Planting Life

Luke 17:11-19 – Break the Silence Sunday

Why do you suppose the Samaritan came back to thank Jesus? I mean, Jesus hadn’t made a formal thank you part of the bargain. He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. The Samaritan’s nine partners, obviously, felt no need to return. Why the Samaritan?

As I read this narrative once again this week, I was reminded of something that struck me as odd a number of years ago. You see, I accepted my first full-time call to a country church in rural Iowa. One day I picked up the local newspaper and read the following: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith enjoyed a wonderful meal and pleasant conversation as guests of Mr. and Mrs. Jones this past Saturday evening.” My first though, of course, was “isn’t there anything more newsworthy going on in the community?” But, after discussing it with some life-long residents, I came to realize that this was a part of the tradition; a part of the fabric of a dying way of life; it was an outdated practice that still served an important purpose for the older folks in Geneva: Putting this kind of blurb in the paper was the polite way of showing gratitude to your host. Yes, a thank you card was often sent or perhaps, if prearranged, a dessert was provided, but to publish a brief note of appreciation in the paper for all to read, that was the best way to say thanks.

And this might not be as archaic as you might think. Perhaps you had a mother who drummed into you the obligation to write thank-you notes for birthday or Christmas gifts. I would be willing to bet that some of you have even made writing thank-you notes a regular part of your practice of gratitude. Again, a good tradition. One that is even finding its way into the digital age; email, social media, as a matter of fact, I write the word “thanks” so much in my text messages, that it automatically comes up every time I text. Just another reminder that my I Phone is smarter than I am.

But, even though thank-you notes are become fewer and fewer, I think the sentiment of gratitude continues. And again, this is a good thing. But, clearly, more was at stake in this narrative than demonstrating polite social etiquette; more is going on here than simply saying, “thanks.” Which leads us back around to our main question: Why did the Samaritan return?

Well, part of the answer may be found in the identity of this healed man. He was a leper like the other nine. But he was also a Samaritan. And as such, he was twice scorned, twice rejected, twice removed from the community. As a leper, he was ritually unclean and, therefore, to be isolated, an object, no doubt, of revulsion and fear on the part of his neighbors. And as a Samaritan he would have been seen as an outsider, and a despised one at that, to the more orthodox Jews of Galilee.[I]

And this is key to understanding this passage. Nine lepers obediently did what Jesus told them to do and what they know the Law requires of them. They were being good, observant, faithful Jews. In the story, Jesus wondered out loud where they were, but this is a rhetorical question, he knew exactly where went, he told them to go to the Temple and get their “Good Housekeeping stamp of approval” for the priest so they can go back to their lives, and the sooner the better.

But this outsider, this Samaritan, this “them,” may have been so seized by gratitude and joy that he turned back to Jesus, but on the other hand, the Temple wasn’t a place where he would have felt welcome even if he was cured of his skin disease. There was no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There was no “seal of approval” to make him acceptable in polite society, and there was no ex-Samaritan program that he could have entered to change that, there was no way to “rehabilitate” his otherness. There was no thank you note, no newspaper blurb that would include him in the life and faith of the community. Unlike the nine, there was nothing awaiting the Samaritan but more rejection.[ii]

Or was there? Do you remember when I talked about borders earlier? Crossing borders, breaking barriers, these are the things that were important to Luke. Consider the parables just previous to this passage. There’s a consistent thread running through this entire section of Luke’s Gospel. And the thread that connects all of these texts is grace. And more specifically, testing the boundaries of grace. So, in this story, Luke seems to be telling us about a daring boundary crossing, daring both on the part of Jesus and on the part of the Samaritan. You see, the Samaritan would have never had the opportunity to cross that border without the healing and restoration, the grace, that Jesus demonstrated.

Which brings us to today. Today is Break the Silence Sunday. Break the Silence Sunday, and Prayer Vigil that we’ll host this evening, are intended to raise awareness and hopefully provide a space and an opportunity for healing, for restoration. And the example Jesus gave us in today’s text is perfect! When Jesus said to this man from another country, another culture, another religion, “your faith has made you well” he was providing a safe space for this Samaritan to cross a border of exclusion, a boundary of ungraciousness.

Which leads me to a question that I have for all of you and for myself. The question is this: What boundries to we unintentionally set up that prevent the healing or the restoration of others in our community? What borders do we shy away from, feel unwelcome to cross; in other words, where do we see or experience a “limited” grace in our lives; on our journey?

