The Dangerous Memory of Jesus

The Church came into existence as a community that preserved the dangerous memory of Jesus—the memory of his public crucifixion and his subsequent return among his frightened followers in a way that was utterly new and beyond anything that could have been previously imagined. And what emerged was a new concept of community; a community that has held together for over two thousand years. The Church, at its best, is a community based on mutual love and not on fear. The Church’s contemplation of this dangerous memory is what we call ‘theology’, which is actually founded on the marriage of Scripture with philosophy—particularly classical Greek philosophy. This is important. A religion that is without theology quickly becomes fundamentalist as it begins to interpret Scripture in a literal way, full of cultural bias and with little rational underpinning. Fundamentalism is always culture-bound, declaring itself “the only way” excluding all who might see God through a different lens. And although the story of Jesus is historical, set in a particular time, place and culture, his teaching is transcultural. So, too, should be the teaching of the Church.[i]

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, it means that the Church should not minimize the radically different nature of its revelation. Yes, Christian revelation is found in the person of Jesus who invites us into the freedom of God’s love, but revelation can also be found in nature, in relationship, in poetry, music, and art. The revelation of God is not limited to “my experience of God only,” but can be found in a variety experiences and in the diverse patchwork of life and faith found across many cultures. And it’s when we finally come to realize that there are many paths up the preverbal mountain, that we can begin to journey in earnest with our fellow sojourners, as we all seek to experience the Sacred Reality that is within and around us.

Now, as we continue this journey together, my prayer for all of us is that we will experience what the Celts called, “the thin places.” Those places where the veil between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, are thin. And as you experience God in these “thin” transformative ways, may you form a personal theology based in love and demonstrated through compassion; a theology that is ever-developing, ever-expanding to include all of God’s people and all of Creation. Many Blessings on the Journey.

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[i] Drawn from the work of Sebastian Moore, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as If It Mattered (Orbis Books: 2008), 59-60.

 

The Big Stuff

Luke 20:27-38

“An important discussion was taking place in the mid-priced hotel just five blocks from the church.  It wasn’t so much a deep theological discussion about atonement or predestination or the authority of Scripture, it wasn’t about the level of poverty in the inner-cities or the poor high school graduation rates of at-risk youth. Instead, it was about socks or no socks!  That’s right!  The clothing we wear next to our feet that keeps our skin from touching our shoes,” writes Robert Naylor, UCC pastor and father of two pre-teens. “It was an animated discussion,” he continues. “It was the Sunday of my interview and sermon to what would become my new call as Senior Pastor to a congregation in Connecticut. And, along with the worship leadership I had been asked to attend a coffee–a get-acquainted time, an hour and a half prior to the worship service.  The lively “sock” discussion was over whether our two children would wear socks with their dress clothes. It was all the fad–regardless of the season–to go sockless.  And since I believed good first impressions are made with socks–I was wearing them–therefore I thought it was even more important that my sons, in spite of their charming personalities, should also wear socks.  My wife was the mediator.  There became two options:  wear shocks and not go to the coffee hour before worship or wear no socks and go to both the welcoming coffee and the worship service. They attended both events wearing no socks and, believe it or not, I still got the job. I had raised my blood pressure unnecessarily and made the family less enthusiastic about attending the coffee. The lesson here, as I look back on that day, is this: Don’t sweat the stuff![I]

In our Scripture lesson from Luke it would seem that making all the small stuff into big stuff is part of the human DNA, at least in religious circles.  The Sadducees in an attempt to trap Jesus and brand him as a heretic, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection. That hypothetical sequence of marriages and deaths that we just heard about. But then of course, the real reason for the hypothetical: The trap if you will; the perplexing question.  “Since this woman was married to all seven brothers and had no sons with any of them, when she gets heaven, whose wife would she be?” But Jesus, as was often the case, didn’t answer the question directly. But instead he offered a theological reflection. In his answer to the Sadducees’ question about the nature of resurrection, Jesus proclaims that through his resurrection even death cannot separate the humanity from the sustaining presence of the Divine. In other words, Jesus reminds them that God is the God of the Living.

What a brilliant answer! Brilliant, because it “sterilized” their question.  Jesus took their loaded question, their attempt to undercut his authority, and turned it into a teaching moment. He was basically saying, “We shouldn’t be concerned about what happens after we die, instead, we should care about caring the living.”

Now, this message is just as important for us in our time as it was back then. It’s important because Jesus is calling us to focus our concern on the living. Not on some dusty old dogmatic creed, but on the needs of our fellow human beings. Jesus is in essence saying here that it’s not about getting people saved, worrying about who’s in and who’s out. Rather it’s about making this world a little better place.

Now, I think, the Gospel of Mark, as he described this same encounter, digs even deeper into the core of Jesus’ message here.  After Jesus had silenced the Sadducees with his theological response, Mark offers this additional exchange: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, “What commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God and love neighbor!  Love God by loving your neighbor. My friends, that’s the big stuff!  Jesus says to his inquisitors that sharing the love of God, honoring relationships, having compassion and empathy, thinking of the other before self, these things are the big stuff!  And the sub-text here is that the overseers of the Law, the Sadducees in this case, spent too much time on the minutia of the Law by equating the two basic commandments with the other 600 or so laws that were on the books and by misunderstanding the meaning of resurrection.

You see, resurrection finally isn’t about who’s married to who in eternity, it isn’t about continuing the relationships we propagate here on earth, rather, it’s about living in perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. I’m convinced that when Jesus talks about resurrection he isn’t talking about resuscitation; he isn’t talking about these bodies of ours popping up out of the ground someday. But rather, it’s more like what he taught us to say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” AND this heaven-like earth is brought about when we love God by loving our neighbor! If you want to usher in the Kingdom of God, you don’t have to cast your eyes toward heaven, instead, look across the street. Look at your neighbor! Look at the homeless veteran living under the bridge, look at the hungry child in the Guatemalan slum, look at the lonely elderly person next door, look at the family being denied asylum at the border, look at all of these neighbors… and then ACT! That’s the crux of Jesus’ teaching here! God is God of the living! God is the God of all humanity… ALL Humanity! And God is God of all of Creation. That’s the big stuff and that is our calling as people of faith.

One final thought this morning. I realize that I’m making it seem like loving one’s neighbor is a pretty simple thing. But I don’t think that’s really the case. If we’re honest with ourselves, loving our neighbor, the with whom we disagree, the neighbor who we suspect might be “playing the system”, loving the neighbor who’s just plain difficult to love; that ain’t easy. But Jesus reminds us, here in this text, that to God, “all are alive.” In other words, we must suspend our judgment of others because it’s finally God who does the judging. And Jesus insists that God is the God of the living, and since all are alive, God is the God of all people, no matter where they are on their journey, no matter what mistakes they, we, you, me… might have made in the past. God is the God of grace and forgiveness, of compassion and mercy. God is the God of me and you. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, an awesome thing; loving God and neighbor, that’s the best thing; that’s the Big Stuff!

So, socks or no socks, let us all come before the God of the Living, as we join in singing…

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[i] Robert Naylor Jesus Says Everything is Small Stuff, Except… (www.Day1.org) 2013

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.

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[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

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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