Extravagant Opportunities

Matthew 25:14-30

A grandfather said to his grandson, pick up a stone and take it to the marketplace.  If anyone asks you the price, don’t say anything.  Just hold up two fingers.  So, the boy did as he was instructed, and wouldn’t you know it, a woman came up to him and asked if his rock was for sale.  He shook his head ‘yes’ but said nothing. “How much is it?” she inquired. And still, he said nothing but help up two fingers. “two dollars!” she exclaimed, “I’ll take it! It’ll be perfect in my garden.” The boy ran home to his grandfather and told him what happened.  “Go and get another rock,” said the grandfather, “and take it to the jeweler and again, don’t say a word. If he asks, ‘how much,’ hold up two fingers.” So, the boy went to the jeweler and silently showed him the rock. “What a beautiful and precious stone,” he exclaimed, “I must have it in my shop, how much do you want for it?” The boy silently held up two fingers. “Two hundred dollars! I’ll take it!”  The ran home a told his grandfather what had happened.  “Go and get one final rock,” said the old man, “and this time take it to the museum. And do the same as before.”  So, the boy went to the museum and to his delight the curator was overjoyed by his rock. “This is a very rare stone,” the curator said, “I must have it in our collection.  How much do you want for it?” and again, the boy said nothing, but held up two fingers. “It’s a deal,” exclaimed the curator, “$200,000 dollars it is!” Now, the boy was beside himself and ran home to share the amazing news with his grandfather. “The money is great,” said the old man, “but do you understand the lesson here? The worth of something is determined by where it is placed.  The same stone was more valuable in the museum than it was in the marketplace. The same is true of your life. If you surround yourself with good people, behave in in constructive ways, and keep a positive attitude, chances are you will be, to others, and most importantly, to yourself, a more valuable person.”[i]

Now, like the story of the valuable stone, what we have before us today is a parable.  The Parable of the Talents.  Now, parable was a common teaching tool of the time and one that Jesus often used effectively. But we must be careful with parables.  They’re not actual, literal stories about real people.  No one paid $200,000 for a rock. Instead, parables are stories created by the teller to convey a deeper meaning.  The teller of the parable of the valuable stone wanted his grandson to choose his friends wisely. But here’s the thing, we finally don’t know what message the grandson may have heard. Parables, by nature, come with many layers and many facets of meaning. They’re stories that can be heard in different ways depending upon the setting or the worldview of the hearers. And the same can be said about the Parable of the Talents as it has been told and retold across the centuries.

Now, the most common way of interpreting this parable in our day is as an invitation; an invitation to stewardship.  It’s an invitation to be generous, especially in our giving to the church, by using our “talents.” And if we use them well, if we take seriously the great responsibility God has place upon us to use our time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God, then good things happen. Using our God given talents will bring amazing growth in us, as well as in the Reign of God. But if we bury them, leave them unexercised, we’ll end up out in the cold.[ii]

And this view makes sense. If we put this teaching into its historical context we find that a “talent” was an incredible fortune—the equivalent of ten to twenty years’ wages. So, the characters in this story weren’t dealing with a trivial amount of money, they were given a great responsibility. As a matter of fact, I read an interpretation this week that says this story should be called “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” Because in the author’s estimation this parable is finally about investing profits and gaining commissions! It’s about earning rewards.[iii]

But is this really the nature of God? Does the Parable of the Talents boil down dollars and cents for the treasury? As Jesus nears the end of his earthly life, would he really be urging his disciples to invest their money well? Probably not. So, logic dictates that there must be “something more”[iv] going on here; some deeper message for us to hear today? And that “something more” I would contend is grace. Specifically, prevenient grace.

So, what is prevenient grace and what in the world does it have to the parable of the talents? Well, let’s start with prevenient grace. Prevenient grace refers to the grace of God in a person’s life that precedes a human decision. In other words, it’s when God shows love to an individual without any consideration of the good or bad things she or he may have done. And furthermore, prevenient grace allows a person to engage their God-given freewill to choose the liberation offered by God in Jesus Christ. Simply put, the grace of God is demonstrated by God’s unconditional love for all people.  Prevenient grace is the vehicle that brings this unconditional love to us. All we need to do is accept it. And once we’ve accepted it, Jesus encourages us to share it.

It’s kind of like being invited to a birthday party.  Prevenient grace is like the invitation that comes in the mail.  It’s not the party itself, rather it’s the vehicle through which you are being offered the opportunity to join the party.  God’s grace would be the party itself. Now, you have the option to go to the party or decline.  Freewill allows you to be the one who makes the decision.

Author Marilynne Robinson expands upon this thought when she says, “Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous.”[v]

I like that.  I like it because she’s saying that there must be a divine courage that precedes bravery so that we can find the nerve to begin to use our God given “talents.”  And she concludes that it’s this bravery allows us to be generous. Interesting.  This deeper understanding, this “something more,” doesn’t discount the traditional interpretation of this parable, rather it enhances it! It allows us to view stewardship from a bolder and broader perspective.  Yes, stewardship is about using our “talents” to give back to God; including our financial resources.  But stewardship is also about having the courage to respond to God’s prevenient grace by accepting God’s love, internalizing it, and then sharing it.

So, how do we do that? How do we act upon this grace that’s been given to us? How do we share the “precious things that have been put into our hands?” Well, that’s something we all must figure out for ourselves, because each one of us are uniquely created by God with individual gifts and graces and blessings.

We do, however, have an example to consider: Jesus.  “Jesus spent his life and ministry proclaiming the present Reign of God, feeding the hungry, healing and sick and the mentally ill, offering forgiveness, and welcoming ALL people, from all stations in life, from all religious backgrounds and nations, with a variety of skin tones and languages and lifestyles to “come and follow him.” Jesus professed a message of justice and equality and peace, and for that message he was executed.”[vi]

My friends, this pouring out of love from the cross took place because Christ wants us to know about and accept the unconditional love of God and share it. And just in case we’ve missed or underestimated the power of that message, the resurrection of Jesus serves a reminder that life is stronger than death and that love is more powerful than hate.

So, as you leave here today and go about your life, my hope and prayer is that you will take very seriously this parable of grace, and reach out beyond yourself, using the talents, the blessings, the extravagant opportunities given to you to touch the life of someone in need. That’s finally the invitation of prevenient grace and the core of Christ’s message of love. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

[i]   This parable comes for native Alaskan wisdom, I am reciting it from memory.

[ii]   Kathern Matthews. Investing What is Offered (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[iii]  Alan Brehm Merit Badges (www.thewakingdreamerblogspot.com) 2011

[iv]  Ibid. Matthews.

[v]  Marilynne Robinson Gilead (www.ucc,org/samuel) 2017

[vi] David Lose, …in the Meantime, (www.daviclose.net) 2014

3 Great Loves: Love of Creation

Psalm 104:1, 5-24

We live in a beautiful world. John Calvin once insisted that the earth is the “theater of God’s glory.”  That’s a tough statement to dispute. Living here in the Northwoods, we don’t have to go too far to be immersed in the theater of God’s glory. But I began to wonder what other places people held close to their hearts.  So, like any good post-modern person, I turned to social media. I posted, and tweeted, a simple question: “where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?” Here are some of the responses: Ireland, Montana, Idaho Switzerland, New Zealand, Cable Wisconsin, two said Hawaii, there was a Colorado, one person said anywhere my whole family can be present and another said wherever I am in the moment.

