Growing in God’s Love

Luke 15:1-10

What does it mean to be lost? One of the things I tell Manny, as matter of fact it’s one of our rules of life, #8 I believe; I tell him “Never go into the woods without a compass.” And it’s a good rule. It’s a rule born out of experience. You see, when I first moved out to Birchwood Road, I was excited to explore the endless acres of national forest behind our new home. So, one Friday morning, off I went. It was a beautiful early spring day and I found a few old trails to follow. But, after several hours of hiking, I got turned around. And since I had no compass, I had to rely on my sense of direction. Those of you who know me can see where this is going. I have been loving described as “directionally challenged” by family and friend alike. So, when I passed the same downed tree for the third time, I began to realize that I need to change directions; find a new path. And when I did that, when I was finally became humble enough to give up on the same way and move in a new direction, I found my way out of the woods. What was once lost was now found and there was great joy finding my way home.

One day, the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus had a conversation with some people who were also having some problems find a new path; finding joy. These people were the Pharisees. Now, we’ve learned to think of them as the bad guys, the villains, but they really weren’t all that bad. You see, the Pharisees were loyal and genuine in their worship and prayer. Scripture told them they had a responsibility to give their money to the poor and to feed the hungry. And we know they honored the Scripture, studied it, and lived it out to the best of their ability.

But Jesus was critical of them, and they found themselves on the wrong side of history, because they had a problem understanding the joyful side life and faith. Oh, they were great at proclaiming and enforcing the letter of the Law, but grace, living joyfully and gratefully, these things were outside their purview, outside their understanding of God’s requirements, and most definitely, outside their comfort zone. So, it goes without saying that the Pharisees had a problem with the kind of joy that Jesus generated; joyfully eating and drinking with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors.

So, in order to teach them something about joy, Jesus shared some stories; some parables about joy. He told them about a shepherd who lost one of his little sheep and worried out of his mind, went searching for it. And when he found it he was overjoyed. God is like that shepherd, said Jesus. He told them about a poor woman who had only 10 coins, but one of them got lost. So, she swept the house until she found the lost coin, and she was so filled with joy over finding that coin, that she threw a party to celebrate. God is like that poor woman, said Jesus.[I]

God is over-the-moon when that which was once lost, is finally found; when those who are suffering find healing; when those who are broken find restoration; when those who were excluded, oppressed, considered “less-than” find acceptance. God is overjoyed when the poor and the lame and the blind are invited to the banquet and God is thrilled when even one outsider is welcomed into a community of faith.

Recently, I read an essay in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the “Beer Barrel Polka;” and when the music of the “Beer Barrel Polka” played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance,” and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the “Beer Barrel Polka” began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance,” she snapped at him, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.

“Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years,” she wrote. “When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, “What do you think you’re doing?” He would look at me with sad eyes and say, “I was just waiting on you.” “When I went away to college,” the woman wrote, “I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.

One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance.” He turned toward me and said, “I’ve been waiting on you.”[ii]

My friends, standing at the center of our life; at the center of our faith; is the God who says to us, “I’ve been waiting on you.” God’s been waiting for each of us, individually and as a people, as a nation, to accept the invitation, count the cost, and then live-into our call to be loving, compassionate, and kind disciples of Christ. God is in essence tapping each of us on the shoulder and saying to us, “I believe this is our dance.” My friends, this is our dance, and we are being called onto the dance floor.

But what might this dance look like in real time? Well, I read a devotion on 9/11 this week that really speaks to the idea of find joy in change. Vicki Kemper askes the Biblical question, “’Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?’ In the realm of God,” she writes, “this is not a rhetorical question. It is, instead, both an expression of God’s anguish and a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s an invitation to repent of our divisive ways, cooperate instead of conspiring, and find our security in the God of many names and no borders who laid down all power and every weapon that we might live.