Well, I think there are multiple answers to each of these question and this myriad of answers are finally unique to each person. But here’s the thing. Progress begins with one step. The Church, and I’m talking about the capitol “C” Church here, the wider Church, the universal Church; The Church has been woefully inadequate in our understanding and response to issues like sexual abuse and domestic violence. We’ve been virtually silent. And, my friends, silence is an answer. Silence screams, “I don’t care about your situation” because discussing it, providing healing, giving opportunity for restoration, these things make me uncomfortable.

But Jesus never once says that “comfort” is a virtue. As a matter of fact, through his actions, he demonstrates that being uncomfortable, being vulnerable, being the one who willing to cross the border of silence, being the one who breaks the barrier of the stigma that comes with being a survivor of sexual abuse, these things are finally what expands the limits of grace. And this is important! Being the one who sets aside judgement and our human tendency toward blaming the victim, and truly provide and space and an opportunity for healing and restoration; that, my friends, is an expansive grace, a Christ-like grace, a grace challenges us to leave the comfort of silence, a raise our voice in support of our sisters and brothers who have been violated.

One final thought here. When we pray for the survivors and as we begin to provide opportunities for healing and restoration, we must also include in our prayers the perpetrators. I hadn’t really looked at it from that angle before. But in a conversation with a criminal defense attorney recently, a person who often represents these offenders in court, I was remined that often they too are victims of sexual violence. Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, this isn’t an excuse for there actions, but rather it’s a disturbing fact and another reason that the Church must be a voice, a cog in the wheel of changing the culture of violence and the cycle of sexual abuse that is far too common in our society.

Now, after our Hymn of Response we will move into a time of prayer, a litany for survivors. And when we get there, I invite you to open your minds and your hearts; your, very being, to the presence of the Spirit, and to the healing and restoration, and yes, the grace that Jesus offers all of us, the insider and the outsider alike, the survivor, the lost, the struggling; those from various faith traditions or from none at all; open your hearts to the grace that God offers the citizen and the immigrant, the asylum seeker and refugee. My siblings in Christ, I invite you to accept the gift of grace that God offers to everyone; even you…

*Hymn of Response           #554 Out of the Depths, O God, We Call

 A Litany of Healing

When I say, “As a Community of Faith Please respond with, “We have Come.”

 

Let us pray… My Siblings in Christ, we have come to listen, to hear things that will unsettle us, and make us uncomfortable, BUT we have come nevertheless; We have come to challenge the status quo.

AS a community of faith… We have come.

We have come to listen to what keeps our friends and family members up at night, to listen with compassion, and love.

As a community of faith… We have come…

We have come to be present for survivors, doing our own spiritual work, so that we might listen without judgement or casting shame.

As a community of faith… We have come…

We have come to remember that not everyone survives the violation of rape and sexual assault, and that the grief and pain overwhelm many who seek to escape through self-harm or suicide.

As a community of faith… We have come…

We come to offer prayers for the offenders; the perpetrators. NOT to offer excuses but to realize that they were often abused as well. We pray for their healing.

As a community of faith… We have come…

We have come to commit ourselves to the messy, difficult, sometimes excruciating work of making this world whole.

As a community of faith… We have come…

We have come! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] John Thomas Gratitude Is More Than Saying Thanks (www.Day1.org) 2004

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Get Up and Go (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Frog in the Milk Pail

Luke 17:5-10 – World Communion Sunday & Neighbors in Need Offering

A frog was hopping around a farmyard, when she decided to instigate the barn. But, being somewhat careless, and maybe a little too curious, she ended up falling into a pail half-filled with fresh milk. Now, not wanting to drown, she swam around in the milk attempting to find a way out. But the sides of the pail were too smooth and tall for her to scale. So, she continued to kick and squirm, until at last, she had churned all that milk into butter and was able to hop out.[I]

So, my question for all of you as we begin this morning is this: What’s the lesson of this little parable? Some might say, “The frog should have been more careful; she should have paid more attention to what she was doing.” Other’s might say, “No, I think the problem here is with the farmer, who leaves half a pail of milk just sitting around?” And still other might say, “The lesson here don’t quit, keep swimming until an opportunity presents itself.” What do you think?

