Restore Us

Luke 12:22-31

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.  And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.[I]

The poem that I just shared, entitled I worried by Mary Oliver, is a wonderful introduction to our subject today: worry. Like I said before, we all worry. We worry about the things in our lives we cannot see and things of the world that we cannot control; and yet, “Faith,” according to St. Augustine, “…is believing what you cannot see, and the reward of faith is seeing what you have believed”.[ii]

And in our text for today Jesus seems to be “piling on.” Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, he says, but instead, seek fist the Kingdom of God. Yah. Right. Good luck with that. If a person is hungry, you can bet they’ll be worrying about where their next meal will come from and if a person is naked, I can guarantee you that they’ll worry about finding some clothes. That only makes sense. So, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is driving at here. I think his message runs a little deeper.

Now, one way to unearth this deeper message is to read the text from a different perspective. I love the way Eugene Peterson presents this passage. He says, “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. [God] wants to give you the very kingdom itself.[iii]

God-reality. God-initiative. God-provision. Reality. Initiative. Provision. What a wonderful alternative to worry. I mean, we often drive our selves almost insane with worry about things over which we have very little or no control. But what if we could find a balance between a sane amount of worry and thinking about and acting upon the things, we can have influence over? That’s reality. Right? There are real problems in our lives and in the world about which we can make a difference if we take the initiative to do so. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If we realize that God has given us the provision, (and by provision I mean the means) to take action, to advocate for justice, to dialogue about peace, to accept our calling to be sharers of the good news by sharing the love and the grace and the compassion of God in the world; then, we can transform our sense worry, our anxiety, our mode of panic into a mode of urgency.

Which, of course, begs the question: What’s the difference between panic and urgency? Well, panic is a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons. We have all seen what panic looks like. Panic has no sense of purpose. Panic makes us run away from the problem. Panic gives a sense of hopelessness. Panic says there is no way out. For example, if I’m claustrophobic. When I feel trapped, I panic.

On the other hand, a sense of urgency is different. John Kotter, a Harvard professor, stated that true urgency may sometimes involve moving fast. But the most important aspects of true urgency are relentlessness, steadiness and the purposeful pursuit of a goal while “…continuously purging irrelevant activities to provide time for the important.”[iv]

And that gets to the very heart of Jesus’ message to us today. We must be relentless and purposeful in purging irrelevant worry to provide the time for what’s urgent.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Climate change is urgent! But if we panic and crawl into a hole somewhere and make ourselves sick with worry; or if we deny that it’s even happening and that our human centeredness is causing it; or if we throw up our hand and say, there’s nothing I can do about it; then we’ve lost. These responses to the on-going climate crisis are finally acts of hopelessness.

But there is hope. Jesus says, “All of the nations of the world long for these things.” He’s talking about food and clothes of course, but we can expand this thought to include clean water and clean air, a diverse habitat for all of God’s creatures, billions of new broad-leaf trees that will produce more oxygen and absorb more carbon dioxide. There is hope! And we can propagate this hope if we’re accountable to the future rather than the present. We can be this hope if we would choose to make every important decision, (politically, communally, and personally) with the next seven generations in mind. There is hope! If we, as a people, can reduce our preoccupation with getting stuff, and instead, respond to God’s giving by being generous to the earth and those who live upon it, then we will, as Jesus said, get the “very kingdom itself.” There is hope!

Do you see how this text encourages us to look past our worry and put away our panic? Do you see how it can help us to take on an urgent situation, any situation, personal or global, by calmly envisioning a solution? Worrying, excessive worrying anyway, prevents us from taking the initiative and using the tools that God has provided.

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.  And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.[v]

My friends, may we go out into the morning of this new day and sing a song of faith, a song of God’s provision, a song … of hope.

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[i] Mary Oliver. I Worried (lakesidemusing.blogspot.com) 2011

[ii] Gil Watson Get Your Thinking Right (www.Day1.org) 2011

[iii] Eugene Peterson The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005) pg.1608

[iv] The Difference Between Panic and Urgency. (www.Feld.com) 2009

[v] Ibid. Oliver

Living into the Promise

Luke 12:32-40

Where your treasure lays there your heart will be also. This is one of my favorite Biblical statements. It’s saying, “the thing on which I focus my attention, the thing that I invest my time, talent and treasure to bolster, that’s the thing that I treasure most. I get that. It’s pretty simple.

My grandfather was a great example of this. He lived through 50 weeks a year for the two he spent up here on vacation. Northern Wisconsin, especially the Chippewa Flowage, I would wager was the treasure of his heart. Once when I was about 12-years-old or so, I came up here with my grandparents on vacation. And it was remarkable to me how grandpa’s demeaner changed as the fields gave way to forest and the Northwoods began to surround us. You see, my grandfather, Cham was his name, has some strongly held opinions and he never seemed to be afraid to share those opinions with whoever happened to be around, including his 12-year-old grandson. I’m pretty sure I learned most of my cuss words from my grandpa. Now, it was lost on me then, but as I look back, I can see that his attitude improved, and his anxiety began to fade as we continued northward. And once we were on our campsite, with pop-up camper fully assembled, he was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him. As a matter of fact, I recall his saying to me on that first evening as we looked out across the lake, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

