Growing Weary: A Message of Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Let me begin by telling you something you already know. It has been a very hot week! Hot for Northern Wisconsin anyway. So, when it comes to working in my gardens, I’ve had to adopt a new strategy. I get up early and frantically hoe and pull weeds before it gets too hot. It’s suffice to say that gardening has become more difficult because of the heat. But here’s the thing. I still love it! Even though it’s become more difficult this week, I’m not going to give up on my vegetables.

In our gospel passage from Matthew today, Jesus invites us to adopt a new strategy when the burdens of life become heavy, when the yoke we bear seems to become unbearable, when the cost of discipleship seems too costly. Rachel Held Evans put it this way. “The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical,” she writes, “…enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. [But] The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all: the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.”

Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. Not just those who are members of a church, not just the righteous, or the self-righteous as the case may be, but all who are weary and carrying a heavy burden are welcome. There’s no price to be paid, no creed to repeat, no doctrine to memorize. Perhaps it’s this universal invitation to sabbath that makes this one of the most beloved passages from the Gospel of Matthew. But, that being said, the contrast that I see in this passage has always been interesting to me. There’s a contrast or a tension here between resting and working, between heavy and light, between wearing the burdensome yoke of the world verses the easy yoke of Jesus.

Now, this is, for obvious reasons, a common passage used in celebration of life services. Our loved one has cast off the burdens of this life and now rests in eternity. That’s a valid and reassuring way to view this passage. But if we look at this passage within its immediate context, we soon come to realize that Matthew is really teaching us about discipleship. And this is where these contrasting images of yoke enter the picture.

But before we get into all that, I think we need to take a moment to talk about yokes. I would be willing to bet that most of us have never seen, let alone felt the weight of a yoke. For the younger ones watching or if you’re not a student of historical agricultural tools, a yoke was a large, wooden, I would say “harness” for lack of a better word, that went over the backs of either one or two animals, usually mules or oxen, so a farmer could plow his fields or pull a wagon. It would have been very heavy and very cumbersome to move around and especially difficult to lift up onto the animals backs.

So, the first impression that we’re intended to get here is one of a heavy, burdensome weight dragging us down. And not coincidentally, that’s sometimes the impression we get when we think about discipleship. The connotation of the word itself drips of weighty commitment to working for the benefit of others, no matter the personal cost, no matter the sacrifice. And I would submit that if we try to “do” discipleship by ourselves, alone, it can become just that, burdensome, like a heavy yoke.

But the thing about a yoke is that it both restrains and enables. It’s simultaneously a burden and a possibility. So, the question confronting all of us is this: which yoke will we put on? The heavy, lonely one or will we share the burden with others and with God?

Well, Matthew, here in the 11th chapter of his account, invites us to choose the latter. He invites us to discover a better way of “doing” discipleship. A way that invites us to view discipleship through the lens of two Great Commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, when we view our responsibilities as people of faith through the lens of love, the yoke becomes gentle, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, and pleasant. 

But can it really be that simple? In these days of distrust, division and disease, can we really find unity by sharing the burdens of society and by shouldering the yoke of these troubling times, together? In a word, yes. Yes we can. You see, that’s the enduring wisdom of this text and that’s the enduring wisdom of the garden. You see, a successful garden needs to be weeded, often. But if you let the weeds get away from you, in the end, your yield will be diminished. Well, the same it true as we think about reaching out to others with grace and compassion, sharing the love of God with our neighbor. The definition of discipleship. But if we don’t tend to our discipleship, if we don’t tend to the needs of our neighbor, and if we don’t tend to our personal spiritual health, our love for others will be diminished, like the yield of an untended garden.

But if we are willing to put in the work. If we are willing to cultivate justice, if we are willing to propagate peace, and if we are willing to do this work side by side and hand in hand with others in our community, the yield will be plentiful. Because I am utterly convinced, that showing grace yields more grace, that compassion when shared, expands beyond the limits of our imagination, that love comes back 100fold, and finally, that non-violent resistance leads to positive change. My friends, when we take-on of the yoke of Jesus in community, together, the burden of the world become light.

May it be so. Amen.

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Katheryn Matthews. Reflection on Matthew 11 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

A Prophetic Witness: A Voice of Reason in Unreasonable Times

Jeremiah had been telling the people: “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, or famine, or by disease. But whoever surrenders to the Babylonians will live; yes, their lives will be spared. But the officials said to the king: “This man must be put to death! By saying such things, he’s discouraging the few remaining troops left in the city, as well as all the people. This man doesn’t seek their welfare but their ruin!” So they seized Jeremiah and threw him into a muddy cistern within the prison quarters.                     -From Jeremiah 38

When I read about Jeremiah’s troubles, I couldn’t help but think about the state of our community and our nation during this ever-worsening pandemic. And for a couple of weeks now I’ve been mulling over what “a prophetic witness” might look like during such troubling times.