Now, I’m putting the same question to all of you.  What the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?  Take a moment to think about it.  Okay, now I want you to close your eyes and visualize that place.  Take your mind back to a day when you were there. Try to recall the feeling of being there, the people surrounding you or the silence of being alone.  Try to remember the smells, the sounds, the temperature, your movement, were you standing still or walking or hiking? Maybe you were engaged in some other activity.  One last thing before you open your eyes, try to recreate the sense of awe or reverence you felt in the moment. All right, open your eyes.

Congratulations! You just had an experience of God. My friends, sometimes we think of an experience of God as something unusual, something outside the norm.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, God is in the extraordinary, the miraculous, the exceptional moments, but God also shows up in the ordinary moments in life.  The challenge is to realize and acknowledge God’s presence in those everyday moments. The sixty-cent theological term for this concept is revelation.  The word revelation simple means “an unveiling.”  So, God’s revelation in our lives is an “unveiling” of God’s presence.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, understood and expounded upon this idea. He understood God’s revelation, God’s unveiling, as taking place in four ways.  Four general categories if you will.  He said that God comes to us through Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.

I think Wesley was on to something here; something that’s maybe been lost as we’ve moved into the twenty-first century.  Too often, the revelation of God has been limited to only a forth of Wesley’s quadrilateral; namely, Scripture. But as we investigate Scripture, and specifically for this evening Psalm 104, I think the other three modes of revelation will become apparent.

First Scripture. Psalm 104 is a hymn to God the creator. But even more than that, it’s what we call a “creation narrative.”  There are several creation narratives in the Bible.  The most familiar of course are the two creation narratives found in Genesis 1 and 2. Most scholars, however, contend Psalm 104 is the oldest account of creation in the Bible.

Which leads us directly into tradition, the second of the four ways God is unveiled in the world.  Tradition is an interesting animal. It’s the proverbial “two-edged sword.”  Tradition can sometimes bog us down.  We, especially as a church, can get stuck in the mode of “we’ve always done it that way.”  And, of course, that’s something we want to avoid. But, there is a place and a good reason for tradition. I’m willing to bet that you have time-honored and treasured traditions in your family; especially around the holidays, right? The Harvest Home Dinner is a tradition and a good one.  But even beyond that, tradition can be a good thing because it helps us remember.  It causes us to remember not only the good times and our triumphs, but also our defeats, our missteps, our mistakes.  Tradition helps us to remember, both as individuals and as a community, our experiences of God.

And that’s the third of Wesley’s concepts, experience; experiencing the unveiling of God in our midst. Remember the thought experiment we did earlier?  Remember the feeling of awe and reverence that your beautiful piece of creation brought? That feeling of being in the presence of God?  Friends, nature inspires reverence. For myself anyway, if I’m struggling or down, a walk in the woods clears thing right up.  It takes me to a place of realizing that my problems are small in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

Which brings us finally to reason. Realizing our place, that the world doesn’t finally rotate around me and my desires or u troubles, that, I would contend, is the beginning of reason. Joan Stott, in The Timeless Psalms says that, “Psalm 104 is a song about the timelessness of creation and its Creating God, as it moves beyond this ‘me first’ concept and ‘my’ importance in the great scheme of things; to rejoice in the wonder and glory of God’s creation and taking an ageless approach to the life of the universe.”[i]

I was moved by that final part of that statement.  “…taking an ageless approach to the life of the universe.” My friends, this is where we find ourselves today.  We have a responsibility in caring for the natural world. God is calling on us, challenging us and future generations to “take an ageless approach” as we think about the environment.

As we finish up here, I would like you to once again close your eyes and go back to that most beautiful place.  Once again hear the sounds, take in the smells, the feeling of being in the presence of God in that sacred space. Are you there yet?  Okay, this is why environmentalism is so important.  This place that you’re in, this sacred space where God is present for you, this is why we must work so hard to preserve not only your sacred place, but all sacred spaces. And protecting your place, protecting the environment, the plants and animals and oceans, preserving the water and the forests and the air, this is a theological issue.  Caring for, have a responsibility for the natural world, is finally a matter of respecting God.  It’s a matter of being grateful to God.  All right, open your eyes.

One final thought for this evening. As we gather this here to celebrate God’s presence, the season of Thanksgiving, and to continue the tradition of Harvest Home, this idea of gratitude moves to the forefront of our thoughts.  Tonight, or tomorrow, of on Thanksgiving Day itself, I invite you thank God for all the blessings that have come into your life, pray for the wisdom and the courage to live into the challenges, and I would also invite you to be grateful for this beautiful, wonder-filled earth that God has created, and especially for your sacred space, where ever that space may be.

And finally, I would invite you to put that prayer into action. I can’t tell you exactly how or where or what that action might look like, but I can tell you that the Spirit will place opportunities to make a difference, a positive difference, in protecting God’s creation. My prayer for all of you is that those opportunities will become apparent and that you will be moved to act upon them.

I offer these words in the name of the Risen and Living Hope of all humanity and creation; Jesus Christ. Amen.

[i] Joan Stott. The Timeless Psalms (www.thetimelesspsalms.net) 2017

3 Great Loves: Love of Children

“Jesus Loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Matthew 19:13-22

It’s a classic, you’ve probably all heard it, but since it’s All Saints Sunday, it has to be done. There were once two brothers.  And they were the worst, most miserable, most miserly people in town. They were rich but not generous, they were mean, and they never had a kind word for anyone. Now, one of the brothers died. So, the remaining brother went to the pastor to plan the funeral. “I don’t really care about your service,” he said, “except, I want you to say that my brother was a saint. If you say my brother was a saint, I’ll give the church $100,000 dollars!” Well, the pastor was in a real bind here.  He didn’t want to lie but the church sure could use the money.  And what’s worse, rumor of the offer spread, so, on the day of the funeral, the entire population of the town crowded into the sanctuary to see what the pastor would say.  “This man was awful,” the pastor began, “he was mean-spirited, he cussed and drank, why he would cheat an old woman out of her last penny.” You could have heard a pin drop in that church as the pastor continued, “but, but,” he said, “compared to his brother this man was a saint!”

Today is All Saints Sunday. A day to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us and especially those whom we loved.  You know, one of the great things about a church community, a church family, is that we are comprised of more than just those who are sitting in the pews today; we are surrounded by the “saints,” by all the faithful disciples who sat in these pews for so many years.  And on All Saints Sunday, we are invited to listen for the echoes of hymns and prayers and sermons lifted to God across the arc of time and understand that these echoes are a part of our very being. And in this service, we are invited to add to those prayers, and songs, and words, as we create an echo for generations to come.