The woods and the lake, camping in the wilderness with my grandma and me, that was a place and a time that my grandfather treasured. It was one of the things in his life that truly spoke to his heart. And, like I said before, sometimes it’s as simple as that. But not always. I say “not always” because this teaching about “treasure and heart” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like every other passage of Scripture, that we examine and try to apply to our lives, it’s subject to the material that comes before and after it. So, if we look back to the beginning of chapter 12, we find the key element, the thesis statement if you will, for this entire section of Luke’s Gospel. Verse 1 says, “Jesus first began to speak to his disciples: ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees – I mean the mismatch between their hearts and lives.’”[i] And he goes on in this chapter to offer several dimensions of faithful discipleship; several ways in which our hearts and lives might come into sync. Jesus warns against greed and worry, and he warns the disciples (and us as well) not to be afraid of worldly powers, but instead to have faith in divine power. So, the key here is this idea of a mismatch between our “hearts and lives.”

Which brings us to the text that we have before us today. In our lesson, Luke gives us two additional dimensions of living as faithful disciples; two additional ways in which we can match the passion of our hearts with the actions of our lives.

First, we are encouraged to focus on divine rather than earthly treasures. Now, this is an expansion or a deepening of last week’s lesson about greed. Remember the farmer in the illustration wasn’t called a fool for being wealthy or because he saved for the future, but rather because his priority wasn’t focused on gratitude to God for his abundance. And because his priority was solely on the accumulation of wealth, he was clear that he was unwilling to share any of his goods with those in need. In the verbiage of today’s lesson, the rich farmer’s heart treasured his material wealth above service to others or gratitude to God. There was a “mismatch” between his heart and life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his brilliant theological work The Hobbit, puts these words in the mouth of the wizard, Gandalf the Gray: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage, and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”[ii]

I think this is good advice considering the current state of our nation and world. If more of us treasured in our hearts “food and cheer and song” in other words, relationships, rather than material wealth, the world certainly be a “merrier place.” I mean, what if we were to treasure the person above the stereotype; what if we were to put the needs of others or the needs of this planet before our own self-comfort; what if we were to treasure justice and peace and equality; these things that God has called us to not only to treasure our hearts but passionately pursue in our lives, what if we were to make these things a priority? Wouldn’t this world indeed be a merrier place?

And what’s more, I think, the biggest and most divisive issues we face in the world today, would, at the very least, be put into perspective. Climate change and the loss of so many species of insects and animals; the immigration crises, and the bigotry and racism that have surfaced as a result; mass-shootings, violence against the most vulnerable; all of these things, I would argue, are the result of treasuring wealth above all else; a mismatch between the heart of this nation and lives of her people.

Which leads us directly into the second dimension of this text: we are always to be ready for the unexpected presence of God in our midst. Luke tells us to be dressed for action and to have our lamps lit so we will be ready when God shows us. “Now wait just a cotton-picken minute,” you might say, “Aren’t you always telling us that God is with us all the time, no matter what?” “Why should we be waiting for God to show up if God’s already here?’ Good question, glad you asked. I’m glad because it leads us right to the last line of today’s text. Jesus says, “You also must be ready because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.” Now, this line in theological terms is about what’s called “Parousia” (παρουσία) or the “second coming.” This is a subject we don’t dig into very often here on the progressive end of Christianity. I think this is so for a couple of reasons.

First, the rise in the last century and a half of all this rapture nonsense. Rapture and second coming are not the same thing! Rapture theology is this idea that on and “great and terrible day of the Lord” all the Christians will be swept up, raptured into heaven, while all the rest will be left behind in misery. The problem here is that rapture theology is neither traditional nor is Biblical. It’s comes from taking a bunch of end-of -the-world passages and jamming them together to make them say what the theologian wants them to say. So, of course, we’ve resisted viewing the Bible in these terms.

The second reason I think we’ve resisted second coming language ties back into our text about treasure and hearts. As a church, as a movement of progressive Christianity, our heart’s treasure has been strongly focused on social justice. Absolutely a good thing and we should keep it up! But in our understanding of justice as the highest end, we sometimes shy away from the mystical, more spiritual side of our faith. And we do that, I think, to our determinate. I say this because in the end, this idea of second coming is mystical. By mystical I mean beyond our understanding, at this point in time anyway. And since our faith tells us that God is with us, always, and that God is Still-Speaking, still present, still creating in the world today, it stands to reason, to me anyway, that “second coming” is less about Jesus coming down on a cloud at a fixed point in time then it is a continuing progression toward that day when God’s justice finally prevails on earth; that great and wonderful day when God’s reign of peace is indwelled by all of creation; a time and a place, somewhere in the future, when all our hard work for the sake of justice finally pays off, and the heart of this nation and the treasure of her people are finally, finally as one.

May it be so, Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Luke 12:1 Common English Bible

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Loving God Back (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2019

Soul Investment

Luke 12:13-21

Many who hear this parable, especially may wonder: Why is the rich farmer called a fool? One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he doesn’t have enough storage space in his barns. So, he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years.

Isn’t this what we’re encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would have probably been a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?