This is not to minimize the terror and loss of that day 18 years ago. Whose heart doesn’t ache with the memory of that impossibly blue sky? Whose knees don’t buckle at the recollection of those mighty twin towers reduced to rubble? I cannot un-hear the awful sound of a passenger plane slamming into the Pentagon. And yet the nations still conspire; we peoples still plot.” Vicki concludes her remarks by saying: “…we can choose to live differently. On this day, of all days, let us recommit ourselves to nonviolence and holy interdependence.[iii]

“Non-violent interdependence” I like that phrase. I mean, isn’t that really the sum total of Christ’s teaching, the real reason he accepted death upon the cross? Wasn’t he advocating for, pleading with the Pharisees to come to grips with a changing world, a world where non-violent interdependence would push aside the old, set-in-stone ways of being? Isn’t this the very core of our calling as people of faith? Non-violent interdependence?

My friends, as we face the world once again this week; and as we go back to our lives, some of them troubled, some of them moving along on and even keel; as we depart this morning, I invite you to consider deeply this idea of non-violent interdependence. How it connect us with our call to discipleship and what changes in our hearts and lives might be necessary to bring it about. And finally, what changes in our nation might we advocate for in order to change the hearts and lives of others? And finally-finally, may each of you find a great joy and celebrate when that which was lost, whatever the “that” may be, is finally found. This is my wish for all of you; this is my prayer for our nation. May it become so. Amen and the people of God said: Amen.

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[i] Thomas Long Is There Joy in God’s House? (www.Day1.org) 2004

[ii] Ibid. Long

[iii] Vicki Kemper A Serious Question for a Horrible Day (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2019

A New Identity

Luke 14:25-33

Who here has ever heard of an ear worm? I know. But it’s not as disgusting as it sounds. An ear worm is when a song gets stuck in your head. This happens to me all the time. I hear a song on the radio and then I sing the same two lines over and over and over. It also happens when I pick the hymns for worship (in Cable) I mean, last week I was constantly humming “Won’t You Let Me be Your Servant”. Does this ever happen to you?

Well, I think creating an ear worm of sorts is the intent of this passage. Luke wants us to come away from this text with a distinct understanding of what God requires of us. And he does this by being meticulous in how he orders events in his gospel. Discovering the meaning of each passage depends upon what comes before it and what follows it. And today’s passge is no exception. Standing alone it seems odd, out of place. But when we consider the immediate context, it begins to make sense.

So, let’s look at the context. The parable immediately before today’s passage is the story of the Great Banquet, the one we had last week. The crux of that teaching was about invitation; who’s invited to God’s table, or, in other words, who’s invited to become a disciple. And we concluded that everyone’s invited. Okay, easy enough. But today’s passage tells us about the cost of accepting that invitation. The Common English Bible calls it Discipleship’s Demands. And the third passage in this series, the one we will look at next week, is The Parable of the Lost Sheep. You remember that one. The Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one that was lost. So, right away we can see a pattern emerge, can’t we? An invitation to follow Jesus, what it means to accept that invitation, and finally, becoming lost or the result of not accepting the invitation.

Interesting. But for now, for today, let’s look at the cost or demands of discipleship. Today’s narrative begins by telling us that a large crowd was traveling with Jesus. So, he decides to offer them a series of teachings about the cost of following him; a cost that involves making discipleship one’s first priority.

Now, Jesus begins by saying that one must hate their family and friends and even life itself if one is committed to being a disciple. You know, I heard a pastor preach on this passage when I was a twenty-something back in Illinois. And my conclusion was that this old man was off his nut! Was he really saying that in order to be a person of faith I had to hate my family? If that’s the case, no thanks. I’ll go fishing on Sunday morning instead. But after I calmed down, and spoke with a trusted elder in this church, and with Pastor Sandburg, a different meaning began to emerge. What he told me was that loving God first, most, would improve my other relationships. He said this because God’s love in unconditional, and if I understood that, I could then bring at least a portion of that unconditional love into my family relationships as well. Okay, for a twenty-something that was a satisfactory answer. And, as you can probably guess, I continued to spend my Sunday mornings in church. The fish would have to wait.