And in that spirit, and as we consider the second of the 3 Great Loves today: Love of Children, may we hold onto that past, the living history of our congregation; may we live in the present, attempting to be as Christ-like and compassionate and caring as we can in this moment; but all the while, imaging and securing a future that’s faithful to Jesus’ mission and ministry in our congregation, our community, and across the globe.

Now, bearing this in mind, let’s look our Gospel lesson for today. First of all, I love this text. And for so many reasons. It begins with a time-honored and classic image of ordained ministry; Jesus welcoming the children. Incomplete? Yes, but the image of Jesus blessing the least of God’s family finally rests at the heart of what it means to be a pastor. But this image goes beyond the pastorate.  It affirms our belief in family; biological family, blended and extended family, and our church family. And what’s more, Jesus welcoming the children is a blueprint for the church in our task of offering a wide welcome and propagating an inclusive environment. And finally, I love this passage because reminds us of the innocence of childhood and invites us to reclaim some of that innocence as we go about being the church in the world today.

And I don’t stand alone in my love for this passage. Oliva Hinnant reminds us that “these three verses have been the subject of many paintings since this story was first told in the gospels.  One painter has Jesus sitting on a rock with the children gathered around. Another has Jesus on the steps of a great temple with the mothers and their children, but no disciples. And yet another has both.”[i] I’ve see more contemporary images showing Jesus holding hands with children of all races and nationalities from all around the world.

The image of Jesus blessing the children, however, surpasses that which is immortalized in oil; consider music.  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” or my favorite, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”[ii]  An aside here. “What you may not know about this hymn is that the words were originally part of a novel, written as a poem offered to comfort a dying child.”[iii] That adds another dimension to this classic children’s song, doesn’t it?

But whatever the case, it’s safe to say that this narrative is one that warms our hearts and enlivens our spirits as these comforting words of inclusion invite even me to sit with Jesus and to be embraced by God with the unabated joy of a child.

“[But] what does not appear in the sweet and gentle interpretations of this passage is a depiction of how Jesus’ welcome of the children was a radical action in his first century Greco-Roman world.”[iv] Remember the disciples tried to shoo the children away. Children weren’t cherished in the same way they are today.  Culturally speaking, children were literally to be “seen and not heard.” But of course, we see Jesus breaking the norms, crossing societal boundries, and once again demonstrating religion and its rules were created for benefit humanity and not the other way around. He was very clear that we don’t live to serve the law, but rather we are to interpret it in the most gracious, most compassionate, most loving way possible.

So, if that’s the case, then how are we to look at and then act upon this text? “[Well,] various scholars and bible teachers may interpret this differently, but I believe Jesus was referring to the necessity of unlearning all those broken ways of thinking that drain the life and faith from us.”[v] In other words, how should we become more “child-like” in our ways of thinking? I don’t know. Think about racism, or terrorism, or sexism, or nationalism, or any of the other “isms” that fill the headlines and plague our society today. We aren’t born with these “isms,” they’re not intrinsic to our being nor are they a natural state.  These “isms” are learned behaviors.  And what is learned can be unlearned.  That was the brilliance of Christ’s teachings.  He offered those around him, and through the presence of the Spirit, he offers us a different way of relating to others; especially those on the margins.

One of my seminary professors summed it up this way. “Welcoming children,” he said, “is a theological matter in this text: it’s a particular and necessary expression of the call to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.”[vi]  “…to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.” I like that.  I like it because it becomes a metaphor for loving our neighbors; all our neighbors. I mean, consider all the ways we, as a people and as a nation, consider ourselves “big.” We’re geographically big ‘from sea to shining sea,’ …right? And in comparison, with most of the rest of world, we have big stuff; big houses, along with big bank accounts, big cars, big food, big dogs …well some dogs are small, but you get the picture.  But big isn’t always bad. Unlike the miserly brothers in my opening story, we have big hearts and a huge desire to use our resources for the betterment of those less fortunate then ourselves.

Which leads us into the conclusion of our text.  When approached by a righteous man who wanted to know the secret of eternal life, Jesus offers these words, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (CEB)

Now, this is kind of a tough passage for those who want to view Christianity as practice in morality and that’s it.  Those who want to separate faith from works.  If you want to be “complete” then put your righteousness and your faith into action, and bonus, you’ll have “treasure in heaven.”

But Jesus is not only teaching about an active faith here, he’s living it!  We see this over and over again in the gospels. Jesus teaches his followers, including us, a lesson, and then in the next moment, proceeds to demonstrate that teaching by acting upon it himself. Examples. He tells us to live abundantly and then he feeds 5000 people; he tells us be instruments of healing and then he in turn heals the lame, the blind and the mentally ill; he tells us to be servants of all and then he washes the feet of his disciples; he tells us to “fear not,” and then he fearlessly goes to the cross; and finally, he tells us to choose life and practice love, and then, through his Resurrection, Jesus becomes the Risen and Living embodiment of God’s love.

And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter.  Christ is challenging us to become living embodiments of God’s love as well. And for me, that’s finally the definition of “saint.” Will we be perfect saints? Fully-formed embodiments? Or course not.  But if we take seriously the invitation of this text to be both welcoming and generous, inclusive and compassionate, to unlearn our lesser ways and gain a more innocent, more child-like approach to God and humanity, then, we will continue to add to the echoes of our forbearers; echoes that will ring true for generation upon generation. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Olive Elaine Hinnant. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 110

[ii] Susan Bogert Warner & Anna Bartlett Warner, Say and Seal. (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1860)

[iii] Ibid. Hinnant. 112.

[iv]Ibid. 114.

[v] Benjamin L. Corey.  Unafraid (Harper One: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2017) pg. 18-19

[vi] Gary Neal Hanson. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 112

 

3 Great Loves: Love of Neighbor

 

Matthew 22:34-40

Introduction: Windows of Time

One of the most prominent theologians of the past century, Karl Barth, was once asked, “In all your many, many years of intense theological study, what is the most important truth you have learned? His answer was surprising. “Jesus loves me,” he said, “this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who can argue with that?[i]

So, in concert with the wisdom of Barth, and as we attempt to navigate a complex and often confusing world, we must admit that sometimes simpler is better. And I think the same is true as we consider the nature of our relationship with God. Countless theological books and religious essays have been written over the span of the past 2000 years. The sheer volume of information makes it inaccessible to the average person of faith. So, how do we distill this information down to its purest and most simple form?

Well, I thought about how to illustrate simplicity this week, and came up with something unanticipated; my computer.  Back when home computers first became a thing, they were very difficult to operate.  Who remembers the Commodore 64? Right? You had to learn a special language, basic or cobalt, and then type in the proper commands according to that prescribed language.  Not user friendly. But Microsoft Windows changed all that. With Windows, now all you do is click on the “window” or “icon” corresponding to the function you want and wa-la, it’s done. Even a tech-challenged person like me can do that!

So, let’s apply this same wisdom to theology.  Let’s create some windows of our own; windows, that will allow us to peer into the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that’s understandable.