Well, not exactly. There’s one very important thing the rich man didn’t planned for… God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions. When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”

Do you see what’s going on here? The rich man’s land has produced abundantly, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God or to the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop. This farmer had more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him.[I] You know, there’s a great saying that goes like this: “Greed destroys your soul while gratitude enlivens it, and grace expands it.”

So, what about us? Are we going to let greed destroy our soul? Individually? Collectively? As a people? As a nation? Or will we let our gratitude enliven and reform our thinking. Will we let grace expand our compassion, our love of neighbor; will we let grace expand our circle of caring? I read somewhere this week that “God’s people are not to accumulate stuff for tomorrow but rather to share indiscriminately with the scandalous and holy confidence that God will provide for tomorrow. Then we need not stockpile stuff in barns especially when there is someone in need.”[ii]

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or for our future needs. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy this life. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life.

But all of this, in my mind anyway, finally boils down to one thing: priorities. How we spend our time, invest our money; how we use all the talents that God has given us speaks to our priorities. So, in light of all of this, here’s the question I believe I need to ask myself every morning when I wake up: “Will my priority today be primarily focused on myself and my passing desires, or will my priority be fixated on loving God by loving, and caring for, and being kind to, my neighbor; all my neighbors? Will my priority today be to participate in God’s mission of justice and peace for all people and all of creation in whatever way I can? Will my priority today lead me to think of the other before self?

One final thing today. As I was researching this text for today, I can across a sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago around 1967. And in it, Dr. King said these words: “I’d like for you to look at this parable with me and try to decipher the real reason that Jesus called this man a fool. Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. You see, each of us lives in two realms, the within and the without. Now the within of our lives is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, religion, and morality. The without of our lives is that complex of devices, of mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. The house we live in—that’s a part of the means by which we live. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the money that we are able to accumulate—in short, the physical stuff that’s necessary for us to exist.

Now the problem is that we must always keep a line of demarcation between the two. This man was a fool because he didn’t do that. …he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow, he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldn’t deal with the way to eternal matters. …he looked at suffering humanity and wasn’t concerned about it.[iii] Dr. King was awesome, wasn’t he?

But anyway, this text, this condemnation of greed, is finally another reminder from Luke about the importance of social justice; of the importance of putting the other before self. It’s a reminder that wholeness and healing and restoration don’t come from having a lot of stuff; restoration, true restoration is found in community. Community with God and with each other.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Elisabeth Johnson. Commentary on Luke 12:13-21 (www.workingpreacher.org) 2019

[ii]Shane Claiborne. Quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds. 2019

[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool Sermon Delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago Illinois. c. 1967 (www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu)

Shaped by Prayer

Luke 11:1-13 – A Lesson on Prayer

There are a couple of “take-aways” from today’s text on prayer. The first comes in the sentence: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened”.  We hear these words, and yet I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. I mean, those of us who tend to pray for our own self-interest find in this statement a promise that all our wishes will be granted. Others, who’s most ardent prayers went unanswered, find nothing but disappointment in this text, and perhaps even disregard it all together. Now, to be sure, both of these positions are on the far ends of the spectrum. But perhaps the lesson or the “take-way” here lays somewhere in-between.

A number of years ago I attended a small UCC church in Green Island Iowa for a short time. In that congregation there was a mentally challenged man who fell victim to this kind of quid-pro-quo thinking. In theological terms we call it “prosperity gospel.” In other words, if your rich it’s because you’ve been faithful and if your poor it’s because you haven’t been faithful enough. Now, to be fair, that’s really an over-simplification of this type of theology, but you get the idea. Anyway, this particular man came to my door one day despondent because he thought he wasn’t faithful enough. You see, he had watched a famous televangelist who claimed that if anyone just prayed hard enough, had enough faith, all of their bills would be paid off in three days. Well, three days came and went, and lo and behold, this man’s bills remained unpaid. So, in his mind, he wasn’t praying properly, or he wasn’t somehow being faithful enough. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the very real consequences of thinking of prayer like a genie-in-a-bottle waiting to grant your every wish. It can be damaging to individuals and it’s been my experience that a literal understand of “ask and you shall receive” has driven many people away from the church; away from God.

So, here’s the question for us today: “What do we do with a text like this? How do we understand it?” Well, I think the gospel lesson gives us some clues here.  For example, it’s important to note that this passage on prayer begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends with the words “everyone who asks receives, seeks-find, knocks and the door is opened” This makes it clear to me that Jesus was teaching his disciples, and by extension, us, to pray for a recognition or an understanding of the present Reign of God.

What is it we say in the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The first clue to understanding “everyone who asks receives” is that all of our praying must be an expression of seeking first God’s vision of a global community of faith.[i] My friends, prayer isn’t intended to be a list of “I wants” but rather, prayer is a vehicle or a vessel that moves us a little closer to the Sacred reality of the Divine by aligning our ethics, our values, our compassion for one another with God’s ethic, values, and compassion for all things created. Do you see what I’m driving at here? When we say, “thy Kingdom come” we’re not praying for some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by individual futuristic safe-zone. “Thy Kingdom come” means finding a way to be in tune with the presence of the Sacred reality that is within, around, and through all living things; the spark of the divine; the very breath of God that permeates all of creation.

