suspicion and competition, but rather by deep, rich communion. Christ makes possible a way of life that turns present reality upside down. The reign of God is characterized by a series of “great reversals”, just as Luke points out.

          In the mid 1960’s, an African American couple in Louisville, Kentucky, visited a well-to-do Presbyterian church whose membership was exclusively white. During communion, the elders avoided serving the couple. As the pastor watched from the front, he was mortified. When the elders returned and were seated, the pastor picked up a plate of bread and a tray of cups and walked slowly back to the couple in the back row. There he quietly but firmly declared, so that all could hear: “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

          A great reversal took place that day, and that congregation was never the same again.

          As we come to the table today, let us come with humility and gratitude in the presence of a God who continues the great reversal by inviting all people to a place of honor at the Lord’s table.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol.XXXV. No.3.

2.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved 8/20/19.

3.    Ibid…

8-25-19 Honoring the Sabbath

Thomas J Parlette

“Honoring the Sabbath”

Luke 13: 10-17

8/25/19

 

          Once upon a time, a man was leaving a grocery store when he was approached by two young boys selling candy bars for their school band. The man told the boys, “I’ll buy one from you on one condition. You eat it for me.” The boys agreed.

          The man paid for the candy bar and promptly handed it back to one of the boys so that he could eat it. But the boy shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

          “Why not?”

          The boy looked the man in the eye with a serious look on his face, “Because I’m not supposed to take candy from strangers.”(1)

          Not there’s a boy who knows how to follow the rules. Technically, he didn’t the man’s name, even though he just sold him the candy. So following the letter of the law – he couldn’t take it.

          In our Gospel story for today, Luke tells us the story of an unidentified woman with a severe back ailment that leaves her bent over, unable to stand up straight.

          Luke is the only one who tells this story. This is actually the second story tells about a healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The first story is found in Luke chapter 6, just after Jesus and his disciples were caught going through a field of grain on the Sabbath and plucking some of it and eating it. The Pharisees objected, because this was considered work and you can’t do any work on the Sabbath. And Jesus responds, “David did, and besides – the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

          Then we hear the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand, in a Synagogue, on the Sabbath. The Pharisees saw the man in the crowd and wondered if Jesus would dare to take his Sabbath breaking to the next level and heal someone on the Sabbath – but they didn’t say anything.

          They didn’t have to, Jesus knew what they were thinking. And he asked them a question – “Tell me, is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or destroy it.”

          They Pharisees have no answer for this, if they follow the letter of the law, they have to say, “Well, you can’t do anything on the Sabbath.” But they don’t want to say that you can’t do something good either – so they’re in a bind.

          While they looked at each other, wondering what to say, Jesus healed the man with the withered hand. And the Pharisees were filled with fury, and started plotting against Jesus.

          So today, we’re back in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. Jesus is teaching, as he often does, and in comes this woman with a debilitating back condition. This woman does not approach Jesus, and never asks for his help. In fact, no one speaks on her behalf, begging Jesus to heal her, as we have seen before at times. No, Jesus saw her, called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free.” He laid his hands on her, and Presto! – she stood straight up for the first time in 18 years! And she immediately starting praising God.

          And then comes the reaction. The Congregation transitions from witnesses of a healing into a jury listening to opposing arguments. The leader of the Synagogue objects – not to the healing itself, but to when it was done. “There are six days to do work – this woman could be cured on any of those days, but not on today, not on the Sabbath.”

          Jesus counters, “You take care of your animals on the Sabbath, you meet their needs. Why shouldn’t we meet the needs of this woman, a daughter of Abraham, on the Sabbath.”

          And the Congregation, acting as a jury, hearing both arguments comes back with a verdict in Jesus’ favor – “the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing.”

          As we can see, one of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Luke is how do we properly honor the Sabbath. In Genesis, we are told that after the Creation, the Lord rested on the seventh day – therefore we are to keep the Sabbath holy and not work, but rest to honor God’s work of Creation.

          Later, in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath commandment shifts somewhat to a command for God’s people to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy in recognition of their deliverance from captivity in Egypt. A shift takes place here from a day of rest, a day to do nothing – to a day of holy work that is pleasing to God, holy work that honors God.

          By Jesus’ time, there was great respect given to Sabbath keeping, to the point that there were many rules governing what you could and couldn’t do – many of which still exist today for highly observant Jews, right down to not being able to flip light switches on and off. In Jesus’ day, the definition of what constituted work was highly debated and delineated – that’s where Jesus gets his argument about being able to take care of animals – that wasn’t defined technically as work – whereas harvesting grain in any way was defined as work. The rules got very picky and specific.

          One of the things Jesus came to do was re-claim the idea of Sabbath. Jesus was re-framing what Sabbath looks like. Sabbath rest is a practice of faith. Sabbath is a day of holy work. For Jesus, Sabbath wasn’t a day intended to do nothing at all. But rather, the Sabbath was a day to do something holy and grace-full, and pleasing to God. When we engage in holy faith practice, we honor what Sabbath really means. In this way, God brings healing to us – and through us, brings healing to a bent out of shape world.

          Biblical scholar Ernst Kasemann tells a story about the time someone told him what it was like to be in Amsterdam after the severe storms and flood from which Holland suffered in 1952. The scene was one of those parishes where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore to keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive.

          The police notified the pastor of the local church, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish that had been entrusted to him, and set them to the necessary work, if it meant profaning the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.

          The discussion went as one might expect: We live to carry out God’s will. God, being omnipotent, can always perform a miracle with the wind and waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death.

          The pastor tried one last argument, perhaps against his own conviction: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath?”

          Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: “I have always been troubled, Pastor, by something that I have never yet ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal”(2)

          Perhaps he was. At any rate, the town felt the circumstance warranted that they do some work on the Sabbath.

          Jesus certainly is always challenging the status quo and calling people back to what God intended for creation. God does not desire a rule book and new regulations, policies and procedures. God desires a grace filled life in which we are healed and bring healing to those around us. When we engage in faithful practice and holy work, we truly honor the Sabbath.

          Laws certainly have a place in our religious and national lives. On the whole, our Christian tradition encourages us to be law-abiders and commandment-keepers. Jesus himself said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. But the Apostle Paul made clear that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

          “Ought not this woman,” asked Jesus, “be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” The answer in the time of Jesus was “yes”, and it is still “Yes” today.

          Theologian Walter Wink reminds us in his book Engaging the Powers, “What killed Jesus was not irreligion, but religion itself; not lawlessness, but precisely the law; not anarchy but upholders of order. It was not the bestial but those considered best who crucified the one in whom the divine Wisdom was visibly incarnate. And because he was not only innocent, but the very embodiment of true religion, true law, true order, this victim exposed their violence for what it was – not the defense of society, but an attack against God.”(3)

          In a synagogue in Galilee, Jesus freed the oppressed and spoke the truth to power. His actions healed a crippled woman and put his opponents to shame. Today, Jesus challenges us to do the very same, with the boldness that he showed to the crowd and to the leader of the synagogue. Maybe our mission is to tutor disadvantaged children, or assist battered women, or fight sex trafficking, or work with substance abusers, or welcome refugees, or support pregnant teenagers or participate in creation care. There are endless possibilities. Like Jesus, we can continue our work to free the oppressed and speak the truth to power.

          The good news is that these actions lead to celebration, not condemnation; to rejoicing, instead of rejection. Luke tells us that the healed woman immediately began praising God, and the entire congregation rejoiced at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.

          May we join the rejoicing as we honor the Sabbath with holy and healing work that is pleasing to God.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, p38.

2.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved August 6th, 2019.

3.    Ibid…

8-18-19 A Difficult Saying

Thomas J Parlette

“A Difficult Saying”

Luke 12: 49-56

8/18/19

 

          As you might surmise from the sermon title, this passage for today is one of those that has been referred to as one of Jesus’ difficult sayings. Jesus said a great many things that were heard to swallow – just think of the Sermon on the mount…

          “Blessed are the poor in spirit

          Blessed are those who mourn

          Blessed are the meek

          Blessed are you who are persecuted”

          Really? It’s hard to feel blessed when people are persecuting you.

 

          In addition, Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…

          If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…

          If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left as well…

          If anyone takes your coat, give them your cloak too…

          If someone forces you to walk a mile – go two.

          All difficult sayings because they go against our human nature.

 

          Or, how about the time Jesus’ mother and brothers tried to get in to see him and he turned them away saying “those who do the will of God are my brothers and sisters.” Difficult – how could Jesus say something like that?

          Or, earlier in Luke, we hear a would-be follower tell Jesus he first needed to bury his father, and Jesus seems pretty heartless when he implies the man should leave his family obligations behind. Not exactly the family-values Jesus we might expect.

          And remember, in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus says “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Just a tad bit more graphic in Matthew’s telling. A difficult saying to be sure.

          Preaching professor Eugene Lowry used to say that a preacher should approach a text “looking for trouble.”(1) If that’s true, there’s certainly quite a bit of trouble to choose from here.

          By and large, we don’t really want to hear Jesus talk about bringing fire and dividing families. We would probably prefer to think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild…” as Charles Wesley wrote in one of his well-known Christmas hymns.

          It reminds me of a scene from a decidedly non-religious movie, but one in which there is actually quite a bit of prayer. Perhaps you’ve run across Will Ferrel’s movie “Talledaga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

          Ricky Boby is a stock car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He is at the peak of his career when he is involved in an accident that affects his confidence, and he struggles to find his way back into racing. It’s a silly, tongue-in-cheek parody of NASCAR and racing movies in general.

          In one scene pretty early in the movie, Ricky Bobby is sitting down to dinner with his family. Every imaginable kind of fast-food is spread all over the table, and Ricky Bobby begins to say grace…

          “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, thanks so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell (because those are the sponsors for his race car, so that’s all the family eats).”

          After going on for awhile, his wife stops him and says, “Ricky Bobby, why do you always pray to the Baby Jesus? He grew up, you know – he had a beard!”

          “Look, I like Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-Up Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

          His wife rolls her eyes and Ricky Bobby goes on…

          “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little balled up baby fists, Thank You, for all your power and your grace.

Dear Baby God, Amen.”

          The scene goes downhill from there, but I think that scene captures something true. Most Christians like the Baby Jesus of Christmas time the best. Christmas Jesus is manageable. Baby Jesus is sweet and safe, meek and mild. But then Jesus grows up. And he grows into his call, and he is known for saying some pretty difficult and challenging things.

          Tony Campolo, a well-known Christian speaker and author, once wrote a blog on the site Red Letter Christians called “Why Christians don’t like Jesus.” He wrote:

          “Many Christians believe in retribution. They want a God who tells them that there should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and they become furious when anyone suggests another kind of God who asks them to be merciful and forgiving…

          “The God revealed in Jesus Christ is far too generous. He gives his all in love for others, and expects us to do the same. Such a God is too demanding for most Christians. They want a God who only requires a tithe. They sing about total giving, but in the end they would like to sing, “One-tenth to Jesus I surrender, one-tenth to him I gladly give – I surrender one-tenth. I surrender one-tenth.” Ultimately, they want a God who declares as an abomination all those who offend their social mores.” Who don’t think like they do.

          “The Bible says that God created us in his own image. Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said, “We have decided to return the favor.” There is no doubt that most Christians want a God in their own image, but that’s not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. God is not an American who would carry within his psyche all the traits of judgment and prejudices so evident among those who want nothing to do with the God who breaks loose in the Sermon on the Mount.”(2)

          It is not Jesus’ purpose or intent to bring division and discord. But Jesus knows that the message he brings, and must deliver, will cause division. This passage is descriptive and predictive, but it is not a prescription or a recommendation.

          That is to say, it is not Jesus purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought on by Christ’s work.