The first thing I came to realized is that none of us can predict the future, nor should we try. Like all of the prophets we encounter in the Bible, we’re not fortunetellers. Biblical prophecy is never about predicting the future, it’s always about improving the present.

So, bearing this in mind, how are we called to be living examples in this moment? How are we being challenged to love our neighbor in the midst of Covid-19? Well, we can do this by wearing a mask in public, by limiting our contact with large groups, and by continuing to worship and meet online. We can BE the Church by putting public safety before our own desire for things to “get back to the way they were.”

Now, I understand that holding the line on these issues isn’t easy nor is it popular. It seems like everyone else is going back to normal. Other people don’t wear masks, other people are gathering in large groups, eating out, enjoying life. Other farmer’s markets have resumed and other garage sales are going on. Other churches have resumed their in-person services. Why can’t we?

Well, this is where Jeremiah can help us out a bit. In the passage I shared above, Jeremiah was actually thrown into a cistern, into the mud at the bottom of a pit, because he stood up for public safety. Jeremiah stood up for what was right even though it wasn’t mainstream or popular. You see, he knew that his community was about to be overrun by the Babylonians. And he knew that to stay in the city and fight would mean certain death. So, he advocated for surrender, for exile. He encouraged his people to choose life over death even at the expense of their personal freedom.

Now, we’re in a similar situation. We’re being asked to give up a little bit of our freedom as this pandemic threatens to overrun us. We’re being challenged to keep our church building and our Farmers Market and our Second Chance Sale closed even though it’s not mainstream, even though it’s not popular. But like Jeremiah, we must hold the line by putting the welfare of the general public before our individual desires. Like Jeremiah, we are being asked to choose life over death.

So, how do we do this? How can we continue to be the church even as the building remains closed, with the farmer’s market cancelled, and as the garage continues to be shuttered. How can we endure this loss of freedom?

Well, I think it’s important to remember that freedom doesn’t mean we have the right to do whatever we want. Freedom is instead a responsibility. It’s a responsibility, in this case, to love our neighbor by demonstrating and advocating for the health and safety of the majority over the desires of individuals. Freedom means accepting our time in the mud for the greater good of all of God’s beloved people.

My friends. Be safe. Be well. Be a prophetic witness!

Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

 

 

 

With or Against?

A Message about Compassion.

A Reading from the Ninth Chapter of Matthew’s Account of the Good News.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God on earth. He cured every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The great Henri Nouwen once said, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[I]

Now, I share this timely quote with you today because it’s a wonderful explanation of the nature of compassion. But compassion goes even deeper than Nouwen’s quote. Compassion can be expressed in more ways than one might think.

Maybe think of it like this. You’re out walking one day and you see a stranger stuck at the bottom of a pit. What do you do? Well, you could just mind your own business and walk right on by, but that wouldn’t square with your calling as a person of faith or as a human being for that matter. The second option might be to go for help or a ladder or a rope. All would be acceptable acts. But there’s a third option here. You could jump down in the pit with the stranger. Now, the third option is an illustration of compassion. Compassion calls us to “suffering with” someone in distress. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the part of compassion that you might not expect. We’re not called to stay in the pit. Compassion invites us to climb out of the pit …together. In other words, compassion calls us to be with another person in need and to work with them to find our way out of the pit, toward wholeness, toward God. And it goes without saying then, that being with someone who’s struggling, or grieving, or suffering injustice, means not working against them. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth.

Now, Jesus, in our text for today, looked out across the crowds that were following him and the narrative says, “He had compassion for them.” In other words, Jesus was with them in their struggles as they suffered injustice at the hands of the Roman Empire. And he was with them as they tried to square that injustice with their spiritual lives. Jesus said they were like sheep with a shepherd.

The interesting thing I see here is that Jesus, no matter how many sick people came to him, no matter how many times his disciples questioned or doubted, no matter how many times he was accused of heresy or breaking the law; no matter how many suffering people Jesus encountered, he persisted in proclaiming the good news of the present-reign of God. The text says he “cured every disease and every sickness.”

And as we look beyond this passage to the rest of the gospel, we encounter a Jesus who didn’t care about one’s past mistakes, one’s religion, one’s status in society; he didn’t care about one’s national origin or race, he didn’t shame anyone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or lifestyle; Jesus didn’t judge people based upon on any of these criteria, he simply loved them; he simply had “compassion for them.”

