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.

 

 

5-26-19 A Tale of Two Cities

Thomas J Parlette

“A Tale of Two Cities”

Rev. 21: 10, 21:22 – 22:5

5/26/19

 

          An interesting trend we’re seeing as Rochester grows is that more and more people are interested in living downtown, or at least close to downtown. And it’s not just Rochester. City loving is making a comeback. A recent report from the United Nations noted that more and more people are moving from rural areas and subdivisions into urban areas and big cities.

          That’s a little surprising considering the bad reputation that cities have had over the years. Comedian Anita Weiss says, “I moved to New York City for my health. I’m paranoid, and it was the only place where all my fears were justified.”

          Or, as Lewis Black says about traffic in Boston, “The last person to get across that town in three hours was yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

          Many people would agree with Jason Love’s opinion of Las Vegas – “All the amenities of modern society in a habitat unfit to grow a tomato.”

          Or, this from comedian Richard Jeni – “This is how Chicago got started. A bunch of people from New York said, “Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough.”(1)

          “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…” Many of you recognize the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ famous A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities that were the focal point of Dickens’ novel were Paris and London during the days of the French Revolution. This morning we will center our attention on a different pair of cities. The City of Humanity and the City of God.

          The Hebrew Bible reveals a certain prejudice against cities. You will remember in Genesis chapter 4 after he slays his brother Abel, Cain is driven forth out of the presence of the Lord, and the first thing he does is build a city. Then again, after the days of the great flood, the people gather to build a city, and in the middle of that city they build a great tower – the Tower of Babel. You remember the result. God destroys the tower and scatters the people out of the city.

          Think of the negative connotations around such Old Testament cities as Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh and Babylon. There is a certain sinfulness, a certain grimness, a detachment from God that is associated with cities. “Hell,” wrote the poet Shelley, “is a city much like London – a populous and smoky city.”

          Such prejudice against cities is still around today. There is an old story about the lady in New York City who died willing all her money to God. A probate judge broke the will with the declaration that “after due search it has been determined that God cannot be located in New York City.”(2) There’s a lot of people that might agree with that, I imagine.

          People in rural areas have always regarded city slickers with suspicion. That is interesting when you realize that the word “pagan” originally meant “country folk.” No environment today has a monopoly on problems. Some of the highest suicide rates, highest divorce rates, highest alcoholism and opioid addiction rates in the United States per capita are found in rural areas. You can run, but you can’t hide from the problems of modern day life.

          When you think about it, we all live in one big city these days, no matter how far away the neighbors are. With television, internet and social media, we are more connected than we’ve ever been. For better or worse modern technology has made us one big city – the City of Humanity.

          Which is quite different than the City of God, which John writes about in his revelation.

          In our passage for today, John describes a city coming down from heaven, a city from God that is amazingly glorious. It is an enormous city, 1500 hundred miles on every side. It has perfect symmetry and it’s large enough for all who would enter. It has a wall 216 feet high and 12 gates, just like the tribes of Israel. The city rests on 12 foundations and on those 12 foundations are carved the names of the 12 apostles. This is the New Jerusalem. Within its walls is the New Israel. Its walls are of jasper and the city itself is pure gold. Its foundations are adorned with every known jewel. There is no Temple in the center, as you may expect in the New Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb are the Temple, and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

          The City of God – the City of Humanity. There are some essential differences between these two cities, besides the obvious differences in physical appearance. The question for us is – How can we make the City of Humanity more like the City of God?

          The first difference is this: The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God draws people together. It is an interesting phenomenon that the closer we live in proximity, the more detached we become socially. Consider that ultimate symbol of the city of Humanity – the apartment. The very word itself says it all – apart-ment. Chances are we don’t know the neighbor on the other side of the wall much less on the other side of town.

          Journalist Gregory Favre claims that one of the most important, but least reported, stories of our time concerns our indifference and lack of empathy toward one another. He quotes Pope Francis, who said, “We have fallen into globalized indifference. He have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”(3)

          Globalized indifference – that is the sickness at the heart of The City of Humanity. But it’s different in the City of God. In the City of God there is an unparalleled unity among people, all peoples. There are no racial distinctions, no class distinctions, no ethnic distinctions, no economic distinctions, even no religious or denominational distinctions.

          It is important to note that the City of God is called the New Jerusalem and that it houses the New Israel. It is no accident that the city has 12 gates – one for each of the tribes of Israel. John in his great vision sees that Christianity is the continuation and the culmination of a work God began with Abraham and Moses and David.

          The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God brings people together. This is because of a second truth – the City of Humanity is governed by law, the City of God is governed by love. We have laws to keep people from taking unfair advantage of others.

          The FBI used to publish a Crime Clock, a set of statistics on how many serious crimes occurred per second in the United States. The last crime clock they published in 2016 pointed out that a violent crime occurs every 25 seconds. There was a murder every 30 seconds, a robbery every 2 seconds, a motor vehicle theft every 41 seconds and an aggravated assault every 39 seconds.

          Now, I’m not one who believes our society is disintegrating. If you are a student of history, you know that our time is no better or no worse than others. The point is this: Anyone who expects humanity to save itself – whether through technology or education or the social sciences or whatever, is blind to reality. We cannot save ourselves, for we live by the law of self-preservation, and by our very nature, we will manipulate and take advantage of one another. That is why we live by law- to restrain the worst that is in us; but the law cannot save us, as Paul so eloquently pointed out. Only one thing can save us, and that is God.

          The City of Humanity drives people apart – the City of God draws people together. The City of Humanity is based on law – the City of God is a kingdom of love. One more thing we can say about these two cities. The City of Humanity is based on personal striving – the City of God is a gift from on high.

          There beats within the heart of every human being the desire for recognition and appreciation, for power and position, for material wealth and worldly acclaim. Years ago Wallace Hamilton called it the drum major instinct. All of us long to march out in front of the parade. So we strive for success. We build up our businesses. We work our way through the ranks. We plan and project. Some of us dream and scheme. We build monuments to ourselves. That is often why tall skyscrapers line city streets and names adorn donated buildings.

          Sometimes even the most conscientious of us may step on someone else in order to climb higher on the totem pole of personal achievement. We may neglect the needs of our families, ignore the needs of a neighbor, not because we are bad people but because we are oriented to our own success. That is how the city of Humanity is built. But finally we reach whatever it is that we are striving for, and when we do, we find that it doesn’t satisfy.

          There is only one thing that permanently satisfies and it comes as a free gift. You can’t earn it or buy it or even deserve it. You can only accept it as the free and generous gift of a loving and benevolent God. John saw the Holy City coming down from heaven, a gift from God. It did not rise from the earth. The kingdom of God will never come from our striving upward. The Kingdom of God can only come down from above, as a free gift from God

          But when we recognize that it is a free gift, when we realize that we no longer have to strive to prove our own self-worth, when we are able to relax and receive the love of God as poured out in Jesus Christ – then we will be able to accept and love other people as neighbors, as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

          It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities. In which of those two cities do you live? Which city claims your primary allegiance? Where are you investing your time, your talent and your treasure – the City of Humanity… or the City of God?

          May God guide us in our choices.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg47.

2.    Ibid, pg47.

3.    Ibid, pg48.

5-12-19 God's Handiwork

God’s Handiwork

Rev. Jay Rowland

Acts 9:36-43

Easter 4C  Sunday May 12, 2019, First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

This sermon utilizes material published by John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," 2013; Beth Scibienski "Dorcas' Fashion Show," A Thousand Words of Inspiration, 2013; William Loader  First Thoughts on Year C First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary, Easter 4; Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources, and Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

 

 

 

It’s no secret that mothers play a prominent role in God’s story of us. A good number of these mothers are women who do not have biological children, but help raise and nurture scores of “other people’s children”.  These are women who have given life to the kingdom of God and to the church.  One of those women we meet today in Acts—a woman in Joppa who answers to two names, Tabitha and Dorcas.   

