Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Mark 12:38-44

Like many of you, I love the woods. Whether I’m hiking on the North Country Trail, snowshoeing on my property, or sitting in my deer stand; I think, no, I know, there’s something spiritual about being in the woods. So, when I came across a poem last Tuesday titled When I Am Among the Trees by Mary Oliver I was intrigued. Let me share her words with you…

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

When I first read this poem, I was struck by its pace; its call to consider the busyness of life. “The trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘stay awhile’” And I thought that while this was a wonderful poem about slowing down and observing God’s handiwork, it finally didn’t have anything to do with the theme of my message for tonight. So, I moved on.

But Tuesday morning suddenly became Wednesday evening, and Thursday afternoon melted into Friday morning and no clear message had emerged. I think I was struggling because my mind kept coming back to this poem. But what in the world does a poem about trees have to do with this narrative about a poor widow’s offering?

So, I read it again and this time everything made sense. The final stanza says, “And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say, ‘and you, too, have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.’” You have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

The text we have before us is a comparison between the thought-less-ness of the scribes and the thought-full-ness of the widow. Imagine the scene. The Religious mucky-mucks, the most important men of the synagogue were parading around in long robes, looking as important as they could. But Jesus pointed out to his followers that their religious show as nothing but a sham. Why? Because while they claimed to be righteous, their actions told a different story. Jesus said, “they devour widows’ houses.” In other words, a thoughtless religion, one devoid of justice, is not pleasing to God.

But compare their thought-less-ness with the actions of the poor widow. Jesus said that she, “out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And this is where Mary Oliver’s words connect with the image of the widow. We are supposed to see ourselves, our faith, in the action of the widow. We are called to put in, from our poverty, whatever that poverty may be, we are called to devote our entire being, our complete selves, warts and all, to God, to justice, to loving our neighbor. We have come into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

Which brings us back to our theme for today: Embodied Generosity; an Embodied Generosity grounded in Hope. The widow’s generosity, her thought-full-ness, lead her to give all that she had for the sake of others. The box into which she deposited those two small coins was intended to help the poor. Think about that for a minute. This woman, who knew the pain of hunger, of rejection, of being-on-the-outside looking in; this woman out of her physical poverty gave all that she had.

Now, we may not know physical poverty in the same way as the widow. But make no mistake, we’ve all known rejection, we’ve all, at one time are another, been the one on the out-side-looking in.
We’ve known the poverty of grief, of uncertainty, and of fear. And it’s from this poverty that Jesus calls us give of ourselves. It’s from these places of poverty that we are challenged to act; to take a deep breath and go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

But how do we begin? How do we move from those dark places of poverty and realize that God has filled us with light? And maybe most importantly, how do we share that light; how do we shine?

Well, perhaps it’s important to begin by affirming the central message of Jesus; a message of inclusion, a message of faith and hope, a message of social justice. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing just that. I think we shine brightly. When we affirm that all people are children of God, we shine. When we honor and warmly welcome everyone, we shine. When we commit ourselves to being a uniting church that embraces the rich diversity of God’s creation, we shine. When we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the many gifts of all of God’s children, we shine. When we encourage those of every race, and of every gender, and of every age, and of every nationality and ethnicity and faith background to join us on this journey we call faith, we shine. When we shatter the stereotypes and cast off the long robes of exclusion by welcoming those of every sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, we shine. When we invite and include those from every economic circumstance or marital status or physical or developmental ability to worship with us here in this place, we shine. When we welcome everyone, no matter where they are on their journey of life and faith to join in full participation and leadership of this church, we shine. My friends, when we shout from the rooftops “You are welcome here!” we shine.

And, when we embody a generosity, a generosity grounded in hope; when we overcome any sense of poverty we may feel in our souls and give our whole selves in an effort to alienate the physical poverty of others, we shine. And, when we come to realize, that like the trees of the forest, we are all interconnected, all humanity and all of creation; when we embody this interconnection and begin to feel the breath of God in all things, my friends, we shine.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

May it be so. Amen.

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[1] from the Open and Affirming Statement of Cable United Church of Christ, 2018

[1] Ibid. Oliver

 

Take Heart

Mark 10:46-52

The story of the blind beggar, that we have before us today, begins in darkness. It begins in emptiness. It begins with raw need.

The text tells us that Jesus and his followers had been on the move and as they entered the city of Jericho, they encountered a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Now, this “son of honor,” which is what the name Bartimaeus literally means, is a metaphor for the suffering of humanity. Bartimaeus is the poster child for those who have been excluded from society; chased out of the synagogue in Jesus’ day or the Church in ours; Bartimaeus represents those who are on the outside-looking-in.

So, bearing this in mind, the first thing we need to consider as we begin to imagine what the emerging church of the next 500 years might look like is this: How might we interact with those who are outside our walls, looking in? Or, to put it another way: How can we offer an “extravagant welcome” to all people.

You know, for some time now, all across the United Church of Christ, we’ve been hanging banners that read, “no matter who, no matter what, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” It’s a message of extravagant welcome. But why do we do this? Why is “welcome” important? Well, it’s important because in the past those in society who found themselves on the outside-looking-in, like blind Bartimaeus, have felt extravagantly UN-welcome in the church, empty, left out in the darkness.