          For example, consider the story of Ron Luce. Luce’s parents divorced when he was a child. When he was 15, he moved in with his father. But his father was not someone you would give a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug to. Ron’s Dad actually him to smoke pot and party. For a while Ron thought he’d found the perfect life. But then, a friend invited Ron to church. This little church was alive with joy, and the pastor’s message connected with Ron, and he chose to become a  follower of Jesus Christ. The joy he discovered changed his life. He stopped smoking and partying and began sharing his faith with all his friends. The result of that was that not long afterwards, his father and stepmother kicked him out of the house. They said they didn’t want a “Jesus Freak” as they called him, living with them.

          So at 16 years old, Ron was temporarily homeless and living out of his car. Ron’s pastor eventually took him in, and as Ron would later write, “Being a part of my pastor’s family was the most incredible experience of my Christian growth.”(3)

          With the support of his new family, Ron Luce graduated from high school and college and went into the ministry. Today, he is the co-founder and President of Teen Mania Ministries, where he devotes himself to spreading the message of God’s hope and love to teenagers.

          “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? Said Jesus. “No, I tell you, but division.”

          As always, context is crucial. Keep in mind who Jesus is talking to when he talks about peace and division. He was speaking to his disciples – not a large group of people who were listening to him for the first time, but his inner circle of people who had been travelling with him for some time now. His purpose seems to be to correct any misconceptions they held about what following him entailed. When he asked them, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?”, he was challenging their assumption that he was going to establish the messianic reign Israel had long looked for, where they would be an independent people again, secure in the borders of a land flowing with milk and honey.

          Commentator Stephen Wright says, “the most powerful thrust of Jesus’ words is surely against the comfortable assumption that the promised time of peace would involve perpetuation of the standard segregation of the world into the nation of Israel, and “the nations” or the Gentiles; the assumption that “peace” would involve victory of the former over the latter.”(4)

          That, as we now know, was not where Jesus was headed. He was already feeling the shadow of the cross, and, if the disciples were going to stay with him, they needed to know that the way ahead would force them to not only leave behind their expectations of messianic peace, but also to make hard choices about who had a claim on them.

          Jesus is not divisive personally, but his call is divisive. The message Jesus brings about how to live in God’s Kingdom divides those who would be ruled by self-interest from those who would be ruled by God-interest.

          Jesus reminds his disciples, then and now, that he is not bringing peace in terms of a victory over an enemy. He is bringing a different kind of peace. As Frederick Buechner says, “For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.”(5)

          And that is a difficult saying in every day and age. The peace that Jesus brings does not mean the absence of struggle or division or conflict. The peace that Jesus brings means the presence of love in how we live.

          May that be the kind of peace in which we live – living with the presence of love.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    David J. Schlafer, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p359.

2.    Homileticsonline, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol.XXXV, No 3, p35.

4.    Homileticsonline, retrieved July 17th, 2019.

5.    Ibid…

8-11-19 Moving Beyond the Status Quo

Thomas J Parlette

“Moving Beyond the Status Quo”

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

8/11/2019

 

          Status Quo is an interesting term. Its classic definition is “the existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues.” Or, as Ronald Reagan once said, “Status Quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.”(1)

          He was right, I suppose.  Some people are quite happy with status quo, they would like things to say just the way they are. And others work hard to change the status quo. Whether you are happy with the existing state of things or whether you want to change the mess we’re in, determines whether we hear the term status quo as positive or negative.

          Whether you love it or whether you hate it, sometimes Status Quo is needed. For instance, in Jerusalem and Bethlehem the status quo has been codified and enshrined in an actual document known as the Status Quo, capital letters. It’s a 250 year-old understanding between religious communities that applies to certain sites in those two cities.

          One of these sites is the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the place that enshrines what is believed to be Golgotha, the place Jesus was crucified, and one of the sites tradition says was the burial place of Jesus.

          Although no Protestants have any voice whatsoever in the administration of the church, at least six other religious entities do: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox. As you might imagine, getting all six to agree on anything is almost impossible.

          But thanks to the Status Quo agreement, however, things have generally been quiet. Nothing changes. Not the least little thing. Ever. Except in the very rare circumstance that all interested parties agree. The most famous example of the power of the SQR – Status Quo Rules – at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Immovable Ladder – capital letters.

          This ladder has accrued virtually the same revered and honored status as the other relics of the church. It is located above the entrance to the church. According to Wikipedia, it was first mentioned in 1757 and has remained in that location since the 18th century, aside from being temporarily moved on two occasions. The ladder is referred to as immovable due to an understanding that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.

          The Immovable Ladder is governed by the principles of the Status Quo agreement.

          Sometimes fights break out. This is what happened in “The Case of the Rooftop Chair.” Some monks were sitting on the roof, and one brother wanted to move his chair into the shade. Others objected, citing the SQRs. A fight broke out, punches were thrown, and the Israeli police were called in to restore order. Eleven monks – Egyptian and Ethiopian – were involved and some were hospitalized.(2)

          The occasional skirmish notwithstanding, the Status Quo Rule seems to work pretty well in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And as much as we chafe at the status quo sometimes, our latent fondness for the status quo is deep-seated and often expressed in the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

          Even the Apostle Paul admonished his readers in Corinth to stay the course – “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” There it is. A biblical Status Quo Rule straight from the chief apostle himself.

          And yet todays passage from Hebrews presents us with some of our faith ancestors who were daring enough to move beyond the status quo and follow God’s call.

          These verses today are part of what is known as “The Faith Chapter of the Bible.” The preacher of Hebrews was addressing a Christian community under a great deal of stress and harassment, so the whole book revolves around the theme of keeping our faith in God. Chapter 11 begins with those immortal words defining faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Then, in the verses that are left out of the lectionary, the Preacher reminds us of Abel, who offered a sacrifice to God. And Enoch, who pleased God. And Noah, who listened to God and built an ark despite the jeers and taunts of his neighbors.

          But the two main figures who dominate the Faith Chapter of the Bible are Abraham and Moses, both of whom were called to move beyond the Status Quo and venture into the unknown as they followed God’s lead. For as Karl Barth once said, “Faith in God’s revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo.”(3)

          Moses of course, was called by God to move the Israelites out of their status quo as captives in Egypt and begin the journey to a land that God would give them.

          But our verses for today deal with Abraham, who we also heard about in our passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah gives us a tutorial about the nature of faith and leaving behind the status quo.

          The first thing to note about Abraham is that he obeyed. God poked Abraham in the ribs and said, “I’m tired of the same old thing, let’s go try something new.” And Abraham said, “OK. What?

          And God said, “I’m going to give you a new home, a new land – for all of your descendants.” And Abraham said, “OK. Where?

          And God said, “Well, I can’t tell you that, but I promise, it will be great.” And Abraham said, “OK – if you say so. Let’s go!”

          Even though they had no idea where they were going, Abraham and Sarah obeyed God. The first lesson about faith – obey God.

          The second lesson for us is tied to the first – Abraham and Sarah actually “set out”, the scripture tells us. Meaning, they had the audacity to do what God called them to do, even though they were unsure about what that would entail. That is a very difficult thing to do. When we decide to do something different and leave the status quo behind, we want to have a reasonable idea of what to expect – where are we going, how will we get there, how long will it take, are we prepared for the journey? All of these questions are well worth asking. Yet when describing the nature of faith to the Christian community, the Preacher of Hebrews uses Abraham as an example to follow.

          Sometimes faith is about obeying God and setting out on the journey call you to take, even though the answers you crave may be a little murky at the beginning. Uncomfortable, I know – it is for me too. But that’s what Abraham and Sarah do. They hold on to the assurance of things hoped for. They cling to the conviction of things unseen.

          Retired pastor Bud Ruggia has written: “One of my insights after years of ministry is that the church fails far more often by asking too little of its people than by asking too much. Jesus did not ask us to put a cross-shaped sticker on our car; he asked us to pick one up and follow him.”(4)

          And that’s exactly what Abraham and Sarah did.

          The third thing that Abraham teaches us about faith is the importance of trust. The heroes of faith that are mentioned in Chapter 11 of Hebrews all trusted God. Moses trusted God when he faced off against the most powerful man in the world at the time – and God did not let him down. Abraham trusted in the Lord when he was told to lay his son Isaac on an altar as a sacrifice – and God came through again, providing a ram as a sacrifice instead.

          Abraham trusted that God would deliver on the promise of a home for his descendants – even though he couldn’t see exactly how that was going to come together. And it all begins with a willingness to leave behind the status quo.

          Perhaps the biggest barrier to moving beyond the status quo – besides the fear of the unknown- is a little thing called tradition. The sometimes audible, sometimes inaudible voice that says “But this is what we do, this is what I know. We’ve done it this way forever. We’ve always supported that missionary or given to that program or agency. Our family has always lived here. Everyone in my family goes into education…or music…or the medical sciences. That is our tradition.”

          And tradition is a good thing. It’s a great way to make and preserve memories and ritual and identity – in our own families and in our church family.

          But we must also give God room to call us to do something we haven’t done before, to lead us on a new journey, or a new project or a new adventure.

          I like how Jaroslav Pelikan put it in an interview with US News and World Report back in 1989. He drew a distinction between Tradition and Traditionalism. He said:

          “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.

          Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

          Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.

          Traditionalism supposes that nothing new should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”(5)

          Abraham was guided by his tradition – his living faith that let God speak in his moment. He was able to move beyond the status quo and follow God into a new future. And God did not let him down.

          Over the past few weeks it has been difficult not to see all the things in our country and our world that need to change. There are many ways that we need to move beyond the way things are and do something different. It finally seems that there may be some momentum behind changing our gun laws so we can keep do something about the epidemic of gun-related violence we have seen this summer. I am praying some progress is made. I hope we can address the way our mental health system works with those who need help, as that is also part of the violence problem. And there are so many others ways in which we need to move away from our status quo. I don’t mean to leave any out, but you could choose immigration, racism, white nationalism and white supremacy, our healthcare system, our problem with addiction, the need to make social security actually secure or just simply trying to make sure the people of our country, our state, our city of Rochester have enough to eat and a decent, affordable place to live. There are countless ways that we need to move beyond the status quo of how it is.

          John Steinbeck once wrote “A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future and finds its satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory.”(6)

          However, a living people listens closely to voices like the Preacher of Hebrews calling the people of God to hold onto faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

          Because as people of the way, we have the assurance that God does not leave us to wallow in despair. We live with the conviction that God will act, through us and through God-fearing people everywhere – even though we don’t quite see how that will come together just yet.

          We hold onto these assurances and convictions so that we may move beyond the status quo toward what  Peter talked about in his second letter: “We look for – and speed the coming of- the new heaven and a new earth, where justice is at home.” We look for that time when “The Peaceable Kingdom of God” that the prophet Isaiah foretold, will be a reality.

          May it be so – sooner rather than later.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved July 16, 2019.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

5.    Ibid…

6.    Ibid…

8-4-19 Remember You are Baptized

Rev. Jay Rowland

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

Colossians 3:1-11 (NRSV)

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. 

5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 

8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 

 

Remember You Are Baptized

Once upon a time, way back in the first century, baptism was a big deal in the church.  That’s not to say that baptism is not a big deal anymore. Rather it seems that baptism no longer invokes the awe and commitment it did among the earliest believers. Perhaps some reflection might rectify that discrepancy at least a bit today.

Considering that government-sanctioned persecution was rampant in the first century, it’s a wonder the church survived. The powers and authorities who crucified Jesus were still in charge so the choice to be baptized meant putting your life in jeopardy.  It’s interesting that today, without such threats the church is experiencing a (well-publicized) cultural decline. 