The Biblical Window

First the Biblical widow. When asked directly, “What is the greatest commandment in the law,” Jesus responds with a simple and straightforward answer; “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.  All the law and prophets depend on these two commands.”

The Matthew Window

Now, the next icon we are invited to click on has a picture of Matthew on it.  The Matthew Window.  In other words, what was going on in Matthew’s world? What was his context? What was it about his community’s mission and ministry that lead him to take these foundational words of Jesus and interpret them in a unique way? What do I mean? Well, there are a couple of details to hash-out here.  Namely, what happened to “strength?” Weren’t we brought up with Jesus saying “heart, soul, strength, and mind?” Four things? Why are there only three here? Well, the fourth element to loving God is found in the other gospels.  I don’t know exactly why Matthew didn’t include it, maybe he considered “strength” as a part of the “soul” or the “heart.”  Perhaps that’s why the Common English Bible translates “soul” as “being” a much broader term. In any case, this demonstrates why we have four accounts of Jesus’ life from four unique perspectives.

The other contextual element to bring up before we move on is this: the text we call the Great Commandment is a small part of a greater whole. And in that “greater whole,” the majority of Matthew’s account, the religious leaders are coming to realize that when Jesus speaks in parable and defies cultural norms, he’s challenging them and their rigid way of viewing the Mosaic Law. So, as you might imagine, they weren’t too pleased with him. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds who were following Jesus because they regarded him as a prophet. But why? Why are they so threatened?

Well, the Pharisees understood the law in terms of keeping the rules. For them it was about purity and holiness above all else. But when Jesus claimed that the whole of law was about love, not rules; about really loving God and one’s neighbor, and not about “figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk;”[ii] that’s when their greatest fear became a reality. The religious leaders of the day saw their whole system being challenged and they didn’t like it.

And this is where we see the connection to Matthew’ world. you see, The Great Commandment for Matthew was about challenging his primarily Jewish/Christian audience to open themselves to loving the gentile converts within their community.  He was asking them to put aside centuries of bigoty and hate, and accept a new way of loving one’s neighbor.  My friends, in Matthew’s community this was astounding. These very few but powerful words of Jesus represented a call to enact a tremendous change in their worldview.  Was it easy, seamless; did it happen overnight? Probably not.  I would guess that this change took time, persistence, and courage on the part of the reformer (Matthew) and the leadership of the community. But, and this is important, it did become a reality.  Love became the bedrock of the faith for Matthew’s community.

The Reformation Window

And that bedrock stood for many years.  Yes, the ebb and tide of culture, struggles for power within and beyond the Church, and the Great Schism (the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054) reduced love’s importance. A number of times in history love got put on the back burner. But I would argue that love somehow overcame these human shortcomings and continued to find its way back into the foundation of Christianity.  That is until the middle ages.  At some point in time, I can’t tell you exactly when, the Church became more concerned about the institution, and the power and land and wealth that belonged to the institution, than about loving God and neighbor.  That’s as simple as I can state it.

Now, at this point in history we are invited to peer into another window by clicking the icon of an Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther.  Called by God to be an instrument of change, he looked at the injustice and the hypocrisy being perpetrated by the Church in the name of Jesus and he was appalled. So, 500 years ago this week, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther penned what would become known as the “95 thesis;” 95 complaints, 95 ways the Church was not being the Church, and he nailed these complaints to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. And lest you think this didn’t take courage, Luther’s life was immediately in danger because he dared challenge the establishment.

The Emerging Window

Do you see a pattern forming here? Jesus challenged the status quo as did Matthew, as did Luther, as did so many more people across the arc of Christianity.  As a matter of fact, “Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two,” [the Church] “…goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.”[iii]  Church historian and author Phyllis Tickle penned these words in response to a cultural shift that is currently underway. And she, along with folks like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Brian McLaren, just to name a few, fall in line with the great reformers. They’re challenging us to once again look at the institution of the Church and ask if love is at its core.

And this is our final icon. The icon marked “Emerging Christianity.” Now, Emerging Christianity asks some tough questions and challenges us in our responses.  It asks things like, what if we were to put aside all the theological minutia, the political coopting of religion, the false narrative of fear; a narrative that predicts the demise of Christianity at the hands of other religions, namely Islam? What if, instead of wasting time on these distractions, we were to focus on the love of Christ for all people and for all creation?  What if we, amid our current reformation, were to take this opportunity to create a Church that’s even more welcoming, more inclusive, more focused on issues of justice and peace and equality and sustainability?  Might our reformation, this emerging way of being church, as we fall into line with the great reformers of our past who understood change as reclaiming the love of God and neighbor; might this reformation, finally, simply, be about that? Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Might it be that simple?

I would like to leave you today with these words from the wonderful author and theologian Henri Nouwen. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing,” Nouwen said. “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[iv] We have been chosen, my friends, in this scared space, at this point in time, to participate in a great change, another great reformation.  A reformation that calls us to take own limited and very conditional love, and make it the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. It’s as simple as that. May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Rev. Dr. George H. McConnel. The Intensive Care Waiting Room (http://westminsterdayton.org) 2009

[ii] A turn of phrase credited to Thomas Long

[iii] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012) pg. 17

[iv] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Story, Our Stories. (www.ucc.org/gods_story_our_stories)

An Introduction to the 3 Great Loves

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” -Matthew 22:34-40

The United Church of Christ has a vision of a just world for all. In this world all are welcomed, everyone is loved, and justice is inherent. The 3 Great Loves is the denomination’s opportunity to express how our Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation work together to address the inequities in our current world. Beginning at General Synod 2017 and ending at Synod 2019 in Milwaukee, through the lens of the 3 Great Loves, the United Church of Christ in its many settings of ministry will discern and lift-up how we act upon these 3 Great Loves. As we do so, we will tell the story of how we are impacting and transforming the world, as covenantal partners united in common purpose and mission. During these upcoming two years, there will be moments of special invitation to participate in this denomination-wide undertaking. One by one we will focus on each of the 3 Great Loves in service to our communities.

I plan to begin this process by preaching on each of these loves over the course of the next three worship services (October 29, November 5, November 12) encouraging all of us to be mindful of and look for ways to participate in the 3 Great Loves each day as we continue to BE the church in our community and beyond.

Peace and Blessings,

Pastor Phil

Living Messages

I Thessalonians 1:2-9

There was once a couple who were not able to have a child.  So, they went to their priest and asked him to pray for them.   “I’ll tell you what,” said the priest, “I’m about to go on sabbatical to Rome and when I get there I’ll light a candle for you.” Well, five or six years went by and the priest returned from sabbatical and he decided to visit the couple.  And wouldn’t you know it, upon entering their home he was greeted by a pregnant woman who was attending to a toddler and set of triplets. “Glory be!” exclaimed the priest, “where’s your husband? I want to congratulate him!”  “Well,” replied the woman, “he’s not here.  He went to Rome to put that cotton-pick’in candle out!”