Sally was one such person. You see, Sally was a miserable human being. She had run away from home at the age of fifteen, went through a series of bad relationships, the last one ending with a hospital stay and a restraining order. Sally gave birth to four children by four different fathers and for years they were in and out of foster care. Sally had trouble caring for her children because she would often dull the pain of her life with drugs and alcohol. And this downward spiral hit rock bottom one day when her 2-year-old child drown in a backyard swimming pool while Sally slept off her latest bender.

But it was then that something amazing happened. Sally found herself in the basement of the local UCC church every week for an AA meeting. AA gave her the space and the freedom, for the first time in her life, to open up about the abuse she had underwent as a child. It was an opportunity to acknowledge and take responsibility for the bad choices she had made and to attempt to come to terms with the loss of her child. And for the first time in her life Sally began to think about things like faith and God; she even thought about going to church.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think once again about extravagant welcome. AA is a part of that welcome. It provides a confidential and sacred space for people who have common struggles. Other examples of this kind of welcome might include working at the food pantry, opening up our buildings for community events and groups, funerals and weddings and such. In Cable we have the Farmer’s Market and the Second Chance garage sale, and in Delta we have a number of special services and community dinners. All of these things are a part of our out-reach into the community. Perhaps we sometimes forget how something as simple as allowing a group to meet here can build goodwill with our neighbors.

But the story can’t end there. The challenge of providing an extravagant welcome must find a way to bridge the gap between people being welcomed into the buildings and inviting them to become involved in our faith communities. Now, I’m not trying to be overly Pollyannic here. I’m a realist. I know that not all the people who use our buildings or attend our events will join our churches. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extend the invitation.

Sally was leaving AA one afternoon when she happened upon someone in the parking lot that she vaguely recognized. It was Fran. Let me tell you about Fran. Fran was a member of that UCC congregation, she taught Sunday school and was on the church board; Fran was also the investigating officer when Sally’s child had drowned several years before.

Sally suddenly made the connection and quickly turned to avoid Fran. But Fran stepped into her path and after an intense twenty-minute conversation, a few tears, and some uncomfortable laughter on the part of Sally, she agreed to come to church the next Sunday.

Now, if you think the story ends there, think again. This story took place in a small town and everyone knew Sally and her story. But for most of the people there, including Fran, the past didn’t matter. Yes, there were a few sideways-glances, and one overt attempt to shame Sally which Fran immediately squashed. But for the most part Sally was accepted, her past and all, her mistakes and all, and she became a member of that congregation.

No matter who, no matter what, you’re welcome here.

Now, Sally’s story began in darkness. It began in emptiness. It began with raw need. Like Bartimaeus, she was on the outside-looking-in, the circumstances of her life and the poor choices that she made had separated her from God. But also, like the blind beggar, by making the decision to attend AA and taking a risk by walking into that church one Sunday morning, Sally threw off the cloak of her despair and shouted for Jesus to heal her. And when she encountered resistance, with the help of Fran, she shouted even louder.

And that’s the crux of the Bartimaeus story. Faith! Faith in its infancy might be needy, it might feel empty at times; it might even begin in darkness. But it doesn’t stay there. Because faith is also eager. It’s assertive and hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky. It’s both personal and relational; it’s individual and communal. And finally, faith isn’t stagnate; it’s always progressing; always in the process of moving us toward the light; the Light that is Jesus Christ.

And that’s where I gonna leave you today. The extravagant welcome of the emerging church, of our church, must be grounded in faith. One of the most power voices in the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren, affirms this when he says that, “Jesus was short on sermons, but long on conversations; short on answers, but long on questions; short on abstraction and propositions, but long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, but long on challenging you to think for yourself.”

My friends, as the journey continues, my prayer for our church is that we will be grounded in faith, open to the movement of the Spirit; that we will be extravagant in our welcome to all and steadfast in our service to others. And that as we begin the next 500 years of our shared ministry, that we too will be long on conversation and intent in our listening; that we will ask more questions realizing that we don’t have all the answers; that we will be long on stories and share the parables of our collective journey; and finally, that will accept the challenge, Christ’s challenge, to think of new and innovative ways to engage the future.

My friends, take heart.

We can do this.

Amen.

Courage for Community

Mark 9:38-50

What an interesting and disturbing text we have for today!

In some ways it reminds me of the Christmas Carol. You remember the Christmas Carol? Charles Dickens story about how Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish, tight-fisted miser, oblivious to the plight of the poor around him, was transformed into a big-hearted, generous, and kind man. And a big part of his dramatic transformation was the fact that he’d been visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had been dead seven years.

In the story, the ghost of Jacob wore a long and heavy chain that he literally had to drag along with him.  When Scrooge asked Marley about it, he said that he “wore the chain he forged in life—a chain forged by all his merciless, unjust, ruthless, and oppressive deeds.”  And he warned Scrooge that his own chain was just as long and just as heavy, and that it had continued to grow even longer and heavier over the seven years since Marley’s death![I]

Now, this is an interesting, and perhaps horrifying, concept, isn’t it? The idea that in death we wear chains forged from our misdeeds in life. But in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses a similar type of metaphor to warn us about the consequences of a life lived at the expense of others. He says you would be better off to wear a huge stone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea rather than cause someone else to sin!  And as a matter of fact, he doubles-down and says that it would behoove you to cut off you hand, or your foot, and even to “tear out” your eye if they cause you to sin. Wow!

