Just Worship

Luke 18:9-14

They say that confession is good for the soul. And do ya know what? They’re right! Confessing ones transgressions, ones misdeeds, confessing the moments when we were weak or lost our temper or sharpened our tongue too quickly; confessing one’s sins releases us from our guilt and shame, it cleanses our spirits, and confession, I believe, is the beginning of restoration; restoration of our relationship with God and other people. Yes, I agree with those who say, “confession, indeed all prayer, is good for the soul.”

Dr. King once said, “…to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”[i] Prayer has sustained us, shaped us, formed us, and led us to this point on our journey of life and faith. We’re connected with the Sacred from the very core of our being through prayer. “Prayer is an occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity toward others.”[ii] And this honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.

But, how and what we pray reveals a significant amount about our relationship to God and others. For some, prayer is about bringing our list of needs — a.k.a. wants — to God. But it’s pretty clear through parables like this one that we have before us today, and through our own experience, that prayer is not going to change God or God’s mind, but rather, it’s about changing us, our perspective. Prayer has the potential to bring us closer to God and to one another. It’s a means of restoring the image of God within us. And this is key to understanding our text for today.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income; in our contemporary vernacular he’s saying, “I’m da bomb.” But was his prayer answered? I would say, in a round-about way… yes. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, what did the Pharisee ask of God? Nothing. So, what was his purpose in going to the Temple and uttering his reflections to God? Who knows? Vanity? Social expectation? Duty? Whatever his purpose, it didn’t seem to include an openness to being transformed or seeking any kind of a right relationship with God or justice for his neighbor.

“But the tax collector,” the parable continues, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Now, was the tax collector’s prayer answered? Again, I would say yes. Yes, because the tax collector prayed for mercy. While aware of his shortcomings, he understood, or at least hoped for a bit of understanding, of the vastness of God’s mercy and came humbly to the Temple to seek God’s grace.

And this is important to us in our context as well. It’s important because whether we distance ourselves from God or from one another because of an abundance of self, or whether we are distanced from God and God’s creation because of lack of self, our telos, our purpose, is to seek to restore a right relationship with God, by being in right relationship with neighbor and creation.[iii] And this process begins and continues all throughout our journey of life and faith through prayer, through confession, through lessening our dependence on self, …through humility.

And that’s the crux of this parable. Humility. True humility contributes to the dynamic of faith allowing the power of God to work through us.

I was reminded of this once again as I watched the celebration of life in the capitol for Rep. Elijah Cummings this past week. Rep. Cummings demonstrated true humility in this life and in his lifelong struggle for justice. The evidence of this, for me anyway, came in the form of remembrances given as his body lie in state. Republicans and Democrats alike, white and black men, white and black women, all, all, spoke of his dedication to community, and to this nation, and of his humility.

Mark Meadows, a Republican congressman and close friend of Rep. Cummings, said, “Elijah has left his tent to go to a mansion, to a better place. Perhaps this place and the country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.” Carly Fiorina, a former Republican presidential candidate, encapsulated the mood of the day when she said, “Elijah Cummings was a man known for his decency, humility, character.” And one thing she remembered most about him was his frequent use of the phrase, “What can we agree on?

You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal or somewhere in-between, humility, true humility comes in seeking unity; in seeking those things we can agree on. Humility doesn’t signify weakness, but rather the strength to look first at our own shortcomings, ask for forgiveness, and then begin the process of restoration, of finding unity.

Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously.”[iv] And finally, it was Emerson who said, “A great man is always willing to be little.”[v]

And this is where we find ourselves today. You see, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and talk-up God. God calls us to be agents of divine grace by demonstrating humility instead of arrogance, by offering the love of God to all people instead of just a few, and by working for creation justice. And none of these virtues can be pursued if we stand and beat our own chest, proclaiming our own greatness. But, but if we lower our heads, if we assume a posture of humility, if we are willing to listen rather than yell, then unity, then the process of restoring right relationship will be possible. If we accept Christ’s invitation to humility, we can find those things that, “we can agree on.”

They say that confession is good for the soul. And that’s true! But just as the soul benefits from confession, so relationship, right relationship, benefits from humility.

In the name of the One who humbly went to the cross to challenge the unjust social structures of his day, we offer our prayers.

Amen & Amen.

————————————

[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quote found in sermon by Laceye Warner Prayers to God (www.faithand leadership.com) 2013

[ii] Charles Cousar Texts for Preaching Year C in Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[iii] Laceye Warner Prayers to God (www.faithand leadership.com) 2013

[iv] Richard Rohr in Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson. Quote found in exegesis by Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Ask Boldly, Live Justly

Luke 18:1-8

Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of terrible events in Myanmar, a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Theda, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like “vitamins” to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Theda meditated 18-20 hours a day.[i]

Can you imagine that? Meditating, praying for 18 hours a day?