So, how might this passage speak to us in our present situation? I mean, as the privileged majority, do we stand with the disadvantaged minority who are suffering racial injustice or do we work against them. Jesus’ answer seems pretty clear. We’re to have compassion for those who are struggling. We are to suffer with those on the margins of society, those who have suffered violence because of the color of their skin.

Now, despite all of the negative things going on right now, I have seen many wonderful examples of compassion. In one instance a group of police officers put down their shields and joined in a protest march. In another instance, I saw two uniformed police officers playing basketball to two young men. Time and again, I’ve seen examples good policing.

But at the same time, the deep scars of racism still pollute the minds of some, even of some police officers. My grandma would have called them, “a few bad apples.” And that, from my perspective, is what these peaceful protests are all about. Yes, there are other “bad apples” who are taking advantage of the unrest to loot and steal, and to complicate things even more, there are white supremist groups whose goal is to stir up trouble and cause even more civil unrest. But by and large, what I have witnessed are white and black and brown people, and police officers, and community leaders, and elected officials, coming together to create change, real change in law enforcement practices. And please, I implore you to tune-out the political pundits from both sides of the isle, no reasonable person wants to get rid of the police. “Defund” is a misnomer. The goal is to encourage reform through the reallocation of resources; the goal is to bring about a greater unity and a deeper understanding between peace officers and people of color, so that policing will become more just, more humane, …more compassionate.

One final thought before I move into our community time of prayer. Jesus ends this passage by saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” My friends, the harvest of injustice and racism and hatred in this nation is indeed plentiful. It’s overwhelming sometimes and it’s been exposed as never before in my lifetime over the course of the past three years. But we are called to stand against oppression, to use or voice and our vote, our prayers and our protests, to either physically or in spirit, go out as laborers into the harvest, effecting change through sharing the good news of the present reign of God in this world, and by having compassion on all whom we encounter. The Lord of the harvest has called us, the few, to stand up against the injustice of many.

But here’s the good news, the few are ever-expanding, growing in numbers and spirit every day. In the end, we will live-into the justice and equality that God intends for all humanity. I’m going to leave you today with the immortal words of Dr. King, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bend toward justice.” May we as compassionate harvesters, become a part of that arc-bending; may we as people of faith, begin to move past the evils of racism and into the fields unity, co-existence, and grace. May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/seeds/samuel) June 14, 2020

I-God: The Ideal, The Inspirational, and The Intuitive

In observance of Earth Day several years ago, the Associated Press asked astronauts who had returned from space to recall what it felt like to look back at the earth. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, whose 1968 pictures of our planet became famous as “Earth Rise,” spoke eloquently about perspective: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”[i]

You know, sometimes it’s prudent to take a step back and reflect for a moment in order to gain a fresh perspective. I think that’s what all of us need today. A moment of reflection. Of course, we can’t gain our new perspective from a “Bill Anders” vantage point, but we can look at the current chaos in our nation and our response as people of faith with new eyes.

Now, as I said before, today is Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the trinity is something that could benefit from a little new perspective. I mean, I’ve been at this theology thing for a good number of years and, over the course of that time, I’ve progressed and grown in my understanding of trinitarian theology. Like most of you, I began by just accepting the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one, without question. When I became a student pastor I quickly transitioned to the more inclusive and welcoming Creator, Christ, and Spirit.

But then came seminary, with all its fancy terms like perichoretic coactivity and homoousios, and just between you and me, I was more confused than ever. So, I kind of set the trinity aside. Oh, I found ways to speak of it once a year on Trinity Sunday. I compared the trinity to three forms of water, (ice, liquid, steam). Then I likened the trinity to relationships (I’m a husband to my wife, a father to my kids, a son to my parents, three different relationship, some person) Actually, that one still works pretty well because it get at the relational aspect of God.

But it still wasn’t quite enough. So, about a year ago I began to revisit the concept of trinity. I read a book by Richard Rohr called Divine Dance and that launched my quest for a deeper comprehension and a re-invigoration of my personal trinitarian theology.

Now, the premise of this book, as the title indicates, is to recapture an understanding of God as three-in-one by adopting the image of an unending dance. Creator, Christ, and Spirit, ever-twirling, ever-dancing, ever circling one another seamlessly dancing together within the mystery of the Trinity. Rohr then uses this illustration to demonstrate to us that God is in fact “community.” A community that exists among the three-persons of the Godhead and their coactivity, their movement, he contends, is always dynamic and fluid, thus, the image of the twirling dance.[ii]

Now, you’re already familiar with this concept of the divine dance because it was the core of my sermon on the Trinity last year. But my quest didn’t end with Richard Rohr and this eastern concept of the “whirling dance.” A couple of weeks ago, as our nation continued to sink deeper into crisis, I began to wonder what image of the trinity might be more practical, more healing, more hopeful in the midst of all that’s going on. So, I came up with and new perspective, a Bill Anders view from outer space if you will, I came up with the concept of “I-God.”