And what’s more, Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, nor our own self-interest, but by the principles that Jesus expresses over and over again in the gospels; mercy and compassion, peace and justice, freedom and new life.[ii] These are the attributes of faith that lead to recognizing the present Reign of God and the process of building a global community that consists of many faith perspectives, but that holds these values in common. [iii]

So, prayer as a global community building process is the first “take-away” from this text and the second is this: Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God. It’s a both/and situation. While we are to pray for the advancement of peace and justice for all people and the earth, we must also tend to our own, personal sense of peace and wholeness.

But how do we marry these two concepts? Well, there are many references in the Gospel of Luke to Jesus spending time in prayer, and I suspect that he listened just as much as he spoke. In any case, he tells the disciples, and again, that includes us too, that we should talk with God as we would to a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, protects us. Jesus doesn’t speak in obscure theological language. He brings the reality of God’s love home to the people in terms they (we) can understand, the language of everyday relationships at their best and their not so best.

But even when human relationships fall short, whether those relationships are personal or a communal, whether they’re intimate or global in nature, Jesus offers us a story to help us understand the meaning of relationship within the context of grace. He says, in essence, if those who are limited or weak have sense enough to answer the door and help a neighbor, or to give our children good things, not bad ones, well, then, of course, God, who is infinitely greater, more loving, more generous than we are, will give us even more. And that more, according to Luke is the Holy Spirit around and within us.[iv] So, even when the world seems like it’s falling apart, even when the powers-that-be abuse and imprison the innocent, even when we asked but didn’t receive, even in the midst of all of these disappointments, God continues speak in the world and in our lives. How? How is this possible? It’s possible, my friends, because prayer, whether it be personal or global, isn’t about miraculously altering the circumstance of reality or changing God’s mind. Rather it’s about changing our perception of God and of the world around us; it’s about changing our perception of reality. Perhaps my prayer shouldn’t be to change the reality of the situation, no matter how much I would like things to be different. Maybe my prayer should be to change something within me to either accept the reality of the situation; to activity to change my actions or attitudes to align with present reality. All this kind of reminds me of the serenity prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”[v]

My friends, as we go from this place today, may we all continue to offer our prayers of petition and intercession, our prayers of faith and confession, and our prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the on-going creation of a global community and for a deep inner peace that comes when we align ourselves with reality of life and death, of presence and mystery. And may we continue pray for justice and for courage to be a voice change in this broken and hurting nation and world; may we pray for the grace to be kind, civil, and respectful of all people and races; and finally, may we pray for this earth, for the changing eco-systems and climate, and the disappearing bio-diversity that supports all life on this earth. And finally, may we all pray for a deeper connection to all that is Sacred, all the interconnectedness of life, and may we all work toward that day when all of God’s people, all people, are one.

May it be so. Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

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[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.76, where he says, “the whole of the Christian life is a form of this petition.”  See also N. T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer,” in The Christian Century (March 12,1997) 269: “We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way.”

[ii] It might be easy to miss, but there’s another clue here that our praying is to be informed by the principles of the Lord’s prayer, and above all is to be an expression of seeking first the Kingdom.  Matthew’s version of this saying says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).  But Luke’s version says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13).  Luke presupposes that Jesus’ disciples are praying for Kingdom matters–like peace, and justice, and compassion, and new life.  And Jesus promises that God will freely give us the Spirit so that we can not only pray for the Kingdom but also work for its realization in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 154.

[iii] Alan Brehm Everyone Who Asks (www.thewakingdremer.com) 2013

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Prayerful Disciples (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2019

[v] Reinhold Niebuhr The Serenity Prayer (www.thevoiceforlove.com)

Word & Work

Luke 10:38-42

As I said before, if we keep in mind that the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love our neighbor, we can better understand the meaning of this week’s story about Mary and Martha.

What do I mean by that? Well, first, let’s think about all the wonderful people who work in the kitchen during our fellowship time. Think about what the church would do and be without these folks, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they’re needed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the goodies. What would happen to church dinners and, by extension, the gathering of food items for the food pantry, our work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about greeting our guests, when we stand by the door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? Probably not.

So, how do we interpret this text especially in light of the Good Samaritan narrative? Well, one way might be to think of these passages as a two-part story; a two-part story that gets to the very heart of faithfulness. In Luke’s version of the gospel, Jesus begins by affirming the Great Commandment as the most important element, the very foundation, the very heart of faith. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He then follows it with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that teaches us about loving our neighbor. And he then immediately follows that parable with a narrative about two sisters, Mary and Martha, which is a story about loving God.

Do you see Luke’s progression here? But part of the irony in the progression comes when the lawyer asked what he needed to “do” to “inherit eternal life.” But in this little story, Jesus says that all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced, and even nourished, by times of doing absolutely nothing, except sitting and being with God.

What a radically counter-cultural message this is for us! We live in a multi-tasking world that seems to equate busyness with importance; with a long to-do list, which, especially when it’s finally completed, gives us a sense of satisfaction and even security…at least, that is, until we start on a new list of tasks to be completed. For many people, the days are packed with many things, and minds full to overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things.

Last week there was a massive power failure in New York City. Time Square went dark, it was eerie to say the least. But as I watched coverage of the black out the next day, I realized that some of the people of New York did something extraordinary: they sat on their porches and front steps, and they walked up and down the streets and they actually talked to one another, about the power failure, about what folks needed; they checked on one another and we got to know one another better; a couple of citizens even directed traffic because the stop light were out. In other words, they made room and time for community.