Well, I shared this frog story today to demonstrate that there are a verity of ways to interpret the meaning of a parable. A parable may say one thing to you and speak another word to me. Sometimes the deeper meaning may be obvious while in other parables the lesson remains opaque. Some parables make us stand up and cheer, while others give us pause or cause to worry. The point here is that the lesson of a parable is often in the eye of the beholder. That’s simply the nature of the beast.

Take for example the parable we have before us this morning. The disciples after hearing about millstones and stumbling blocks and the need to forgive over and over again in the previous verses throw up their hand in expiration and say to Jesus, in essence, “If we have to do all these things, then increase our faith.”

What’s interesting here, to me anyway, is his response. Jesus doesn’t say, “Here ya go, here’s all the faith you want” Instead, he says, “Suppose one of you has a servant,” …this is the indicator that a parable is coming by the way; “Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? [Of course not.] Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; [and] then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? [Well] It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”[ii]

So, what’s going on here? Well, similar to last week’s Parable of the Prodigal, this text is about grace. Buried under all this obscure language with seemingly harsh overtones, underneath our understanding of mustard seeds and flying mulberry trees, and even beyond the surface references to faith; the foundation of this parable is grace. And this is important! It’s important because it’s finally not about how much faith the disciples had but about the quality and character of that faith. Jesus was pointing the disciples, and by extension, us, toward understanding faith as a gift from God and that we should use this powerful gift simply by doing what’s expected of us. And the grace in this text is that God offers us the opportunity to live-out our faith in a variety of ways; some easy and some, frankly, are costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it’s grace because it calls us to follow Christ.”[iii]

So, the challenge, both then and now, has nothing to do with acquiring more faith, but instead, to accept and live-into the gracious gift of faith by participating in the present realm of God.[iv]

Okay. That sound great. But what does living-into the present realm of God actually mean? Well, today is a wonderful opportunity to answer that question. It’s World Communion Sunday and Neighbors in Need offering. Today is about unity among the faithful and, at the same time, caring for our neighbor. I mean, I can’t think of a better combination of actions as we think about living in the presence of the Sacred.

World Communion Sunday is about unity, finding common ground, with Christians all across the globe. Yes, like the parable of the frog, there are many different interpretations of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And in some cases, these differences are very significant. But today is meant to bridge our divergent theologies and to help us realize that we are all meant, as the Gospel of John so wonderfully stated it, …that we are meant be one. Unity within our diversity, conversation rather than accusation, sometimes agreeing to disagree; these are all virtues upon which we can all improve, not only in the Church, but in our society as a whole. Remember the vision statement that we so enthusiastically adopted this fall? “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” World Communion Sunday is an opportunity to begin to live-into the first part of that vision, “United in Christ’s love.”

And here’s the really cool connection in all this. Neighbors in Need offers us the opportunity to live-into the second part of our vision statement, “A just world for all.” When we reach out beyond ourselves and own self-interest, when we choose to get our hands dirty and participate in the hard work of justice, when we offer not only our resources but our whole-selves to satisfy the needs of our neighbor, we live-into our vision.

And here’s the thing. It’s like Jesus said in the parable; this is what’s expected of us. Seeking unity, loving God by loving our neighbor, is what God expects. And Jesus is saying that it should come as naturally to us as breathing or, since we’re talking about frogs today, a naturally as falling off a log.

One final thought before we move on this morning. I opened today with a quote from Maya Angelou. “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage,” she said, “you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” My Siblings in Christ, as you leave here today, and as you face once again the difficult world out there, may you all be encouraged… encouraged because I know you all have at the very least a mustard seed of faith and Jesus says that’s all you need! And I also know that the character and the quality of that faith will shine through. Have courage, my friends, courage to face a new day, new challenges; have the courage to paddle around until all the milk of despair is churned into the butter of hope. May it be so for you and for me. Amen & amen

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[i] Frog in the Milk-Pail. Found at www.parablesite.com

[ii] Eugene Peterson The Message Luke 17:5-10 (NavPress Publishing Group) 2007

[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 45.

[iv] Feasting on the Gospels Vol. 2 – Cynthia A, Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) pgs. 110-115 Homiletical Perspective by Katie E. Owen.