It’s a wonder people were willing to risk their lives in order to be baptized.  Those who came forward to be baptized knew the risk involved.  They did so anyway because they no doubt recognized a higher authority than the earthly authorities which threatened them.  It shows that those first century Christians saw baptism--and life--the way Paul describes in Romans

all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death[.]  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death…  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:3-6)

I refer to Romans 6 because Paul’s use of the phrase “old self” connects it to the Colossians passage for today, at least in my mind. My curiosity and pondering kept bringing me back to baptism. Though the Colossians passage does not otherwise appear to have anything to do with baptism, Paul seems to expand upon his words about baptism in Romans 6.

The vibe, however, is clearly different. The message in Romans 6 is captivating, poetic. It’s proclamation. In Colossians Paul is less poetic and more demanding. This is a different aspect of Paul’s brilliance: exhortation.  Paul does both proclamation and exhortation very, very well.  And here in this excerpt from Colossians, Paul is at his exhortative best as he practically commands baptized believers to live differently because of their baptism:

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). … get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, [for] you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self …

See what I mean by “different vibe”? I cringe when Paul gets revved up like this because, well, speaking only for myself here I can’t honestly say I’ve rid myself of those old-self habits, to say nothing of putting them to death.  I worry that anyone reading or hearing these words might think, I haven’t put those things to death in my life--what’s wrong with me?I’m not a good Christian. Maybe I’m not a Christian at all.

Which leads me to a very important clarification, a statement of perhaps the obvious: the water of baptism is not literally “holy water” with mystical properties to somehow prevent us from making poor choices. Baptism uses the powerful element of water, basic water, that simple thing we cannot live without, which sustains all life.1 Water is the visible component in this celebration of the invisible power of God’s Holy Spirit. This water also marks us as Christ’s own, spiritually grafting us onto the body of Christ. How awesome is that?! … especially in those moments when we find ourselves deceived into thinking we’re not “good enough” believers. Baptism announces your permanent citizenship in the kingdom of God. Baptism signifies your inclusion in the covenant God made with humanity from the beginning.  

The thing is, baptism proclaims our citizenship in a kingdom that’s invisible to the naked eye.  And baptized people of course look no different than any other people. Perhaps that’s what provokes Paul to exhortation, at least here in Colossians 3. Paul passionately shares elsewhere about his own struggles to live his relationship with the Lord and participate in God’s kingdom in a way that’s as real as the visible earthly kingdoms. He knows that we are all vulnerable to the limitations of living in a world with powerful “authority” and temptations and deceptions. And that’s precisely what makes baptism so critical and so worthy of our awe. Perhaps more than most, Paul is painfully aware that baptism doesn’t magically or otherwise transform flawed human beings into perfect ones.

His use of the phrase “old self” in this passage (v 9 & 10), to my way of thinking, is Paul’s way of admitting that we all continue to make poor choices--choices which create a barrier between ourselves and God.  The old self represents our life apart from God—the freedom the Lord gives us to go our own way.  Paul brilliantly proclaims (elsewhere) that all of that was crucified with Christ.  I interpret Paul to be saying that sin has lost its ultimate power to destroy us or God’s relationship with us, but the “old self” remains stubbornly present (and visible).  In the meantime, however, our conscience is awakened by Christ and the Holy Spirit, and as a result we become aware of a very real, ongoing conflict within us and all around us in the world. Whenever we feel bad about the persistence of our old-self ways it keeps us humble—or at least, hopefully, prevents us from becoming spiritually or religiously arrogant. And the more aware we are of this ongoing conflict, the more we realize that it is more than a mere “conflict of interest”. It carries life and death significance, as theologian Nancy Kraft articulates:

We’re always making life and death decisions, one after another in our lives, often perhaps without realizing it:

In the things we eat and drink.

In the way we do business.

In the way we choose to spend our free time.

In the way we interact with other people.

In the conversations we have.

In the books we read, the movies we watch, the websites we visit.

In the thoughts we choose to dwell on.

In how we spend our Sunday mornings.

In the games we play.

In the viewpoint we take toward things that don’t go our way.

In our reactions when we’re driving.

[In how we express or repress our sexuality]

In judgments we make about people who don’t do things the way we think they should, or dress the way we think they should, or speak the way we think they should.

In the jokes we choose to laugh at.

In the way we spend our money.

In the people with whom we choose to associate.

In the way we encounter a stranger on the street.

In the priority we give to our relationship with God.

Every waking moment of the day, we make ethical decisions. We choose between what leads us to death and what leads us to life.     

[Nancy Kraft, http://liberallectionaryresources.com/c%20proper%2013.html]

 Again speaking only for myself here, if I’m being honest my choices predominantly lean toward the leading-to-death side of the ledger.  But rather than despair, I choose to trust in the steadfast promise proclaimed and displayed in my (and every!) baptism: the Lord abides with us no matter what.

Meanwhile, I do happen to believe that God cares about our choices and is always ready, willing and able to help us change and grow, and to make better choices. The miracle is that sometimes we do!  And this helps us remain hopeful and inspired, especially at other times when we do not, or worse yet, when we make the same poor choices and mistakes over and over and over again. 

We make and repeat poor choices because we’re human beings not automatons. Even so, God’s love and grace abides. What makes baptism so powerful is its public proclamation of this outlandish, downright scandalous commitment God has made to each of us. The commitment is to love and abide with us not as long as we hold up our end—no, God’s commitment to us is unconditional. Being more accustomed to conditions in life, the temptation is to presume that the Lord is that way too. This presumption provokes too many of us into Appeasing An Angry God, chasing the impulse to earn God’s abiding love (or defuse God’s Anger). This compulsion thrives on fear and ignores grace. It keeps people stuck on a treadmill of guilt, or worse, feeling excluded from God’s promises, all because of a perceived failure to achieve unattainable standards of religious perfection.  That’s not the Jesus who meets us in the gospels.

We forget that God’s love for us was is displayed in the life and suffering and death of Jesus Christ and has been committed to us no matter what. God raised Jesus from death rendering God’s love through Him un-defeatable, undeniable, un-shakable, un-killable; there’s nothing we can do or not do, there’s nothing that has happened or that is going to happen which will cause God to withdraw God’s life-giving, life-sustaining love and forgiveness.  God’s promise depends upon God, not upon us, and certainly not upon any self-willed, bootstrap mastery over sin. 

Well before we arrived on the scene, God decided to forgive us and to care for us and love us no matter what—no exceptions. Of course we all can learn to love one another more and more in the manner and spirit God loves us in Christ. But too often we forget that when we inevitably fail along the way, that’s not a deal-breaker for God. Even so our failures and struggles don’t relieve us of that responsibility and call to love God and each other.

That’s what makes Baptism and also the Lord’s Supper both vital companions on our pilgrimage.  The repetition Communion and Baptism are necessary for us. Received amidst and among the church community these oft-repeated acts (Sacraments), Communion and Baptism, and the internal rhythms of each act itself, all have a way of creating sacred space … space and time … into which we enter, pausing to remember God’s abiding love and presence.  Whenever we are reminded that the Lord accompanies us every moment of every day of our life, every breath, every step no matter what, that moment is sacred space.   

Baptism proclaims our permanent citizenship in God’s Kingdom. Today the Table of Grace is set once again, reminding us that Jesus reserved a place for each one of us at the Table. Both sacraments remind us over and over again, as Paul says, your life is hidden with Christ in God (and) (w)hen Christ who is our life shall appear, then you also shall appear with Him in glory.

Baptism is a big deal. As we come together once again to the Table of Grace, remember: you are baptized.   

_________________________________

Afterword on glory

I’ve long concerned myself with certain “church-y” words … words we hear in religious contexts but which otherwise convey very little meaning in our daily thoughts or lives. My sense is that “glory” may be one of those churchy words. Its appearance in the Colossians passage for today prompted me to wonder how to uphold or translate its vitality. Doing so in the sermon would have been too much of a tangent. As it happens, I’m reading a book which features an essay on the term glory. I decided to post excerpts here hoping that it might help improve understanding of “glory” in a general faith sense, if not also with regards to its appearance in Colossians 3:4.

The following excerpts appear in the chapter, “Ruled by Glory” from the book Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, by Frank Viola, Baker Books, 2018 [pages 50-53 e-book version]:

 “In describing how God rules [God’s] kingdom, the psalmist asked, “Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. (Psalm 24:10 KJV). God … is spoken of as the God of glory (Acts 7:2 NIV). … Jesus is called the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:6-8), and the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of glory (1 Peter 4:14). So the triune God, the eternal Godhead is characterized by glory.  God’s glory is the visible expression of [God’s] character. It includes [God’s] beauty, [God’s] splendor, and [God’s] love. Glory is the result of grace. Grace is giving to us what we don’t deserve. In God’s grace, we see [God’s] glory. “

“God’s life is glory; [God’s] nature is grace.”

 “Earthly kingdoms are ruled by force. … By contrast the kingdom of heaven is ruled neither by fear nor force. Instead, God’s kingdom is governed by two things: God’s glory and absolute freedom.”

“Consider God’s rule before creation. The heavenly hosts were subject to God by the sight of [God’s] peerless glory. And they were utterly free to follow [God] or not to follow…  But what has kept the faithful heavenly host submitted to God’s authority since the beginning of time? It’s the resplendent beauty of God the King.  The angels, who bear the burning bliss of God’s holy light, are intoxicated with the beauty of the Almighty. They continuously marvel at [God’s] majesty, splendor, and radiance … captivated and captured by [God’s] glory.”

 “What captured the twelve disciples to forsake everything else and follow Jesus? Simple. They saw His glory and were captured by it.”  

“The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3;  2 Corinthians 4:6). And it is by seeing the glory of Christ and God establishes the kingdom [of God] in our hearts.”  

Endnote:

1 On the water of baptism, I love this devotion by Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell:

Fill a baptismal font with water, invoke the Holy Spirit over it, and you can almost watch it fill with grace. Suddenly it becomes the deep over which God’s Spirit brooded at the beginning. The Red Sea through which the Israelites passed to freedom. The flowing Jordan. The waters of Mary’s womb, and the tears she shed at the cross. The sea over which Jesus walked. The stream from the crystal throne of God. A font blessed contains an ocean’s worth of miracles and memories and symbols and salvation.

But really, the most miraculous thing our baptismal fonts hold is: water.

The stuff you’re mostly made of.

The stuff Earth’s mostly covered with.

The universal solvent.

That with which you washed your newborn.

That with which you wash yourself.

That without which you would die, fast.

More important than food, stronger than stone, free out of the sky, object of wars.

Powerful enough that people will walk miles and miles a day for it.

Powerful enough that our government will prosecute you if you give it to the wrong people in the desert.

And if the water in your font is clean enough that it won’t give you cholera or lead poisoning, then you have before you a vessel of the most longed-for substance in human history, still out of reach for people from Flint to Port au Prince to Chennai.

Bless a baptismal font filled with clean water, and you might think you have before you a symbol of grace.

You do not. You have before you a vessel full of the real thing.

Published by the UCC as part of its ongoing daily devotional, God Is Still Speaking. For more information go to UCC.org Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York.

7-28-19 Connections between Suffering and Hope

Connections between Suffering and Hope

Romans 8:15b-28

Rev. Carol Shaffer, July 28, 2019

As a hospice chaplain, I often work with people who are struggling to find meaning in their suffering: “Why does my 45-year-old sister have cancer?” “Even though he’s 90, I’m not ready to lose my husband.” So, I decided to focus on connections between suffering and hope today.

“Why do we suffer?” is the first question we often ask. Sometimes, we think God is punishing us through our suffering. In the earliest scriptures, we see the idea of God punishing people for their sins. But fortunately, humans’ understanding of God has evolved and changed. God does not punish. Jay recently proclaimed that in a sermon. Jesus taught that God does not punish. According to the gospel of Luke (chapter 13), Jesus said, “Remember those people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they worse sinners than others? No!” And in the gospel according to John (chapter 9), when people saw a man who was born blind, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, that this man was born blind? Him or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither one!”