In our text for today, Paul begins with thanksgiving. And like the couple in my story, God had blessed this church with an abundance.  Maybe not the abundance they were envisioning, but perhaps an abundance that was much, much more than they could have ever imagined. And perhaps the same is true for our church.  God has blessed us with an abundance, both as individuals and as a congregation. We have the beautiful and comfortable building to call home and we have been blessed with the resources to maintain it.  And on a deeper and more important level, each of us has been chosen by God to be in this place. We are the Church! So, whether you’re a life-long member or joining us for the first time, God has given you the ability, in one way or another, to choose to be here today.

That’s finally what all this “God’s elect” stuff is all about. It isn’t about God deciding before the beginning of time that some are in and others are out. Rather it’s about God choosing to offer us the gift of new life and coming to us in the person of Jesus to show us how to live-into that gift and live it to its fullest. But while the gift is free, we do have some responsibility here.  We must choose to accept the abundance that God is offering and then share that abundance with others.

So, how do we do that? Well, Paul has an answer for us today.  He said to his congregation in Thessalonica, “…because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope;” because of these things he said, “you became an example” for others to see. In other words, the Thessalonians, in Paul’s estimation, became a “Living Message” of faith,  and of God’s love and hope. Your work, your effort, your perseverance, Paul says, stands as a beacon to others.

Now, as I was writing this week, I was struggling to think of an illustration of a person that I would consider a living message.  I mean, you can see the danger here.  To put someone on such a high pedestal, to raise someone to the level as being a living message of faith, love, and hope; that’s a fall waiting to happen. But then I realized that I was looking at this from the wrong perspective.  Being a living message of faith doesn’t mean one must be perfectly faithful all the time, just faithful.  Being a living message of God’s love doesn’t mean you’re going to be completely loving all the time, but rather that striving to be more loving is a never-ending, on-going process. And being a living message doesn’t mean you’re always cheery and hopeful, but rather, that hope, even when it seems like a tiny flicker of light in the distance, still burns. You see? Being a living example of the gospel doesn’t start when you finally become perfect; is starts today, just as you are, right where you are, warts and all.  That’s God’s calling to each of us.  We are challenged to share the abundance, whatever form that abundance has taken in our life, and share it with others.  We are called to be living messages of love, endurance, and hope by living and sharing our faith and, this is vitally important, accepting the faith of others and viewing them as a living message as well.

Which brings me to my illustration.  Jay.  I went to seminary with Jay and like all of us, he was far from perfected.  Serving not one, not two, but three churches as a student pastor, Jay really struggled to find the time to dedicate himself to his studies.  As a result, it took him five years to complete seminary. On top of all that, Jay also lost his mother in our first semester, often questioned his call to ordained ministry and he struggled with addition.  A real mess right?  Well, maybe, but despite all these stumbling blocks, Jay has become one of the most gracious and healing pastors I know. And I think it’s because he’s been there, and perhaps beyond.  He’s known pain and failure and the hopelessness that can dive one to give up. But he didn’t.  Instead, he’s a living message of embedded faith, of God’s love, and of enduring hope. And because of these qualities, Jay has also become one of the best evangelists around. Evangelist not in the sense of a TV snake oil salesman, but as an authentic servant of the Living God sharing the abundance of God’s grace that he received in his life and ministry.

And this is important.  It’s important because for all of us evangelism is an ongoing process. And again, please don’t be scared off by the word.  Evangelism is simply sharing the places where we’ve seen God at work in our lives and in the world with others and then inviting them to join us on our journey of faith. I fear sometimes that political correctness or an awkwardness about sharing our faith has caused us to shy away from inviting others to join us in church.  And perhaps with good reason.  Far too often I think Christians has used a stick instead of carrot to share their faith.  Too often we’ve said you’re welcome here …as long as you become like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you think like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you worship, and pray, and speak of God like we do, you know, the right way.

But that’s not how Paul, as he understood the teachings of Jesus, though evangelism should look like.  Instead, he praised the Thessalonians for their struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. And for Paul, and for us as well, sharing our faith with others is far less about making them become like us and far more about including their experiences of God and their understanding of faith into the mix.  And it’s this shared community; this shared experience that ultimately strengthens the church.

Theologian and historian John Dominic Crossan expresses this idea beautifully when he discusses Paul’s meaning of the word love. ” …the life of the community,” he says, “the assembly, is about a love that is expressed as sharing, but from want to want rather than from plenty to plenty.” And Crossan applies this understanding to us when he adds,”…divinely distributive justice [is] a necessary sharing of God’s stuff.”[i]

A necessary sharing of “God’s stuff.” I like that. Not out of our want, a place of scarcity, but from a condition of abundance. My friends, we as a church, and as the individuals that make up this congregation, have a whole lot to offer.  We are welcoming to all. We are authentic in the work of our faith. We seek to become even more loving in our relationships with God and neighbor and ask God for forgiveness when we fall short. And even when things are tough, we persevere in our struggles because the hope of Christ is alive and well in the place.

So, as you go forth from this service, know that God, through the presence of the Spirit, goes before you.  That my friends, should give all of us the confidence to continue to be “living messages” of God’s love, of God’s compassion and faithfulness, and of the hope that Christ demonstrated through his life, death, resurrection.  May we go forth from this place today, and share the Light of Christ with all whom we encounter. May it be so. Amen.

[i] John Dominic Crossan & Johnathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed the Roman Empire with God’s Kingdom. (Harper One 2005)

The Tree of Life: Part II

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.

Well, here we are.  The final installment of our journey between the trees; the tree of life in Genesis and in Revelation.  But we’re not out of the woods yet! (pun intended) We still need to connect these two trees.  We’ve hear a reading of the second creation story in Genesis, but how does that fit with the tree in Revelation?

Well, first, we must admit that Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books in the Bible. We don’t use it as often as we do other parts of the New Testament that’s for sure. And we usually don’t dabble in it for leisure and we certainly don’t read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more.

Yet despite its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It’s one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. And many works of literature reflect the pervasive power of this text, for example, the poetry of Dante and the works of John Milton, along with William Blake and T.S. Eliot. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel’s famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.[i]

But why? Why is this “weird book” so pervasive? Well, many assert that it tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. And apocalyptic themes permeate popular culture today. Films and television programs regularly portray tales of the end of time, as does Christian fiction such as the Left Behind series and its precursor The Late Great Planet Earth. Really the first book to espouse all this “Rapture” nonsense.  Consumers just can’t seem to get enough of apocalyptic literature.

Timothy Luke Johnson, however, a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, says that, “Few writings…have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation…its arcane symbols…have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.”[ii]

In other words, these misinterpretations, throughout the course of history and still today, have been used in harmful ways. And this, unfortunately, can happen with any sacred text, from any religions. People fashion and mold the holy words to suit their own agenda. Which of course leads to extremism.  And extremists are not just religious; some have a warped sense of nationalism, some extremists are politically motivated, and some are driven simply by a deep and disturbing hate. Friends, bind hate or extremism of any kind, can end with nothing but a disastrous result. 