And this morning, I’m going to offer this as the first “ear worm” that Luke wants to plant in our brains. We should love God first because the gains that we will realize from feeling that unconditional love will improve how we love our family, our friends, indeed, life itself.

But I’m still troubled by the word “hate.” Anyone else with me here? We’re told over and over again to love, right? Love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy, love beyond all measure, love those who hate you because of your faith, love, love, love. So, what’s really going on? Why did Jesus use the word “hate.” Well, as we’ve seen before in the gospels, Jesus uses hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to get his point across. Remember the camel going through the eye of the needle bit? Hyperbole. So, it makes perfect sense that Jesus uses hyperbolic language here to stress the seriousness of what it means to follow him.[I]

And if you’re still not convinced, consider the original language and the choices made when translating it to English. Remember the New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek word used for here is properly interpreted as “hate.” But we must also remember that Aramaic was the common or spoken language in Jesus’ day. And the word used for “hate” in Aramaic is actually what’s called a comparative verb. So, it literally means to “love much less than.”[ii] So, Jesus isn’t telling his audience to literally hate family, friends, or life itself; but rather to value those relationships “less than” one’s relationship with God. Which brings us back around to Pastor Sandburg’s idea of loving God so we can improve our love for family, friends, and life-itself.

Cool, but “hate” language isn’t the only counter cultural notion to fall upon our ears this morning. Jesus also says that to be his disciple one must carry “their own cross.” Now, that doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Doesn’t carrying one’s own cross lead to death? So, what’s going on here? Well, this is about humility. And, first of all, please understand that humility isn’t about becoming “life’s doormat” to be used and abused for others’ convenience or pleasure. Rather, carrying one’s own cross is a symbol of humility. It’s a picture of a life in which one uses one’s gifts and abilities on behalf of the community, accepting sacrifice and complexity and inconvenience as part of one’s own faith journey. [iii] Humility finally isn’t about being weak, it’s about being strong enough to put the good of the other, or the good of the collective, above one’s own self-interest.

And when you do that, my friends, I promise you, you will be better off. When I show compassion toward someone who’s suffering, remembering that compassion literally means “to suffer with,” my suffering becomes less. And I know, it seem counter-intuitive, but it really works that way. Why? Well, I think showing compassion, empathy, opens up something within us, within our hearts, and allows us to become more than the sum of our selfish desires. And if we open ourselves to the invitation, to the demands of discipleship, if we choose to take up our cross, it will require us to put the other before self; it will require us to have compassion for all of those present at God’s banquet table: the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, the asylum seekers, anyone who finds themselves on the outside looking in. It will require us to adopt a new identity.

And that’s the second “ear worm” that Luke seeks to install in our brains this morning: Accepting the invitation means becoming humble enough to adopt a new identity.

My friends, God is inviting us to become a people who exhibit an identity of love and compassion, who advocate for social justice, and who offer an extravagant welcome to all who darken our door. Why? Because God’s invitation to take up our cross comes to us through an intimate, covenantal relationship with God, which then expands into the wider community. And it’s finally through this expansion of God’s love that we find the roots of our faith; that we find meaning in this life. Loving oneself is very limiting, but loving beyond the limits of our imagination, that’s liberating; that’s true freedom; that’s a new identity worth adopting.

And this is where we’ll stop for today. Next week we’ll talk about what happens to us, both individually and as a people or a nation, when we refuse to accept the invitation. Stay tuned.

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[i] Emerson Powery, from his commentary on Luke (www.workingpreacher.org) 2013

[ii] Leslie Holmes Discipleship is Demanding (www.Day1.org) 2007

[iii] Alyce McKenzie. How Not to Respond to an Evite. Edgy Exegesis (www.pathoes.com) 2013

Open Table

Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of my all-time favorite films is called “Places in the Heart.”