I-God is a practical application of the trinitarian formula for the 21st century. It’s basically the three “I’s” of the trinity: the Ideal God, the Inspirational God, and the Intuitive God. This is how it works.

The Ideal God is God as creator, mystery, other-than, the More. This is the transcendent part of God that is often beyond our grasp. How is this practical? Well, one of the most basic ideas out forth by Scripture is that God is God and we’re not. The Psalmist says that God created humans “only slightly less than divine.”[iii]

Now, the Inspirational God is an extension of the Ideal. It’s not enough to simply realize that God is mysterious, we must also understand that God is around us. Incarnate is the theological term. Jesus, of course, is the face of the Inspirational God. Jesus inspired his disciples back then, and people of faith still today, as he healed taught them and us about justice, forgiveness, and compassion, living-out those qualities all the way to the cross. And Jesus inspires all of us, above all else, to be love and he challenges us to put that love into practice. A love that when practiced becomes more than a mere concept; it becomes a part of the very fabric of our being.

And it’s this indwelling of love that constitutes the Intuitive God. The Intuitive God is the Spirit of the living God within each of us and within all living things. The Spark of the Divine. The Consciousness of God dwelling within each person. The Intuitive God is the part of God which compels us to speak out for justice, stand up for equality, and to seek peace. The Intuitive God is the part of God in which we “live and move and have our being.”[iv]

My friends, as this pandemic drags on and as the consequences of systemic racism continue to unfold, we’re not wrong to long for the kind of soul calming peace that came over us, as we saw, for the first time, those distant pictures Anders took fifty years ago.  But as history has once again taught us, we cannot truly have peace in this nation until we have justice for all. We cannot truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave until the privileged majority summons the bravery to stand up for the freedom of the disadvantaged.

But, my friends, if we summon that bravery, that courage, the courage to enact a new perspective, to live-into an updated understanding of God as Ideal, Inspirational, and Intuitive, then we can be nothing less than a faith community, and faithful individuals, who creatively find ways to become a voice for the voiceless, to advocates for racial equality, and to be promoters of non-violent resistance in the face of whatever kinds of evil we encounter. This is finally what it means to be Love …to be the Church!

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[i] Katheryn Matthews A Reflection on Psalm 8 (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2020

[ii] Richard Rohr Divine Dance (Whitaker House Publishing) 2016

[iii] Psalm 8:5 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iv] Acts 17:28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Breath, The Wind and The Spirit

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Jesus appears to the disciples

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

The text we have before us today is John’s version of Pentecost. But this isn’t the version of the Pentecost story we’re used to, is it? We’re used to Luke’s version of Pentecost as told in Acts. Now, that version of Pentecost is very dramatic. There are violent winds, people suddenly speak the same language, and of course, those tongues of fire resting on the heads of the faithful. Luke’s Pentecost is finally about dramatic transformation. He tells us that 3,000 people were baptized that day.

But John’s version of Pentecost is a little different. John tells us that the Risen Christ entered a locked room, bid the disciples peace, and then “…he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Now, on the surface this may seem less dramatic and certainly less chaotic than Luke’s account. Jesus just breathed on them and offered them the Blessing of the Spirit. But I think t’s interesting to consider “spirit” in its original context here; in the original languages of the Bible.

The word in Hebrew that’s translated as “spirit” IS Ruah. And here’s the interesting part. Ruah means more than just spirit, It can also be understood as breath, OR wind. And the Biblical Greek of the New Testament tells much the same story. Pneumatos, (pneumatos) from which we get the English word Pneumatic, can also be translated as “air or breath, wind or spirit.”

So, when Jesus “breathed” on his disciples and imparted to them the gift of the “Spirit” his very breath was the Spirit! And for all of you familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, John’s version of Pentecost harkens back to the second creation narrative in Genesis where God’s own breath becomes humanity’s breath, and then, by extension, across the arc of time and space, God’s Breath, Gods’ Spirit, becomes ours. Our very breath contains a bit of the universe, and the expanse of the universe contains a bit of our being, our essence, …our breath.