But before we move on, I think we need to stop here and unpack a few things. First, it’s hard to miss the violent nature of Jesus’ language, …ya think? Especially considering the image of Jesus we saw last week when he gently took a child into his arms and used her to illustrate his teaching. But the interesting thing here is that the core of the message in today’s text is the same as last week; and that core understanding is justice. Or, maybe more accurately, the injustice being practiced by the disciples.

You see, the disciples had formed their own special, little group; let’s call it the “Jesus Tribe.” And I’m sure there were rules, both spoken and unspoken, around who could be in the tribe. And, knowing human nature, I’m sure there was some sort of “litmus test” as well. Maybe even a secret handshake. In short, this was, in the minds of the disciples anyway, a closed community. And when some guy from outside the Jesus Tribe tried to “horn-in” well, let’s just say that the disciples would have none of it.

Now, John must have been the communications officer of the tribe because he’s the one that took their complaint to Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Notice John didn’t say because he wasn’t following you but us. This outsider could have been following Jesus, but he wasn’t an official member of the Jesus Tribe; he didn’t know the secret handshake. And Jesus considered this type of exclusion by the disciples as unjust.

Now, let’s bring this into our time. I think this same kind of thinking still plagues the church today.  Far too often we define what it means to BE the church, to be a community of faith, by what it means to be a member of our tribe and by who knows the secret handshake. And when we to that, we too are being unjust.

Now, lest I be too critical, let me acknowledge that we have come a long way in recent years. With the help and guidance of the United Church of Christ, we’ve adopted an attitude of extravagant welcome to those who may be unlike ourselves. We’ve come to view Scripture in a far more inclusive way, inviting all kinds of people from all walks of life to journey with us. We’ve come to understand that our calling as Christians is one of action; to love and serve and share by doing and being out there, beyond the walls of this building. We have also recognized the gifts and graces of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people to preach and serve as ordained ministers of word and sacrament. As a matter of fact, just this year, we became the first mainline denomination to have more women pastors then men. And finally, we have come to understand that Jesus welcomes all people to the Lord’s table; young and old, baptized or not, faithful or questioning; all are welcome, as I say every month, with no exceptions. And these are but a few of the wonderful examples of how we’ve progressed as a Church and as a people.

But, even with all these awesome things going on, we can still do more. We can expand our definition of what it means to be in community with all humanity and all creation; here in the Northwoods, throughout the nation and across the globe.

So, how do we do that? How do we expand our definition of community? Well, the answer to that question is found right here in in this passage.  Jesus, amid all his harsh words to the disciples, gives them an example of expanded community. “Whoever isn’t against us,” he said, “is for us.” Perhaps that’s something we can meditate on as well: “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

You know, a young man named Drake is a perfect example of this. Drake is a singer, and this past winter he created a video for a song titled: “God’s Plan” in which he took the $996,000, the budget for the production of the video, and gave it away. That’s right, he gave it all away. Drake took stacks of cash to his hometown of Miami and gave it all away. How? Well, he provided several struggling college students with scholarships, so they could continue their education; he gave other students cars, so they could better balance family, school, and work. Drake also went to an after-school program in the inner city, where he donated $50,000 and gave Christmas presents to all the kids. He also donated money to struggling individuals he encountered on the street; a mother of a disabled girl, a homeless family, and a single mother. Drake went on to gift the local first responders and a public high school. In one scene, he actually went into a grocery store with a mega-phone and announced to the customers that could fill their carts for free. But beyond all the generosity demonstrated in this video, one line in the song really caught my attention: Drake says, “There’s a lot of bad things, but I can’t do this on my own… this is God’s plan.”

Now, I don’t know what religion Drake practices, if any, or his lifestyle or his politics; and I won’t pretend to know his motivation or what was in his heart when he made this video. But what I do know that Drake is onto something here. He could have made another flashy video; he could have used his fame to become a stumbling block to the youth who watch his videos and listen to his songs; but instead he chose to “lived-out” his understanding of God’s plan; a plan that includes expanding the definition of community.

My friends, what plan does God have for you? I know, that’s a tough question because the answers aren’t back and white; their shrouded by many shades of grey. But, it’s been my experience, both personally and from the lips of others, that if we allow God to speak to us, if we allow ourselves to be still and sit in the presence of the Divine, a plan will begin to form.  And I’m willing to bet that if you do, if you allow the plan to begin to form, God’s subtle guidance will move you in the direction of expanding your boundries, expanding your understanding of justice, expanding, my friends, your definition of community.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i]Alan Brehm. Millstones (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2012

 

Incarnation for All of Us

The seventeenth-century English poet John Donne once shared a legend about one man’s search for God.  When told that God lived atop a mountain at the end of the earth, the man embarked on a journey there to find God. At the same time, however, God thought, “What can I do to show my people I love them?” So, God decided to travel down from the mountain and live among the people as one of them. But God went down the opposite side of the mountain from the man climbing up, so, they missed one another.  The man was heartbroken when he discovered an empty mountaintop and concluded that God must not exist.

