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.

The Bread of Life Part III: Shaping Community

John 6:35, 41-51

When I was serving my very first church my responsibilities exceeded that of part-time pastor. I was also the grounds keeper, building maintenance, and I was my own administrative assistant.  I wore many hats in that small church. But the extra duty that I enjoyed most was the once-a-month task of baking the communion bread.

I enjoyed that task for a couple of reasons.  First, the smell. One Saturday evening a month my parsonage was filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread. And if I close my eyes, I think I can still recall the fragrance. It was a great way to get into the mood, to get into the spirit if you will, for worship the next morning.

And it’s this idea of preparation for worship leads me to the other reason I liked baking the communion bread: community. You see, I was single at that time. I was a full-time student, served the church part time, and worked an additional summer job. I was also a parent and was beginning a relationship with someone special, who would of course later become my wife. It’s sufficing to say that I had a lot on my plate, so finding the time to make food for something like, say, a potluck was difficult. So, when I showed up to a potluck dinner with a plastic container of potato salad I bought at the super market, I was excused from having to bring food to any of the church functions.

That is, until I came across the passage we have before us today and hatched the idea of baking the communion bread as a way of contributing to the life of the church. In today’s text, Jesus offers us an image of bread as a way to better understand not only who he was but also as an avenue for us to discover ways in which we might contribute to the life of the church. But on an even deeper level, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life as a way for us to connect with God in a very down-to-earth way. And it’s this “earthy” understanding of God, this incarnate living manifestation of divinity, that makes God very real to us today.

Now, those who followed Jesus, his disciples and the crowds, must have wondered about this “earthiness.” How could they reconcile their notion of the set-apart nature of holiness with the idea that God was among them? They must have wondered about this Jesus whose parents they knew so well.  They must have wondered how a person who was so much like them in so many ways could even begin to think of tying himself to heaven.  And no doubt, they must have wondered how he could have made such extraordinary claims about something so ordinary: I mean, claiming to be the bread which would satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst for all of time?

But, we have come to understand that this is how God always seems to work.  Oh, there are plenty of extraordinary things which happen in the presence of Jesus, but in the end, God uses fairly ordinary means to reach us.  We experience this over and over again in many of Jesus’ teachings.  Consider, for instance, his parables where he speaks of things like seeds and weeds and crops and vineyards and lost coins and travelers and families: all so very familiar to the people who first listened to what he had to say.  And today, of course, he brings to mind the nearly universal image and experience of bread. God employs ordinary means to help us understand, embrace, and rejoice in God’s love for and intent for us all: including Jesus himself, whose childhood, no doubt mirrored that of his neighbors.

And, like I said before, we best understand and respond to ordinary things.  And by God’s wondrous gift, it’s within the ordinary things, the common elements of life; bread, juice, water. It’s within these things that the Sacred somehow enters and heals and forgives and loves in some very extraordinary ways.[I]

This is important! It’s important because it’s these common elements, the most basic elements of life, that “shape our community”. As a church, as a community committed to peace and justice, to a wide welcome to all, we are invited today, to view this passage as less about our practice of religion; our traditions and rites, than as an invitation to a faithful life, a compassionate life, a real-life, earthy, understanding of what it means to be a congregation of God’s people.

Do you see what I’m driving at here?

Religious practice, and by religious practice I mean the sacraments, the traditions and rites of the Church, and worship in all its forms; these things are important! These practices are the backbone of our shared faith. But religious practice isn’t an end in and of itself. Our worship points us toward something far greater. And that “something” is the experience of God in our lives, both our individual lives and the life of our community. That “something” is a calling and a challenge to turn our gaze outward and to realize that all people and all of nature are interconnected. An interconnectedness on the most basic level; food and drink. When Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life, eat this bread and you’ll never go hungry or ever be thirsty again he was using a power image to remind us that hunger and thirst can be eternally overcome. The physical hunger of our neighbor can be overcome. The spiritual thirst we all struggle with can be overcome. That, my friends, is the beginning of faith.  Faith is about action. Faith is becoming aware of God’s presence and building upon that experience by doing and being and becoming the Church to all our neighbors.

Now, being the church comes in a variety of forms. It can come through prayer or devotional reading, through communal worship or individual piety. Being the church can be as simple as performing an act of lovingkindness or as complex as a foreign mission trip. The commonality between all of these things is that we do them to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

And that’s why baking the bread became such an important part of my ritual in that little church I served back in Illinois.  It connected me to the congregation, to my faith community, in a way that went far deeper than merely turning on the oven.  Remember, I was discouraged from sharing my portion of the basic elements, but through the bread, I too was able to contribute to a larger whole.

Now, in the many years since, I’ve come to understand that sharing is what finally shapes a community of faith and it opens in all to us many, many new possibilities for our faith and opens to all of us many, many opportunities to live out that faith through service.