Remarkably, in introducing her, Luke uses the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple—mathetrias--the only time this word appears in all of the New Testament!!  Luke thus presents Tabitha as fully equivalent to any and all male disciples mathetai.  

Tabitha is her Hebrew name. The Greeks called her Dorcas. Both names mean “gazelle.” With what must have been sheer agility and determination, Tabitha Gazelle (if you will) opened her home to be a refuge for women, a safe place for women. There was no safe place for women who were left vulnerable and homeless due to circumstance:  no place for women abandoned by their husbands or shunned by their family or tribe, or for widows who found themselves suddenly on the brink of poverty, or for women both Jew and Greek who found themselves in dire straits for one reason or another.  

It just so happened that Tabitha was a skilled seamstress.  If we in the protestant church had patron saints, Tabitha (Dorcas) might be the patron saint of prayer shawl groups, quilters or sewing groups.  She was known for the tunics and other garments she created with elaborate design, care and beauty. She gave these to the women she took into her home.  

Luke reports that this vibrant disciple becomes sick and dies suddenly. Her body is reverently washed for burial and lovingly placed in an upper room. Now, homes with an upper room, a second floor, were rare in those days.  Tabitha quite possibly was a single woman of some wealth.  In mentioning this room in Tabitha’s house it may be that Luke is calling to mind another upper room-- in Jerusalem--where the eleven disciples gathered waiting for a special gifting of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:13).[1]  

Regardless, Luke infers that the disciples who are in Joppa are devastated by Tabitha’s sudden death.  Aware that Peter is nearby, they summon him, hoping his presence and prayers would bring comfort. When Peter arrives, the sound of Tabitha’s mourners reaches his ears and his heart before he encounters the women themselves.  They surround Tabitha’s body; through their cries and tears they eagerly show Peter the tunics they’re wearing, seemingly every work of fabric Tabitha created is shown to Peter with stories from each woman in the room recounting Tabitha’s kindness and generosity which created and sustained this community. Tabitha’s handiwork. God’s handiwork! 

It was slightly unusual for one’s body to be taken upstairs and laid out instead of being buried or placed in a tomb. But Luke wants to make sure that his hearers understand that Tabitha really is dead. There are echoes from Jesus' raising of a dead girl in Mark 5, Jesus' words, "Talitha cum" little girl arise, which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"[2] 

Scholars note that this story of the raising of Tabitha may have circulated as a legend related to the establishing of Christian community at Joppa.[3] It is supposed to impress all who hear it. For it mirrors the raising of the widow's son by Elijah (1Kings 17:17-24) and the raising of the Shunemmite woman's son by Elisha (2Kings 4:8-37).  It validates the ministry of Peter and the early church just as the raising of Jairus's daughter by Jesus corroborates his messianic ministry.  Thus it is no coincidence that Luke echoes the terms and the details of each of these accounts.[4]  

Whatever history stands behind this story in Acts, it offers the gift of continuity to the Christian community in the early days of the church: Peter is like Jesus, and Jesus is like Elijah and like Elisha, and all are like God: they raise the dead to life.[5]  God’s power of resurrection in the world has been seen in Elijah, in Elisha, in Jesus, in Peter, and in countless other agents throughout history. God has long chosen agents to work God's power in the world. [6] 

The raising of Tabitha is a sign to the community … it serves as a gospel revelation the kingdom of God is nigh for the dead are raised to new life; the poor and widowed rejoice in plenty. The miracle "becomes known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord." When the dead are raised and widows rejoice, the kingdom of God is revealed in our midst.[7] 

The raising of Tabitha also broadcasts the story of Tabitha’s ministry of care for marginalized and abandoned women. This is a powerful revelation, disciples of Jesus Christ continuing to usher in the kingdom of God.  God's healing power among the poor and the marginalized is a powerful sign to any who have eyes to see.  

The mission of Paul to the Gentiles is more familiar that Peter’s to most casual Bible readers. Evidence of the kingdom of God offered to Gentiles is revealed when the dead are raised, and the broken and destitute find hope and joy in community.  God's people are an enlivened people, a joyously caring people, a people set free. Of course, such transforming power is not ours to create, just as Peter's raising of Tabitha was not of his own doing. Only the living God can empower us with new life. It is the indwelling compelling Spirit of Christ that comes to transform death into life, sadness into joy, carelessness into compassion.[8] 

Such is the good news of the gospel first revealed in Jesus Christ, then also seen in a disciple named Tabitha—in her life and in her rising.  The church bears witness to life arising from death, love outlasting hate, healing meeting brokenness; people learning to stand up for themselves, communities uniting to reverse poverty, enemies moving towards reconciliation, people finding meaning in their lives again after languishing in despair. All of this is evident in the vibrant ministry of Tabitha-- vivid realities to inspire and inform taking up space otherwise occupied by legends from the past.[9]  

Enduring examples abound of God’s habit of bringing transformation, through which we learn to recognize the hand of God working new beginnings in our midst today.  Such transformation comes through the Spirit of Christ who willingly gifts transformation. We must remember to pray the prayer of faith, looking for Christ's renewal enlivening his people. When the church is made up of transformed people, the gospel is proclaimed in sign rather than word and bearing witness to all the world of the coming glory of the kingdom of God in our midst.[10] 

Wherever the powers of death are overcome by the powers of resurrection, the power of God is visible in God's world. In our own time such power has been seen in Martin Luther King, Jr., in Nelson Mandela, in Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and countless persons whose names we may never know.[11]  

There are precious few people, disciples of either gender, who would risk their economic status in order to provide for the less privileged. By taking such a risk of love, unjust systems are challenged and transcended.  God’s Spirit in Tabitha is what take on everlasting life among the living. Tabitha used her privilege -- her wealth, her compassion, her acts and her gifts for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, indigent, the hungry, depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.[12] 

A life lived for God in this way is a gospel life, a resurrection life, brave in the face of death and the works of darkness and death which clearly remain ever-present, ever-ominous and all-too-real.  Such is the living power of the resurrection to binding all who live in hope, creating community among all who seek Jesus—he who reveals God’s handiwork.  In Frederick Buechner's novel Godric the Saint says,

"All the death there is

set next to life

would scarcely fill a cup."[13]

 

Such is the witness of Tabitha Gazelle.  May it also be our witness and our enduring gift which shall transcend and endure as God’s handiwork.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

NOTES:


[1] Mitzi J. Smith, op cit.

[2] William Loader First Thoughts, op cit  

[3] ibid

[4] Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", op cit

[5] Loader, ibid

[6] John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," op cit.

[7] Findlayson, ibid

[8] Findlayson, ibid

[9] Loader, ibid

[10] Findlayson, ibid

[11] John Holbert, ibid

[12] Mitzi J. Smith, ibid

[13] Godric: A Novel by Frederick Buechner 1980 in John Holbert, ibid

5-5-19 From Fishing to Shepherding

Thomas J Parlette

“From Fishing to Shepherding”

John 21: 1-19

5/5/19

 

          James Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District of England, working the land where his father and grandfather tended sheep and where many others have done so for thousands of years.

          His book, The Shepherds Life: A Tale of the Lake District, takes those of us who are uninitiated into the rhythms of life on those green hills – rhythms that haven’t changed much for shepherds over the course of hundreds of generations. Despite all the advances in technology and progress that characterize the 21st century world, shepherding is still an  ancient and unchanging way of life that is always about the sheep and the land.