What if we were to create such a community with God? What if we stopped spent some time being with God, abiding with God, what if we were to spend some of our valuable time tending our relationship with God, listening to the quiet voice of God speaking to us, deep within our hearts?

Now, in our congregation, I’ve has some visitors express surprise at how much time we spend in silence; our centering time and in silent reflection during the pastoral prayer. One woman said to me, “that’s my favorite part of your service; it’s the only quiet time I got in this whole week, and I wish it would have lasted even longer.” The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.”

Friends, making room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us renews our spirits, and our lives as well, when we walk out the door of our church. Now, I realize that we, and by we, I mean “I”, do a lot of talking in church, we have a very “word” centered style of worship. That’s why worship on Sunday morning should only be a part of our relationship with God. We must also cultivate a daily routine of faithful listening. We simply can’t hear God speaking if we don’t regularly stop and just sit and listen, faithfully, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. Not sporadically, or randomly, or when there’s nothing else to do: But faithfully listen.

How indeed can the Still-Speaking God get a word in edgewise over the beepers, smart phones, texts and tweets, social media and even old-fashioned television and radio messages that bombard us 24/7?  How can we tend to our internal lives like careful gardeners who spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water? It has to be intentional. We must find balance. We have to create a time and a space in the midst of doing the work of justice and peace to simple be in the presence of the Divine.

As we continue our worship service today, I invite you to “faithfully listen” to the words of our Hymn of Response. “You are the seed,” the composer writes, “you are the seed that will grow a new sprout.” May each of us, as we go from this place today, find that balance between faith and works, between doing and being, between faithfully listening and faithfully serving. May we indeed be that seed that grows a new sprout.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen

Surprising Prophets

Luke 10:1-11

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

—————————————

There’s something about faith that simply has to be lived to be understood. I mean, sometimes the gospel only make sense in the homeless shelter, or on the steps of the capitol, or beside a hospital bed; the places where people cry out for mercy, for bread, for justice, for compassion. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent his followers out carrying only a simple message: the message that the Kingdom of God has come near.

I read a story this week about a woman who came to understand the gospel in these terms. Sara was working with an organization called No More Deaths along the United States-Mexico border. No More Deaths exists to provide humanitarian aid to asylum seekers crossing the Arizona desert. So, Sara spent the summer handing out bottles of water and granola bars, binding feet, and seeking medical attention for those who had the greatest need. But the most interesting thing about Sara’s experience is how she described the benefit to her faith. She said that she never felt closer to God as when she worked with those men, women, and children who had been forced to leave everything behind in search of a new life for their families. She said, “I don’t think it’s because I am praying more or reading the Bible any more carefully-there is just something about being here and doing this that makes it all seem so real to me.”[I]

Our gospel lesson for today moves in this same current.  Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples, two by two, to do what he had already been doing. But he didn’t pull any punches about the importance or the demands of this task. Jesus said, “I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way.” In other words, like last weeks lesson, he was calling these shares of the good news to focus solely on the task at hand. So, what was the task? Jesus was sending these out to demonstrate the love of God by healing, teaching, and inviting people to experience the present Kingdom of God. In essence, he was saying, “God’s kingdom is right here on your doorstep, go and share it!”[ii]

But there’s a deeper current flowing here as well. Notice that in this text Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come to you.’ [But] whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’”

Isn’t that interesting? Those who welcomed the disciples received the Kingdom and those who declined to host the disciples also received the Kingdom of God. Far too often, I think we tend to view a text like this as exclusive. By exclusive I mean we tend to think that the Kingdom of God is only for those who are worthy. But that’s not the case here. Instead, this text is radically inclusive!

Walter Rauschenbusch understood this deeper undercurrent of the gospel as well. Rauschenbusch was a theologian and a social reformer who’s considered by many to be the voice of the Social Gospel Movement in early 20th-century America. At a young age, Rauschenbusch became pastor of a German Baptist Church in New York City which was located in a part of the city called Hell’s Kitchen, a depressed area in which poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, disease, and crime were rampant. It was precisely in this setting, not within the ivory towers of scholarship, that Rauschenbusch began to develop his theology of the Kingdom of God. Later, he would write, “The kingdom of God is always coming, but we can never say it has arrived. It is always on the way.”[iii]

And that’s the key to all this! The Kingdom of God isn’t complete! As long as those who have much continue to turn a blind eye to those with little or nothing, as long as our society is divided by race, by gender, or by religion, as long as children are being put in cages, the Kingdom will continue to be incomplete.

So, Jesus was speaking just as much to us as he was to the seventy-two, when he said, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” We are the workers! We are the hands and feet, the heart and voice of Christ in the world today. And a part of our task, an important part of our task, is to invite others to join in this Kingdom work of sharing the love of God with all people. We are to invite others to become fellow harvesters as we move toward a Kingdom that includes all, lifts all, and restores all.

And this is where we reconnect with Mary Oliver and the poem I read earlier. When she wrote, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” she was exposing this same notion of Kingdom. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” she wrote, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

The family of things. That’s where all this is leading us today. When we come to realize that Jesus was, and is still, calling all of us into a single family; all people, all creation, into a single family of things; this is how the Kingdom of God advances, how it grows, and how it begins to move toward completion.