One final thought this morning. Jean Baptist Lacordaire famously shared his perspective on humanity. He said, “We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, and the flowers of one garden.”[ii] As we continue to evolve and progress as a congregation, what if we were to let Lacordiare’s words resonate in the back of our minds?  What if we were to think of those who attend other churches, practice other religions, or no religion at all, as fellow leaves all hanging around on the same branch? What if we were to imagine the world through the eyes of the refugee, the immigrant, the displaced family or the little child separated from their parent and realize that the sea is vast because it is comprised of many, many drops; drops from many nations, races, and creeds? And finally, what if we were to put ourselves on an equal plane with nature? What if we, humanity, are but one of many flowers in the garden of creation? What if our interconnectedness with nature, and our affirmation of life for all of humanity, is finally the meaning behind the Bread of Life. One loaf that is comprised of many grains and one cup that is to be shared. I have to wonder, “What if?”

May you go forth from this place today, with a renewed sense purpose, a restored faith, as we continue on this journey together, constantly reshaping and reimagining what it means to be a community of faith. That’s my wish. That’s my prayer for all of us. Amen & Amen.

[i] Janet Hunt. On Breaking Bread and the Bread of Life. Dancing with the Word.                (www. words.dancingwiththeword.com) 2012

[ii] Quote from Jean Baptist Lacordaire found at www.ucc.org/samuel  2018

The Bread of Life

John 6:24-35

I’m going to start today with a confession. I admit it, I have watched America’s Got Talent. Well, I wasn’t really watching, rather I “eaveswatched” it. Eaveswatching, ya know, is a hybrid term that combines eavesdropping and watching. It refers to viewing or overhearing a TV show someone else is watching: eaveswatching. Well, anyway, Manny was watching a YouTube video of a young girl on America’s Got Talent who was an awesome ventriloquist. She really was impressive but my take-away wasn’t so much the girl or her act; no, my fascination was with the format of the show.

You see, America’s Got Talent is like an old-time talent show; only on steroids. The contestants get on stage, do their thing, and whoever gets voted best, whoever gets “voted through” moves to the next round. And whoever is left in the end wins a million dollars and a chance to headline a show in Las Vegas. And it works like this. During each performance the three judges sit at their desks with control buttons. If at any time during the performance they become bored they push an X button and a giant buzzer sounds, testing the mettle and concentration of the hapless juggler, singer, ventriloquist or dog trainer on stage. After each act the judges give feedback. But it seems like it’s always the same advice: “Up the ante. Make it bigger. Make it better. Make it more dangerous. Wow us more or you won’t go through to the next round.” [I]

Our text for this week from John’s Gospel is akin to Jesus’ second appearance in the talent show. He was “voted through” last week when he multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. Which makes sense in a way, but one has to wonder why the crowd demanded an encore? Why didn’t they get it the first time around?

Now, the crowd did “ooh” and “ahh” over him as a “prophet come into the world”, but that recognition doesn’t do him full justice and slips from their minds as soon as their stomachs start to growl. All I can figure is that the hungry crowd didn’t notice what he was doing for their neighbors, because they were too busy focusing on what he had done for them.

They say to him, “What sign will you do for us, so we may see it and believe you?” What? Didn’t Jesus just feed 5000 people? Didn’t he, at the very least, convince 5000 people to share their provisions with each other? But, instead of faith, instead of indwelling and remembering that moment on the hillside, that moment of unconditional sharing among neighbors, they say in essence, “Let’s see your act again, Jesus. If it holds our interest, we won’t buzz you, and we’ll vote you through to the next round.” They’re treating Jesus like a talent show contestant who has to prove himself to them.

Now, lets’ stop here and think about this text from a devotional perspective.  In other words, what’s the message for us in our time?

Well, I would challenge you today to consider the most fundamental mistake made by the crowd; I referred to it earlier.  They didn’t consider Christ’s miracle of abundance beyond their own stomach, they didn’t consider the full scope of neighbor feeding neighbor. So, unlike the crowd, we must see that the bread of life, the actual, physical, daily bread of life, real food, must be made accessible to all people. My friends, we don’t have a shortage of bread in this nation, what we have is a distribution problem.  There’s enough bread for all, both here and abroad, if only we could focus on what we can do for our neighbor in Jesus’ name rather than what he might be doing for us as individuals. The message here is to put the other before self.

That’s the first part, and the second is this: This text goes much deeper than a simple sharing our resources, we are challenged to come away from this story with a spiritual understanding of what the Bread of Life has, can, and will do in our lives, both as individuals and as a faith community. And what better to symbolize a spiritual understanding of the Bread of Life than the sacraments? My friends, today we will be invited to witness and participate in both of the sacraments of the Church: Baptism and Communion.