It’s a wonderful film. Set in Texas during the 1930s, it’s a film about survival in the face of very difficult circumstances. Sally Field plays a poor widow with small children. You see, her husband, the local sheriff, was accidently shot and killed by a young black man, who, in 1930’s Texas didn’t get a trial but instead was immediately beaten to death and his body drug back to his mother’s home behind a truck. Violence compounded by more violence.

But this young widow found herself in a tough situation. She was forced to take in boarders to make ends meet in addition to working the family farm. Her two borders included a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and an African American man, played by Danny Glover. Glover was also her farm manager and because that was considered above the place of a black man, he faced overt racism, threats upon his life, and he even got a visit from the KKK.

But despite all the hardships, “Places in the Heart” is finally a story of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, hard work, and the power of friendship and faith. And in the end, Sally’s character was able to keep her family together and keep her farm going. Sally Field certainly deserved the Oscar she won for her role in this film.

But, “Places in the Heart” is also one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made. I say this because it has the most amazing final scene. It’s set in church during communion, and as the tray is being passed from person to person, the camera pans across the congregation. And there, all around Sally Field’s character, are all the people who had been important in her life; both living and dead. We see the communion passed from field, to Glover, to Malkovich, to a couple of other characters, and then we see the tray passed to the deceased sheriff, and we see him smile at the young man who accidently took his life, and we see this white man serve this young black man communion. It’s a portrait of the heavenly banquet, the communion of saints, if ever there was one.

Now, I thought about this final communion scene when I read today’s gospel narrative from Luke. It’s a passage in which Jesus is describing God’s heavenly banquet, one which will include everyone, not just the wealthy and friends and relatives; not just the “good church going folks”; but also, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Those on the margins, those who have made mistakes, those who have struggled to be good and who have imperfectly attempted to love God by loving their neighbor; you know, people like you and me. And isn’t that good news! We’re all finally invited to the feast! Can I get an Amen!

Well, this story is typical of Luke’s Gospel. Luke often pictures Jesus eating and drinking with common folk like tax collectors, sinners, or those who are on the outside-looking-in. And this theme of food and drink, hospitality, is a thread that runs throughout this gospel. But the most important thing about Jesus’ hospitality, his feasting if you will, is that his table was always open to everyone; rich and poor, men and women, all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations.[i] Everyone is welcome at God’s table.

This is the principle reason we practice “open communion.” In a little while, when we celebrate the sacrament together, I will invite everyone to the table. “In the United Church of Christ and in this congregation,” I always say, “all are welcome to partake of this sacred meal, no exceptions.” And that means just what is says. Everyone, women and men, those with the enthusiasm of youth and those with the wisdom of years; no matter what your religious or spiritual background; no matter where you are on your faith journey, you’re welcome at Gods’ table. Period.

But how open is our table, really? What barriers, what stumbling blocks do we place in the doorway of our church, perhaps without even knowing it? Who do we leave on the outside-looking-in?

Author and pastor Tony Campolo tells a story of an experience at dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, some years ago. He was checking on the mission programs that his organization was carrying out Haiti. And at the end of a long day, Tony was just plain “peopled out.” So, it was with great relief that he sat down to eat a nice dinner at a French restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince. He was seated next to the window so he could enjoy watching the activity on the street outside.

The waiter brought a delicious looking meal and set it in front of him. Tony picked up his knife and fork and was about to dive in when he happened to look to his right. and there, with their noses pressed flat against the window, staring at his food, were four children from the streets. The waiter, seeing his discomfort, quickly moved in and pulled down the window shade, shutting out the disturbing sight of the hungry children. The waiter then said to Tony, “Don’t let them bother you. Enjoy your meal.” [ii]

My friends, please don’t misunderstand me here. We’ve done an excellent job of becoming an inclusive and welcoming church, in being a congregation that easily laughs and shares sorrows; in becoming a group of faithful people play and prays together. We’re above average in the category of accepting change and we are a community of faith who really, really like each other …most of the time anyway. And, we’re really taking hold of, and running with, the United Church of Christ vision of a creating a “just world for all.”