My fellow sojourners, as we continue to work toward a just world for all, as we continue to invite and welcome all people into our congregation, and as we continue to do the hard, long work of creation justice, may we do so with joyous hearts. I say joyous, because the light of the Kingdom is beginning to shine through, beginning to break through the darkness, beginning to be lived-out in the world today through us and our fellow harvesters, those who are among us and those who are yet to come.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

——————————————-

[i] Christopher Henry The Nearness of the Kingdom (Day1.org) 2007

[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke, 145: “the message to those who accept and to those who reject is the same: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’”

[iii] Walter Rauschenbusch Theology and the Social Gospel Westminster John Knox Press, 1997 (first published 1917) pg. 227

A Just World for All

A vision of a just world for all people will guide and shape the future work of the United Church of Christ. It’s a vision that the denomination’s General Minister and President and unified Board of Directors are prepared to own as part of a refreshed set of Purpose, Vision and Mission statements. “I can’t even begin to express how proud I am of our beloved United Church of Christ for articulating not just a purpose, vision and mission —but this purpose, vision and mission,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “Every week I travel the globe witnessing what it looks like when the United Church of Christ commits itself to love and justice,” Dorhauer said. “I call upon every covenant partner to embrace fully this call to love and justice; and to share with leaders in the church what that expression of love looks like in their ministry setting.”

The UCC purpose statement comes from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

The vision: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.

The Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all

 In response to this call from the national setting of the United Church of Christ, and with the blessing of the church board, we will be starting a “social action group.” This will not be a committee nor will it be a sub-committee, but rather a group of people passionate about addressing current social issues such as mental health care in Bayfield County, Creation Justice, Immigration, or the rise of opioid addiction in our area, just to name a few. It’s important to note that the work of this group won’t be to set policy for the congregation, rather to do the “spade work” of each of these issues and then bring recommendations to the board. All are welcome to join. The date and time of our first gathering will be announced within the next few weeks. Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

General Synod 32

Report on General Synod 32, Milwaukee Wisconsin, 2019

What is General Synod? General Synod is a gathering of the entire United Church of Christ that happens every two years. Synod is comprised of national staff, the board of directors, our ministry partners, honored guests, and around 800 delegates from across the denomination, of which, I was proudly a member. As a delegate my responsibilities included committee work on two resolutions, bringing these resolutions to the floor during a plenary session for approval, and voting on the issues that were brought before the entire body. (Remember, these are called resolutions and not “laws” or “rules” because the General Synod speaks to the local church not for us. In other words, these resolutions are recommended to the local churches for prayerful consideration, implementation, or action. But it’s the local congregations themselves who finally decide how to most faithfully respond to each resolution within their own context)

The 32nd General Synod passed a number of resolutions. We passed resolutions affirming our opposition to private prisons, religious bigotry in all forms, white supremist ideologies and racism of any kind, all forms of violence, the use of plastic foam products (i.e. Styrofoam), and the growing threat of nuclear war.

We also passed resolutions in support of the Energy Innovative and Carbon Dividend Act, the Green New Deal, an observance of “Break the Silence Sunday” supporting survivors of sexual abuse and assault, (The Break the Silence resolution came from the Wisconsin Conference!), for the protection of immigrants and their families, and to reestablish a relationship with the UCC in Puerto Rico.

The committee I served on considered and passed two resolutions that granted “historically underrepresented group” status (HUG) to the Mental Health Network of the UCC and The Colectivo De UCC Latinx. This status will give each of these groups increased representation by granting them 4 delegates to each General Synod as well as increased exposure across the denomination.

In addition, we passed resolutions of witness to lift awareness of forced global migration, to encourage the use of non-binary gender language in our churches, and to recognize opioid addiction as a local and national health crisis.

Finally, we sent the board of directors two resolutions for consideration and implementation. One to consider the relationship between our autonomy as congregations and our promise to be in covenant with United Church of Christ. This action constitutes the first steps toward creating a denomination wide Manual on Church. The second resolution sent to the board of directors challenges them to create a set of guidelines for the scope and type of materials that might be displayed in the exhibition hall during General Synod.

Now, on a more personal note. This was my first General Synod and I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was a great experience! I was filled by four unique and wonderfully arranged worship services, inspired by some the best preaching I’ve ever heard, educated in workshops on Environmental Justice and alternative vespers worship, and enriched by new and renewed relationships within and beyond the Wisconsin delegation.

I was honored to serve the national setting of the United Church of Christ in this capacity and I thank you for the opportunity. Now, delegates are chosen to serve at two General Synods, therefore, I must conclude by saying, “Kansas City here I come” for General Synod 33 in 2021. Blessings and Shalom, Pastor Phil

Pick Up The Mantle

Luke 9:51-63

A few years back, I decided to expand my culinary expertise. And by that, I mean learn how to cook something more exotic than mac & cheese. So, I learned how to make a pot roast. I kinda followed a recipe, loosely, sort of, but what I created was awesome! The problem was; however, I could never reproduce it. I always used the same ingredients, but it was never the same dish twice.