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  I know the world is a scary place right now, which can fuel plenty of anxiety and stoke apocalyptic imaginations. And sometimes when things seem out of control and there’s a lack of responsible leadership, we as citizens, as Christians, are challenged in our resolve. And apathy, or even extremism, might seem like an appropriate response. But they are not! As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are challenged to stand against extremism and to rise above apathy. Easy? No. But in these scary and difficult times we are called to be faithful, even when it’s not a popular position.

Now, Revelation, written in the late first century, was also a scary time for Christians. So, a man named John, a Christian Bishop in exile on the island of Patmos, offers this letter to his flock in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. It was at that time in history when this area of the world was still part of the Roman Empire. And many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because they refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. Many Christians, however, succumbed to the temptation simply to accommodate themselves to the prevailing religious and cultural rituals to avoid becoming social outcasts.

And it’s amid this social and political climate that the letter of Revelation was sent.  Sent, not to foretell the end of time, but instead, to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.[iii]

And this is where we find ourselves as we encounter our text from Revelation today.  The Bishop of Patmos says in this passage that “The trees leaves are for the healing of the nations” The symbolism here is obvious, isn’t it?  The leaves are symbolic of God’s continuing act of creation; God act of continued healing. And we are a part of this action of healing. As co-creators with our Still-Speaking God, each of us is represented by one of the leaves.  Do you see what I’m driving at here? This letter isn’t about the end, rather, it’s about a beginning.  Like I’ve said many times before, Biblical prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, rather it’s about making changes in the present.  When Jeremiah stood before his people and shook his fist, he wasn’t predicting something what was going to happen thousands of years in the future, he was telling them to straighten up right then and there, or exile would be the result.  He was speaking within the parameters of his own lifetime.

So, if we are symbolically one of these leaves on the tree of life, then it stands to reason that we are called to be participants in the “healing of the nations.” And further, if we are to view Revelation, and especially our text for today, not as an end but rather as a beginning, then our understanding of prophecy would inform us that “the trees’ healing leaves” are also symbolic of God’s on-going healing to all nations. What do I mean by that?

Well, first, there’s the healing of God’s creation.  The environment is something we all share.  It doesn’t matter what nation one is from or what religion one practices; we all share this earth.  And I know, the issues of our environment are huge.  Global climate change, pollution, the over-use of limited resources to name but a few; these things seem like impossible mountains to scale. But apathy isn’t the answer.  It’s not the time to throw up our hands and say, “there’s nothing I can do.” Instead, I would invite you to look at some of the grass roots movements taking place.  Urban and organic farming are on the rise along with the use of solar and wind energy. Recycling, repurposing, reusing have moved beyond mere buzz words and have become a part of our everyday language. And there are so many more examples. But do we have a long way to go? Yes. But despite all the recent obstacles that have been placed in our way, we can get there! This is a calling from God.  We are charged in Genesis to be co-creators with God, to be responsible for God’s wonderful creation by being good stewards of the land, plants and animals, and the air and the water.

But it goes even further than just the environment.  If you’ve been watching the news or been paying attention to social media, then you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayers and active support for the many, many people struggling in our nation today.  All I need to do is mention the name of the places: Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Miramar, Mexico City, The Sudan, Napa Valley, Las Vegas. In many of these places we hear story after story of neighbor helping neighbor; of volunteers loading up and heading into utterly devastated and sometimes dangerous places. My friends, that’s Revelation’s “healing of the nations” in action.  Is the healing complete? Of course not, but these things, these actions, these instances of loving our neighbor, it’s a beginning.  It’s a beginning.

It’s a beginning to counter-acting apathy and extremism.  Hate can be overcome by love. The debilitating bleakness of “there’s nothing I can do” can be overcome by hope …and by faith. The Rev. David Moyer, one of our former Conference Ministers once said, “Here is one place that all of us can take-on a personal responsibility, both as individuals and as members of our own religious communities, we must do all we can to learn about other religions and cultural groups, to respect diversity and differences and to understand a bit of the history of people whose practices and traditions are different from our own.”[iv]

God’s call on us as Christians, my friends, is to co-exist with people of other faiths and differing cultures. It’s as simple as that.  And when we begin, as the wider Church and as a society to realize that God has placed a great diversity of people on this planet and that we are to attempt to live in peace and harmony with all of them, then healing can begin in earnest. The leaves of the tree, us, we are charged with being a part of the healing of all nations, all faiths, all cultures, and especially, all of God’s beautiful, natural world.

May the continuing testament of a Still-Speaking God enrich our understanding of the Bible, the diversity of cultures, and of each other. May it be so. Amen.

————————————–

[i] Dr. Jan Love. The Grace of the City of God Reflection on Rev. 21:10-22:5 (Day1.org, May 09, 2010)

[ii] Timothy Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament.

[iii] Ibid: Jan Love.

[iv] Rev. Dr. David Moyer in a pastoral letter to the churches of the Wisconsin Conference (UCC) 2012.

Growing Old Ain’t for Sissies

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Wasn’t it great to be a kid? I’ve heard many people say, “times were simpler then.” I agree.  As kids, we were free from adult responsibilities. Heck, the biggest stressor I can remember was which baseball cards to put in the spokes of my bike.  Being a kid was awesome.

But when I was still quite young, I remember seeing a plaque that read: “growing old ain’t for sissies” At the time that didn’t make any sense to me.  What’s so hard about growing up? I thought growing up would be the coolest thing in the world and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Today, however, I look at that plaque from a little different point on the continuum of life.  As the years pass, and gets a little harder to put my socks on in the morning, I can understand the wisdom of that plaque.  In fact, I have come to appreciate that growing old really isn’t a choice.  Growing older, and hopefully wiser, is unavoidable; it’s a part of life.  So, if growing older is a part of life, then it seems to me that our attitude about aging is important.  Do we fight the process with all our might or do we accept that “seasons change” and share the lessons that we have leaned along the way and the wisdom that we have gained with the next generation? In other words, is there an up-side to all these changing seasons of life.

Well, In the first text that was read for us this morning from the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes the author reaffirms for us the natural order of changing seasons.  He says that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He goes on to catalog for us the various seasons of life, 28 of them in fact, arranged in sharp contrast to one another and yet each as an undeniable part of human existence.

His list rings so true. It begins with what is most fundamentally true–that one day, we are born into this world, then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end. According to the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. Only God knows why existence is set up this way. In the face of a mysterious world created by a transcendent God, one should not waste energy railing against life; instead, the author advises us to enjoy life and get the most we can out of it.

Now, that’s not to say you should abandon all your responsibilities and do nothing except eat, drink, and be merry. Instead, the point here is that your responsibilities (your family and friends, your job, your church, your civic duties) all these responsibilities are the things that are to be enjoyed.  And in the differing seasons of life, these responsibilities will change, our bodies will change, we will not be able to all that we used to be able to, but, and this is key, we are to enjoy rather than fear these changes. The point behind Ecclesiastes 3 is to encourage us to seek out the positive aspects of growing older rather than lamenting the things we can no longer do.