          Most of us think of shepherding as an idyllic profession from a bygone age. We picture the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. We miss the fact that shepherding is also muddy, bloody, smelly and difficult work. It takes a practiced hand and an eye for detail that is honed over time. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who just want to dabble in it as a hobby. Nevertheless, for those who can stick with it, the shepherds life can be rewarding and satisfying.

          Rebanks describes some would-be shepherds who rent a farm to try their hand. “The get-up and get-out voice in their heads isn’t strong enough and they just don’t care enough about the sheep and the land to sustain their initial enthusiasm once the going gets tough. Things fall apart, and they soon leave. The voice in our heads is what holds the Lake District together, puts the walls back up, drains the fields and keeps the sheep well-tended and bred… Get-up and Get-out. It is done because it should be done.”(1)

          In this mornings story from John, Jesus calls on Peter, indeed on all his followers, to think of themselves as shepherds, with that Get-up and Get-out mentality.

          This passage is often referred to as a sort of Epilogue to John’s Gospel. It seems like the book should end at the close of Chapter 20, which reads – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

          The end. The curtain closes. Thank you for coming.

          But before the houselights go up and everyone exits the theater, John (or someone writing sometime after John) steps out in front of the curtain and says, “Wait, before you go, you should know that after these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius… and it went a little something like this…”

          This post-resurrection story is very similar to one that Luke tells at the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus is calling the disciples. Many of the same elements are there.

          Jesus stands on the shore.

          The fishermen haven’t caught anything.

          Jesus tells them to try again.

          And sure enough, the pull out a huge catch of fish.

          In Luke’s version, Jesus then then tells Peter, “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people.”

          But in this story from John, Jesus tells Peter what to do with people once he’s caught them. Jesus shifts the call of all his disciples from fishing to shepherding.

          Despite Peter’s enthusiastic response to seeing Jesus again – jumping into the water and wading ashore – there is an awkwardness in this scene. As they sit around the charcoal fire, the same kind of fire that Peter warmed himself by in the courtyard outside the Palace where Jesus had his trial, Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t help but think of Peter’s boast – “I will never deny you, I will die with you”, and then his three-fold denial.

          So there on the beach, over bread and fish, Jesus gives Peter the chance to redeem himself. Jesus asks him “Do you love me” three times. Each time Peter says “Yes”. And Jesus’ responses move his disciples role from fishers of people to shepherds of the flock. After this lakeside cookout, Peter is forgiven and reinstated back into Jesus’ good graces.

          Normally, we hear this story applying to ministers, since the word “pastor” implies that ministers are like a shepherd, and that is true. But the shepherding task is really for all who follow Jesus. For we all have a particular flock that we tend. Your flock could be your family, or a group of co-workers, or a circle of friends. I bet you can think of a time you have tended to your flock in one way or another.

          In his classic book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller describes how a shepherd’s staff becomes a symbol of the man’s very being. An experienced shepherd has carried a staff for so long, it seems a part of his body. The staff is his very identity – a badge of office. On one occasion, Keller saw a shepherd use his staff to gently guide his sheep. Unlike the rod, which is an instrument of stern discipline, the staff is a gentle reminder of the shepherd’s presence. Sometimes the shepherd reaches out his staff to touch one of his animals on the flank, to gently indicate that a change of direction is in order. Sometimes, it’s even more intimate than that.

          “Sometimes,” writes Keller, “I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they are “in touch.” They will walk along in this way almost as though it were “hand-in-hand.” The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd, and revels in the close, personal contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It’s a delightful and moving picture.” (2)

          You can see how this kind of shepherding applies to Jesus. But I also hope that you can see this applying to you and your own flock, whoever that may be. I’m sure you can think of times when you have walked alongside someone, just to stay in touch, like a shepherd with a staff. That’s what it means to tend Jesus’ sheep.

          Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Pastor, as a vocation, for me seems like a being put in charge of one of those old-fashioned elevators, spending all day with people in their ups and downs, but with no view.”(3)

          That’s what tending a flock is like – spending all day with people in their ups and downs.

          Psalm 23 speaks of the Lord who is our shepherd preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. This line about the table doesn’t mean God promises to protect us in this life. What God does is promise to do is to provide.

          Not protection, but providence. There’s a difference.

          Protection would be if the hurricane never makes landfall. Providence means a volunteer from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shows up after it does with hot food and directions to a shelter.

          Protection means our partner never cheats on us. Providence means that, should that happen, together we work hard to find a way to reconciliation or resolution.

          Protection means the blood clot never travels to the brain, causing a stroke. Providence means there’s still much joy to be found in life, even if some things don’t work as well as they once did.

          That is what Jesus’ shepherdly command to “feed my sheep” truly means. It means that when the world around us seems to be falling apart, we gather together around a table in the presence of the Lord, and find there such food as feeds the soul.

 

          More than that, around such a table, we enjoy a life-changing fellowship with one another. Somehow, the howling wind outside doesn’t seem so formidable when there is food to share and company to remind us we are not alone.

          Through it all, God does provide.(4)

          So let us be led by the Good Shepherd to the table this morning that we may be nourished for our role as shepherds of the flock.

          May God be praised. Amen.

          (Responsive Benediction in the bulletin)

 

1.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved 4/23/19

2.    Ibid.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Ibid.

4-28-19 Blessed Are the Believers

Thomas J Parlette

“Blessed Are the Believers”

John 20: 19-31

4/28/19

 

          Harold F. Bermel tells of driving through Pennsylvania Dutch Country with his daughter and seven year old grandson. They passed an Amish horse and buggy, and the grandson asked, “Why do they use horses instead of automobiles?” Bermel’s daughter explained that the Amish didn’t believe in automobiles. After a few moments, the grandson asked, “But can’t they see them?”(1)

          Good question. Once you’ve seen something with your own eyes, it’s pretty hard not to believe in it. That’s why the followers of Jesus are so often considered fools. We believe in a God we cannot see, in a Savior who performed miracles and came back from the dead, and a Holy Spirit who lives in us and guides us in the way of truth and love. No wonder so many people reject our faith.

          Our passage today is based on a man who has been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” In all honesty, Thomas gets kind of a bad rap. He doesn’t deny the resurrection. He has proven that he’s a loyal disciple by staying with Jesus while he was alive. It’s just that he is also a rational man, he is a realist. He’s not going to let himself get too excited until he sees Jesus with his own eyes. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

          That of course happened on the following Sunday evening. The Gospel of John tells us, “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

          And Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!”

          Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

          Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Blessed are the people who have come to grips with their doubts in an honest and forthright way and have made a commitment of their will to trust in the care and providence of God.

          They are indeed the blessed of this earth. They are healthier, happier, and generally more effective I relating to others than are the doubters, the critics and the cynics. It is they who move the world forward, for there is power in believing – more power than the unbeliever can ever know. Part of that power is the power of vision. If seeing is believing, then the converse is also true. Believing is seeing – seeing possibilities and promises that bode good fortune for all who perceive their presence. Blessed are the believers.

          Of course we all have our doubts. All thoughtful people do at times. Woody Allen had a point when he said “Faith would be easier if God would show himself by depositing a million dollars in a swiss bank account in our name” – but God doesn’t work like that.

          I once read a true story about a young man named Charlie who was in love with a charming young lady named Ava. She was in love with Charlie, but so far he had been unable to persuade her to marry him. Then one day he invited her to lunch. They drove to the Los Angeles Coliseum, the largest sports arena on the West Coast.