Discipleship is kind of like that. Today’s text gives us the ingredients necessary to be people of faith, but the end result may vary. But here’s the thing. Unlike cooking this is a good thing. It’s a goo thing because each of us brings something to the mix. We all have unique experiences and perspectives; we all bring the pain and suffering we’ve endured along with our joys and triumphs; and when we take the ingredients Jesus has given us and add it to our uniqueness, we get a wonderful, diverse, person of faith, a person created in the image of the Living God, loved, and ready to share that love.

This past week I attended our UCC General Synod, a gathering of delegates and leaders from across the spectrum of the United Church of Christ. And the consistent theme across all the sermons, across all the business of the national church, within the work of my committee and implicant in our final resolution, and, I would say, even when we marched on and temporally shut down the ICE office in downtown Milwaukee to protest of caging of children and the mistreatment immigrant families seeking asylum in our nation; the consistent theme was, you guessed it! Discipleship! All of these ingredients when combined with our live experiences, constitutes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in 2019.

And this is where our lives intersect with the life of Jesus. Luke shares a story with us today about Jesus and his disciples as they continue on their journey. A journey of discovery, a journey of faith, a journey that challenged Jesus followers to consider what it means to be a disciple. In the narrative, Jesus invited someone, who had come alongside them, to join their movement. But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” To which Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury the dead. But instead of that, go and spread the Good News of God’s Reign.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my household.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for this kind of work.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and think about the implications of these exchanges. Does this seem kinda harsh to anyone else? What in the world is the matter with suspending your journey for a brief moment of mourning for your dead father or to properly say goodbye to your loved ones? These seem like reasonable requests. Right?

But, (you know there’s always a but) But… if we focus our attention on the surface of story, then we are missing the deeper meaning of this passage. Folks, Jesus isn’t some kinda of “meany” here, he isn’t disrespecting grief or family; the deeper point is one of urgency. The need is immediate. Jesus’ earthly existence is nearing its end and he can read the writing on the wall. So, his call to discipleship is immediate, imperative… it’s urgent. And because this is an urgent call to action, Jesus was inviting his closest followers to bring their whole selves to this calling.And the same is true in our context. Our invitation to discipleship is also urgent and we have been invited to bring our whole selves into the mix as well. We have been invited to continue to be and become on an even deeper level, disciples of Jesus.

Wow. You might be saying right now, that’s a little scary. What if I can’t do it? What if my skills aren’t enough? What if I’m not enough? All valid questions, but unnecessary. My friends, we’ve been given the all ingredients we need for success. And like my pot roast, that success will not be the same for all of us. Each of us will pick up the mantle of God’s call to action in a different way, serving God as best we can in our own unique way. That’s what Jesus means by discipleship!

But while your call to discipleship might look different from mine, its’ important to remember that both are valid, both are equal, and both are urgent! Here’s what I mean. Your call to discipleship might not be to preach, but you might excel at sharing the good news through active listening. Your call to discipleship might not be to visit those in prison, but you might liberate your neighbor by driving them to the doctor or to church. Your call to discipleship might not be to march in a protest rally, but you stand against injustice when you provide a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Your call to discipleship might not be to serve as a missionary in a foreign land, but you are the hands and feet of Christ as you serve in the food pantry, (or work at the Second Chance Sale), or when you give of your time and talent and treasure to the myriad of social justice causes we support and act upon. Your call to discipleship might not take you to the cross, but you take up your cross every day as you stand up for those on the outside looking in, the marginalized, the oppressed no matter how unpopular that position might be.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? These things that you already do and the as-of-yet unknown things that you’re going to take on in the future, are possible because of the ingredients that God has already provided. In a nutshell, those ingredients are what the United Church of Christ has identified as the Three Great Loves: Love of Neighbor, Love of Creation, and Love of Children. And when we bring our whole selves to the mix, when we pick up the mantle of God’s love by loving our neighbor, God’s creation, and our children, it’s then, …it’s then, that we begin to create a “Just World for All.”

One final thought this morning. Back in our text, when some Samaritan villagers refused to welcome Jesus into their midst, James and John wanted “to call fire down from heaven to consume them.” Now, first of all, like that was an option! I don’t know, maybe it was, but it seems like they were getting a little pyro happy to me. And Jesus appears to agree. The text says that he “turned and spoke sternly to them.”

Isn’t it interesting. When the disciples wanted to punish people for not welcoming Jesus, he scolded them. I believe he did this because Jesus understood that hate only begets more hate. So, as we go about co-creating this “just world for all” that we are dreaming of, there might be some push-back. Not everyone’s in the same place. But the lesson here is to respond to push-back with grace, respond to negativity with positive energy, respond to hate-filled words with tones of love and compassion and faith. My friends, creating a just world for all means just that: a just world for all people, even those who disagree with us. It won’t be easy, nor will it be quick. But, if we are willing to mix the ingredients that God has provided; if we are able to pick up the mantle of justice; then we will continue to be and become to an even greater extent, disciples of the Living, Loving God. And that, my friends, is the best tasting pot roast you’ll ever eat! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

Gathered & Scattered

John 13 & 20 – Pentecost & Confirmation Sunday

What a beautiful week this has been. After a cool, late spring, this week was fantastic. Yes, there was some rain, there were moments of warmth and some cooler weather. But mostly, it’s been sunny and pleasant. Now, sunny and pleasant, to me anyway, means time spent in the garden …finally. And as I was in my garden this week, and as I was thinking about today’s message, and as I considered the sermon title: Gathered & Scattered, I was struck by the order of the words. Gathered and then scattered. On first blush, I would have put those words in the opposite order; especially when thinking about our faith …right? Don’t we want to seek the scattered and then gather them into the church?