So, if you think about it in these terms then, God’s Spirit is both the breath that’s within us and at the same time, it’s the wind that’s blowing all around us. The Spirit is within and around all things. All things are intrinsically and forever …interconnected! So, that means the Spirit is God, and therefore God is within and around all things. And since this indwelled and enveloping spirit has been with us all along, the effect of John’s Pentecost may not so much about new birth, as it is about rebirth. It may not be so much about a new covenant it is about a renewed covenant. A covenant that would change the hearts and minds of disciples, both then and now. The lasting effect of Jesus’ Breathing on the disciples may be the very thing that we need to understand and comes to grips with in order to renew the face of the earth! [i]

This is Good News for us 21st-century Christians as we think about Pentecost in a very real and living way. I mean, think about it! The same Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, God, is the same breath that filled the lungs of Jesus, which is the same gentle spring breeze that caresses our cheeks and tickle our hair, which is the same Spirit that warmed the hearts of those disciples on the Emmaus road and inspired those gathered in that locked upper room, which is the same Spirit that’s looking to inspire a rebirth within each of us.

So, I would say, when it’s all said and done, that John’s version of Pentecost finally contains the same message of transformation that we see in Luke’s version. Which is significant for us today, as the effects of this global pandemic continue on into the summer, and as every terrible statistic and every terrifying projection flash cross our screens. It seems to me that if we let this terrible situation and these dire predictions; if we let this time of necessary isolation and smart social distancing, this time of wearing masks in public to protect our neighbor even when they don’t realize it; if we let these times cause us to withdraw, then, I believe we run the risk of missing the opportunity to see the transformation that’s possible.

I mean, who’s not amazed by the generosity of spirit, by the nobility of spirit, that we have witnessed in our health-care workers, and those essential workers who are keeping things afloat. Who’s not amazed by our friends and families who tend to the most vulnerable in our midst? Who’s not amazed by the creative and loving ways that neighbors have reached to other neighbors, finding connection, and yes, rebirth.

A wonderful example of this can be found right here in Cable. All across town we were asked to display a single word of hope in the windows of our businesses and churches. Those words were collected and used to create a beautiful poem of encouragement. It’s the little things that will finally get us through this.

You know, as I think about all these essential workers, the words of encouragement displayed in our windows, and of neighbor helping neighbor, I’m reminded of the words of the great Howard Thurman. He once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”[ii]

My friends, as we continue to BE the church, separated in body but unified in spirit, may we too seek to “come alive!” May we “come alive” as we continue to be the kind of people whom the world needs in this moment! And may we, each of us, “come alive” to the reality of the interconnectedness of ALL things. An interconnection that begins deep within our being through the Breath of Life. But it doesn’t stay there. Our breath expands outward every time we exhale, connecting us with all things on the Winds of the Spirit, binding humanity and all of creation together in one Spirit; the Spirit of the Living God!

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

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[i] Katheryn Matthews Spiritual Understanding (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) May 31, 2020

Thoughts About Re-Opening Churches

I would like to address the fact that many churches across the nation and here in Wisconsin have resumed their regular Sunday morning services. I understand the sentiment. I too would love to see my beloved congregations worshipping in our sanctuaries. I miss our in-person community. But here’s the thing. In both of our congregations, the leadership has been monitoring the suggested protocols for re-opening from The World Health Organization and the CDC, The Wisconsin Council of Churches, The Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, specifically, Franz Rigert our conference minister. And even from Church Mutual, our insurance company. And the message from all of these organizations is crystal clear, they ALL suggest that we’re not there yet. My friends, we can BE the Church and we can BE in community with each other, even while we’re still apart.

So, as we continue to be separated in body but unified in spirit, let us come before God in this time of prayer and silent reflection.

God of Grace, Christ of Compassion, All-Encompassing Spirit…                                          Justice and Love, and doing the right thing, all seem so complicated. We engage in honest and sincere discussions, ask important questions, and make plans, but it seems like nothing ever changes and the world stays broken.

Silence

But, you’ve given us a picture, Sacred One, a clear, well-defined view of your dream for humanity and creation. In the Bible, we read about the life and love and compassion of Jesus, and we can see that you’ve outlined the steps, that you’ve indicated the colors, and demonstrated the method, to fill our world with compassion and peace and justice. It’s almost like painting by numbers, if only, if only we would follow the instructions.

Silence

Perhaps love and justice are not what’s complicated. Perhaps, it’s our tendency to look inward rather than looking out our across this nation and this world with the eyes of acceptance, with the hearts of compassion, and with hands and feet ready to serve you by loving all our neighbors, the neighbor across the street and the one across the globe.

Silence

So, now we pray for ourselves, dear God, that we may learn to follow you – even when it’s hard, or unpopular, or difficult to understand. And we pray for our world, for justice and peace to emerge from this pandemic and that hope will remain steadfast, that your vision of celebration and of sharing, of respect and caring, may be embraced and lived, in every corner of the earth. We pray today to find the will and courage to “paint by numbers”   Amen & God’s faithful said, Amen.

God’s Here!