          In the center of the vast field were placed a small table and two chairs. A maître d’ showed them to the table, a captain seated them, and a waiter waited behind each chair. Except for them, the whole Coliseum was empty. 100,000 empty seats stared down at Charlie and Ava.

          The table was elegantly set. Caviar and champagne was served. Then a soufflé and salad and more champagne. And as they were waiting for dessert, Charlie directed Ava’s attention to the huge electronic scoreboard at the far end of the field.

          In a prearranged signal he raised his glass, and on the board flashed the words, “Darling Ava, will you marry me?” She of course, said yes.(2)

          Sometimes we wonder, why can’t God do something like that for us? It would be easy. A grand gesture of some sort. A giant comet streaking through a dark winter night with it’s tail sky-writing a message, “I love you, God.” Why doesn’t God do something spectacular to let us know he’s there. We can sympathize with British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who was once asked what he would say to God if he had the chance. And Russell said, “I would ask God, ‘Why did you make the evidence of your existence so insufficient’”(3)

          There is a part of us that says with Thomas, “I need to see some evidence before I believe.” We all long for certainty. But that is one gift that God has not granted us.

          I’m sure God has reasons for this. If God’s aim was to produce mature spirits fit to spend eternity in the Divine Presence, it makes sense that God would not reveal Himself fully to us. Such certainty would keep us perpetually immature. If a child knows that his parents with always take care of every problem, resolve every crisis and comfort every sorrow, the child will never develop self-reliance. It may be that our insecurity and doubt is essential to spiritual growth.

          Brennan Manning, in his book Ruthless Trust, tells the story of John Kavanaugh, a man who went to work with Mother Teresa for three months at the “House of the Dying” in Calcutta. He went not only to be of help to others, but he was also seeking a clear answer as how best to spend the rest of his life.

          His first morning there, he asked Mother Teresa to pray for him. She asked what he needed prayer for. He replied, “Pray that I have clarity.”

          And Mother Teresa said “No.” Then she went on to say, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

          When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed. “I have never had clarity, what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you will trust God.” (4)

          God has reasons for not revealing the Divine Presence more clearly to us. Perhaps because it is essential to our spiritual growth to question and to ponder and to seek God as a thirsty person seeks water.

          Besides, most of us have enough certainty. Jesus said that all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and we will be able to move mountains. It’s not how much faith we have that makes the crucial difference in life. It is how much we love and trust God.

          The poet Robert Frost once spoke of the founders of this country and how they journeyed forth without a map saying: “They did not believe in the future, they believed the future in. You are always believing ahead. Where is the evidence that I can write a poem? I just believe a poem in. The most creative thing in us is to believe a thing in.”

Then Frost says, “The ultimate example is the belief in the future of the world. We believe the future in. It’s coming because we believe it in.”(5)

          The most creative thing in us is to believe a thing in. We believe in God’s kingdom. But the real meaning of our lives as Christians is to believe God’s kingdom into being. Blessed are the believers who believe the Kingdom into being. They are a blessing to this world.

          Believers are those who know that the world can yet be a better place. Consider our own society. Who have been the builders? Who have constructed hospitals, great universities, the social service agencies? Behind every one you will find people who hold in their hearts not cynicism but hope, not hostility but love, not doubt but faith. As someone once said “Where has there ever been a monument erected to the cynic, the doubters or the critics?”(6)

          In 2007, Disney released a wonderful film called Ratatouille. It tells the story of a rat named Remy who has a talent for cooking. He winds up in Paris at the once famous restaurant, Gusteau’s. There he helps a bumbling kitchen worker named Linguine bring Gusteau’s back to prominence on the French culinary scene.

          Towards the end of the movie, the feared food critic Anton Ego visits Gusteau’s to sample a dish prepared by the new chef, who turns out to be Remy. The cynical critic is deeply impressed with the dish and writes a reflective review in the next day’s paper. He has this to say about his role as a critic:

          “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”

          “But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

          “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

          The believers among us, the ones who have believed without seeing, are the ones who risk something in the discovery and defense of the new. In this case, the new life brought about by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blessed are the believers.

          So the question for today is – Where are you this morning? Are you on the side of the doubters and the critics?  Or are you on the side of the believers? Anybody can be a doubting Thomas. It takes no particular strength of character to say, “Unless I see some proof, I will not believe.”

          But it does take strength of character to say, “I don’t have all the answers. But I know who is making this world a better place. It’s those who follow the man from Galilee, and I want to stand with them. I don’t have all the answers, but unless someone proves otherwise, I will stand with those who believe that this world was the creation of a good and loving God. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe the death and resurrection of Jesus has somehow changed this world forever. I don’t have ALL the answers, but I have what I need. Put me down as a believer.

          For as Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

          Blessed are the believers! May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p27.

2.    Ibid… p28.

3.    Ibid… p28.

4.    Ibid… p28-29.

5.    Ibid… p29.

6.    Ibid… p30.

4-21-19 Marking the Moment

Thomas J Parlette

“Marking the Moment”

Luke 24: 1-12

4/21/19, Easter

 

          There once was a Baptist church in Bangladesh that was showing a film about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to an audience filled with people who had never heard the Gospel before. Little children sat in front and in the aisles. The adults stood in the back. As the story of Jesus’ crucifixion unfolded and Jesus’ broken body was laid in the tomb, there were tears and audible gasps. As the affected audience watched, one young boy suddenly spoke up. “Don’t be afraid, I’ve seen this before. He gets up again!(1)

          Surprise! He’s not dead – not anymore. That’s the story of Easter.

          Or, consider a story told by a pastor named Phil Callaway. He tells of driving with his 5 year -old son past a local cemetery. Of course, 5 year-olds sometimes have an interesting perspective on things. Noticing a large pile of dirt beside a newly excavated grave, the boy pointed and said: “Look Dad, one got out!”(2)

          Surprise! One got out! That’s the story of the Resurrection.

          Many emotions swirl around this story from Luke. We start with grief, as the women make their way to Jesus’ tomb in the early hours of the morning. Then terror, as the men in dazzling clothes stand before them. Then excitement, as they hurried off to tell the disciples about what has happened. Then disbelief, as the disciples dismiss the women’s story as an idle tale. And we end with a sense of amazement, as Peter sees the grave clothes, but no body. He leaves surprised. Not yet full of faith, just wonder and amazement.

          This is the start of a whole new world.

          The resurrection marks the moment when life overcame death. That’s the primary reason most of us are here today. Death has been conquered.

          Professional golfer Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer at age 33. He wrote about that experience: “A genuine feeling of fear came over me – I could die from cancer. But then another reality hit me even harder: I am going to die eventually anyway, whether from cancer or something else. I am definitely going to die. It’s just a question of when. Suddenly everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me. All I wanted to do was live.”

          And that’s when he remembered something that his friend Larry Moody had once told him: “Zinger, we are not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We are in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living.” That’s what Easter is all about.

          Paul Azinger wrote about how his perspective on life changed as he underwent his cancer treatments and then returned to the PGA tour. He wrote, “The only way you will ever have true contentment is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that nothing ever bothers me and I don’t have problems, but I feel like I’ve found the answer to the six- foot hole. I know I’ll spend eternity with God and I have a promise that as a child of God, he’ll help me deal with anything. God promises to offer me contentment regardless of what life brings, even cancer.”(3) The resurrection marks the moment when life triumphed over death.

          The resurrection also marks the moment when hope overcame grief. The power of death and loss and grief can destroy a person. It can make us lose hope.