When we struggle with this question, we conclude that for, whatever reason, God’s creation is good and imperfect. It contains illness, natural disasters, human violence against others, and death. Even paradise, the Garden of Eden, contained a serpent focused on temptation and rebellion from God. In the apostle Paul’s words, all of creation has been subjected to futility, not of its own will, but of the will of the One who subjected it. Suffering is part of every human life. 

When we accept the fact that suffering is inevitable, we can begin to look for meaning in it. One purpose of suffering is, of course, to learn. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.” We have opportunities to grow and learn from our mistakes. Our suffering can also teach us more about compassion, patience, and other gifts of the Spirit. After we have suffered a significant illness, we may have more compassion and understanding of others who are ill. 

Another source of meaning is suffering as we work for truth and justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this “unearned suffering.” He followed the work of Mohandas Gandhi in opposing injustice with non-violent resistance. King and many followers suffered as they worked for civil rights in our country. People who suffer as they work for justice in the face of injustice participate in the healing of the world.

When we willingly join Jesus in suffering, we participate with him in what Mother Teresa called “Life’s greatest drama: the mystery of suffering, death, and resurrection.” By taking part in this drama, we join in God’s holy work of redemption. Whatever we suffer: illness, loss, disaster, violence, or injustice, we are called to follow Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” One of Mother Teresa’s prayers can guide us. Let us pray it together:

Lord, help us to see, in your crucifixion and resurrection, an example of how to endure, and seemingly to die, in the agony and conflict of daily life, so that we may live more fully and more creatively…

Enable us to go through [trials] patiently and bravely, trusting that you will support us; for it is only by dying with you that we can rise with you. Amen (from Suffering into Joy: What Mother Teresa Teaches about True Joy, by Eileen Egan and Kathleen Egan, OSB, Charis Books (Servant Publications): 1994).

The primary connection between suffering and hope is participating in this drama. Psalm 85 includes beautiful images of suffering people seeking hope in God. For example, in verse 11, we can imagine human faithfulness springing up from the earth to receive God’s righteousness coming down from the sky. 

This image, long with the apostle Paul’s image of creation set free from bondage and decay, calls us to expand our understanding of hope. We often hope for specific outcomes, such as good weather, good health, or recovery from illness. Paul is calling us to a larger perspective: to hope in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection as the “first fruits” of God’s renewal of all creation.  This kind of hope trusts that God is at work in this world for the redemption of all people, even the ones we can’t stand. Hope believes that God is redeeming all of creation, not only the parts we know. In John 3:16 the gospel writer proclaims, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”…not one race or one people or one country. 

This kind of hope is very different from the world’s values. It’s certainly different than the American dream, where each generation hopes to be better off, economically, than the previous one. Christian hope envisions food, shelter, health, well-being for all people. Christian hope is confident that God has ultimately defeated sin, evil, and death, even though in the present time we witness much suffering. 

How do we practice this robust hope in our daily lives? As a hospice chaplain, I often encourage people to practice moving toward, rather than away from, their suffering. Our natural tendency is to shield ourselves from it. It takes courage to welcome our suffering, sit with it, and begin to have a conversation with it. We are able to do this because God meets us in our suffering in ways we may not expect.

We also practice hope by remembering that we don’t suffer alone.  We aren’t the only one in our predicament, even though it might feel that way. Recently I was talking with Sarah (not her real name), who suffers loss of vision, hearing, and balance in her old age. She mourns no longer being able to do many things she used to. She commented on how nice the weather was, and I offered to take her outside. She refused, saying, “I only feel secure in my apartment.” When I suggested that she might join with Jesus in her suffering, she nodded and said, “I talk with Jesus every night, and I pray for all who suffer.” 

In praying for all who suffer, Sarah practices openness to God’s will in her own suffering. Like Sarah, we are all called to seek God’s will and practice yielding to it, in small and large ways, moment by moment. In doing so, we participate in Life’s great drama of Redemption.

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “This is perfect joy, to share in the suffering of the world as Christ did.” Let us close by joining in the payer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.




7-21-19 The Fear of Missing Out

Thomas J Parlette

“The Fear of Missing Out”

Luke 10: 38-42

7/21/19

 

          There’s a new term that you may have heard advertisers use, and it refers to a recent phenomenon in our society. It’s a term called “FOMO” – the fear of missing out. It’s the idea that someone somewhere is having a better time than we are, living a richer life than we are, attending a better party or taking a better vacation than we are, and that we’d better cram as many experiences into our life as possible so we don’t miss out on anything.

          The fear of missing out is popping up in other areas of our society as well. When the stock market was soaring in early 2018, many experts attributed it in part to FOMO – people were afraid of missing out on great returns on their investments. Later, many of them wished they had put their money somewhere other than stocks as things slowed down.

          The origin of FOMO seems to have come from an article written by a young man named Patrick McGinnis at Harvard Business School around 2003. Patrick and his buddies were young, ambitious, and reasonably well off. In their early twenties, they experienced the horrors of the 9/11 attacks and then the collapse of the dot.com and tech stocks in 2008, which drastically affected the stock market. These experiences created a lot of anxiety in these young people, and a desire to live life to the fullest, because you never knew when it would all fall apart.

          Patrick noticed that he and his friends were cramming their social schedules with as many parties, events and adventures as possible. But they didn’t seem to be enjoying these experiences. Instead, they had a nagging feeling that somebody somewhere was having a better time than they were. Patrick wrote an article about this situation, and he called it FOBO – the Fear of Better Options. This later became the phenomenon FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. Patrick describes I this way: “All you wanted to do was live life to the fullest at every second. You felt the need to do everything all the time because you’d seen your own mortality.”(1)

          Texting and the rise of social media made FOMO even worse. Suddenly, you could let friends know that you were at the coolest new restaurant in town, or you could post pictures of yourself at a great vacation spot, doing some amazing activity like zip lining or bungee-jumping. Now everybody felt this instant pressure to do more, to search for some new and amazing experience or adventure that they could impress their friends with. And this led to a new issue, one that counselors called “decision paralysis.” Suddenly, people were so overwhelmed by their options and so driven by the Fear of Missing Out that they literally couldn’t make a decision, couldn’t commit to anything, because if they committed to one party, or place or option, then they might miss out on other, better options. As one of Patrick McGinnis’ friends says “FOMO is actually an amazing acronym, because it captures the essence of life.”(2)

          In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the fear of missing out on living life to the fullest. Except Jesus’ definition of living life to the fullest is a little different than what ours may be. In our story, two sisters, Mary and Martha, open their home to Jesus. Martha wants to be the good host, so she rushes around fixing the meal, setting the table, taking care of all the details. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, people like Martha are vitally important in our lives. Some of us would be in real trouble if we didn’t have a Martha in our lives to make sure things get done. Still, the hard work and attention to detail of the Marthas of this world often gets overlooked or goes underappreciated.

          There was once a mother who was trying to explain the health benefits of a colorful meal to her family. “The more colors you see on your plate, the more variety of nutrients there are,” she said. Pointing to their dinner, she asked, “How many different colors do you see?”

          “Six,” volunteered her daughter. “Seven, if you count the burned parts.”(3) Totally unappreciated.

          Another woman says, “I have my own system for labeling homemade freezer meals. Forget calling them “Veal Parmigiana” or “Meatloaf” – If you look in my freezer you’ll see labels like “Whatever”, “Anything”, and “I Don’t Know”. That way when I ask my family what they want for dinner, I’m certain to have what they want.”(4)  Whatever, Anything, I Don’t Know.

          It’s really tough to be a good host, to take care of other’s needs, especially if no one seems to appreciate your efforts.

          Martha’s sister, Mary, wants to be a good host too, but she has a different way of approaching it. She sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him teach. When Martha complains to Jesus that her sister isn’t helping, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

          Mary reminds me of a wonderful story about an 11 year old boy named Tyler Sullivan who skipped school one day – but it was for a good reason. Former President Barack Obama was visiting his hometown for a big event, and Tyler’s dad was introducing the President to the crowd, so Tyler got to tag along.

          Imagine his teacher’s surprise when Tyler brought a note in the next day – on Presidential letterhead. It said, “Please excuse Tyler. He was with me. Barack Obama, the President.”(5)

          Jesus defends Mary neglect of her hosting duties by saying, “Please excuse Mary. She was with me. Jesus, the Messiah.” Jesus isn’t trying to make Martha feel guilty – he’s trying to teach both sisters about the essence of life. Life is short. You only get one go-around. Don’t get lured into using up your energy on what doesn’t matter. Only one thing matters. It is the better option, And it can’t be taken away from you. The best cure for the fear of missing out is sitting at Jesus feet.

          Jesus is saying here, “Don’t miss out on an opportunity to know God.” Our society promotes backwards priorities. We promote achievement and consumption and cultivation of the self over our relationship with God. Yet God is our Creator – the Way, the Truth and the Life. What good is our life if it is not reflecting God’s glory and following God’s plan?

          Lewis Grant came up with the perfect term for what happens when we put temporary, selfish ambitions ahead of our love for God and others. He calls it “sunset fatigue.” When we come home at the end of a day’s work, those who need our the most, those to whom we are most committed, end up getting the leftovers. Sunset fatigue is when we are just too tired, or too drained, or too pre-occupied to love the people to whom we have made the deepest promises. And that includes God.(6)

          All of Martha’s rushing around to serve Jesus was draining her. She was developing sunset fatigue. If she didn’t stop and just enjoy Jesus’ presence, then he would end up getting the leftovers of her love and attention.

          Jesus is also saying here, “Don’t mess out on the opportunity to give love and to receive love.” After all, that is the true essence of life.

          A pastor named Stuart Sacks tells of serving a church in Paraguay. One day, a native Mala Indian man named Rafael came to visit Sacks. When Sacks asked him what he wanted, Rafael replied in his language, “I don’t want anything; I have just come near.” Rafael just wanted to sit on Sack’s porch and be near his new friend. He just wanted to enjoy his presence. (7)

          Many of us consider worship as a weekly obligation. We come to church because it’s expected, or it’s our habit, maybe we believe it will make us a better person, or help us get into Heaven. But that is not really the way to approach worship. Worship is about enjoying the presence of God. It’s about giving and receiving love. That’s the purpose of worship.

          Finally, Jesus is saying, “Don’t miss out on the joy of living in this moment.” Because God made you for joy.

          Erwin McManus in his book Seizing Your Divine Moment writes, “What if you knew somewhere in front of you was a moment that would change your life forever, a moment rich with potential, a moment filled with endless possibilities? How would you treat that moment? How would you prepare for that moment? The only moment that you must take responsibility for right now is the one in front of you… the moment you are in right now wants to be seized…”(8)

          Best-selling Christian artist David Crowder had a moment like that – an experience that changed his views on God. He was in high school, and he regularly attended church. He thought he had God all figured out. However, one particular day, he was feeling down. We wandered around his local mall and then bought a chicken sandwich and sat down to eat it. As he bit into this delicious sandwich, David suddenly realized that all good things come from God. And tears filled his eyes as he realized how grateful he was to God. This happened, not in church, not in a Sunday night youth group, but in the middle of a mall food court. He described the experience as a moment of unexpected joy. He writes, “That’s when I realized that every second is an opportunity for us to experience God. There’s not a second God is not there and available to us.”(9) All that from a chicken sandwich in the food court.

          Every second is an opportunity for us to experience God. If we’re afraid of missing out on something, this is the experience we should be afraid of missing. If we’re going to spend our lives chasing something, this what we should be chasing. God is in the moment. It’s God we don’t want to miss.