Surprising Investment

Luke 15:25-32

When we hear the Parable of the Prodigal we usually think about it in allegorical terms. In other words, we view the father in the story as God and someone we know, or perhaps ourselves, as the prodigal come home. This parable tells us that God is forgiving, and we think about the image of God running out to meet us as I suggested last week. And we think of ourselves as repentant, having changed our hearts and lives, and that makes everything huncky-dory, right? At least that’s the way it should be.

But then there’s that older brother. A wrench in the gears of our happy ending. A fly in the ointment of a wonderful story about forgiveness. Why in the world would Jesus add this character to the story? And if this is indeed an allegory, then who’s the older brother supposed to be? And if we look at this text as something more, something beyond allegory, where might we see unforgiveness in our lives, in our world?

Well, to seek an answer to these questions, I think we need to look at the context of today text. As I read through the entire parable again this week I noticed something. I noticed a key line, an important contextual clue, that I miss last week. In verse 11 we’re told that the father divided his inheritance between the two sons. It’s not that he gave the younger son some cash and hung on to the rest. He gave it all to both sons, 50/50. What that means is, when the father calls for a celebration to be held, when the fatted calf is butchered for the feast, and when he gives the wayward son sandals, a ring, and the best robe – this stuff belonged to the older son! It was taken from his half of the inheritance! I mean, our capitalistic American brains can reasonably say at this point that the older son has a right to be angry. It was his stuff that his father was giving to this playboy of a brother of his. That’s not fair. He worked hard for it. This just isn’t right. So, what’s Jesus up to here?

Well, I think Jesus told his stories to turn our world upside-down, to shift our thinking from “a human point of view,” and to shake us up in such a way, that in our dizziness, we might come to realize that we may not have it all figured out; that in our certainty, we may have missed the point.

Like the older brother. He had it all figured out. He knew what his father’s welcome of his no-good brother was costing him. He also had in mind a pretty good picture of how his sibling wasted his share of the inheritance. He said, “…but then this son of yours comes home after wasting all your money on prostitutes,” Dad. And “you killed the fatted calf for him.” I’ve not been wasting my inheritance, I’ve been working hard, keeping this place afloat, but there is no celebration for me.

Now, the twist here is that the older brother was just as lost as his younger sibling. He just can’t see it. Furthermore, he doesn’t really know how to celebrate. You see, joy doesn’t depend upon everything fitting together as we think it should. Sometimes we can be so dutiful that we miss what’s really-real. The reality here is that what was once dead had come to life, what was once lost had been found. This story is about a fresh beginning, a second chance, a new creation – for all of us, prodigals and prodigies alike.[i] The older brother was focused on what he was losing, namely wealth, rather than seeing the really-real that was right before him.

I read a story recently about someone seeing the really-real. Millard Fuller, as many of you might already know, was a businessman who heard God’s call to share his vast wealth with those who were struggling by starting an organization called Habitat for Humanity. Now, the following story is about a visit he made to Charlotte North Carolina a number of years ago, and specifically, his introduction to the crowd.

“We decided that instead of having a professional, preacher type to introduce him, we would get a resident from a Habitat House,” said Rev. James Howell, the teller of this story. “We asked Melissa Cornet; tall, gangly, not an accomplished speaker. She was nervous. She poked around for words, but then suddenly began to speak directly to Mr. Fuller, who was sitting on the front row: ‘Millard Fuller, you are the answer to my prayer,” she said, “I grew up in a tenement, a terrible place, full of drugs, violence. I wasn’t nobody, knew I’d never be nobody. I grew up and had a little boy, and there he was, in a terrible place. I knew he wouldn’t never be nobody either. So, I got on my knees and I prayed, I prayed hard, I said, Lord, I will do anything, I will give up my life. But please, please, I just want my boy to have a chance to be somebody. Millard Fuller, when God told you to give away your money, you were the answer to my prayer. I heard about Habitat, and I got to build a house. Before we moved in, my boy had started school, but his teacher said he was slow, he would probably never catch up. He never smiled. But then we moved into our new house. He had his own room. And he began to shine that day. He got to where he played and had fun. And he started making good grades in school. Now he’s in the third grade, and he’s making straight A’s. The other day, my boy said to me, Momma, do you know what I want to be when I grow up? I said, No, what do you want to be? He said, I’m going to be a doctor. Millard Fuller, you’re the answer to my prayer.’”[ii]