          Pastor Stephen Brown says he was devastated after his younger brother, Ron, died suddenly of a heart attack. Ron was only in his forties, a popular district attorney, a terrific father. Stephen never even got the chance to say goodbye.

          Several weeks after Ron’s death, Stephen decided to visit his brother’s grave. It was a cold, rainy afternoon in late winter. Ron’s grave was not yet marked, and Stephen couldn’t find it. As he trekked through the mud, his grief overwhelmed him. Standing in the rain, Stephen began sobbing. “God, this has been the worst month of my life, and now I can’t even find my brother’s grave.”

          Suddenly Stephen sensed a presence near him, as though Christ had drawn alongside to help. The words that the angel spoke came to his mind like a burst of light – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

          “Those words comforted me,” Stephen later wrote, “and I haven’t been back to the cemetery since. I don’t need to go back. The One who knew and loved Ron came to me in my grief. He promised never to leave, and that has made all the difference in the world.”(4)

          Even death cannot destroy the hope of those who believe in Jesus Christ. The resurrection marks the moment when hope overcame grief.

          And finally, the resurrection marks a moment when we have to make a decision. Not whether the resurrection is true or not – but whether we will live like the resurrection happened in the PAST or whether we will live like the resurrection is happening NOW.

          At the entrance to Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor: No Explanations inside the Church (5)

          The warning was meant to discourage tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambiance with loud lectures and explanations inside the church. But that’s actually some pretty good advice about how to approach Easter Sunday.

          Easter Sunday is a time for proclamation, not explanation. This is not a day to lay out the evidence that once upon a time Jesus walked out of the tomb, alive and well. This is not a day to argue those who have doubts into belief. No – explanations in the church are not allowed, especially on Easter.

          This is a day not to convince, but to invite – to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers, hopers and even the doubters, to embrace the Easter experience and appreciate it’s transformative effects. (6)

          Easter isn’t something we remember once a year in the springtime and then get on with life. Easter is something we live and breathe all year long. Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships – between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. The resurrection is more than a proposition we believe. It’s something we prove by the way we live it out.

          The best evidence of the reality of resurrection is a community that lives with the steadfast hope that God will conquer all the powers of sin and death – God has done it before and God will do it again.

          As the Orthodox theologian Patriarch Athenagoras has said, “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”(7)

          Will you join me in marking this Resurrection Moment by joining together in the Festival of Resurrection litany printed in your bulletin…

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p22.

2.    Ibid…p22.

3.    Ibid…p23.

4.    Ibid…p24.

5.    Jim Friedrich, Christian Century, April 10th, 2019, p10.

6.    Ibid…p10.

7.    Ibid…p11.

 

         

4-7-19 Prelude to the Passion

Thomas J Parlette

“Prelude to the Passion”

John 12: 1-8

4/7/19

 

          If you were to do a Google search on the word “prelude”, you would find a definition such as “an action or event serving as an introduction to something more important.” Usually we think of a prelude as a piece of music, such as we hear every week here in worship. The prelude gathers us together as God’s people and prepares us for the more important experience of worship and offering our praise and thanksgiving to God.

          In like manner, this passage today about Mary anointing Jesus with some expensive oil, serves as a prelude to the more important event coming up in the Gospel of John.

          Leading up to this story, Jesus has been healing people and doing miracles in the surrounding areas. Just a short while before this Jesus healed the man who had been born blind. Then he brought his friend Lazarus back to life. All of these miraculous “God-signs”, as Eugene Peterson calls them, has created quite a buzz about Jesus. The priests and the Pharisees were getting increasingly concerned. So they called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body and wondered aloud, “What are we going to do about this? This man Jesus keeps doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him keep doing this, pretty soon, everyone is going to believe in him and the Romans will step in and take away what little power and privilege we still have.”

          It was Caiaphas, the designated High Priest for that year, that spoke up and said, “It would be better if one man died for the people rather than our whole nation be destroyed.” There was general agreement on that point, and from that time on they plotted to kill Jesus.

          So Jesus no longer went out in public among the Jews, and in fact withdrew to a little town called Ephraim, about 10 miles north of Bethany and Jerusalem, and secluded himself there with the disciples.

          The Jewish Passover feast was coming up and lots of people were showing up in Jerusalem and everyone was curious about this man Jesus. They were all wondering – “Do you think he’ll show up at the Feast or not?” Meanwhile, the High Priest and the Pharisees put out the word that anyone getting wind of Jesus should tell them. They were all set to arrest him.

          That brings us to our story for today. It is six days before Passover, and once again, Jesus is in Bethany with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They are enjoying dinner together after a long trip from Ephrain where they’ve been hiding out. Martha, as usual, is busy serving the meal, while Lazarus sat with Jesus and the disciples. Mary comes into the room with a jar of very expensive oil. She anoints Jesus, something usually reserved for a King or as preparation for burial. She then massaged his feet and wiped them with her hair,

          What we see here is a prelude to the Passion. In this anointing we get a prelude to Jesus as The King of Creation. But this is a new kind of King. Jesus is a King who will suffer and die for the people. So we also see this as a prelude to the Passion and resurrection.

          But it’s the reactions to Mary’s anointing that are most interesting.

          First, there’s Judas Iscariot, the one getting ready to betray Jesus. He seems to try to turn Jesus’ preaching back on him when he says, perhaps a little sarcastically – “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 denarii’s and the money given to the poor.” John quickly tells us why Judas says this – he isn’t really concerned about the poor, he just wants the money put into the common purse so he can steal it later. But Judas raises a good point. Isn’t this wasteful? We often experience this tension when, as a faith community, we go through our budgeting process and balance our financial resources between things that seem extravagant and programs to help people in need. We strive to be good stewards and do as much good as we can in our community and in the world. We try to avoid waste – and yet, here is an act of extravagance that seems wasteful. But is it? Or does it show us something about God’s love and grace?

          About 10 years ago, Holy Name Cathedral, a Catholic church in Chicago, had a fire that damaged its roof. Two days later, Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist with a famously hard-boiled reputation, walked into the church to see the damage for himself. He saw it, but he also saw the greater part of the church that wasn’t damaged. He went back to his office and wrote a  column about his visit, which he headlined, “Cathedral Can Inspire Cynic.” In it, he said, “Repair of Holy Name is a cause worth supporting. I’m a hardened, godless cynic, but to walk into Holy Name and see that ceiling soar toward heaven, well, I hate to imagine a person so emotionally numb as not to be affected. God may not move you, but God moved the people who built this, and this moves you.”

          Steinberg went on to invite readers to donate to the Holy Name Cathedral repair fund. Then he concluded by saying that he had given $50 himself, which, he said, “seemed a painless, minimal sum for a Jewish agnostic wishing to speed the repairs along.”(1)

          This seemingly wasteful act shows us that God is just as extravagant in pouring out Divine love on us in Jesus’ life, death and coming resurrection, a gift that moves us to build cathedrals in praise of God. It is not a waste, but an act of love and gratitude while Jesus is still with them.

          The other response here is Jesus’ when he reprimands Judas and says “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

          It’s easy to misunderstand Jesus here. It’s easy to come away wondering – “is Jesus saying the poor aren’t important, that they are not a priority?”

          But that is not what Jesus means here. His words do not mean that the poor are not important. Jesus is pointing out that it will always be possible to serve the poor, there will always be those in need. On the contrary, Jesus establishes a parallel between himself and the poor. Now- he is present, and Mary rightly feels the need to be extravagant. When he is no longer around, at least not in the flesh – well, the poor will still be there, to be served with the same extravagance.(2)

          Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. She took her Christian faith right into the most dreadful slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship.