          So what are you doing in this very moment? Are you daydreaming about last night’s game or tomorrow’s work, or maybe what you’ll have at brunch after worship today? Or are you seizing this very moment to pray, to focus on God, to look for the Creator to speak to you and fill you with unexpected joy? You only get one go-around. Only thing matters, it is the best option, and it can’t be taken from you. Or to put it in New Testament language – there is need of only thing if you are suffering from the Fear of Missing Out      . Take a seat at Jesus feet, and make sure you’re not missing out on God’s presence in your life. That’s the only thing that is needed – and it can’t be taken from you.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No, 3, p13.

2.    Ibid… p14.

3.    Ibid…. p14.

4.    Ibid… p14.

5.    Ibid… p14.

6.    Ibid… p15.

7.    Ibid… p15.

8.    Ibid… p15-16.

9.    Ibid… p16.

7-14-19 When the Samaritan Stopped to Help

Thomas J Parlette

“When the Samaritan stopped to help”

Luke 10: 25-37

7/14/19

           A couple of years ago, Reader’s Digest carried an article that featured 24 stories about what the editor called “the touching kindness of strangers.” One story was titled “The Man at the Market.” It was contributed by Leslie Wagner from Peel, Arkansas.

          Ms. Wagner told of being in a supermarket one time. When she checked out, the clerk tallied up her groceries. Much to Ms. Wagner’s dismay, she discovered that her bill was $12 over what she had in her purse, and she didn’t have any credit cards with her. With embarrassment she began to remove items from the bags in her cart. To her surprise, another shopper saw her predicament and handed her a $20 bill. Ms Wagner said, “thank you for the gesture, but I just couldn’t. Please, don’t put yourself out.”

          And the mystery shopper said, “Let me tell you a story. My mother is in the hospital with cancer. I visit her every day and bring her flowers. I went this morning, and she got mad at me for spending my money on more flowers. She demanded that I do something else with that money. So, here, please accept this. It’s my mother’s flowers.” Gratefully she accepted the gift.(1)

          A very thoughtful act. We are always touched when we see a person do something kind for someone else. It gives both the giver and the recipient a good feeling. In fact, it’s a wonder more of us don’t perform acts of kindness for one another more often just so we can feel that sense of satisfaction.

          Today we hear once again the well- known story about the Samaritan who stopped to help. It’s certainly familiar to us all. A man going from Jerusalem down the Jericho gets jumped by some thieves who rob him, strip him, beat him and leave him for dead.

          Unfortunately, this was something that was common on this particular road. Bible scholar William Barclay notes that the road was notoriously dangerous for travelers – especially if you were by yourself. Jerusalem is set on a hill which is about 2300 feet above sea level. The Dead Sea, which is near Jericho, is 1300 feet below sea level. This makes Jericho one of the lowest cities on earth. This road between Jerusalem and Jericho descended some 3600 feet in little more than 20 miles. It was a road filled with sharp turns and narrow passageways, which provided several excellent lurking places for thieves and bandits.(2)

          Fortunately, the road was pretty well travelled, especially by people travelling in groups. So this poor man was in luck when a priest happened by the scene. But, the priest caught a glimpse of the broken and bleeding body lying there by the side of the road, and quickly passed by on the other side. This seems very harsh, but let’s assume that he thought the man was already dead. As a priest, he was forbidden by liturgical law from touching a dead body, or anything else “unclean” – so he just kept going.

          Likewise, a Levite came by and he too passed by on the other side of the road. Levites were also forbidden to touch dead bodies, just like the priests.

          But there was a Samaritan who came by next, who saw the man and had compassion on him. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, and put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day, he needed to be on his way, but this Samaritan paid the Innkeeper to take care of the man, and said “I will return and pay you whatever else you spend.”

          The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous stories in all of literature. Jesus told this story in response to a question from a lawyer, who asked, “And who is my neighbor?” That is a question that still haunts us today.

          Who is our neighbor? Are immigrants, legal or illegal or neighbors? How about asylum seekers – are they our neighbors? What about people in the opposing political party – are they our neighbors? The question is still asked.

          Luke tells us that the lawyer asking this question did so “wanting to justify himself.” That’s still the case today when we ask “Who is my neighbor?” We are still seeking to justify ourselves and our opinions.

          As followers of Jesus, I hope we know that the answer to that question is, “Anybody who needs our help is our neighbor.” But that’s a lot of people!

          Jeremy Taylor, a 17th century bishop, used to counsel aspiring ministers to “Speak kindly to everyone you meet, for everyone has a problem.”(3) Everyone does have a problem of some kind, a challenge they are facing, a nagging bit of anxiety or grief or sorrow that stubbornly holds onto your soul. So I guess that makes everyone our neighbor.

          I doubt that there is anyone here this morning who doesn’t feel at least a twinge of guilt when you hear this story. We can’t help but think of that hitch-hiker we left standing by the side of the road, or that guy with the cardboard sign standing at the intersection by silver lake or the entrance to the Target north shopping center – asking for donations. We know the dangers of stopping, but it still bothers us to drive by.

          We may pray quietly to ourselves, “Lord, what is my responsibility to these people. There is so much need. How far do you mean for me to go?”

          While you ponder that question, let’s acknowledge that in our society today people are less and less likely to play the role of the Good Samaritan.

          I once saw a picture that was printed on the front page of a newspaper that was very sad. A man who was a Vietnam Veteran, and been a paramedic in the service, was leaning on the door of a car that was stalled beside a busy expressway in some northeast region of the country, weeping.

          On the way to work that morning a woman who had been driving that car had a heart attack and had fallen outside the car , and this man had stopped to help. Being a paramedic, he gave her emergency treatment and for some 20-30 minutes, he was able to keep her alive. But after half an hour, she died in spite of the treatment he was able to give.

          But the reason he was crying by the side of the road was this. As he was giving aid, he kept trying to flag someone down to call 911 for an ambulance – but no one stopped to help. “No one seemed to care,” he said.

          It’s a revealing story about the kind of society we are becoming. Obviously we have our reasons when we don’t stop to help, just as the priest and the Levite had their reasons. Still this story makes us all a little uncomfortable.

          There are two levels at which we may respond to the story of the Samaritan who stopped to help. The first is at the level of simple civility or common courtesy.

          I once read that just as Hawaiians have no word for “weather” because the climate is so good, Eskimos have no word for “thank you” because in a world that is so stark, helping one’s neighbor is seen as a duty.(4)

          You would think that being civil to one another would be the least we could do. Every major religion or philosophy agrees on that. You most certainly do not have to be a Christian to extend common courtesy or simple kindness to a stranger in need.

          Dr. Daniel Lioy tells about a professional football player named John Frank who spent 5 years with the San Francisco 49ers several years ago. Frank had played in 2 Super Bowl games. He was 27 years old and in his prime as an athlete when something happened that caused him to reassess his priorities.

          In one particular game, an opposing player took a big hit and suffered a serious injury. John Frank rushed to his side. At one time Frank had dreamed of becoming a doctor before setting out on the road to pro football. In the off season, he tried to take some classes to prepare himself for a medical career after football. Still, he had a physicians heart. And so it was only natural when he saw this player go down, he would to try to help him. The result was that Frank got chewed out by one of his coaches for “giving aid and compassion to the enemy.”

          Suddenly life as an NFL player was not quite as important for Frank. At that moment he decided to hang up his cleats and go full time to medical school instead of playing football. And today John Frank is a practicing physician. “Walking away from pro football seemed silly to everyone, but I’m happier now in serving the hurting. I have no regrets about giving up football.”(5)

          We admire a man like John Frank, but it’s important for us to recognize that the kindness of the Good Samaritan is being shown every day all over the world. Courtesy, compassion and Kindness are the least of what ought to be expected of a human being.

          However, the teachings of Jesus instruct us to go beyond what the ordinary person is apt to do. We need to know that there are people who do go that extra mile, who go above and beyond simple civility and common courtesy.

          In her book Profiles in Character, former Congresswoman Barbra Cubin of Wyoming tells how her character was shaped by the moral influence of her parents Barbra’s parents divorced when she was young. A few years later, her mother remarried. Her new stepfather worked hard to support the family. One particular story demonstrates the kind of person he was.

          Barbra’s birth father, while on a visit to Wyoming, was beaten and robbed. Evidently he was not in good condition and he was alone. At the hospital, a paramedic searched her birth father’s clothes, found his ex-wife’s phone number in one of his pockets and called the house. Barbra’s stepfather answered the phone. When he learned what had happened, he stepfather dropped everything and rushed to hospital to take care of the hospital bill. Then he took her birth father to a local motel and paid for his room and meals until he had recovered enough to go home.(6)

          This above and beyond kind of compassion made a deep impression on Ms. Cubin.

          There are many Good Samaritans of every race and culture all over the world. Those who follow Jesus, however, are expected to do even more. We are expected to give love and compassion to those whom other people pass by.

          Archibald Rutledge once told about visiting a church service where the singing was contagious, the prayers were splendid, and the minister was most impressive. As the congregation was leaving following the benediction, however, there was a woman unkempt and weeping, sitting by the church fence.

          Only one of the worshippers paid any attention to her, said Rutledge. One of the ladies went over and knelt down beside the desperate woman and sought to dry her tears and comfort her. Rutledge concluded that only one person in that entire congregation really knew how to worship God. It was the one who stopped to help.(7)

          An unknown author painted this revealing picture: On a street I saw a small girl, cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal.

          I became angry and said to God, “Why did you permit this to happen? Why don’t you do something about it?”

          For awhile, God said nothing. That night God replied in a dream, “I did do something about it… I made YOU.”

          That is the call of this story about the Samaritan who stopped to help. We are God’s instruments for helping those in need. May God give us the strength to live up to that calling, that we may go and do likewise.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXV, No. 3, p8.

2.    Ibid… p8.

3.    Ibid… p9.

4.    Ibid… p10.

5.    Ibid… p10.

6.    Ibid… p10-11.

7.    Ibid… p12.

7-7-19 The Warrior Within

Rev. Jay Rowland

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN 

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14,  Galatians 6:1-18

 

Compared with, say, Moses or David or Esther, Naaman is a lesser-known character in the Bible so I thought it might be good to unpack this passage from 2nd Kings. There’s a great deal going on there. 

Naaman is Commander of the military forces of Aram--modern day Syria. So the first thing to know about him is he’s not an Israelite--not one of the Chosen People.  He is a decorated warrior and commander. His success on the battlefield has earned him fame, fortune and the loyalty of his king.  

And this is why Naaman's story is worth some reflection. Most cultures, certainly our own, are deeply invested in what I call the warrior myth.  Naaman fits the warrior archetype: he leads men into battle and returns victorious. He has conquered every foe, perhaps even death on the battlefield. We don’t know anything about Naaman’s life prior to his appearance in 2 Kings 5. But it seems clear that his valor on the battlefield has elevated Naaman to nearly god-like status.  

In spite of all that, Naaman has a serious problem which is identified almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 1: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy."  

The term “leprosy” usually comes footnoted in the Old Testament to explain that the Hebrew word can refer to a variety of different skin afflictions--including the worst one of all, actual leprosy. We don’t know which one afflicts Naaman. All we know is that this mighty warrior and commander is suffering, not from combat wounds or even what we now call post-traumatic stress, but from leprosy.  [see Endnote]

On the battlefield, Naaman is a conqueror. He has successfully navigated combat with all its carnage, chaos and brutality.  He commands and leads men in battle. Many to their death. He has authority, actual power over others.  But none of that is of any use against leprosy.  