Now, we know that God doesn’t live on a mountaintop, at the end of the earth, or even in some distant heaven. From the mystics of old to today’s best theologians, the collective wisdom suggests a profoundly intimate and interconnected Divinity. And I believe that this is the key to understanding the doctrine of the incarnation. The true essence of incarnation is God’s indwelling in all of creation, from the smallest yet-to-be-identified particle to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. In short, limiting God to one place or one time or to one culture-bound expression creates barriers to the deeper understanding of the mystery of life.

So, if we, as Christians, want to take the incarnation of Christ seriously, we must come to understand that Jesus revealed what it means to be fully-human, and that by living fully into his humanity, demonstrated a way of being that could only be described as Divine. St. Athanasius suggested in the fourth century, “Christ became what we are that he might make us what he is.” John Cobb Jr. affirms this understanding when he says, “In human beings, God is the source of novelty, of purpose, of meaning, of openness to others, of freedom, of responsibility, and of much else besides. Far from diminishing our humanity, God is the giver of that humanity. The more fully God is present, the more fully human we are.”

My friends, as we continue our journey of faith and life, may we continue to walk with God and each other, hand in hand, and side by side. And in the presence of The Sacred, may we each find a fuller expression of our humanity.

Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

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Story, quotes, and process theology as express in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. David M Felton & Jeff Procter-Murphy (New York: Harper One, 2012) pgs. 184-186

First In Caring

Mark 9:30-37

It was the Schnitzer’s second Hanukkah in Billings, Montana, and five-year-old Isaac wanted the menorah to be in his bedroom window. But as Isaac and his sister, Rachel, prepared for bed, a brick hurled from the street sent shards of glass flying through the room. The day after the incident, an FBI agent advised the family to get bulletproof glass in their windows and to take down all the menorahs. But instead of doing that, they decide to put the menorah back in the window and call the local newspaper.

The next morning, a member of the local UCC church read the story and phoned her pastor and a plan was hatched. Within days, the word was out, and paper menorahs were distributed for display in windows throughout the city. The local Target store had some menorahs in stock, but they were soon out. An antique store in Billings reported that a Christian woman had bought the only menorah that had, an expensive antique one, to place in her window. And finally, the marquee on the local Catholic High School read, “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends.”[I]

Our gospel lesson for today is chock-full of images and transitions. But what this passage finally boils down to is this: Injustice hurts everyone. That’s it!  This passage begins with a lack of understanding on the part of the disciples about Christ’s suffering and death and their fear about asking him any questions. It then transitions quickly to their grandiose musings about who might be the greatest and Jesus’ condemnation of those thoughts. And this passage culminates with an image and a lesson about injustice. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and servant of all.” In other words, no one is above anyone else, we’re all in this together.

Martin Niemöller, a German pastor during the Holocaust, put it this way, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”[ii] The hard truth is this: whenever we turn a blind eye to the injustice we risk the life and liberty, the happiness and freedom of all: including ourselves. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”[iii]

But what does injustice look like? Well, sometimes it’s easy to spot. A brick thrown through a child’s window because they’re Jewish is an obvious act of injustice. The White Supremacist, KKK march in Charlottesville Virginia was an obvious sign of injustice. Discrimination based on race or sex or orientation or age or ability is relatively easy to spot.

But what if the injustice is subtle; tougher to spot? What if it’s a part of the fabric of a society? Well, that, I think, is what Jesus was up against in our text for today. The devaluation or the striation of classes of people was a common practice in his day.  Women, children, servants, Samaritans, or those where were considered unclean for whatever reason were treated as second-class citizens. They were shunned, denied basic human rights and liberties, and in some cases, they were killed. That’s why he chose to use a child, one of the “least of God’s people” as his example. “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me,” he said.

Let’s stop here and think about the significance of Jesus’ actions for a moment. Jesus was pretty well off, societally speaking.  He was an adult man, a skilled orator, a Rabbi, and, by this point in Mark’s Gospel, he had a significant following.  I wouldn’t call him “an elite” but he was pretty far up there on the list. So, it would have been easy for him to turn a blind eye to the injustice that surrounded him to conserve his status and protect his own self-interest.

But, of course, he didn’t! And neither should we. When one member of our community is suffering, we all suffer. When one group of people are deemed as “less than worthy” the humanity of all is diminished. When one family is terrorized because of their religion, all religions feel the sting of those shards of breaking glass, as they did was in Billings Montana.

Hundreds of homes in Billings put menorahs in their windows. Yes, other bricks were thrown, and hate-filled words were uttered, but in the end, on the last night of Hanukkah, hundreds of homes had menorahs in their windows. And as the Schnitzers drove around the city that night, and as young Isaac saw all those menorahs in all those windows, he said, “I didn’t know so many people were Jewish!”[iv]

My friends, a part of our call to servanthood is to stand up against injustice. Yes, we are sent-out to provide food and shelter, warmth and welcome to all those in need; but we are also challenged by God to be a voice for the marginalized.  And this is important. It’s important because “one of the messages that Christianity has to offer is the message of both a radical equality and a radical grace.”[v] The notion that we are neither a Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free is an invitation to view justice, God’s gift of justice, through the lens of a radical equality and a radical grace. Paul’s words invite us to see that it’s somehow possible to find a way around our differences. Not do away with them, our strength is in our diversity; but rather to learn to coexist within our differences. Whether it’s providing an extravagant welcome to our LGBTQ neighbors, or by calling someone out when they use racist language or tell a demining sexist joke, or by simply putting a menorah in the window; we are called to be “first in caring.”