          That house became a place of hospitality for the down and out – for men Day later described as “grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” Not long after, the Catholic Worker House began welcoming women and children as well.

          One day, a wealthy socialite pulled up to the house, in a big car. She received the obligatory tour of the mission from Day herself. When she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Day.

          The staff was ecstatic when they heard about this act of generosity. They ring, they realized, could be sold for a huge sum – enough money to take some pressure off the budget, at least for a little while.

          A day or two later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. Immediately, the staff members confronted Day. Why, in heaven’s name, would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that?

          Day responded: “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”(3)

          An extravagant gift, that on the surface seems wasteful. But looking deeper, such a gift was a reminder of extravagant love for us poured out in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

          In this prelude to the passion, we see the grace of God poured out, we see Jesus extravagant sacrifice for us. And we see our proper response to such a gift – an extravagant sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the love of God poured out upon us in Jesus Christ.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.

2.    Justo Gonzalez, Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p19.

3.    HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.

3-31-19 A Father had Two Sons

Thomas J Parlette

“A Father had Two Sons”

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

3/31/19

 

          Once upon a time, there was a man who went to the movies one cold and rainy Saturday afternoon. He hadn’t been to a movie in quite a while, so he thought it would be a nice change of pace. He made himself comfortable, enjoyed the pre-movie trivia and the coming attractions, and settled in for the main feature.

          On the screen there appeared the MGM roaring lion, and the man thought to himself, this is the same way the last movie I saw started, with that same roaring lion – and he decided, I’ve seen this movie before – and he got up and walked out of the theater.(1)

          As silly as that story might be, it holds a nugget of truth. There is a word of warning there.

          When we hear that opening phrase in our passage for today – “There was a man who had two sons…”, we might be tempting to check out mentally. We know this story well – it’s the parable of the prodigal son. We might decide that we don’t need to pay too much attention – we already know the story, we already get the point. Time to leave the theater.

          But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is part of what makes it the word of God: no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, when we read it afresh God speaks to us and our circumstances. Today, as we read this passage we know oh so well within the context of Lent, that context may help us hear a new word from an old story.

          The passage for today begins with the first three verses of Luke 15, and then skips ahead for 11 and half verses to get the story of the prodigal son. I’m always interested is what the lectionary leaves out, so it’s interesting to note that the stories being skipped or two very short parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Obviously the whole chapter is held together by the theme of being lost. The shepherd loses a sheep, leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one that is lost. The woman loses a coin, and then turns her house upside down looking for it. When she finds it, she calls all her friends and neighbors and asks them to rejoice with her. Such is God’s joy when even one sinner repents. So it’s not surprising that we look at these parables as words of hope and invitation for the lost, for that is certainly one of their meanings.

          However, when we look at these three parables in the context of Lent, a time when we are called to self- reflection and repentance, another dimension comes forth. The introduction provides a different setting than we usually imagine. The Pharisees and scribes are disgruntled because Jesus is receiving tax collectors and sinners. These parables about being lost are addressed to them, the religious leaders of the time – not primarily to those they consider sinners.

          Despite all the bad press that Christians have given them over the years, the Pharisees and scribes were deeply religious people. In fact, for those Christians who regularly attend worship and seek to practice their faith, we are most like the Pharisees and scribes. Whenever they are mentioned in Jesus’ story, that’s where we are most likely to stand. They were very concerned with obeying God and all the religious laws of Israel. From their perspective it was others – the tax collectors and the sinners – who were lost. So the Pharisees and tax collectors would have been unlikely to identify themselves with the lost sheep that the shepherd rescues or the lost son whose father awaits. They would see themselves as the 99 sheep, the faithful who stayed with the shepherd, and as the older son, obedient to his father. It would seem shocking to them to see a shepherd abandon 99 in the wilderness to go looking for just one sheep, or to see the older son missing the banquet thrown for his brother. These parables speak of the error of considering ourselves faithful and obedient. Ken Bailey, in his book The Cross and The Prodigal, points out that “a parable is like a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence. The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story. A house has a variety of windows of rooms, with a different view from each.”(2) A parable works the same way. The view changes depending on where you stand in this story, which character you identify yourself with. The season of Lent invites us to see ourselves through more than one prism- to see ourselves as both the lost and not lost.

          For in reality, both sons in this story are lost. They both have broken relationships with their father. The younger son broke his relationship in the audacious move of asking for his share of the inheritance now. This was basically wishing that your father would die so you could have control of your assets right now – and telling him so to his face. People would have gasped at the gall of the younger son.

          And to top it off, the story tells us that a few days after this shocking request, the younger son gathered all he had and left. Which means he sold everything, took the money and ran. He basically had a going out of business sale, getting rid of his father’s assets for much less than they were worth. And then he skips town – turning his back on his responsibilities both to his family and to his village and community. This is not a case of a young man striking out on his own to make his own way in the world – no this younger son is thumbing his nose at everyone as he slams the door behind him. His relationship with his father – and with his community is broken.

          And then there’s the older son. He is lost in his own way as well. Yes, on the surface he seems to be obedient, staying on the farm, faithfully doing what is expected of him. But does he really?

          In Middle Eastern society at that time – and still true today – the oldest son inherited the larger share of the property. The older son was expected to have a special position, second to his father. So when his younger brother makes this extreme request, it would have been expected that the older brother would intervene and act as mediator between his father and brother. But he does not – he is silent. When his brother has their possessions spread out on the front yard to sell off as quickly as possible, the brother should have intervened and tried to reason with him – but he did not, we hear nothing from him. When his younger brother is leaving town, possibly for good, the older brother should have been there to at least say “Farewell” - but he is nowhere to be seen. The older brother has a broken relationship with the father as well, for he didn’t live up to any of his responsibilities as the older son.

          Throughout the whole story, the younger son’s departure and humbling return and the older son’s refusal to welcome his brother home, the father remains the father. Even though both of his sons have broken off their relationship with him – one by running away and one by following the rules, but failing to love his brother or father in his heart – the father never cuts his sons off. He welcomes one home with a feast, and lets the other know he is always welcome and the door is always open. In the end, we don’t know exactly how it turned out for these two sons, but we know where the father stands -  in the doorway with arms wide open, welcoming them back into relationship.

          In Lent, it is good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons while moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is received with open arms and the obedient one who apparently thinks he is more deserving. Lent is a time to consider both the grace of God that has sought and welcomed us and the constant danger that religious people face – thinking that we are better than we are.

          Jesus is addressing the best and most religious people in Israel. And yet, while Jesus addresses those who consider themselves “not lost”, the lost are overhearing what Jesus says. In a way, we are the lost overhearing what Jesus says to those who believe that they are not lost. From this perspective, this parable – and the other two that were left out – is a parable of joy and promise. No matter how far we have strayed, God awaits us with open arms and a feast of welcome. We have experienced the joy of God welcoming us when we least deserved it, and for that we must rejoice.

          But once we have experienced such welcome and rejoiced in it, we have to watch out for our tendency to stand with the ones who consider them not lost. During Lent, it’s easy to adopt that attitude as we move through the Holy Season with our ashes and fasting and prayer and study. When we lose sight of our “lostness”, we must realize that the parable speaks to us not as the sinners who overhear, but rather as the Pharisees and scribes who resent Jesus’ welcoming attitude toward those who are not as good, or faithful or religious as they are.

          Lent invites us to count ourselves continually among both groups, as we seek to obey God in all things while also grounding our joy in the experience of being found.

          So when you hear that “a father had two sons”, I hope you don’t walk out believing you’ve seen this movie before. Stick around, view this story from another angle, and see what else God wants to show you.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Justo Gonzalez, The Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p. 18.