The influence of the warrior archetype upon culture can be seen whenever it’s presumed that fighting is the only response to anything we cannot bear, such as illness or any threat to our existence. For example, when someone is “fighting cancer” or “fighting for their life” (or “lost their fight with” some illness). On a larger scale, we have waged wars against communism, poverty, drugs, and lately against terrorism, none of which has yielded.  

Whenever “we” declare that by sheer force of willpower, we can defeat any problem that’s a clear example of the warrior myth at work.

It has been a very destructive myth, at least in my lifetime. We have invested trillions of dollars in the warrior myth since WW2, most recently in VietNam, then again in Iraq & Afghanistan post 9/11.  We have no clue what to do with our warriors off the battlefield. We’ll root for them wherever they’re deployed but after they return, do little/nothing to equip them for the transition back to “normal” civilian life. For every warrior who successfully adapts from battlefield to home-field, multitudes do not. Yet the warrior myth persists. 

Jesus is the antidote, the antithesis, to the warrior myth. The outcome he seeks is connection never conquest. Jesus lives (and died) to connect us to God, to each other, to creation. The mightiest forces of this world conspired to oppose him, discredit & shame him, then kill him. Even so, Jesus opposes these mortal enemies not with force in return, but rather with spiritual resolve to keep both his humanity and his divinity intact--come what may. Jesus refuses to use force to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, thereby draining the warrior myth of its lifeblood. Jesus understood that using “any means necessary” to accomplish any positive outcome will ultimately corrupt the outcome.  

I would venture to guess that Jesus knew the story of Naaman quite well. In particular, the fact that even though Naaman doesn’t “know” or even worship God, God knows Naaman and cares about him.  

The sound of Naaman’s reputation precedes him as he and his entourage invade Elisha’s quiet, hobbit-like neighborhood. No need to ring Eilsha’s doorbell the whole town knew who was coming. When the procession halts at the entrance of Elisha’s house, you can almost hear the thunderous horsepower grind to a halt. 

Elisha responds to Naaman’s show of power by sending a messenger out to meet him.  

A messenger! 

The Great and Mighty Naaman is insulted.  Warrior Naaman had assumptions about how this was going to go,  “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! …” (2 Kings 5:11)

Nope.  Elisha sends a messenger (I would not want to be that messenger!). This messenger bravely gives an order from Elisha to Mighty Warrior and Commander Naaman:

“Go wash in the Jordan seven times.” 

Naaman is enraged. He fumes: “Are not the Ab’ uh-nuh and the Phar-par, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters here in Israel?  Could I not wash in THEM and be clean?” Naaman storms off in a rage. (2 Kings 5:12)

I believe that’s what’s known as “righteous indignation”. Notice: where does Naaman’s righteous indignation get him? Disconnected. And alone.  

Most of us find it hard – if not impossible—sometimes even unacceptable – to give up control especially when our future is on the line.  Like Naaman, we have expectations about how life is supposed to go.  Even when life goes wrong, even then we likely have expectations about how that’s supposed to be resolved. Like Naaman we become righteously indignant when our expectations are not met. We invest a great deal of energy into controlling things beyond our control, which often disconnects us from the God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life from death.  

In a crisis, perhaps our greatest barrier to resolution is our expectations. Too often, like Naaman, our expectations wall us off from support.  In a crisis, expectations can quickly disrupt our connection with God and God’s community at a time when we need more of both.

When we’re preoccupied with who we think we’re supposed to be or how we expect things are supposed to go, we leave no room for Who God Is. It’s so easy to get stuck living out some image we have of ourselves, which we may have forged from long, lonely hours of fighting some enemy all alone, all by ourselves, in the darkness. And where does that battle get us but more and more isolated, lost, and disconnected from the God in whose image we are created. 

Even so, God’s love comes through.  

See how God’s love prevails, how it comes to Naaman first through a Hebrew servant girl (2Kings5:3)!, then, after he rejects the gift handed to him in the prophet Elisha, through the wisdom of his own servants who, at the risk of offending him and drawing his wrath, boldly say (paraphrasing here), if that prophet ordered you to do something really difficult, you’d do it: if the prophet had said ‘go and fight a hopeless battle, go and lay your life on the line, the odds are against you but just go and do it now and trust that your leprosy shall be gone’ you would do it without hesitation.  We know you would … we KNOW YOU. Yet all that was asked of you was, ‘go and wash in the Jordan ’…”  

Next thing you know, there’s Naaman in the Jordan river after all. And lo, his leprosy is somehow washed away and with it perhaps some of that warrior image he’s clung to for most of his life.  

How could this be? Naaman must have thought, the prophet isn’t even here.  

That’s right. The prophet isn’t. But God is. No magic. No drama. Just the mysterious, unpredictable love and presence of God, surrounding him there in the waters of the Jordan River of all rivers.  The river he cursed in his righteous indignation. And there, Naaman of all people, Naaman, warrior and demigod experiences the steadfast love of God.  

There are times when we must wade into the Jordan, perhaps cursing it all the way, as we leave one reality for another. Whether it’s graduation, job loss, end of a relationship, divorce, diagnosis, or the birth of a child, death of someone we love, whatever it may be. Amid so much uncertainty while it’s happening we feel like we're unraveling. That's usually because we are ... but fear not: God can work with that.  

Our faith in Jesus Christ is all about wading into the swift, dark currents of the Rivers Jordan. And, one day, crossing over Jordan. Our faith promises that resurrection is on the other side … of the cross; that the end of one reality is also the beginning of another. We who are the people of the cross find it hard bear, this oft-repeated and inferred phrase and pathway is difficult to see let alone accept. Throughout our life, we will face situations requiring us to transition, to wade into the Jordan. And ultimately we will wade into that river to cross over.  Perhaps over time we can and shall learn to embrace these moments, trusting Jesus Christ, the timeless Alpha and Omega, our Beginning and our Ending, wading with us every step of the way into every River. So it is and ever shall be with Jesus Christ as he comes to heal the warrior within us all.  May this be so.

End note:

[1] There are many ways and various strains of “leprosy” most all of which seem able to bring “suffering”. I offer the following citation as evidence of the complexity of skin disorders in general and the complex range of leprosy in particular even in our modern era with so many medical advances and advantages (emphases mine in bold),

… the worst form of leprosy creates extensive involvement of the skin and nerves. The complications that may occur include eye involvement and deformities of the face, hands, and feet. Deformities of the face can result from destruction of the partition in the nose that divides the nostrils (nasal septum) and other facial tissues. In advanced disease, persons with lepromatous leprosy may lose their eyebrows and eyelashes, and the eyelids may become paralyzed so that individuals cannot blink or close their eyes properly. The earlobes may enlarge or become wrinkled. Deformities of the hands and feet may result from muscle paralysis and repeated trauma that is not felt due to sensory loss. The most serious complication of leprosy is the nerve damage that may occur sometimes even after treatment is begun. Much of the nerve damage occurs during a type of immunologic problem … in 25 to 50% of patients during treatment and is … the patient’s own immune system reacting against the dead bacteria that are still in the skin and nerves. Patients with the intermediate or borderline type of disease may get a type of reaction known as reversal reaction, in which there is redness and swelling of the skin lesions and swelling, tenderness, and pain in the nerves of the hands and feet. During this process, nerve damage can occur.  … (It) may also be associated with joint disease (polyarthralgia), eye inflammation, and inflammation of the testicles.  The second type of reaction occurs only in borderline lepromatous and lepromatous disease, and is known as erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL).  There may also be pain and tenderness of the nerves with subsequent nerve damage in the hands and feet.  During reactions and at times without any signs of reaction, there may be damage to the nerves of the face resulting in weakness of closure of the eyelids and loss of feeling in the cornea (corneal anesthesia). This can result in corneal dryness and scarring and lead to blindness. Persons with lepromatous leprosy may also have inflammation of the iris and the sclera of the eye, which can lead to visual impairment and, in some cases, blindness.”  

NORD National Organization for Rare Disorders,  https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/leprosy/

6-30-19 Freedom's Ring

Freedom’s Ring 

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday June 30, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62 

 

In a few days, it will be July 4 again, time to celebrate our nation’s founding and independence and enjoy all the usual trappings: days off of work, cookouts, cabins, swimming, fishing, fireworks, ice cream, etc. Hopefully, as on Memorial Day, we’ll take a moment or two to remember the main reason we all live here: because of every person who sacrificed their own freedom, their life for this nation from the beginning to this very day.  The freedom we enjoy wasn’t free.  It was paid for in human lives, human blood, human tears. And so as we enjoy this wonderful rite of summer, I hope we’ll think about the cost people paid for this great nation.

In much the same way, our spiritual freedom, our free will, tends to fly under the radar most of the time.  Our ancestors in the faith wisely understood how costly free will can be.  Personal freedom can be a slippery slope. Just ask Adam and Eve.  Both scripture passages today explore the hidden cost of personal freedom. 

The most fascinating aspect of God’s character to me is God’s decision from the start to never manipulate or coerce our obedience.  God lets us choose whether or not to love and serve God. 

            An example jumps up in the scene from Luke's gospel today.  When the Samaritans do not welcome Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, James & John ask Jesus for permission "to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them". 

Jesus rebukes them. Forced obedience is not obedience.

Coercion; revenge; punishment … these are distinctly human characteristics.  History tells the tale.  Meanwhile, Jesus, the perfect revelation of God-with-us embodies God’s generosity toward humankind; God’s refusal to interfere, coerce or punish us whenever we reject God.  Which gets me thinking…. If God were merely a human projection as some have said, then Jesus’ never would have been crucified -  he would have defeated any opposition.  That is, after all, human history in a nutshell: self-preservation at any cost.  

Later in Luke’s gospel (Luke 13:1-5), there’s a moment when people are talking about two incidents that happened in the community.  One was an incident of government violence against some sect.  The other was the sudden collapse of a building which tragically killed many people.  The consensus and the talk is that the people did something to annoy or anger God. Going against conventional wisdom at the time, Jesus says to them, “do you think this happened to those people because they were worse sinners than any others? No, I tell you…”

Retribution and punishment are distinctively human traits. There are consequences for every choice we make and every action we take.  So much unnecessary hardship can be traced to human choice or action--not all of it, mind you, but plenty.  These consequences tend to show up in ways that some consider to be divine punishment or retribution when, again, it’s our choices or decisions which unleash harm upon self and neighbor.

We all reject God and "do our own thing" from time to time.  Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s unintentional perhaps.  Somewhere along the line and repeatedly so, our decisions & actions contradict our professed love and allegiance to God. If God were in the punishment or retribution business, none of us would be here. 

The phenomenon of our nation’s formation and growth has over time cost countless people a great deal, including ultimately their life.  Much of it was voluntary, but much of it was not. The emergence and prosperity of our nation is neither pure nor unstained by corruption. Slavery and racism are two noteworthy blemishes upon our foundation of freedom.  Our nation’s history is … complicated.  In the same way our God-ordained and God-protected free will is also … complicated.   Or maybe it’s simple but we complicate it.

That is the spiritual dilemma addressed in both scripture passages today.  The freedom we assume, the so-called freedom to do what we please, to have whatever we want, the freedom to follow our impulses and instincts, which God intends for good, has a dark side--its capacity to enslave and imprison us.  This is what Paul means when he explains that our “sinful self-interest is at odds with the free spirit God gives to us, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.” Paul notes that we cannot live both ways at once. And so the biggest daily obstacle to a vibrant life with God is our human impulse to gratify self first.  Paul describes the various outcomes of in the flesh rather than the spirit (from The Message Bible translation):

loveless, cheap sex; ... frenzied … grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; … cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; … divided homes & divided lives; small-minded -pursuits; addictions; parodies of community; (demonizing) our neighbor or creating unnecessary rivalry.