I’m going to leave you today with these words from the pen of the great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A great person,” he once wrote, “is always willing to be little.”[vi]

My friends, in our “littleness” may we find a great strength; through our service to others, may we ourselves; and as we continue to seek justice for all God’s children, may we find ourselves a little closer to the Sacred.

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

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[i] David M. Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Theology (New York: Harper One, 2012) pgs.149-150

[ii] Quote found at http://www.genius.com

[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” May 1, 1963, p. 3.

[iv] Ibid. Felton and Procter

[v] Nancy Ammerman from Living the Questions pg. 150

[vi] Quote from www.ucc.org/samuel

Who Are You?

Mark 8:27-38

I had a friend, many years ago, who had an interesting observation about my oldest daughter Ashley when Ashley was only about three or four-years-old. Kathy used to say that Ashley was an “old soul.” As a matter of fact, her nickname for Ashley was “The Ancient One.” Kathy said this because Ashley has always been intelligent and articulate, wise beyond her years; it seems like she was born a 40-year-old.

Now, I thought of Ashley’s nickname this week because it was not only an accurate description of a young Ashley, but “The Ancient One” also articulates a deeper understanding of who Ashley was and how she interacted with the world.  And as we come to today’s text Simon Peter makes this same kind of observation about Jesus. Well, half of it anyway.

Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, asks his followers, “who do people say that I am?” And they answered, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus pressed them further, “But who do you say that I am?” And this was Peter’s shining moment; this was his “Ancient One” observation: “You are the Messiah,” Peter said. And for a brief moment in time, Peter got it! He understood on a deeper level who Jesus was.

But what was it exactly that Peter got right?

Well, the title “Messiah” literally means “The Anointed One” or the “Chosen One of God.” The common understanding in that time was that a “messiah” was in fact, divine. So, when Peter identified Jesus as “Messiah” he was saying that he recognized Jesus to be more than just another religious leader, more than just a really good guy; he understood that Jesus was neither John the Baptist, nor was he the reincarnation of Elijah; Peter understood Jesus as “The Chosen One of God.” He understood that Jesus was more than a mere prophet, Peter understood, to some degree anyway, that Jesus was God.

However, Peter, unlike Kathy, was expressing only a portion of who Jesus was. Remember, I said that Kathy understood who Ashley was and how she interacted with the world. But Peter, while he was spot-on about who Jesus was, was still confused about how Jesus would interact with the world. That’s where the “get behind me Satan” part comes in.  When Jesus expressed that he would be executed for his positions on the equality and value of women and children; that he would be killed because of his stance on justice for the poor; that he would die because of his insistence on the inclusion of “the gentiles” …people from other religions, into household of God; when Jesus expressed these things, the text tells us that Peter, “rebuked him.” Simon Peter’s shinning moment was brief.

And this, I think, is where we, as people of faith, sometimes get off-track as well. Sometimes, like Peter, we’re really good at recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. We’re really good at comprehending the awe and wonder surrounding his divinity. And that’s a good thing. But in the end, Jesus says, it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to simply say that Jesus is the Messiah, we must also look at his deeds, his actions, and then begin to try and emulate them in our lives. We must understand that being the “Anointed One” brought with it a responsibility to live-out, to demonstrate, to embody the justice and equality and inclusiveness that Jesus preached. Do you see what I’m driving at here? We must not only try and figure out who Jesus was, but also, how he interacted with the world.

“Well, that’s great,” you might say, but how do we do that?  How do we view messiahship through the lens of how Jesus interacted with the world?

Well, that answer, I think, is twofold. First, we can look to the gospels as a guide.  You don’t have to read very far to encounter the lovingkindness and the grace and the extravagant welcome that Jesus extended to those around him; especially the poor and the outcast. Jesus was a living, breathing, walking example of what God desires of humanity. Which leads us to the second way we begin to understand Jesus’ interaction with the world: through faith. And that’s the path the remainder of this passage takes us down.  When Jesus calls upon us to “take up our cross” it’s finally a matter of faith.

But what does this cross-bearing type of faith look like?  Well, this is a place where the writings of William Slone Coffin might help us out a bit.  “Faith,” Coffin says, “is being grasped by the power of love. Faith is recognizing that what God desires is infinite mercy, not infinite control; not power; but love unending.  Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so that we might become more like him. [And] we know what that means: in watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”[I]

My friends, too often we hear the words “take up your cross” assigned to all the bad events of our lives. It’s used as a platitude like “hang in there” or “pull yourself up by you bootstraps.” And, I agree, that there is an element of perseverance implicit in this edict, but that cannot be the sum total of it. When Christ invites us to “take up our cross and follow him” it’s an invitation to faith, or even better, to faithful living.  Faithful living that includes practicing lovingkindness and grace and forgiveness and an extravagant welcome in our lives and in our church community.