Acts 17 & Psalm 139

My message to all of you today is a simple one. God is present with us at all times and in all circumstances. Even when we can’t seem to find God in our midst, God is here! God is present during this current pandemic, God is with us in our isolation, in our times of uncertainty and fear, as well as in our moments of joy and times of celebration. God is present among, around, and within all living things. God is here!

“Now, that’s all fine,” you might say, “I like unicorns and rainbows as much as the next person, but what about those times when God seems distant? In my fear, in my distress, in my grief, in my loneliness, what about those times when I can’t feel God’s presence? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my faith?”

Well, as we begin to investigate these questions and attempt to understand this premise of a constant and consistent divine presence, I think we may need to take on a new perspective. What do I mean by a “new perspective”? Well, Marcus Borg, in a devotion called How We Imagine God Matters, helps us out a bit here. Borg tells us that “…the Bible is not God’s story of God. But rather, that the Hebrew Bible is ancient Israel’s story of God, and the New Testament is the early Christian movement’s story of God, especially as revealed in Jesus. How did these two ancient communities see the central character in their story? How did they imagine God, and God’s relationship to the world?”

On one hand,” Borg says, “the Bible often uses personal imagery to speak of God. God is spoken of in personified images. We say that God is like a king, or a parent, or a shepherd, or a potter, to cite a partial list. Now, the sheer number of images points to the fact that they are metaphors. God is not literally any of these, but is like a king, like a parent, like a shepherd, and so forth. But when we take these human-like metaphors literally, we generate a way of seeing God commonly called “supernatural theism.” That is, we see God as someone “out there” who created the universe a long time ago as something separate from Godself. God does occasionally intervene, especially in the more dramatic events reported in the Bible, but most of the time, according to supernatural theism, God is “out there.”

On the other hand, the Bible also describes God’s relationship to the universe as “right here” as well as “more” than right here. This way of imagining God sees the deity as an all-encompassing Spirit: a non-material dimension of reality that surrounds us and indwells everything around us.[I]

Now, our reading for today from the Book of Acts describes God in this way. Paul says that God is “…the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” In other words, God is not somewhere “out there” but rather, God is all around us: we live and move “in God.”

The same can be said for Psalm 139. The Psalmist asks, “Where could I go to get away from your Spirit?” He then imagines journeying through the ancient three-story universe: ascending into the heavens, descending to the depths of death, and traveling to the furthest corners of the earth, and yet, the author concludes, God is always present.

Now, it’s important for us to know that it’s alright to speak of God in personified terms. These images helps us to begin to understand the nature of God in terms that we can wrap our minds around. But we cannot rest there. We must continue to grow in our understanding of God as ever-present. Especially when the storms and struggles and pandemics of life surround us.

I read a devotion this week by Kenneth L. Samuel that helps us to begin to move in that direction. He writes, “Jesus invites us to not only believe in God’s eternal existence [but] to believe in God’s very present-presence. The presence of God in you and among you, right now.” He goes on to say, “The presence of God is expressed in the dedication of health care professionals. And food suppliers. And grocery store workers. And sanitation and cleaning service personnel. The presence of God is expressed in the challenge we all now face to differentiate that which is tangential to life from that which is essential to life. The presence of God is expressed in calls and texts that touch the hearts of friends and loved ones. [And finally] The presence of God is expressed in giving our planet some time to breathe from the relentless assaults of environmental abuse.[ii]

My friends, God is present in all of these ways because in the end God isn’t a person or some distant entity. God is expressed in all of these ways that Kenneth Samuel describes here and more, because God is love. God is wisdom. God is compassion. God is found in generosity, and in kindness, and in respect; God is discovered in blossoming relationships and in long-time partnerships; God is present whenever we reach-out to others, whenever we pray or meditate or reflect on the greater good for all. My friends, God is present when we work for justice, when we love in the name of compassion, and when we seek a lasting peace both within ourselves and among nations.

Beloved, as we continue to be the church, to be community, separated in body but unified in spirit, may we all come to recognize that we do so in the presence of a Loving God who’s here right now and will continue to speak to each of us as we go forward.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Marcus Borg How We Imagine God Matters (www.beliefnet.com) 2000

[ii] Kenneth L. Samuel Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 5/10/2020

Center of Love

Hear now these words of wisdom from the 12th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to Rome as told by Eugene Peterson in The Message.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.

“Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words from Paul’s message to the Romans have been an important part of my life and ministry. When I was in a particularly challenging situation, I had these very words on a slip of paper under the glass on my desk so I would be reminded of them every day. And believe me, there were days when finding my “center of love” wasn’t an easy task. There were days, when my anger would begin to well-up and I was sure that “vengeance” should have been mine, there were days… well, let’s just say that a glance at Paul’s simple wisdom would calm me down and help me to put things back into perspective.