My friends, this parable is about more than sibling rivalry. It’s about more than just forgiveness. It even about more than changing our hearts and lives. This parable is about grace. The grace to forgive and be forgiven, and to forgive ourselves. The grace look beyond my steady success and celebrate the return of one that was lost. This Parable of the Prodigal is about finding the grace to take what we’ve earned, our wealth, our success, and share it with those who have less; even those whom we perceive to have “squandered” all their chances. And it’s when we let the scales fall from our eyes, to use an image from Paul’s conversion; it’s then that we can truly see the lost one standing before us, the poor one in our midst, the oppressed one struggling on the margins of society. When we accept the grace that God has given to each of us; when we realize that all our success and wealth are finally a blessing from God’s grace; it’s then that we are able to embrace what’s really-real.

One final thought. Abraham Lincoln was once asked what he would do with the Confederates once the Civil War was over. He said, “I will treat them as if they had never gone away.” My friends, sometimes we find ourselves in the role of the father, sometimes we’re the younger son, the lost who’s come home, and sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we fill the role of the unforgiving elder son. But here’s the good news! God is always gracious, always waiting for us to come around, always calling us to put our faith into action, always encouraging us to be generous, always providing opportunities for us to be compassionate and kind and grateful, and always, …always, inviting us to come home. My sibling in Christ, God says to each of us here today, and to all of humanity, “I will treat you as if you had never gone away.”

May it be so for you and for me. Amen & Amen.

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[i] Peter Haynes. I have Sinned (www.rockhay.tripod.com) 2001

[ii] James Howell. The End of All Exploring (www.Day1.org) 1996

Coloring on the Sidewalks of Life

Luke 15:11-24

One of the cool things we did this summer at Camp Kindness was to cover the sidewalks of Cable with messages of kindness and encouragement. With the permission of the store owners, the kids took sidewalk chalk and shared their individual messages of kindness with the community. I think was so cool because it’s one thing to “talk a good game” but it’s a whole different thing to put kindness into action. And the kids did a great job of converting their thoughts into written words and beautiful pictures.

Now, this got me to thinking: What messages do we as adults and as a congregation send to the community? How do we convert our faith, our thoughts and good intentions into beautiful pictures of kindness and grace? Well, (CABLE: the rainbow signs on the front of the church) (DELTA: our words of invitation to the wider community) send a message of extravagant welcome to all, that’s a good example. We give generously to the food shelf, to the 5 for 5 and many other special offerings, we have dinners and seasonal worship that offer opportunities for our neighbors join us in fellowship and prayer and song. And over the course of the past four years, I’ve come to appreciate that both of our churches have a special way of including visitors, summer residents, and members into the very fabric, the very life and leadership of the church. That’s really a unique and I would say “Christ-like” quality.

But I think our actions must go even deeper than even these things. But how? How can we go deeper? Well, consider that in Eastern culture, old men didn’t run. However, the character of the father in today’s text “ran out” to meet his son. Why? Well, one obvious reason was paternal love and his desire to show that love to his returning son. But there’s something else, a cultural aspect in play here as well. You see, this wayward son had brought disgrace to his family and village and according to the Law of Moses, specifically Deuteronomy 21, he should have been stoned to death. But if the neighbors had started to stone him, they would have also hit the father who was embracing him![I]

And since this parable is an allegory in which the parent represents God and we are to see ourselves in the character of the son, we, I think, are meant to see that God loves us in that same unconditional, willing to be stoned, kind of way; that God loves each of us, all of us; mistakes and transgressions and bad choices and all.

And if God was then willing to turn an emblem of shame, to turn an icon of guilt; if God was willing to turn the most humiliating way of being executed in his day, namely, crucifixion upon a cross, into a channel of grace and a symbol of healing and restoration, then why in the world would we sit on our hands when it comes to proclaiming “a just world for all”?

You see, all of these parables that we find here in the middle of Luke’s Gospel point us forward toward to cross; that’s a literary tool called “foreshadowing.” But these parables and teachings are also meant to remind us of Christ’s mission and purpose. A mission that he revealed in the fourth chapter of this gospel: “I came,” he said, “…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed.” And that’s exactly what Jesus did back then and what God is still doing today.

Because no matter where you find yourself today, God loves you. God loves you! Do you get that! GOD LOVES YOU! So, no matter how far you think you’ve wandered off, God’s awaiting your return. BUT God isn’t standing still, according to this text, God is symbolically running toward you, embracing you and celebrating with you when you change your heart and life.