One final thought today. As I look at this text with its double understanding of who Jesus was and how he interacted with humanity, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with the Great Commandment.  Love God with all your heart and soul, body and mind, (in other words, the recognition of Christ’s Messiahship as Divine) and loving our neighbor as ourselves, (how Christ, and we, interact with others) And this isn’t a coincidence. The very core of Mark’s account, of the gospels as a whole, of the writings of Paul and the Hebrew Scriptures for that matter; at the very core of these diverse descriptions of each one’s encounter with God; is the notion of loving God and neighbor. So, it’s also no coincidence that the core of our faith as Christians, as member of this congregation, and as persons who identify with the United Church of Christ, is the love of God and neighbor. My friends, faith is both an encounter with the awe and wonder of the Messiah, and then living out that encounter by sharing the virtues of Christ with others.

One final, final thought. William Slone Coffin also penned these words, “I love the recklessness of faith,” he said. “First you leap, and then you grow wings.”[ii] My friends, as we go from this place today, may each of us, each soul present in this room, embrace the freedom to practice an outside-the-box, beyond our comfort zone, yes, reckless kinda faith. And may you then be led to take that reckless leap of faith, whatever that leap may entail, and when you do, when you spread your wings, I assure you, you will soar. That’s my wish for each of you. That’s my prayer. May it be so, Amen.

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[i] Willian Slone Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pgs. 7-8

[ii] Ibid. Coffin

Be Love

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the bad
behavior that was going on. So, God called one of angels and sent the angel down to earth for a time. When he returned, the angel told God, ‘Yes, it’s bad. 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are being good. God thought for a moment and said, ‘Maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another opinion.’ So, God called another angel and sent her to down to earth. And when the angel returned she went to God and said, ‘Yes, it’s true. The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.’ God was not pleased to hear this so, God decided to e-mail the 5% that were good to encourage them and give them a little something to help them keep going. Do you know what the e-mail said? No? That’s Okay, I didn’t get one either.

Now, I know this is a just a joke (thanks Roger) but it does point us toward some interesting questions. Questions like: Who are the 95% and why are they… we… misbehaving? Who are the 5% and what are they doing right? And, finally, what does it really mean to “misbehave”? Well, there are probably as many answers to these questions as there are people in the room here today. And this is nothing new.  These questions go way back.

The religious leaders, in our passage from Mark’s gospel today, had one definition of what misbehaving looked like and Jesus had another. The Pharisees though misbehaving meant breaking the laws of Moses. Keeping all 640ish of them to the letter was the key to holiness. The laws were clear, black and white, and often practical. I mean, who can argue with washing your hand before you eat? Cleanliness is next to Godliness, right? But the problem was that the Pharisees, over the centuries, had weaponized these laws.  And in this case, were turning those weapons on Jesus.

But he responds in a very interesting way. Jesus said, “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come.” In other words, there’s no outside contaminant causing us to sin. He was advocating for what we would call today “personal responsibility.” So, when you make a mistake, when evil words cross your lips, when you’re not as compassionate or kind as you could have been, don’t try to place the blame anyone or anything else. Take responsibility. Ask for forgiveness when it’s you’re fault and be forgiving when someone else has wronged you. If we can teach this concept to our children, this world might be a little better off.

“Now,” you might say, “not all bad things come from inside us, some evil is beyond our control.” And you would be right. But as Jesus teaches, most of our problems come as the result of our own transgressions; our own insecurities, our own fear; it’s our own bad thoughts that lead us astray and causes us to misbehave.

But, let’s stop here for a moment and consider the opposite.  If evil thoughts come from our hearts, that must mean we are also capable of producing good thoughts; things like joy, compassion, and grace must also come from within us. So, if this is true, then we might say, “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that loving thoughts come.”

That means we have a choice. We can choose to good over evil, we can choose to listen to our inner compassionate voice rather than the fearful, negative one.  We can choose to misbehave, or we can choose to Be Love.

What does it mean, to be love? Well, here’s an example of what I mean. This past week I saw a picture of our former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn working at a new Habitat for Humanity work site in Indiana. I posted the picture on my blog.[i] Remember now, President Carter is 93-years-young and Rosalynn Carter is now 91. It was announced this week that the President’s cancer has spread, but there they were, beginning their 31st year of Habitat, still out there, still wearing their blue hard hats and t-shirts, still building houses, still serving the poor; still being love.

President Carter once said, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.[ii]

My friends, what a beautiful statement of faith.  We are called to “Be Love”; to be God’s hands and feet, Christ’s heart and the Spirit’s voice in the world today. And we can do this! We can do it if we let the good that is within each one of us burst forth! We can do this if we let our faith challenge us to do whatever we can, wherever we are, whenever we can, for as long as God gives us the strength to try and make a difference in the world. That’s finally what it means to be faithful individuals; that’s what it means to “be” the church; and, that’s what it means to be love.

So, my friends, as we depart this service today, may any evil thoughts that might be lurking below the surface, may our misbehavior in whatever form it may take; be overcome by the better angels of our being and the goodness that dwells within each of all our hearts.

May it be so.

Amen.

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[i] Photo and article from The Atlantic by Jill Vejnoska (www.AJC.com) August 29,2018

[ii] Quote found at http://www.atozquotes.com

At Home with God

Psalm 84

Kathryn Matthews shared the following story. “Many years ago,” she writes, “I belonged to a parish that built a beautiful new stone and glass church across the parking lot from our “old” church, a simple, box-like structure that had been designed ahead of time to be converted into a gymnasium for the attached school. My feelings about the move were mixed, at best.