But as I thought about it some more, and as I continued to work the soil, I decided that I like this order. We must gather before we can scatter. Whether it be seeds or knowledge or faith or people. Before we can be disciples, we must gather the tools needed to reach-out beyond ourselves. Before we can scatter the seeds of hope, we must first find hope ourselves. Before we can forgive, we must be willing to forgive others. And before we can scatter the seeds of love, we must first realize that we are loved, unconditionally, loved, by God.

Now, the text that we heard from John 13 this morning is finally inseparable from the John 20 passage that I read earlier, and, indeed, from Pentecost itself. I say this because these texts both invite us not only to “gather” an experience of the Divine through the Spirit, but they show us how to “scatter” that experience beyond ourselves. Yes, In Pentecost the Sprit has come, and the Church was formed, but how do we (including our confirmands, maybe especially our confirmands) make the Church new, fresh, and relevant for our generation and for generations to come?

That’s the big the question posed to the wider Church today. How can we be relevant in people’s lives? Well, there are any number of ways to go here and believe me, there’ve been many a book written, visioning plans formed, and new ministries launched hoping to solve this problem. But I think, sometimes, in order to solve a new problem, we need an old solution. Jesus’ solution? He says, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

My friends, if we would like to see our beloved church continue to grow, and I don’t mean just in numbers, but in spirit, in compassion and grace, in how we live-into our faith; then this New Commandment, “Love each other as I have loved you” must be our bedrock. But notice something here. Jesus doesn’t say, “My new commandment to you is to go out and try to save everyone” He doesn’t say, the Greatest Commandment is to judge those who don’t believe as I do, or speak the language I do, or love the one I think they should love. No. Jesus said, “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.” And loving one another, loving one’s neighbor begins, first of all with humility. It begins by understanding that we all fall short in one way or another. Love continues to grow when we decide to meet people right where they’re at. And we gather more and more individuals when we scatter the seeds of love beyond just our own faith community. How? By being inclusive of everyone, consistently faithful, and open to change.

This is where John 20 & John 13 intersect. In this text, like I said before, we have John’s version of Pentecost. “…he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’” I’ve made this association before. Rhuwa in Hebrew and pneumatos in Greek both mean “Breath, Spirit, & Wind” Three related concepts all encapsulated in a single thought. So, when Jesus breathed on his disciples, he imparted to them the gift of the Spirit; and, in the more familiar Pentecost account in Acts where the flames are accompanied by wind, we see a more demonstrative demonstration of the Breath of God.

You see where I’m going here. All of this harkens back to the second creation narrative in Genesis where God’s own breath becomes humanity’s breath and then, by extension, across the arc of time and space, God’s Breath, Gods’ Spirit, becomes ours. Our very breath contains a bit of the universe, and the expanse of the universe contains a bit of our being, our essence, …our breath

SO, what does all this mean? Well it means that we’re finally, all, interconnected! to my way of thinking anyway, if all things are interconnected then why in the world would we harm, or destroy, or defame? If we are interconnected with the earth, then why would we not take seriously and try to make a difference as the Global climate changes? If we are interconnected with all people, then why would we welcome some and close our hearts and borders to others? Why would we ever exclude anyone on the basis of religion, or race, or gender identity? In a very real way, whenever we exclude anyone, we exclude ourselves …and God.

How do I know this? Because the foundation of this interconnection, the glue that holds it all together, if you will: is Love. God’s Love. God Is love. “Love each other,” Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

Now, to you, the newest members of this congregation. There can be no lesson more important than “Love each other.” This is a wonderful congregation of people that you’ve joined here today; people who live-into that commandment every day in a whole variety of ways. You already know that. But today, the thing you must try to wrap your minds around, is the fact that you are now fully a part of, intrinsically intertwined with, this group of faithful people. And that’s both a joy and a responsibility. It’s a joy because you get to journey with all of these folks through thick and thin, hardship and celebration; they’ll be there for you when you need them, and you for them.

But there’s also a responsibility. In the United Church of Christ, as we learned in confirmation class, we have a saying: “Make the church your own in each generation.” As we move forward, and continue to grow, you will be the leaders of the congregation. You have the skill, the compassion, and the faith to make this congregation, indeed, the whole of the United Church of Christ, your own in this generation and in generations to come, of that I have no doubt.

So, this my invitation to each of you as you live-into the joy and responsibility of this your calling: Be kind. Be generous. Be humble. Be grateful. Be faithful. But above all else, be loving. Love each other, love your neighbor and the earth, and love God with all your being. And this is God’s invitation to each of us here today Gather kindness and scatter generosity; gather humility and scatter gratefulness; gather faith & scatter the seeds of love. Gather Love from each other, and scatter a love for your neighbor and for the earth, and, in the midst of it all, love God with all your being.

May it be so. Amen and Amen