And I think this is theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it’s wise to be happy and to look for the blessing regardless of the circumstances.  Which brings us to “The Parable of the Fig Tree.” Luke, like Ecclesiastes, has something to say about the changing seasons of life.

Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves,  you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. Luke 21: 29-33. (CEB)

First, a cursory reading of these verses in their immediate context reminds us that they come just before the Passion story of Jesus. A story in which we hear Jesus predicting the arrival of terrible times: destruction and war, suffering and persecution. He’s offering words of warning to his followers as he moves toward his crucifixion and death.

But in their historical context, we must remember these words were written 50 to 60 years after the passion story took place, after the Maccabean war, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and in the aftermath of the political catastrophe that was first-century Palestine. These words were written for a people already molded by the suffering and fear and turmoil which these words predict. Luke describes events that took place after Jesus’ death; but he describes them through the eyes of Jesus, as if he were there–how he would feel, what he would say, what he would do. And thus, Luke gives to us a “God’s-eye” view of how to deal with the changing seasons of life. In fact, what Luke offers us is a big picture view of reality that we can all use as we find ourselves struggling with change; especially the changes that occur as we grow older and life continues to move forward. And that view of reality that Luke gives us is a view from “a perspective of faith.”

Ya know, I had an interesting first-hand experience of a variety of “perspectives on faith” while serving as a student chaplain.  The hospital to which I was assigned was in Davenport Iowa and despite Iowa’s reputation, Davenport is quite a diverse city; a diversity that was reflected in the patients at the hospital.  I encountered folks from a variety of religious backgrounds and faith traditions.  I ministered to people who were Catholic and from all different flavors of the Protestant world, a Jewish woman and Vietnamese man whom I guessed was some sort of Buddhist/Christian blend, and several people from the Fellowship of Baha’i.

The interesting thing, however, was that no matter what faith a person held, there was a certain sense of calm or peace about them, even in the worst of circumstances.  People who believe in something larger then themselves, God, are not as, I don’t know what word to choose here… lost maybe, as people who profess to have no faith at all.

Case in point. I was called to the room of a woman who had just received the news that her cancer was terminal.  As I entered the room and introduced myself as the chaplain, she immediately demanded that I not pray for her.  I could stay and talk and help her to share her diagnosis with her family, but she had given up on God many years before and didn’t want anything to do with faith or religion.  But what I remember most about that encounter was her sense of lost-ness. To her, beyond this life, after she was gone, there was nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for, and it was apparent that she had no sense of peace.

Now don’t misunderstand me here, as people of faith, as Christians, we too grieve.  We hurt when a loved one dies and we worry when faced with our own mortality.  That’s human nature.  But when we face the most difficult of circumstances, our faith lends us a certain sense of peace.  A peace, from my observations anyway, that is not present when faith is absent. Why?  Well, the Bible teaches us that beyond the end of time; time as we know it anyway, stands God, who has come among us in the person of Jesus.  Those who live faithful lives can live expectantly, filling each day with activity that is meaningful and in line with God’s purposes for human life.

So even as we grow older and the seasons of life continue to change, faith is what carries us through.  And that’s finally the lesson of the fig tree.  When you see the emergence of new leaves in the spring, you know that summer is just around the corner. The same is true of the Reign of God,” Jesus said to his followers, “because of all that is going on around you, all that you have seen, experienced, been a part of…  because of these things you know that the Reign of God is near.”

And that’s where we stand as well.  Because of all that we have seen, experienced, and been a part of, because of our faith, we know that the Reign of God is not only near, but that it’s already here. And the one constant throughout all these seasons of change is the love of God. A love that leads us, as the Apostle Paul would say, “into a peace that surpasses all understanding.”

So, my dear Friends, no matter where you are on the road of life, no matter what season of life you may be currently experiencing, remember that growing mature in days and in wisdom is for everyone; we’re all traveling this road together. And there’s a blessing in all this. As we continue down this road we don’t journey alone. We travel down this path, this path that’s embodied by the Reign of God, illuminated by the Light of God and smoothed over by the Love of God. And it’s a path, my friends, that intersects with many other paths, many other journeys, as we all move as one in the direction of a common goal: Peace.  Peace within our souls and Peace to all the ends of the earth.  May the light of God’s love illuminate your path through this life and on into life eternal! Amen.

 

 

 

From Acorn to Oak

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in it’s shade.”             (Mark 4:30-32 NRSV)

What are you excited about today? Are you excited about the growth that is taking place in your life? Are you excited about the opportunities for service and good deeds that exist all around you in our church today? Are you excited about the variety of possibilities that the future holds for you? In other words, what gives your life energy and enthusiasm? The unfortunate fact is that a great many people are not excited about much of anything. In fact, many people are living lives that are crippled by cynicism, despair and depression.

Now, it would be incredibly naïve of me to suggest that there is nothing in the world to be depressed about today. That simply isn’t true.  There are all kinds of things that can seriously undercut our enthusiasm and dampen the joy of living. There have been natural disasters. Hurricanes, fires, earthquakes.  There’s been so much destruction, loss of property and life. And on a broader scale, the accumulating effects of global climate change continue weigh on our minds and darken the outlook for the future of our planet. And we see people, especially children, who are starving, suffering from curable disease, or homeless and living in the street.  There are wars, genocide, threats of nuclear missiles being launched and all we hear are angry words being spouted and instead of the calm, slow, work of diplomacy; fear and saber-rattling rule the day. There’s much to be troubled about these days.

But it’s not just the international scene that can lead to despair about life and self. An illness that you thought was minor turns out to be life threatening. A parent that you thought was in good health is suddenly struck with a serious illness. A good friend dies in the prime of life. You reach out to those around you but no one reaches back, and you feel alone and disconnected. You do what you can to help others, but the very people you seek to help turn on you with judgment and rejection. We’ve all been there. It’s not hard to find a whole lot of evidence to justify being cynical, bitter or even depressed about life.

But here’s the thing.  There’s another side to all this.  Amid all this negative stuff, there’s the potential for something better; something great; something of God.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  A number of years ago, I was driving along a four lane highway, when, for stretch of several miles, I encountered the aftermath of a wildfire.  The fire had claimed everything. No shrubs or undergrowth were left and only charred shells remained where a forest of towering oaks once stood. I remember being upset by this sight.  All those beautiful oak trees gone, just like that.

Several years later, however, I found myself travelling that same route. Now, I had long since forgotten about that devastating fire but as I approached the affected area it all came back to me; the emotion, the sense of loss, maybe even a slight fear of seeing that sight again.  At the time, I thought it was a really a strange reaction for a grown man to have about a bunch of burned up trees, but that’s how I felt as the forest quickly thinned and the scene of the fire appeared.

It was strange however. While there were still some of the “burned out” trees standing, the green undergrowth had come back, forming a lush meadow where the oaks once stood.  But even more than that, I saw some thin shoots sprouting up among meadow grasses.  Now, I wouldn’t suggest doing this when you’re travelling on an interstate, but I pulled over and went across the ditch to investigate these shoots.  And do you know what they were? Oak trees.  The fire that destroyed the mighty oaks was not able to vanquish the tiny acorns.