As we prepared for our move into the new church and our final days in the old one, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that humble space: late at night, alone in the sanctuary, during a weekend retreat, with only candlelight to see the shadowy lines of cross and statues; at my son’s First Communion service, listening to him sweetly sing a song he had learned in school about God being always near at hand; in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear straight while they sang carols as only children can.

It didn’t seem to me that one needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” I loved that simple, humble space as much as I ever loved the newer, grander one we moved into.”[I]

This story, I think, expresses the feelings that our Hebrew ancestors experienced many centuries ago as they looked at their Temple. It wasn’t just a well-worn-out but beloved building; it was a destroyed one, ruins that seemed to symbolize their own crushed and broken hopes. They could look back, of course, to a more glorious and happier time; a time when Solomon had dedicated the Temple and celebrated the arrival of the ark of the covenant. And that’s what we humans sometimes do in difficult times; we look back and fondly remember the “glory days.”

And this is where Psalm 84 resides. It’s a joyful song about the glory days, about being in the “dwelling place of God,” in the very presence of God. And as I read this Psalm, I couldn’t help but notice that, according to the psalmist, God’s dwelling place was both within the Temple and beyond it.  The author says that his “heart and body” rejoice out loud to the Living God! And that rejoicing is both within God’s “courtyards” and out in God’s beautiful creation.

But this Psalm also picks up on another, albeit related, theme: Pilgrimage. He writes, “as they pass through the Baca Valley (Baca literally means ‘tears’) so, as “they pass through the valley of tears, they make it a spring of water. Yes, the early rain,” the author says, “covers it with blessings.” So, how do these two themes, the presence of God within and beyond the Temple and Pilgrimage, have in common?

I read a quote this week that might help us our here. It went like this: “…the fact that these paths are in the heart points not only to the orientation of one’s body on a journey, but to the orientation of a way of life. Both physically and metaphorically such a person is turned toward [God’s] dwelling place.”[ii]

My friends, faith isn’t a static thing; we’re all on a journey; we’re all on a pilgrimage of faith. And the blessing in all this is that God is on this journey with us, calling us, challenging us, inviting us home. A home that’s not necessarily tied to a building but exists within community; a home that’s not necessarily a house, but rather, a state of being.  A state of being that causes our hearts and minds to rejoice out loud to the Living God.

And that’s the crux of this text. Maybe we’re wandering. Maybe we’re lost. Maybe we have to find our way home or make a home wherever we are. I mean, that was the message to God’s people when they found themselves in exile. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Jeremiah preached, “plant crops, take wives, have children, because you’re going to be here for a while.” Because sometimes a pilgrimage, even a forced exile, can lead us back to God. That’s the message, I think, that the church ought to try and communicate to the wider culture. The message that we are a people who attempt to extend a wide welcome to all, opening our hearts and doors to all, creating a place for all to come.[iii] My friends, this is where we are planted but the pilgrimage into the presence of God; the task of realizing that God is with us, that God is Still-Speaking in the world today, is unending.

One final thought. The author of this psalm says that he would “prefer to stand outside the entrance of God’s house,” (some versions of the Bible say ‘gatekeeper’) – he says, “I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of God, than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!” As we extend our wide welcome, as we expand who may be included in our faith community, as we redefine what it means to be a “gatekeeper” of God’s house, the temptation is to “live comfortably in the tents of the wicked.” In other words, to revert back to what was comfortable for so long, even if that comfort comes at a price; the alienation of others; the rejection of those who, for whatever reason, are different.

But, if God is love, and we know this to be true, if God is inclusive and unconditional love, then shouldn’t we, to the best of our ability anyway, reflect that love to all people and all of creation?

My friends, as we go forth today, (and as we embark on this important vote in our annual meeting today) and as we continue this pilgrimage, hand in hand, and stride for stride with God, should we not let love be the guidepost that points us toward God and inclusiveness be the threshold we cross as we come home to God.

This is my hope for the church. This is my prayer. Amen & amen.

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[i] Kathern Matthews Love is our Defense (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[ii] Lorraine Parkinson, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.

[iii] Kenneth Carter A Survival Strategy for the Spirit. (www.Day1.org) 2006

 

Wisdom Quest

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14

It was, and perhaps still is, the most perfect prayer ever uttered. It came out of the mouth of a six-year-old boy. His mother shared the story. They were at a local swimming pool and her son was standing at the deep end, his toes curled over the edge. Still unsure of himself in the water, he stood there for what seemed like forever. Hesitating. Meditating. Palpitating. And just when it seemed that he was going to back away from the edge, he looked up to the sky, put his hands together, and said: “O Lord, give me skills or give me gills!” And he jumped.[I]

Give me skills or give me gills. That pretty much covers all the bases, doesn’t it? Lord, give me what I need to overcome what I’m facing; but if not, give me what I need to endure it. Give me skills or give me gills.

In his book Hustling God, Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote this about the Christian life: “…your calling is not primarily to accomplish something, but to serve God who will always lead you to places where you are in way over your head.”[ii] Barnes is reminding us that life has a habit of tossing us into the “deep end”. The question I think we need to contemplate today is when these “deep water experiences” happen, will we sink or swim? Will we blame God and everyone who crosses our path, or will we trust God enough to start paddling?