I was once asked to explain, in the simplest of terms, the sacraments of our church. I thought about it for awhile and this was my answer.  Think of the church as a trail. Baptism is the trailhead. A place where the hikers gather, lace up their boots, make sure their walking-sticks are in hand, and begin the journey. Baptism is a person’s inclusion into the family of God and the beginning or the establishment of their individual covenant with God. Infant, child, adult, it doesn’t matter.  Whether one is questioning or confident; passionate or struggling with doubt; Whether one is fulfilling a family tradition or establishing a new one; whether one has a faith as great as a mountain or as tiny as a mustard seed; it finally doesn’t matter. What matters is that Christ is calling us, all of us, to invite all people to join us on this trail of faith.

Which, of course leads us to communion. Communion is the trail itself. A trail that is smooth at times, rocky and steep at other times; a trail with many stops along the way. When we take communion, we reaffirm our covenant with God and with our faith community. As we partake of the bread and juice, we are invited to realize our mis-steps along the way and that we are forgiven. And finally, communion is a shared experience. We practice what’s come to be called “an open table”; all are welcome to participate, because all of us are in various stages of our faith journey; and all of us have, at one time or another, gotten lost.  All are welcome to the table, because we’re all on this hike together.

Now, here’s the best part, not only are we travelling together on this trail of life and faith, God is with us every step of the way. God is seeking and welcoming and inviting us to hike along with all of these people you see around you today and to offer, beyond these walls and this community, the very Bread of Life. Jesus is the Bread of Life. The physical bread that sustains our bodies and the spiritual bread that strengthens our souls.

My friends, as we continue our hike, as we continue to share the physical and spiritual Bread of Life, as we come to the fount and the table today, may we all be moved to look beyond ourselves and our own self-interest and see the other and recognize in the face of our neighbors, all our neighbors, the very face of God.

May it be so.

Amen.

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[i] Alyce McKenzie Jesus Got Talent: What Do You Have? (www.pathos.com) 2018

Wherever You Are

Ephesians 2:14-22

Years ago, several Israeli contractors overseeing the construction of a wall between themselves and the Palestinians were prosecuted for stealing Palestinian olive trees. You see, they’d been uprooting these thousand-year-old trees and selling them to Israeli settlers to create new gardens and parks. And the trees they couldn’t sell they destroyed. To their owners, these trees represented their economic lifeblood. To the thieves and buyers, they were merely ornamental details.[I]

It seems to me that peace cannot happen without reconciliation.  I know that sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that unless we find common ground with our neighbor, propagating peace is nearly impossible. The contractors, and the buyers of the stolen trees, never considered what the trees meant to their neighbors. Why? Because their neighbors were Palestinian, and Palestinians were considered the “other.” And making someone “the other” is the easiest way to justify stealing from them, persecuting them, or even killing them. But making someone the other is the opposite of what Jesus taught; of why he died.

Paul affirms this for us once again this week. He says that Jesus “…canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body.”[ii] Let that sink in for a second. How often has society, and by extension the Church, sought to separate or divide? How has the Church been guilty of creating “the other”?

I once had a conversation with a woman who was estranged from the church I was serving at the time. We’ll call her Mary. And although it had been many years since the incident, Mary was still hurt by what had happened. The incident? A dispute over potato salad. Yes, I said potato salad. It seems that Mary was famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her potato salad. Apparently, it wasn’t very tasty, but no ever had the courage to confront her directly about her less-than-pleasing side dish. Instead, one day at a funeral lunch, Mary came into the kitchen only to discover her potato salad hadn’t been served but was in the garbage. She left without a word and never darkened the door of the church again.

Now, those trying to justify their action might say, “Well, Mary was too sensitive, she should have had a thicker skin” or “What will people think of our church if we serve bad potato salad.” But, of course, these excuses miss the point. Mary was cast as the “other” and as a result, the body of Christ was wounded. And until reconciliation and forgiveness take place, the wound will continue to weep.

I sometimes wish I could go back to that day and share with that church the words of William Slone Coffin. “Of God’s love we can say two things,” he said, “it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the lowliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.”[iii]

Mary has value whether or not her potato salad tastes good. The Palestinian people have value. The Israeli contractors and the buyers of the olive trees all have value. Paul says that Jew and Gentile alike have value in the eyes of God. Maybe that’s why Ephesians has been called one the Bible’s great hymns to God’s reconciliation of all things and this passage in particular, as God’s call for us to participate in the good works of reconciliation.[iv]

And I think Paul’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a community of faith. So, what might a community that affirms the love of God for all people and espouses reconciliation as the beginning of peace, look like? Well, I think it would be a church that looks beyond itself and embraces “the other.” It would be open and affirming and welcoming to all people. It would advocate for good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food, clean water, and affordable health care for all and not just some. It would promote steps to combat global climate change, providing breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us.