 

Those last two are wreaking havoc in our nation right now.  People are being demonized and portrayed as rivals rather than as human beings.  Our borders have become the scene of the worst outcomes that come whenever human beings ignore or shut down their spiritual identity.

So much of the ongoing suffering, isolation and conflict we see in the world can be traced to freely-made choices driven by our “desires of the flesh”. Though Paul says living in the flesh keeps us from entering God’s kingdom, he’s not saying that God bars our entry as punishment.  I understand Paul to say that as a consequence of our own free choices/actions, we place ourselves on a detour away from the Kingdom of God.  But it’s not final.  God’s invitation is never withdrawn and never expires. 

Meanwhile, the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) bring about NO suffering nor isolation nor conflict.  Thus, Paul comments, there’s no law against actions bearing the fruits of the SpiritOne commentary puts it cleverly: “For Paul it was never a matter of “Become what you are-not by behaving better” it was always a matter of “Be who in baptism you already are.” It was never “Behave or else God will not save you,” it was always, “God already saved you so act like it.” There is a tight linkage between the grace that saves and living a gracious life as a result of God’s generous grace.[1]

God’s grace truly is extravagant.  By design.  Grace produces gratitude which then provokes the fruit of the Spirit which honors God while also benefitting our neighbor. The Spirit is constantly leading the way and blazing the trail. Paul encourages us to learn how to keep pace with God’s Spirit.  Knowing that God already loves us in Christ and saves us as often as needed offers us liberation from debilitating anxiety and fear. As we learn to recognize the Holy Spirit, we learn to dance along with it, drawn and nourished by the fruits of the Spirit which in turn grow with us on the “branches” of our lives.

This is important. Clearly we’re living in a moment in history when political forces are exuding anger, entitlement, and strong-arm tactics to get their way.  Meanwhile, I see people longing for self-control, patience and joy to set the tone in politics and our communities which are more diverse than ever before.  

We all know people who are already good examples of life in the spirit. People in this very room today, people in this congregation, as well throughout our community in all its wondrous diversity.  Their stories, their testimonies, their life in the spirit has the power to move us in the same spiritual direction.  The forces of division are destructive and demoralizing. It’s always been that way.  But we’re called to a better way.  As we open ourselves to God’s spirit leading us and challenging us to come together, we can do so much more good than the ill being wrought by the forces of division.

God forever and faithfully offers us an alternative—a way of life that in turn affirms and upholds life and whole-ness, health and dignity, peace and meaning—even in the midst of death and illness, worldly dissonance and chaos and frenzy—an alternative to the constant barrage of “choices” to put everything else before God.   God is forever diligent, forever willing and forever able to assist us in the difficult work of overcoming “self” finding our way home and living in true freedom. God has planted in our spirits a restlessness that lasts until we rest in the One who is our true home, and our true FREEDOM.  And so, as we approach another July 4 Day of (National) Independence, God’s freedom rings in our hearts and our spirits unleashing the fruits of the spirit to bring about a future with hope.

 


[1] Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Calvin Theological Seminary https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/  

6-23-19 Being the Body of Christ

Thomas J Parlette

“Being the Body of Christ”

Galatians 3: 23-29

6/23/19

 

          Author King Duncan loves the tell the true story of something that happened to his grandfather, the Reverend G.F Cox, who was lay pastor in the Methodist Church in the circuit riding days of the church. To appreciate this story you have to understand that East Tennessee, where his grandfather preached, is Baptist country. Even the dogs and cats are Baptists. In the early days people would join the Methodist church, but the Baptists had told them that a person could not go to heaven unless they had been baptized “all over”, meaning by immersion. A little bit of Methodist, or for that matter Presbyterian sprinkling would not open the Pearly gates.

          One day, rather tall lady came to Rev. Cox wanting to join the Methodist church, but first she wanted to be baptized by immersion, “just in case the Baptists are right,” she said. Rev. Cox said that would be fine. So they scheduled a time for the church to gather down by the river for what must have been a most beautiful and meaningful occasion. What happened on this occasion, however, was a little unexpected and just a bit ridiculous.

          The river was quite shallow that summer, and as already noted, the lady was rather tall. To complicate matters, she also wore her hair in a top knot, a once fashionable hairdo in which the hair appeared to spiral upward on a lady’s head for another 8-10 inches – just think of Marge Simpson and you’ll get the gist. So this lady must have approached 7 feet tall, top knot and all, and Rev. Cox was a man of rather modest height.

          So he labored mightily as he eased this statuesque lady with the top knot backward into a shallow river. As she made her entry into the chilly waters, she did what most of us would do – she jerked her head forward until her chin nearly rested on her chest. This, in turn, kept her topknot from going under the water.

          Triumphantly Rev. Cox lifted her from the water and stood her upright as the choir sang the last verse of “Shall We Gather at the River.” He had already started for the bank of the river, when she stopped him. “My hair is still dry. I’m sorry Brother Cox. You’ll have to do it again.” I guess she didn’t want to go to heaven without her topknot.

          So with a prayer for patience muttered under his breath, Rev Cox braced himself to lower her into the water again. Speculation ran through the congregation gathered on the shore as to why the baptism was being repeated. Once is usually good enough. Gently the Rev laid her back into the water. Again, as soon as she entered the chilly water, she pulled her head forward and her topknot stuck defiantly out of the water. So they had to try a third time. This time, the good reverend put his left hand on the lady forehead to make sure the topknot went under the water. Finally, it worked.

          The people on the bank had finally figured out what was happening and were in stitches. They would never forget the lady with the topknot who wanted to be baptized all over. “Interesting,” wrote Rev. Cox, some years later, “most of us are not like that lady. We do not want to be baptized that completely. Most of us want to leave something out when we are baptized – our money, our habits, our moral inclination, whatever it may be.”(1) He makes a good observation.

          That story is a reminder that there was a time when denominations in our land would literally come to blows over topics like baptism. We still have our differences, but we’ve become a little more tolerant of different beliefs and customs. But conflict still comes up. It certainly did in the church in Galatia. For them, the topic being disputed wasn’t baptism, but rather circumcision.

          So here was the issue for the church in Galatia – many of the early Christians who had originally been Jews believed that all believers ought to follow the path they had travelled – to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision as well as the rite of baptism. Since circumcision is not a particularly appealing ritual, especially as an adult, this was causing some tension in the church, as you might imagine.

          It broke Paul’s heart to see the Galatians divided like they were. He knew how dangerous “us vs them” thinking is to the church, and he was not going to go easy on anyone who tried to create divisions in the body of Christ.

          Keep in mind the spiritual background of these Jewish believers before they came to Christ. In the time Paul was writing there was an actual dividing wall in the Jewish temple which separated the Court of the Israelites from the Court of the Gentiles. Signs were posted in Latin and Greek warning Gentiles not to go any farther into the temple under penalty of death. Those who were advocating circumcision for adult men in Galatia were dividing the church into those whom they thought were most pleasing to God – the circumcised, Jewish followers – and those whom they thought were less pleasing to God – the un-circumcised Gentiles, the slaves, and the women. This was the mindset they had brought with them from their Jewish backgrounds. And it was taking a toll on the church.

          It’s like the old limerick”

“There once were two cats from Kilkenny

Each thought there was one cat too many.

They fought and they spit, and they clawed and they bit

Till instead of two cats… there weren’t any.”(2)

          Here Paul was striving with all his heart and soul to build up churches while the “Judaizers” as they were known, were working to tear things apart. That could not be allowed to happen. They needed to be reminded of who they were and, even more important, who they followed. They were the body of Jesus Christ whose love brings people together, not tears them apart.

 

          It’s like a story Martin Luther once told about two mountain goats who met each other on a narrow ledge. The ledge was just wide enough for one of the animals to pass. On the left was a sheer cliff; on the right was a steep wall. They were facing each other, and it was impossible for either to turn around or to back up.

          Now you might expect that they started headbutting each other to force their way through, quite possible sending both of them over the edge. But instead, one of the goats laid down on the trail and let the other one walk over him – and both goats were safe.(3) It takes humility to follow Christ, and humility means accepting each other. For the Galatians, that meant accepting the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised.

          Being the body of Christ also requires that we look after one another’s needs. In short, it means that we develop a generosity of spirit that makes it easy for us to obey the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

          Pastor Sue Owen travelled to Kenya not too long ago, and she tells of the wonderful experience she had of seeing unselfish sharing among the students at a school there.

          Her group had a bag of gummy bears they wanted to give to the children, but they didn’t know how to do so without having the children fight over them. They feared the kids would become pushy and demanding and get upset over sharing the candy. So they gave the gummies to the head teacher to distribute. Much to their surprise, the head teacher handed the bag to a nearby student to distribute.

          This little girl carefully handed out one gummy bear per child, so that everyone got one. They she went around and gave everybody a second gummy. And then a third. When it became clear that she wouldn’t make it around for a fourth round, she got some scissors and started cutting the gummies in half, so everybody got an equal share.

          There was no crying, no complaining at all. Each child gratefully received his or her allotment of gummy bears, and they all enjoyed sharing a treat together.(4) Being the body of Christ requires that we look after one another’s needs.

          And finally, being one n Christ, a part of the body of Christ, means we are to become advocates for one another, and for all God’s children.

          Author Tony Campolo tells of the time when Mother Teresa visited a town in Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. The directors of the state mental hospital wanted to build some halfway houses in this town to provide living space and mental health services to patients who were transitioning back into society. The local citizens protested that they didn’t want this halfway house in their neighborhood. The city council voted unanimously against the proposal.

          Mother Teresa happened to be visiting this town for a meeting with her order, the Sisters of Charity, and she heard about this city council meeting. She walked into this very contentious meeting, where there was a lot of arguing and finger-pointing. And she walked up to the table where the city council members were sitting. She knelt down in front of their table and she pleaded, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”

          So the council took another vote – but it was still unanimous. Except now they were unanimously in favor of the project moving ahead. The sacrificial love of Mother Teresa overcame any self-serving objections they had.(5)

          That is what Paul is saying to the church in Galatia. “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God, whether they are circumcised or not. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”

          When we focus on the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, all the self-serving, ugly walls between us fall. There is nothing half-hearted about Jesus’ love for us. Jesus died to take away our sin and restore us to oneness with God. If we are baptized and clothed in Jesus, then we are also one with every believer throughout all time and every nation, part of the body of Christ.

          Imagine how it would change the world if they saw us love another in such a radically authentic and sacrificial way. What a wonderful world it would be!

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p75.

2.    Ibid… p72.

3.    Ibid… p72.

4.    Ibid… p73.

5.    Ibid… p74

6-9-19 Life in God's Family

Thomas J Parlette

“Life in God’s Family”

Romans 8: 14-17

6/9/19

 

          In his book God, Help Us!, R.J. Chandler tells a wonderful story of a church that was celebrating Pentecost Sunday. They had the young children process down the aisle while carrying large cardboard flames to symbolize the Holy Spirit.

          However, as in most children’s programs, not everything went smoothly. One little boy became upset when he realized he had forgotten his flame. Not having a flame to carry, he ran up and down the aisle, frantically waving his arms, then stopped and announced to everyone, “I’ve lost my flame!”

          But then a little girl ran up to him, tore off a piece of her flame and handed it to him. “No you haven’t”, she said. “Take this.”

          When she saw the boy’s face light up with happiness, the little girl decided to share her flame with everybody. So she walked down the aisle handing out pieces of cardboard flame to everyone she could reach.(1)

          That little girl understood the meaning of Pentecost. She wasn’t going to keep the Holy Spirit to herself. She was going to share her flame with everybody.

          Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day the church was born. Last week, Jesus offered a final prayer before his journey to the cross. And today that prayer is answered. Jesus prayed that God would make his followers one with him and give them a share of the Holy Spirit, as he had a share of the Holy Spirit. In these events of Pentecost, God sends the Holy Spirit on the gathered believers, and the church is born – empowered to speak of God’s Kingdom.