And this is where we meet Solomon today. He’s in way over his head. His father died. He’s grieving. He’s afraid. And he’s now the head of his family. Solomon is no longer swimming in the safety of the shallow end of his childhood. With one swift toss, he’s headed into the deep end of adulthood.

And what a deep end it was! It isn’t just the loss of his father that Solomon was forced to confront. It was who his father was. His father was David, the great king of Israel, their liberator from the Philistines, the original Raider of the Lost Ark, the unifier of the tribes, the master musician and wordsmith, the “man after God’s own heart.” So, with David’s death, Solomon not only took his place at the head of his own family; but he was now the head of a great nation. Ready or not. But it was clear that Solomon was not ready.

But the good thing, the saving grace, if you will, was that Solomon knew he wasn’t ready. He said, in effect: “I’m not up to this, God. You put me in the place of my father, but I’m not my father. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m scared to death.” [iii] But it’s then that Solomon demonstrates real insight, it’s then that Solomon utters the words that should come from the mouth of everyone who assumes a leadership role.

Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help”

So, if we find ourselves “in over our heads,” as we all do from time to time, then this humble request from the lips of Solomon is an important one. It’s important because it means we can relax, or at least, we can stop pretending that we have everything under control. It means asking God for what we need to overcome the situations that arise or what we need to endure them. It means we should boldly pray for skills or for gills, confident that God will always give us one or the other. And sometimes, like Solomon, we may even get both. But, however the answer comes, God always comes with it.

You know, I heard a phrase many years ago that’s stuck with me. And the phrase is this. “God goes before you.” No matter what situation you might be walking into; no matter what disturbing thing the voice on the other end of the phone might have just said, no matter what crazy thing happened in the latest news cycle; God goes before us. Maybe that’s the crux of the message for us today. Maybe we should remember that no matter what, God goes before us, beside us, and all around us. God has our back. When life tosses us into the deep end, God’s there with the life preserver.

The challenge in all this, however, is for each of us to try and figure out how to be patient enough, to be humble enough, how to tread water long enough, for an answer to become apparent. That’s a tough one. But it’s also an important part of developing our faith and deepening our understanding of the nature of God’s wisdom.

And that’s final point that I would like to share today. God’s wisdom, by and large, is beyond our perception. God is mysterious, right? But we can come to know a little about God’s wisdom, we can begin to see a bit of what the manifestation of God’s wisdom might look like in real time.

How? Well, the word in Greek for wisdom is “Sofia” (Sofia) and I have some of my own thoughts about this word. First of all, it’s no accident that this is a feminine word. Sofia, wisdom, is always referred to as a woman. Life experience, a mother, a wife, two daughters, three granddaughters, and many wonderful relationships with women, both personally and professionally, have reinforced to me that this is accurate. Guys, it’s true, wisdom is a woman.

But seriously, over the course of many years of study, I have concluded that wisdom is more that just a mere attribute of God; I have come to believe that Sofia is a part of the nature of God.

And this is an important distinction. An attribute of God is something God does. Faithfulness for example. The Hebrew Scriptures often tell us that God is “faithful and slow to anger.” Faithfulness is something God does; it’s an attribute of God.

But the nature of God goes somewhat deeper. The best example is love. The author of the first epistle of John tells us that God IS love. Now, wait a cotton-picken minute, you might say, don’t you always tell us in the benediction, “God – loves – you”? Isn’t that an action of God? Isn’t loving something that God does? In short, yes. But the difference here is that love is actually a part of the make-up of God. I perceive love as a part of the essence, the being, the very core of the consciousness of God. So, yes, God is loving, but while God demonstrates faithfulness, God is actually love itself. Love then proceeds to us from the very core of God’s being.

Now, I realize that this is pretty philosophical, and you might be checking your watch about now. But hang in here with me. I believe that Wisdom, Sofia, is also a part of God’s make-up. God’s being. God’s nature. So, if that is the case, if Wisdom is a part of God’s nature, then what might the procession of wisdom look like to us?

Well, the Talmud, one of the sacred texts of Judaism, might help us to begin to address this question. It states that, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.”[iv] What an interesting way of viewing wisdom. According to, at least a portion of, the Jewish tradition, wisdom is seen in its highest form in acts of kindness.

So, if Wisdom is a part of God’s nature, then kindness, according to this ancient text, is what proceeds to us. And here’s the goodie. It’s a part of God’s nature that we can see and emulate. We can emulate it in our relationships, by showing kindness in how we deal with others; even the difficult ones. We can emulate God’s kindness in how we conserve, preserve, and interact with the natural world. And, finally, we can practice kindness when we, like Solomon, are called to step up and assume a leadership role, even if we don’t feel we’re fully qualified. Think about that for a moment.  What if one’s call to leadership was born from a desire to propagate kindness rather than from a desire to rule over others or to satisfy a thirst for power. What if our leaders were to humble themselves before God utter the words of Solomon…

Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help”

May it be so for all of us. Amen.

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[i] Tim Boggess Skills and Gills (www.Day1.org) 2015

[ii] M. Craig Barnes, Hustling God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 99.

[iii] Ibid. Boggess

[iv] Quote from www.ucc.org/samuel 2018.