My friends, God’s vision of peace means that we as people of faith must promise to save lives rather than destroy them. It means understanding that God’s house is all of creation and all of it is sacred. And finally, being the church means recognizing that God’s breath dwells within each and every person on this planet.[v]

One final thought. In this epistle, Paul emphasizes the unity brought about between Jew and Gentile through the brokenness of Christ’s body. If we were to view this text through a spiritual or a devotional lens: How might we as a faith community be “broken” for the sake of peace in our world today? I don’t know. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today. But let me leave you with one example of reconciliation.

I read somewhere this week that a group of Israeli rabbis have started a tree-planting movement. Through their efforts, hundreds of new olive trees are taking root in those Palestinian villages where the old trees were stolen. Now, it’s a fragile gesture, a sapling is not the same as a thousand-year olive tree. It can’t bring back all that was stolen.

But tree by tree, a little optimism returns. Tree by tree, you see it, something new.[vi] Tree by tree, reconciliation is being planted. Tree by tree God is building all of us, all people and all creation, into one household. And tree by tree, hopefully, peace is becoming a reality. This is my dream.  This is my prayer.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Mary Luti Under Trees (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2018

[ii] Ephesians 2: 15-16a Common English Bible (CEB)

[iii] William Sloane Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 6

[iv] George W. Stroup Feasting on the Word David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)

[v] Katheryn Matthews, Household of God (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[vi] Ibid. Luti.

God Inspired Joy

Philippians 4:4-9

(Sing: If your happy and you know it clap your hands)

That’s a fun song to sing… when I’m happy. But what if I’m not happy. I mean, I can’t be joyous all the time, can I? Sometimes I don’t what to clap my hand or stomp my feet; sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m feeling apathetic, or sad, or afraid and I find no joy when I’m feeling those emotions.

But Paul says that we should “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS” Always. So, what gives? Is he saying “put on a happy face” or “fake a smile” no matter what’s going on around you? I don’t think so. That doesn’t square with we know about Pauline theology or even the rest of today’s text. No, I think Paul was talking about something beyond momentary happiness, he was describing to the church in Philippi, and to us, what a deeper sense of joy might look like even in tough times.  

You see, Paul know about tough times. He was in prison and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians was written as much to himself as it was to them. Because, being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, I think he was writing to himself as much as he was to others. Because, you see, we’re not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”[I]

And it’s in our response to the challenges of life, that “…we begin to find and become our true selves; it’s when we notice how we are already found by God; how we are already entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”[ii] And it’s in this discovering of ourselves, our authentic selves, that we find this deeper joy, this unsurpassable peace, that Paul espouses.

“Well, that great,” you might say, “but how can I find this deeper joy within myself, really?” Glad you asked. When we read this text, we tend to focus on the “rejoice in the Lord, always” part and maybe the “excellence” part, but there’s a key line in this passage we often ignore. Verse 5 reads: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” followed by, “the Lord is near.”

Now, you could easily read and understand this passage without verse 5; “Rejoice, in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything, but in everything…” Okay, it makes literary sense but Paul though verse 5 important enough to include. Why? Well, if we desire a deeper sense of joy, if we long for a deeper sense of inner peace, Paul says, we must show an outwardly gentleness.

As I thought about gentleness, I remembered a cute story I heard many years ago. It seems that an elderly woman took her freckle-faced grandson to the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws. “You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line teased the grandson. Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head. But his grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles,” she said. “When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles, freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandma’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”

Now, that’s one way to let one’s gentleness outshine bullying. I mean, the grandmother could have chastised the little girl, called her a name back, or the grandson could have punched her. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the grandmother chose a non-violent solution.  And believe me, it’s not always easy.  It’s not always easy to espouse and practice non-violence in a violent world. It’s not always easy to “turn the other cheek” when someone calls you a name, or trashes your family, or belittles your faith. We’re taught and eye for an eye, right? But you all know Jesus took that Old Testament sentiment and turned it upside-down.  He offered, no, he commanded us to seek non-violent solutions.

You know, Gandhi once said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in though, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress toward it”[iii]  

And I think that’s the golden nugget here. Paul’s “letting our gentleness be known to everyone,” is finally not a weakness; it’s a strength. My friends, it’s when we find the strength to practice non-violence, as individuals and as a nation, that we can truly begin to love our neighbors in earnest.  It’s when we find the courage to “turn the other cheek” that we can truly feel the presence the God. And, it’s when we practice gentleness, and all those “excellent” things Paul listed, that we can truly gain a deeper sense of inner peace; it’s then, that we can truly “rejoice in the Lord, always.”   

My prayer for all of us in the days and weeks and months ahead, is that we will find that “always.”

May it be so. Amen.  

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[i] Rev. Dr. Douglass Oldenburg. It’s Your Choice (www.Day1.org) 1996

[ii] Quote from Anne Lamott in Who Does God Say We Are? Katheryn Matthews (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Mahatma Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018