But putting things into perspective during these difficult times, that seems to be another thing altogether. You see, I’ve noticed during these past weeks of isolation and shut-down that people are becoming even more angry than before. And in this political climate, that’s saying something. But it’s not just politics. I read rants from parents on Facebook about how difficult it is to have their children home all the time. They’re complaining about spending too much time with their spouse and some are even irritated by their dog.

Now, I understand their frustration to a degree. I know they’re worried about the economy, losing their job and subsequently, their health insurance. Fear can easily morph into anger. I get it. But at the same time I don’t. I mean, yes, there are inconveniences caused by having to stay home and being asked to take precautions, like wearing a mask or social distancing, when you have to go out. But from my perspective there are so many bigger things at stake here. Life and death. There are very real issues of injustice; issues that already existed but have been exasperated by this virus. Issues like the very real face of inequality in this nation. People of color, immigrants, undocumented folks, the homeless population; these people are at a greater risk of dying from this disease. And let’s not forget those living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes and the people who care for them. They’re especially vulnerable.

So, the question in my mind is this: How should we respond to these issues? How do we as an “isolated” community of faith actually make a difference?

You know, these are tough questions and there are no easy answers. There just aren’t. But this is where the wisdom of my slip of paper comes into play. “Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. A building can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.

Paul, goes on in this passage to describe his vision of what it means to be a community of faith that is “centered in love” He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that is realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies; laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, this one always makes me laugh a little, get along with each other (duh) and whenever possible live in peace with everyone.

You know, there’s an interesting book out there called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. In this book he uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and in this re-framing is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “loving center” vision. Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté is a way of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]

So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to evil? I mean, if we are challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his followers, both then and now, to follow his pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.

It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means for a community of faith to overcome evil with good! That’s what it means to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even under oppression. And then begin to discover a deeper, hidden beauty in every single person, even the person whom society tells you to hate. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly overcome evil, we can only truly find peace, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]

So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember Paul’s vision: Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone. If you can do that, it will enable you to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher goal. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009

[ii] Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.

Joy in the Morning

Fifth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day – Psalm 30:2-12

Several years ago, in an unscripted moment, a little girl in Manila asked the visiting Pope Francis why God allows children to suffer. She had just told him in front of a million people that she scrounged food from the garbage and slept outside on a cardboard mat.
Here’s what the Pope did. He enfolded the sobbing child in his arms. Then he admonished everyone to quiet down and pay close attention, he then said, “She has just asked the one question with no answer.”[I]

As the days and weeks and now months of this pandemic continue, and we see our fellow Americans dying, over 70,000 so far, and so many more across the globe, the Pope’s response to this little girl’s question looms large. Why does God allow such suffering?

Well, when the crowd finally settled down, Pope Francis said to the little girl, “We can’t answer you now. Only when we are able to weep about the things you have lived will we understand anything and be able to answer you.” He went on to say that the world needs to weep. “The marginalized weep, the scorned weep, the sick and dying weep – but we who are privileged, we don’t always know how. We must learn.” [ii]

In these awful days of virus-related illness and death, whenever we’re asked why these things happen, let us not be quick to answer. Let us not skip to judgement, either of God or one another. But how can I say something like this during such dark and uncertain times? Well, perhaps because it’s because of the assurance we can receive from word of wisdom and hope like the one we have before us today.

In Psalm 30, David seems to be rejoicing at the end of a trying time. “God, my God,” he said, “I yelled for help and you put me together. You pulled me out of the grave, and gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out.” He goes on to say, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[iii]

Yes, as Francis said, “we must learn to weep.” But, my friends, The Psalmist tells us that it doesn’t end with the weeping or the mourning or the grief. The darkness of this pandemic doesn’t have the last say. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There will be life after this time of death. Light will break through the darkness.

But, that being said, I think we have to be careful here. Careful, because to get to the “joy in the morning” part we have to move through, embrace, deal-with, and grieve the dark night of our soul. In other words, we can’t get to the warm-fuzzy without going through the cold-prickly first. A cold-prickly that goes beyond just mourning the dead and learning to exist in a recessive economy. A big part of what we have to come to terms with in this dark night of Covid-19 is the unknown. Our future is unknown. How severe this could get here in Northern Wisconsin, is unknown. When everything will open-up and return to some semblance of normal, is unknown. And like the Pope’s answer to the little girl’s question, there are some deeper theological issues that have no answer.

Maybe think of it like this. All of what we as humans know about God could be represented by a single grain of cosmic dust. What we don’t know about God, the Mysterious, could fill the rest of the universe. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer when it comes to trying to wrap our minds around a time of suffering and death of this magnitude.