Because, and this is important, sometimes I’m the one who’s poor and at other times I’m the bearer of good news. Sometimes your neighbor is the one who’s in prison, either literally or figuratively, and at other times they may be the “keeper of the keys.” Sometimes you’re the one suffering from spiritual blindness, apathy, or indifference to the plight of others, and at other times you’re a beacon of Light in the darkness. And sometimes, sometimes, we’re the ones being oppressed. But there are moments, my friends, there are moments when we are the liberators. We cannot be all things to all people, but we can seek to be the hands and the feet and the voice and the heart of the Sacred One each and every day. If… if we have the courage and the will and the faith to stand up and be heard.

Which leads us back to our original question: How can we go deeper? Well, how we go deeper may be different for each of us and that’s okay. I’m going to offer some suggestions and an illustration, but please understand that this list is neither exhaustive nor is every suggestion going to fit the purpose and calling of every person. Jesus invites us to live-out the gospel in unique and wonderful and diverse ways; just like we, as a community of faith, are unique and wonderful and diverse.

So, first, a little about Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, as you might already know, read from the Sermon on the Mount nearly every morning and evening for over forty years. Although he wasn’t a Christian, he decided early on to live his life according to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. As he wrote in his autobiography, the first time he read them they went straight to his heart. Such teachings, he writes, “Offer no violent resistance to evil,” [And they] delighted me beyond measure.”[ii] Gandhi goes on to say, “When I came to the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, I began to understand the Christian teaching. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me.”[iii]

Dr. King once said of Gandhi, remembering that Gandhi was Hindu; King said that Gandhi was “the greatest Christian of modern times.” Why did Dr. King offer such high praise? Because Gandhi went deeper. He didn’t just offer lip service to Christ’s call and example of non-violent resistance, he lived it! And in the end, it did make a difference. He made a difference to the marginalized and oppressed people of India and South Africa.

How can we make a difference? Well, we must put the full weight of our voice into action. I mean, we cannot simply say we welcome all people into our midst unless we’re actually welcoming. Right? We cannot say, “God loves you, warts and all,” and still gossip or talk about someone behind their back. We cannot call ourselves a “safe sanctuary” and then turn a blind eye to domestic violence or bullying or sexual abuse even when taking such a stance is unpopular. But instead, we can participate in things like the upcoming Break the Silence Sunday on October 13 and candlelight vigil that evening in support of those harmed by domestic violence or rape or sexual abuse.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? Going deeper means getting our hands dirty, stepping outside our comfort zone, and leaning into the problems that surround us. Perhaps it even means changing our hearts and lives and attitudes about some of the most critical issues that face us today.

For instance, we cannot claim to be a people of justice and then put our own self-interest before the plight of the poor, or the asylum seeker, or the refugee. That’s counter to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. But instead, we can offer a calm voice in the debate, debunking hate-filled words like “invasion” and instead advocate for a fair and just immigration system. And we can participate in becoming a part of the healing process by contributing to our care-kits for children at the border drive this November.

And same is true when it comes to climate change. We cannot claim to be a climate justice congregation if we don’t look inward and change our ways and habits, even if those changes are painful in the short run. We could instead, take inventory of our carbon footprint as individuals and as a community, we could participate in marches to raise awareness, and we can continue to offer hope to our children and grandchildren by making decisions based upon the effect those decision will have upon the next seven generations.

Now, I know this is a lot to process. But it’s vital that we not only consider these issues, but that we act upon them. My friends, it’s time for each of us to take out our chalk and begin coloring pictures of kindness and grace and acceptance on the sidewalks of this world and the time is now for us to turn and come home into the embrace of a Creator who’s running out to meet us, and who loves each of us, all of us, all of humanity and all of creation, unconditionally and beyond measure. My friends, the turn begins today. Amen and Amen.

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[i] William Flippin. The Day God Ran (www.Day1.org) 2013

[ii] Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, trans. Mahadev Desai (Navajivan Publishing House: 1996, ©1927), 58. See Gandhi on Christianity, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 1991), 5.

[iii] Mahatma Gandhi, “The Jesus I Love,” Young India, vol. 13, no. 53 (December 31, 1931), 429. See Ellsberg, 21.

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