But, that being said and celebrated, what more can we do? Who, or what groups of people do we still “draw the shades” on? I don’t know. I’m going to let each of you answer that question for yourselves because perhaps the answer is a very individual one. Perhaps some of us harbor anger, or resentment, or unforgiveness toward another person? Perhaps we still have some deep-seated, pre-post-modern racism or sexism or homophobia lurking below the surface? Perhaps it’s something else all-together?

But whatever the case may be, the first step to lifting the shade is to recognize the person or group of people with whom we are struggling. To recognize them as the imperfect, beautiful, wounded, beloved child of God they are; and then to realize that they’re exactly like us; that we too are imperfect, beautiful, wounded, beloved children of God. And it’s in the recognition, this recognition of our “same-ness”, that we can begin change our hearts and minds. It’s when we begin to look through the stereotypes, when we begin to disregard the Tweets and the hate-filled rhetoric and the constant name-calling and begin to see people as, well, people; it’s then, my friends that we can truly open our hearts and our minds and our doors to everyone …everyone …no exceptions.

One final thought this morning. “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.'”[iii] Hospitality “can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.’”

My friends, as we come to the table today, and as we leave refreshed by God’s love, may we each seek to live heart-centered lives. May we be introspective and inquisitive and innovative when it comes to creating a space that’s not only inviting to everyone, but a sanctuary that is both safe and sacred. And finally, as we begin to open the shades and let the light of our loving God shine in, may each of us find the peace and the faith and the wholeness and the grace that awaits us when everyone, everyone, has a seat at the banquet table; when everyone has a place to call home.

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

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[i] Eric Shafer How Open Is Our Table? (www.Day1.org) 2010

[ii] Tony Campolo, Stories that Feed your Soul. (California: Regal Press, 2010) pgs. 104-106

[iii] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. (found at www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Healing Reign

Luke 13:10-17

It’s a simple story really: on the way to Jerusalem, while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, a “bent-over” woman passing by, evoking Jesus’ compassion. Does the woman ask for healing? No. Does Jesus seem to care that it’s the Sabbath? No. Remember, healing of a non-life threating illness wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath. And so, without being asked, Jesus called her over, and restored her both physically and communally, that is, she would no longer be an outcast in her community. And he did this by placing his hands on her, just as one would when sharing a blessing. And as the woman was blessed, and freed from her infirmity, she recognized the source of her restoration: Jesus.

Now, you would think that everyone in the Synagogue would be amazed and grateful to witness such a thing? But no, not everyone anyway. The leader of the synagogue was upset by this breach of the Law and tells the crowd, which undoubtedly includes many others in need of healing, that they should come back tomorrow, when the timing will be more appropriate for such things as healing. The leader saw the Law as carved in stone; something that should be followed to the letter, while Jesus viewed the Law from a perspective of grace. Like I said, simple enough.

But as in all Biblical narratives, there is so much more to see. As always, when we consider the setting of the story, and its parallels with other stories, we begin to experience even more of its power and meaning. [I] So, that being said, this isn’t the only time Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, is it? This isn’t the first time he healed while teaching in the synagogue and this isn’t the first time he’s provoked the ire of the religious leaders, and, guess what? It won’t be the last.

Sharon Ringe in her exegesis on Luke describes the situation of the bent-over woman in a rather unique way. She holds that the woman’s condition could be translated as “a spirit of weakness” “Her weakness itself,” Ringe says, “is regarded as the power that holds her captive to restricted movement, to the inability to meet another person face-to-face. [But] …the words that effect the healing deal with what has enslaved her”[ii] Isn’t that interesting! Ringe is contending that the language used by Luke here is that of moving from bondage to liberation.