But then there’s that single grain of cosmic dust; the part we do know. And David, here in Psalm 30, says it in what I think is the best way possible. “…across a lifetime,” he says, “there is only love.” There is only love. My friends, that’s the warm-fuzzy we’ve been seeking. That’s the rainbow after the storm. That’s the joy that comes in the morning! Across the lifetime of our ancestors, across our lifetime, across the lifetime of our children and our grand-children and their grand-children, there will be love because God is love! God is love!

So, let us weep now. Let us weep with the families of those who have died. Let us weep with those who are ill. Let us weep with those suffering financial loss. Let us weep with the marginalized and the outcast, the homeless, and the refugee, and the immigrant. Let us weep for our planet, for the changing climate and the loss of so many species of animal and insect. Let us weep together in the darkness. But tomorrow… tomorrow the sun will rise and we will be called and challenged, in the light of day, to do our part, to be safe for the safety of others, to seek justice for all people, to coexist with all religions and work toward a day with peace will prevail. In the light of day, we can and we will, once again, find our joy!

I’m going to leave you today with an old Ojibway Prayer that goes like this: “Grandfather, Sacred one. Teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other.” Let us indwell these ancient words of wisdom as we seek a joyous morning not only for ourselves but for all our neighbors, those across the street and those on the other side of the globe.

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[i] Mary Luti Learn to Weep (www.ucc.org/stillspeaking/devotional.com) 2020

[ii] Ibid. Luti

[iii] Psalm 3:5b New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Copyright © 1989

Looking Forward

Luke 24:13-35

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”[i] Isn’t it interesting that a statement made over a hundred years ago is still so relevant today. In these frightening and uncertain days, we will only become fully aware of what’s happening to us in retrospect. Yes, we can and must make important decisions in real time, but the full impact of those decisions will not be completely understood until some future date.

So, bearing that in mind, I think it’s imperative that we consider the second part of Kierkegaard’s statement, “[Life] must be lived forward.” Which is the point of the Resurrection account that we have before us today. You see, the two man, as they undertook that long walk home, were looking backwards. They understood their present situation in the context of Jesus’ death. They had no conception or understanding of what possibilities might lay ahead. Their life, in that moment, could only be understood “backwards.”

But, as we all know from our perspective 2,000 years later, that they didn’t remain in their grief. Notice that God didn’t prevent them from wandering, God didn’t prevent their suffering. Suffering and wandering a part of life, everyone’s life, yours, mine, everyone’s. When something bad happens to us it isn’t because we’ve done something to anger a vengeful God, and when something great happens it isn’t because we’re more righteous than anyone else. “[God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”[ii] And in was in the midst of their darkness, that the Light of God began to walk alongside these two disciples.

Now, you have already heard the story. And incognito Jesus joined two despondent travelers but he only became known to them through teaching and sacrament. The text says he opened the Scriptures to them, what we now call the Old Testament. Now, because he provided a new way of looking at the old teachings, Jesus took their understanding of the Law and replaced it with a forward looking perspective. Jesus expanded their concept of how Scripture might shape their lives. And here’s the goodie! It was with that new life-perspective that that recognized the risen Christ.

Perhaps, in these difficult and unusual times, maybe we too should consider expanding our understanding of faith and life, and relationship, and the meaning of sacrament for our time. I mean, can we find a sense of sacrament, a sacred space or time, beyond the communion table or the baptismal font? Can Divine Wisdom come from many places, many people, from a diverse collection of religious or philosophical texts; might God be revealed through everyday conversations, with everyday people, in our everyday context? Can God come-to-life in new and imaginative ways?

Now, I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I think it would be a worthwhile task to explore them. And maybe, just maybe, if we begin to explore and experience teaching and sacrament in a new way, if we turn our gaze forward, maybe we will begin to imagine a world where all people live in peace and practice justice; a world where there is no place for greed or hunger or homelessness; maybe we could even imagine a time when all people choose to coexist with nature and with each other. Perhaps, if we indwell this forward-looking perspective we might be empowered to continue to love our neighbor through social distancing and by wearing our masks when we cannot stay home. And if we choose to be forward-looking, maybe we would be truly “liberated” by continuing to follow Governor Evers’ stay-at-home order.

One final thought before we move into prayer and communion. God is still God, always. Even in times of unprecedented change, even when we need to adopt a new perspective on life and faith, God is still the God of love and grace and compassion. And the Bible, from any perspective, tells us that God is good and generous and can be counted on, in every age and every circumstance.[iii]

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[i] Katheryn Matthews Breaking Bread (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Matthew 5:45b (Common English Bible CEB)

[iii] Ibid Matthews