2.    Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2005, p. 87.

3-24-19 Church for the Thirsty

Church for the Thirsty

Jay P. Rowland

Psalm 63:1-8   &   Isaiah 55:1-9 (selected verses)

March 24, 2019

 

Every once in a while, I’ll happen to visit someone in the hospital at a time when they are not allowed any liquids, not even a sip.   

There’s always a medical reason for this of course—pre-op, post-op, upcoming scan, etc.  Sometimes ice chips are okay; sometimes ice chips are NOT OKAY—and so only a swab of some mysterious liquid is permitted to keep mouth and lips moist for comfort. Those who’ve experienced this hospital protocol know what we can all assume, which is how utterly unsatisfying a little swab or a small ice chip is compared to the MONSTER THIRST PARCHING away. 

Thirst gets our attention and demands immediate action in a way that few other things can. When we were parched or caught with a dry throat or mouth, our attention to anything else is partial at best until that gets remedied. And then there’s also the feeling that comes when we’re not allowed water so it becomes almost torturous and desperately obsessed over because we cannot have it (whether it be due to hospital protocol or some other situation).  

The same dynamic applies to our spiritual thirst.  The Psalmist expresses this today with lyrical power:

my soul thirsts for you O God;

my flesh faints for you,

as in a dry and weary land

   where there is no water. 

The ancients figured out fairly early on that human nature has an awful tendency to look to almost anything and everything other than God to satisfy our innate thirst for God.  Which, they also attest, creates all kinds of problems for us because nothing beside God can assuage our thirst for God (which is an excellent rationale for the First Commandment).   

From the psalmists, to Augustine, to C. S. Lewis, all spiritual wisdom agrees that what we do with our thirst for God, how we seek to satisfy that thirst, shapes our lives for the better or for the worse. (see Rev. Dr. Tim Smith’s www.waterfromrock.org, and the blog post “Thirsty” published 3/4/19)  

Church is a gathering place of the spiritually thirsty.  And that’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But this means church is a gathering of broken, flawed, mistake-prone people.  Jesus describes this community as being for those who are sick rather than those who are well (Mark 2:17).  But we don’t seem willing to accept this.  We hide our authentic selves (our authentic thirst for God), behind a façade of “everything’s fine” which defeats the whole purpose of a faith community.  

I’m not saying this is bad or “wrong” … it’s just an observation. I contribute to it also.  But deep down I see church as a microcosm of the story of creation in Genesis:  In the beginning, all was chaos, a formless void. Then God said, “let there be light” and “let there be (water and life and plants and animals and humanity)”.  God creates out of nothing. God brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death.  And that’s how I see the church—the one hidden behind our facades. In the real world, church is subject to chaos, it’s messy, unmanageable, broken—utterly dependent upon God for life and sustenance. 

Church and worship function best in tandem with other resources and other aspects of church, as well as with resources outside of church, “out there” where God is on the move, always up to something, always offering the sacred and the holy through unlikely people, places and ways.  

We all come away from church acutely aware of how well or how poorly we feel it connects with whatever we’re struggling with.  On any given Sunday in any church, it’s a hit or miss proposition.  On any given Sunday, some leave church feeling like they just drank deeply from a deep well of fresh cool spiritual water, while others leave that exact same experience just as thirsty as they arrived (or perhaps only a mere ice chip or moist swab’s worth).   

Worship at its best can provide draughts of living water through scripture, prayer, liturgy, ritual, music, singing, hymns, preaching, sacrament, fellowship, etc.  At its best church can be a deep well of living water for the parched in spirit.  

At the same time, it also seems as if we have yet to figure out a structure or forum which appropriately allows us to share or channel our struggles and sufferings into the light of church and worship.  We have become adept at engaging worship/church in a way that allows us to anonymously and privately receive comfort in our spiritual anguish, while also keeping it safely hidden.    

The good news is that God is generous by nature, and the Holy Spirit is ever-ready to intercede. I have witnessed sacred moments and connections in worship and church by which living water is abundantly shared and received, and which even allow us to be open and authentic about our depleted spirit.   

And yet. 

And yet I fear that too many of us come to church hoping for or looking for or ready for … something … anything comparable to a deep-well of living water where we might let our thirst be met.  I fear that too many of us sitting here today are struggling with something that has stolen life and joy, and living water. Statistics provide a compelling snapshot of what people are struggling to survive:

  • rape (1 in 6 women);

  • domestic violence (1 in 3 to 1 in 5 women; Men 1 in 4 to 1 in 7);

  • sexual harassment (80% of women have been harassed verbally; 50% through inappropriate touching);

  • prescription drug addiction (1 in 10); 

  • alcoholism (1 out of 16);

  • divorce (1 our of 2 or 3 / 40-50%);

  • pornography addiction (1 out of 3 men);

  • devastating rates of cancer, dementia/Alzheimer’s, mental illness, suicide, etc. 

When I read or hear these statistics, it’s like a prophet’s voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for anyone and everyone here today and in every church who are suffering terribly--all too many in secret, isolated, alone.   

I’m here to say to anyone and everyone here who is suffering today:  

It doesn’t have to be that way.  

You don’t have to suffer in secret or in silence or in isolation anymore!   

It seems to me that Jesus created the church to be the place where we can be real about our lives, a place where community displaces isolation, where support is available to all who seek it. We are here because of Jesus who “never saw disease without seeking to heal it or any kind of human need without turning aside to help”.  I see Jesus here among us right now, seeing each one of us, especially anyone here who’s suffering today.  I hear Jesus say to anyone suffering here today,  

“come, follow me …”     

“ … come away from your suffering, come with me to healing and transformation …”  

It’s amazing to me that I can count on one hand the number of times any person from any congregation I have served has shared about their alcoholism, or their troubled marriage, or their struggles with pornography or with prescription drugs or with any of those issues that are, at least statistically, happening to so many of us.  Perhaps there’s good reasons for this. I hope so. Because I don’t want any of you to try to get through this by yourself. Hopefully you are finding your way to professionals and other resources, experiencing gradual but real relief, growth, transformation and healing and wholeness. 

But I fear this is not the case. I fear that too many are putting up with the depletion of their spirit and their life.  I wonder how many sitting here today, perhaps in front of or behind or beside you today are struggling terribly. Maybe even struggling with something you yourself have struggled with.  

It grieves me know that we have the resources and the people and the Savior who can lead us out of isolation, help us break our silence or anonymity, help meet our thirst.  

You who are thirsty, come to the waters,” the poet-prophet Isaiah cries out to the church! He cries out to all who are depleted to all who thirst for God,

“why do you labor for that which does not satisfy;

Incline your ear and come to me, says the Lord;

listen so that you may live.” 

In April 2018, we hosted workshop on suicide prevention and awareness for faith communities.  It was open to the wider community and was well attended. A good many of the participants were FPC members.  One of the many gifts that came from that gathering, beyond the immediate blessing of creating space here at church for people to gather and connect around the reality of suicide … was, for me, the gift of seeing people who have attended here for many years meet other members of this church whose name or face they maybe recognized or even knew (who have also attended here for years), discover that they had in common the experience of being personally impacted—devastated—by suicide.  

It’s an example of the deep well of living water that’s already here.  Gatherings like this addressing suicide prevention and community support and other critical issues and problems help create a deeper community well. So will gatherings around enjoyable or educational interests such as auto repair or music or book groups or poetry or cooking or gardening, or parenting, etc. There are so many ways we can share this living water with each other, here in this community. So many opportunites also to open our doors to the people who live in the neighborhood.  