As I indicated in the introduction to this text, our passage this week from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. Like Ma Theda, we are being encouraged to be persistent in prayer; persistent in hope.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been viewed as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want. But that interpretation falls short of Luke’s intention here. I spoke last week about a thread that’s running though this part of Luke’s Gospel and that thread is grace. And today’s passage is no exception.

Chapter 18 begins by taking that mantel of grace and expanding upon it. What do I mean? Well, consider if you will, the deeper message of this text; a message about sitting quietly in the presence of the Sacred and then taking the fruits of that time spent with God and transforming them into acts of justice. “For goodness’ sake,” Jesus says, “if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God–the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved–how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need?” Jesus is teaching us something important here about the nature of the God to whom we pray. And what does that nature look like? Well, once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson.

You know, the word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew literally means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ And that makes perfect sense in this patriarchal context where only male voices were heard. Women weren’t allowed to speak on their own behalf. So, this “silent one” was acting outside the norm, outside the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman, literally, outside the Law, when she found her voice and spoke up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knew that there was a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows and orphans, refugees and immigrants, strangers who find themselves living in a foreign land, are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern. Why? Because these are the “least of these” that Jesus commends us to care for in Matthew 25.

Now, it makes sense at this point to ask ourselves who “the widows” are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak out against injustice. The recent reaction to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, is a good illustration of how the highest and mightiest feel threatened by the persistent and righteous protests of those “little ones” they would like to dismiss.[ii]

Greta is only one example of many when it comes to climate change. Young people all across our nation are raising their voices, organizing marches, and presenting educational events. I mean, look at the amazing turn out in Ashland last month at the climate march; an event primarily organized and led by our young people. I’ve also heard the voices of high school age people outraged to the point of action concerning the events on our southern border. I heard many articulate voice come to the microphone at General Synod and speak to all sorts of justice issues for the perspective of the next generation. And these speeches were moving! “Let the children come,” Jesus said, “and do not stop them, for the realm of God belongs of such as these.”

You know, as I say this, I’m reminded of another story; another story of a young woman’s persistence in the face of injustice. This story takes place during a famine, a man took a wife and together they had two sons. As the years passed, however, the man died leaving his widow in the care of her two sons, who also had married but had not yet had any children. Now, this living arrangement worked for about 10 years until suddenly both sons died, leaving their mother and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. And as you know, women fending for themselves in the ancient mid-east was a bad idea.

So, the mother-in-law, being from another country originally, decided to return to her home, and she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families and find new husbands. And that’s what one of the daughters-in-laws did, but he other refused. “Where you go I will go;” she insisted, “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Now, you’ve probably already you figured out that this is the story of Ruth from the Hebrew Scriptures and her persistence in going with her mother-in-law Naomi into a dangerous foreign land. There as an easier option, a safer way, but Ruth was loyal to her mother-in-law, she loved Naomi, and didn’t want to see any harm come to her. And it was because of that love, that unconditional, put-yourself-out-there kind of love, that the two of them ended up finding their way.

And in a very real way, it’s this same kind of “Ruthian” persistence that God is calling us to demonstrate. Yes, this parable is framed by references to prayer and faith, and these things are important! But the emphasis on justice here is striking as Luke continues to expand our understanding of grace to include justice-seeking. And how this justice-infused grace then figures in the confrontation between the vulnerable justice-seeker and the unjust power-holder. In this parable, the powerful and just God takes the place of the unjust judge, granting justice to the most vulnerable ones, the ones who cry out day and night.[iii]

So, what about us? Can we follow the lead of our young people and be persistent in our pursuit of justice? Can we be like Ruth and be persistent in our love of God and neighbor? And can we, as individuals, begin to create the time and space everyday to be in the presence of God? Maybe not 18 to 20 hours a day, but isn’t there an hour or two in your day to just be, to meditate, to pray …and then from those sacred moments, let the spirit of justice flow? And finally, as a community of faith, might we be persistent, even in the face of resistance, even when the odds seem long, might we continue to be persistent in our goal of creating a “just world for all?”

In the name of the One who calls us and challenges us and continues to love each of us unconditionally no matter where we find ourselves on this journey of life and faith. Amen and Amen

 

 

[i] Katheryn Matthews Faith Persists (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[ii] Ibid. Matthews

[iii] Meda Stamper Commentary on Luke 18 (www.workingpreacher.org) 2013

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

—————-

[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.