          On the heels of that story of wind and flame, we turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, in which he speaks to us about what it means for us to receive this Spirit.

          Paul is well known for his theological arguments, and his letter to the Romans is hardly considered light, bedtime reading. It is a dense and heavy theological opus. Yet, here, Paul speaks clearly about life in God’s family, something that we all wish for. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning that we are children of God when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.

          So what does that mean – to live in God’s family. Paul says in Romans 12 that we should “let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

          That’s life in God’s family. Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality. God is like a father or mother who has adopted us – chosen us – to be their child. This means at least three key things:

          We are chosen.

          We can talk to God.

          We are heirs.

          Let’s look at each of those quickly. When we live in God’s family, we are chosen. According to the Roman legal concept of adoption, an adopted child has a whole new identity, status and set of relationships. Such a child is chosen to become part of a new family. “Because the Spirit makes us God’s adopted children,” writes professor of biblical studies Richard Carlson, “we are empowered to address God in intimate and direct parental terms – Abba – Father.(2)

          To live in God’s family means we can talk to God. And it is because of this close kinship that we can approach God with any concern, and do so at any time- just as a child can do with a loving parent. When we come to God in this manner, “it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” as Paul says. The Spirit of God makes it possible for us to experience a new identity, a new status and a new set of relationships as members of God’s family.

          In this family, God shows us unconditional love and unlimited grace. Our value comes from who we are, not from what we do. There is truly nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less. In this family, the Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God.”

          In addition, life in the family of God means that we become heirs – “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” When people speak of adoption today, attention is generally focused on the desire of would-be parents to create a family unit, or the need for children to grow up in a stable and loving home.

          In ancient Rome, however, and particularly among higher-class families, adoption was a way for a family with no surviving sons to choose and designate an heir, a person who would become the head of the household, after the death of the current head. Frequently such a person would not be an infant, but possibly a grown man at the time of his adoption. Adoption was not a secret, confidential matter, there was no shame or pity attached, and the adopted person might retain a connection to his birth family. The Emperor Augustus, a figure of very recent history to Paul’s readers, was a famous adoptee, born and raised outside Rome and then adopted by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.

          The legal process of adoption then, was less about establishing a family than it was about establishing an heir. Being adopted meant you had something to gain. People of humble circumstances would not have practiced adoption in this legal sense, even if they took the children of others into their homes and raised them as their own. They might, however, spin fantasies about someday being adopted by a family of means- sort of like how we might dream about winning the lottery. Being adopted by God meant being a member of the most important family of all.(3)

          Now that we have received the Holy Spirit, we are part of God’s family, and life in God’s family means we are chosen, we can talk to God and we are heirs.

          In her poem “Statement of Faith”, Ann Weems reminds us of the many ways in which the Holy Spirit works.

          “We believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in you and in me.

          We believe the Holy Spirit has freed us to worship as a community.

          We believe the Holy Spirit works through

          Balloons and ministers

          Daisies and wiggly children

          Clanging cymbals and silence

          Drama and the unexpected

          Choirs and banners

          Touching and praying

          Spontaneity and planning

          Faith and doubt

          Tears and laughter

          Leading and supporting

          Hugging and kneeling

          Dancing and stillness

          Applauding and giving

          Creativity and plodding

          Words and listening

          Holding and letting go

Thank you and help me

Scripture and alleluias

Agonizing and celebrating

Accepting and caring

Through you and through me

Through love.

We believe God’s Holy Spirit lives in this community of dancing, hand-holding people where lines of age and politics and lifestyles are crossed.

We believe in praising God for life.

We believe in responding to God’s grace and love and justice for all people.

We believe in the poetry within each of us.

We believe in dreams and visions.

We believe in old people running and children leading.

We believe in the Kingdom of God within us.

We believe in Love.(4)

Henri Nouwen reminds us that we must not only cease to listen to what the world says about us, but to listen more intently to what God says about us. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.

 

When we listen to the Holy Spirit, we are assured of our identity as God’s child and as a joint heir with Jesus Christ that everything Jesus has in heaven today will be ours as well.

Such is life in God’s family.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg61.

2.    Homileticsonline, retrieved 5/22/19.

3.    Sandra Hack Polaski, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, pg336.

4.    Ann Weems, Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, pg17.

6-2-19 The Final Prayer

Thomas J Parlette

“The Final Prayer”

John 17: 20-26

6/2/19

 

          In May 2001, journalist Giles Brandeth interviewed South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As you know, Desmond Tutu dedicated his life to bringing justice, peace and equality to the people of South Africa. There were a million questions Brandeth wanted to ask Tutu. But the Archbishop had been diagnosed recently with prostate concer, and Brandeth realized that this interview might be the last one Desmond Tutu would ever give. So he asked the Archbishop to choose the topic of conversation.

          What would Tutu choose to talk about? Giles Brandeth wondered. Tutu had played a leading role in transforming his country’s politics. He had worked with the most powerful leaders around the world. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

          Those topics weren’t Desmond Tutu’s priority, however. He said, “If this is going to be my last interview, I am glad we’re not going to talk about politics. Let’s talk about prayer and adoration, about faith, hope and forgiveness.” This great world leader wanted his final message to be about his faith in God.(1)

          If you knew that the prayers you offered today would be your last, what would you pray for? I imagine you would focus on your truest priorities and most heartfelt desires. That’s what Jesus did. Our passage for today is part of Jesus’ final prayer before his arrest and crucifixion.

          He had just spent three years in intense ministry with his disciples. Thousands of people had heard his message and seen his miracles. By his coming death, he would save humanity from the power of sin and open the door of eternal life. What else could there be on Jesus’ to-do list?

          What Jesus prayer for was – Us. “My prayer is not for them alone – meaning his disciples. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message…” First, Jesus prays for his disciples, the ones who have been physically with him during his ministry. Then he prays for all those people down the line who will come to believe because of what the disciples will do in sharing the Gospel. That’s us! Jesus’ final prayer was for his disciples and for us. Why would Jesus pray for us?

          One reason is that there is more work to be done to satisfy Jesus’ agenda. And you and I are an integral part of that undertaking.

          Bill Crowder tells of his best friend from Bible College, Macauley Rivera. Macauley had two great dreams in life – marry his college sweetheart, Sharon, and start a church in his old neighborhood in inner-city Washington DC. Everyone who knew Macauley knew of his passion to spread the Gospel in the inner city.

          Sadly, just before graduation, Macauley and Sharon were killed in an automobile accident.

          At the memorial service, the pastor proclaimed, “Mac is gone.”

          Then, quite dramatically, he asked, “Who will serve in his place?”

          And over 200 students stood up to commit themselves to spreading God’s word in Mac’s old neighborhood!(2)

          Football coaches have a saying, I think it exists in the military as well – “Next man up” It means if one person goes down, someone else is to step up and take their place. In football, it means that every player should be ready and willing to step up and get the job done even if one of the star players get hurt. Next man up. No matter what, the work goes on. Christ’s work, the bringing of the Kingdom of God to earth depends in part on our readiness to do our part. That is true of being a part of any team.

          Jesus shared the love and message of God with thousands of people while he walked this earth. But he left plenty of work for us to do. Today we see that Jesus prays for our success in continuing that work.

          And in addition, God will give us what we need to get the job done. We have been entrusted to carry on the work of the Messiah. And God will give us what we need to be successful in that work.

          There was once a young man named Pat Dirken who loved to surf. However, one day when he was on the water, he was a hit by a particularly large wave. He was tossed around, and injured his spine, which left him a quadriplegic.

          Pat spent months in physical therapy, and traded in his surfboard for a wheelchair. Pat never lost his faith in God, but after the accident he had trouble understanding why God would allow him to endure the loss of his arms and legs. And then Pat’s church joined a ministry of the Wounded Warrior Project. This wonderful ministry provides lunch and a listening ear to the injured service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

          Pat discovered that his disability allowed him to earn the trust of the injured soldiers. They saw that he understood their suffering and their scars, and they listened to him when he told them about how God had given him strength. Pat now see this ministry as a place where God has put him. He says, “It’s a God thing. I feel called.”(3)

          What is it you feel called to because of your faith in Jesus Christ? Maybe you think to yourself, I don’t know any calling I am qualified for. But God does not call the qualified – God qualifies the called. God assures us, “I will give you what you need to do what I call you to do.” In Jesus’ final prayer, he says in effect to God, “If the believers just stay in relationship with me like I stay in relationship with You, You will enable them to do my work.” We don’t need to rely on our own talents, strength or intellect to do God’s will. It is God’s power working in us that allows us to have an impact on the world.

          It reminds me of something Bob Goff once said. Goff is the founder of “Love Does,” an international humanitarian organization. He says, “God asks what it is that capture our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world.” And then God leans in and whispers, “Let’s go do that together.”(4)

          God wants us to do God’s work with joy. God knows that we yearn for a greater purpose and calling than just taking care of our own needs. We were created for noble and heroic work, work that has an eternal impact. And God is ready to equip us for that work. God leans in and says, “Let’s go do that together.”

          One more thing about Jesus’ final prayer – this prayer is a reminder that we are supposed to work together to complete the mission to which we are called. This last prayer of Christ is often called the Unity Prayer. Jesus knew that a unified effort multiplies our individual efforts far beyond what we could accomplish on our own.

          In the last decade, Google has spent millions of dollars on something called Project Aristotle – a project aimed to create the perfect team. What mix of personal character traits or habits would lead to the most productive, most unified team?

          Project Aristotle involved measuring nearly every aspect of Google employee’s lives. The company’s executives interviewed hundreds of employees over several years, and analyzed all sorts of data on the productivity and innovation of almost every team in the company.

          What they found was that the best teams have members who are sensitive to one another’s needs and who listen to each other. That was the result of these years of work. Education, skill sets, charisma – none of those matter most in creating successful teams. What matters most, according to this Google task force, is creating an atmosphere of “psychological safety” where members are respected and listened to and able to contribute their best work.(5)

          Jesus had the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, multiply food to feed thousands. He had the power to come back from the dead. After his resurrection, he was going to grant all these powers and authority to his followers. And yet, the greatest power Jesus desired for his followers was unity. Why? Because our unity is proof to the world that Jesus is who he says he is.

          Unity is an interesting idea when we see the division all around us today.

          Listen to what Jesus says in this passage: “I have given them the glory you gave me – the glorious unity of being one, as we are – I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one – so that the world will know you sent me and will understand that you love them as much as you love me.” Nothing is as important as our unity in Christ. Our unity  will prove to the whole world that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God loves us.

          Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922, while working on his last opera, Turandot, Puccini contracted cancer. He told his students, “If I don’t live to finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.”

          Shortly afterwards, Puccini died. His students studied his opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926, Arturo Toscanini, a student of Puccini, directed the world premiere of Turandot in Milan. When Toscanini reached the part of the opera where Puccini had to stop, he laid down the baton and said to the silent auditorium, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.”

          Then he picked up the baton and smiled and said, “But his disciples finished his work.” When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.(6)

          There is more work to do to spread the message of Jesus around the world. “Thus far the Master wrote, but he has ascended… his disciples finished his work.” We, his followers, are an integral part of Christ’s plan to spread the word about the love of God, just as the first disciples were. Our unity multiples our efforts far beyond what we could accomplish on our own.

          What is God calling each of us to do for the sake of spreading the Gospel message?

 How can we join together with other believers around the world to accomplish it?

          That is the task that awaits the 21st century church.

 So let’s go do that together.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p.56.

2.    Ibid… p.56-57.

3.    Ibid… p.57-58.

4.    Ibid… p.58.

5.    Ibid… p.58

6.    Ibid… p59.