This church is a vast reservoir of living water: your knowledge, your experience, your skills, your interests, your passions; your struggles, your victories and even your defeats qualify you to be the valued member of this community that you already are. Every single person here today regardless of age or circumstance is a drop of living water in the vast reservoir that is First Presbyterian Church.   

Meanwhile, statistics declare that the mainline church is dying.  But that isn’t the full story. What’s happening “out there” is that the culture has changed dramatically. Newer generations do not interact with church the same way previous generations once did.  But people are just as thirsty and hungry spiritually as they’ve ever been—if not more so.  People continue to thirst for connection and belonging, people continue to thirst for God maybe in all the wrong places.  Meanwhile, here we are, followers of Jesus Christ, thirsting for and seeking connection with God, seeking to assuage our common thirst, together and with our neighbor.  

This church is already a deep well of living water.  Whether or not this living water is getting to those who need it most is our work in progress, God’s work in progress among us.  The church is not the only place where God offers living water, but I can tell you that God loves to show up here, God loves to reveal God’s self to us for such a time as this; God is ever ready, willing and able to lead you and me through whatever we struggle to bear.  This church may or may not yet provide the living water you seek, but I believe that God can and will help us improve and grow and discover and stretch toward our potential  

Surely we can, and surely we must.   Because First Presbyterian Church of Rochester MN has not yet peaked in our mission to reflect God’s love in Jesus Christ.  As we follow Jesus Christ together, He shall help us reach our potential to bring comfort, resolution, growth; to lead people out of isolation and into community, out of anonymity and into identity, a cup of living water to those who thirst for God.  Because, O God, you are our God, we seek you, our soul thirsts for you; our flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Come Lord Jesus.

Come Lord Jesus.

Speak Lord Jesus.

We your servants are listening … 

3-10-19 It's Tempting, But...

Thomas J Parlette

“It’s Tempting, But…”

Luke 4: 1-13

3/10/19

 

          Once upon a time, there was father who told his son NOT to go swimming. But it was a hot day, and the thought of a cool refreshing dip in the lake was too much for the boy to resist – so he went in anyway. And the father caught his son swimming.

          “What do you think you’re doing!? I specifically said NOT to go swimming today.”

          “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go swimming, it just sort of…. Happened.”

          “It just happened? Then why are you wearing your swimsuit, your mask and your flippers – and you brought a towel?”

          “I brought them along just in case I was tempted. Mom would kill me if I got my good clothes wet and tracked water into the house.”(1)

          Temptation. That’s where we begin this morning. Jesus has been baptized, he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He has heard that voice from the clouds, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.” And now, Jesus is off to the wilderness.

          Before he goes back to his hometown synagogue to announce his mission, he’s got to figure out a few things. Jesus is in the process of figuring out what it means to be God’s Son. What does it mean to be the One who is pleasing to God? What is he going to do now? Jesus needs to figure out who he really is. And so, he goes to the wilderness, that place of spiritual discovery.

          Now we’ve been to the wilderness before. When you read the story of Jesus’ temptation, you can’t help but think of that other wilderness story, the one about Israel wandering around in the desert for forty years following a guy named Moses.

          You remember that the Hebrews faced many challenges and many temptations out there in the wilderness. There was no obvious source of food or water. It was hot, it was uncomfortable and they weren’t too sure where they were going exactly. And they didn’t have much confidence in the leader, Moses. They often wondered out aloud, “Maybe we would’ve been better off in Egypt – we were slaves, but at least we had food.” And of course, we all remember what happened when Moses went up the mountain and left them on their own for awhile. When faced with their own time of trial and testing and temptation – the Hebrews failed miserably.

          But, as we heard in our passage from Deuteronomy, God did not give up on them. God formed them into a community by giving them a future to hope for in their dreams and a story to tell to their children – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

          We’ve been to the wilderness before, and it didn’t go well. Maybe it will be different this time.

          While in his own wilderness, Jesus meets the Devil. And the Devil says, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread. Go ahead, feed yourself. Use your power to feed others. Wouldn’t God want that? Isn’t that what God did in the desert during Israel’s Exodus? Come, let’s see some of that divine glory.”

          And Jesus answers, “It’s tempting, but… it is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

          It must have been tempting to whip up something to eat after fasting for 40 days. It was probably pretty tempting to consider the possibility of feeding all the hungry people in the land too – nothing gets you followers like free food. But even though Jesus will be called to feed the hungry, there is a bigger issue at stake.

          Then the Devil showed him all the Kingdoms of the earth, he offered Jesus all the political power he could dream of. Just think of all the good that could be done if you had that kind of power, Jesus The spirit will be upon you to bring justice and release to the captives. Just think how easy that could be if you had all the political power the world had to offer.

          But again, Jesus answers, “It is tempting, but… it is written, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”

          “Okay,” says the Devil, “let’s try something else. Let’s go to the top of the Temple and I’ll show you I know my scripture too.” For as a guy named William Shakespeare would one day write, “the devil quotes scripture for his own purposes.”

          And the Devil proves that true here. “You know it is written, He will command his angels to protect you, on their hands they will bear you up.”

          So let’s have a little fun. Since you are the Son of God – throw yourself off the Temple and let’s see if the angels catch you.

          “Ah,” says Jesus, “yes, I know that verse. It’s tempting, but scripture also says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

          And that’s the end of the scene. The Devil leaves, deciding to bide his time and wait until a more opportune time.

          On our first trip to the wilderness, Israel, God’s chosen people, were tempted and failed. They failed to put their trust in the Lord their God. But on this second trip to the wilderness, Jesus, God’s chosen and beloved Son, faces temptation and he triumphs. He faces perhaps the greatest temptation, the original temptation, and he overcomes it. The temptation here is not just about fresh bread, or political power, or having your own personal security force of angels watching over your every move. The real temptation here is the same one presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden at Creation. The temptation to be like God.

          You remember the story. God created the world and everything in it and called it good. God created man and woman and made the Garden of Eden for them to live in. The only condition? Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

          But then the snake, the symbol of the Devil himself, convinces the woman that it will be okay to eat the fruit, because then you will be like God. And both the man and the woman give in to this temptation – to be like God.

          The original sin, the original temptation?- is to be like God, possessing all the wisdom and knowledge that God has. That is the greatest temptation that we face.

          Early on in Christian theology, a name was given to this temptation. Gnosticism. According to Harold Bloom the author of a book called The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Gnostics hold two absolute convictions:

1.    Human beings have a spark, a breath of God within them.

2.    That spark can find its way back into a fallen world through Knowledge – or “gnosis.”

In other words, Gnosticism is the belief that we can save ourselves. Through knowledge, we can bring about our own redemption. We need only to look within ourselves. We can be like God. Equality with God is attainable. Through some secret, higher knowledge, we can be like God.

That’s the real temptation for us, and for Jesus – to be like God. But here, Jesus overcomes that ultimate temptation. As Paul so eloquently put it in Philippians: “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”

Yes, it’s tempting to try and be like God, especially for Jesus – God’s Son, the chosen one, the beloved. But Jesus answers this temptation by emptying himself and choosing instead the path of self-sacrifice and service. A choice that would ultimately lead him to the cross.

But as Paul explained, “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”, at least, not yet. He will get there, but not now… not yet. There is work to do first. That is the work we relive in the season of Lent.

It is tempting to be like God, to act like we are in control of life. But Jesus shows us the way to deal with this ultimate temptation. Empty yourself, live by the word of God, and serve only the Lord.

It’s tempting to live otherwise, but… let God be God.

Amen.

 

1.    Source Unknown.