Do you remember back a few months ago in several sermons and in our Bible study on Luke, we learned that chapter four was the key to the rest of the Gospel of Luke? That it was something like his thesis statement? Jesus stood in another synagogue and began his public ministry with these words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[iii]…to liberate the oppressed.

Do you see where I’m going here? Jesus began his public ministry with this statement about personal and social justice, and then, he followed through with acts of justice, acts of kindness, acts of grace. And this justice proclamation reveals itself in our time as well. The healing of a woman who was being held in bondage is symbolic of the human condition. Every Sunday, all sorts of burdens are carried into our church. Some, like the bent-over woman’s condition, are more visible than others. But others are not.

As you look out across our congregation, what do you see? The weight of many years of suffering on one person’s face or the crushing hurt of a new and painful reality in another’s eyes. Perhaps there are people here in our midst today who have known the pain and oppression of being marginalized or alone in the wider community, if not within the church itself. But do we notice them, the way Jesus noticed the bent-over woman? Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid, or to miss entirely? [iv]

Now, I’m going to share with you a story about just such a person. We’ll call her Maria. Maria could have checked all the boxes of someone who might be considered an outsider in society. She had three children by three different fathers. She was undocumented and unemployed. Church members would see her at the food pantry each month and it was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that Maria also struggled with addition; drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. And the creme-de-la-crème, she was bi-sexual, and found herself in another abusive relationship, but his time with a woman. It would be easy to look past someone like Maria.

But just as important as seeing someone like Maria, being gracious to her, being kind and compassionate to here; is our response to her in real time. Our hearts may be touched by her plight, but there is still another step to compassion. If we desire to move past a place of judgment and into the realm of grace, we must think about what kinds of deeper healing we might offer to the Marias in our midst.

But what might that look like? Well, enter Ann. Ann did see Maria. Ann didn’t consider her as a burden to the state nor did she see Maria as someone to be deported or shamed or ignored. But instead, Ann understood the deeper meaning of compassion. Compassion literally means “to journey with” someone through their struggles. And that’s what she did. Yes, Ann offered Maria assistance in the form of food and cloths, especially for her children. And Ann connected her with an organization that provides safe housing for battered women. Yes, she did all of those things, but seeing Maria, really seeing her, required a deeper response. And that response came in the form of friendship. Ann befriended Maria. Not some surface, polite kind of friendship, but a real, deep, caring relationship. Ann build trust with Maria, a trust that went both ways. And in the end, Maria, began to find a way to become sober, to be a better mother to her children; Maria, through being seen, gained the self-confidence and self-respect to look beyond her current bondage toward the liberation that awaited her.

That’s what Jesus is driving at here. When he said I come to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed,” he was talking about the Marias in his midst and in ours. Jesus came to restore people who have made bad choices; people like you and me. He came to proclaim release to people who are captives of bad situations that have been thrust upon them; people like you and me. Jesus came to restore sight to people who have been blind to the plight of others around them; people like you and me. My friends, Jesus came to liberate those who are “bent over” by the unjust systems of this world: systems that value monetary gain over the preservation of the earth; systems that put the comfort of the few above the survival of the many.

And our calling, our charge if you will, from Jesus himself, is to not only see these injustices, but to respond to them with compassion and grace by building relationships with all kinds of people who are currently outside of our circles; the bent over women and men and the Marias of this world.

My friends, like I said before, this story is a simple one. And if are so inclined, we can make this simple story, this story of healing and restoration, our story as well. If it’s indeed our desire to build relationships with those who are on the margins of society, by extending an extravagant welcome into this community of faith, we can make this simple story our story as well. And finally, If we respond to God’s grace with gratitude, with compassion, with love; this simple story will become our story.

May it be so. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Katheryn M. Matthews Out of the Shadow (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2019

[ii] Sharon Ringe from the Luke: Westminster Bible Companion found at (www.ucc.org) 2019

[iii] Luke 4:18-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iv] Ibid. Matthews

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.

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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.

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[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