And that’s where today’s gospel lesson is taking us.  It’s leading us from being mired in the depressing circumstances of our lives and the world around, to seeing things from a new perspective; from the perspective of potentiality

In our text, the people who heard and believed the good news of the gospel were liberated from the prison of a negative perspective and given instead a perspective of potentiality through the transforming power and liberating love of God. They were given a glimpse of what is possible when human beings overcome whatever stumbling block lies in their path and adopt a positive attitude.  So, this concept of potentiality, in this context then, generally refers to any “possibility” that a thing can be said to have. And any potential, any of these possibilities, come not from of our own efforts, but because of the redemptive power of God.

When Jesus tells his listeners that the Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed which is the smallest seed on earth but which has the potential to become the greatest of all shrubs he’s inviting men and women to look at the world with new eyes. In this very brief parable Jesus is saying, “This is the way God does things. God is like a sower who scatters seeds. The seeds may be tiny and invisible to the naked eye. Yet when the seed is planted, it has the potential to grow into a shrub that provides shelter for the creatures of this world. The Kingdom of God is like this. The initial evidence may be infinitesimal, but the ultimate results will be great.”

So, if you believe that this is how God does things, then what will you do? Well, you might begin to look for mustard seeds. You might look for the first signs of this kingdom with faith and optimism. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” Your faith may be no larger than a mustard seed, but if you take it seriously and use it, then you can move mountains. You can do great things if you are willing to offer yourself to one who has planted within you the tiny seeds of love and generosity, mercy and hope, justice and kindness.

Now, it’s possible to become so hardened in our living, that these seeds find no good ground in which to sprout. Thomas Merton reminds us of an important fact when he writes, “The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and supernatural desire…how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?”

When you became a member of the church through baptism, God recognized and blessed you. And the sacrament serves to remind you that you are somebody. You are special. You are a child of God. That’s the vision that God has given us here.  A vision to “live out” this God-given potential that lies within us.

Mother Teresa, began her orphanage with such a vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.” A dream and three pennies represented resources as small as a mustard seed. “Mother Teresa,” her superiors gently said, “you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies…with three pennies you can’t do anything.” “I know,” she said, smiling, “but with God and three pennies I can do anything.”

My friends, Don’t give up on yourself, on others, on the church, or even on the world just because you see hate, greed, and brokenness. Rather, believe in God’s possibilities even if the evidence is as tiny as a mustard seed. Remember, it’s the creative potential itself, the creative potential that’s within each of us, that’s the image of God.  The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that God’s beginnings may be small, but God’s results are great. The task of the church then, is to look for the signs of the kingdom which may be no larger than a mustard seed; to live and love with a new perspective; we are called to be the mighty oak that arises from a single acorn; and we are challenged to send forth new shoots. New shoots of love and justice, of equality and hope.

May it be so.  Amen.

Fruit Loops

 

James 1:17-25

Connection to Series

Today, we continue to look at life “between the trees” …the tree of life in Genesis and the “tree of life” in Revelation.  In addition to the words of James, we are going to look at a passage from the second part of Luke’s “sermon on the plain”. Now, this is Luke’s version of Matthew’s more famous sermon on the mount, and like Matthew, Luke reminds us of God’s covenant. And this particular-passage is important because it encapsulates the very heart of the gospel message.  Hear the words of Luke:

 

“A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit.

Each tree is known by its own fruit.

People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes.

A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self,

while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self.

The inner self overflows with words that are spoken.[i]

 

Opening Image

Let me start out today by asking you a question: What did you have for breakfast this morning?  Eggs, bacon, toast, waffles? Not me, I had my usual bowl of cereal.  I really love my cereal.  All kinds.  Life, Shredded Wheat, any kind of Chex.  But when I was a kid it was Fruit Loops.  Now, I didn’t get them all the time and never at home.  Fruit Loops were a special treat that my sister and I got at grandma’s house.  Because breakfast at grandmas often came in the form of a “variety pack” of cereal.  You know what I’m talking about. Those eight little boxes of cereal wrapped in plastic with the sides that could be punched-out to make a bowl, which always leaked milk all over the table.  But we didn’t care, they were eight boxes of sheer joy to us; a joy that always sparked a competition.  You see, the challenge was to be the first one up so you could get first choice of cereal.  And guess what, the first one to breakfast got the Fruit Loops.

Fruit Loops were the holy grail of breakfast cereals when I was a kid.

Now, I would have lived on Fruit Loops if I thought I could get away with it. But as we grow older and hopefully wiser, we come to understand that a Fruit Loops only diet would be a very unhealthy one.  As we mature, we become aware that what we take into our bodies affects every part of our life and health.  If we are introspective, we come to realize that we literally are what we eat.

 

The Gospel Text

As we turn to our text for today, it too calls for introspection; for us to take a long and hard look at our inner selves and how we treat others. And it’s a call not only to look, but then to do something about it.  As we approach this subject, I think it’s important to ask ourselves: Are my words quick to blame, or to cut-down, or to ridicule others; or are my words compassionate and loving? When someone disagrees with me, how do I react; do I scream my point of view at the top of my lungs or do I listen to the other side of the issue? In other words, what fruits do I present to the world? Are they good and healthy and nourishing or are they dried up, old, and stale?

My guess is that, for most of us if not all of us, all the above would be the most accurate answer.  True?  Although we strive to be gentile of tongue, we all slip up occasionally.  No one is perfect.  Believe me, you don’t want to cut me off in traffic when I’m in a hurry, my reaction might be, well let’s say, a little less than pastoral.  What comes out isn’t always our best.

And that’s what’s at the core of what Jesus is trying to teach us here.  Basically, he is saying: if what’s on the inside is good, good things will come from us, but if our inner-most self is corrupt, then corruption with spill forth from our tongues. He’s telling us that what is required from a disciple is a “genuine goodness of heart.”[ii]  So Jesus is concerned with the condition of our heart. And what our lives look like everyday says a whole lot about the condition of our hearts and that in turn, effects how we treat others.

So, the introspective part of all this becomes important because what’s on the inside, the good or bad in our hearts, has consequences for the rest of our lives and has an impact upon all our relationships; and ultimately, our relationship with God. I heard it put this way also… You don’t get wormy apples off a healthy tree, nor good apples off a diseased tree. The health of the apple tells the health of the tree. It’s who you are on the inside that counts. So, your true being will spill over into your words and deeds.[iii]

 

Application

Now, that interpretation leads us to another aspect of this passage; one that moves us beyond a focus solely on ourselves and into one that encompasses a broader sense community. If our insides are good, then, as this passage alludes to, then “our true being will spill over into our words and deeds.” Discipleship requires more than just good deeds.  “It requires integrity and a purity of heart such as one sees in Jesus himself.”[iv]  So the call of today’s lesson is to be Christ-like in our words and actions. We can’t just give “lip-service” to our Christian outreach, we must live it!  Our challenge then is to “work the words” so to speak; to actually do what we say were going to do. It’s like what James said in our Epistle reading for today. He challenged us to be “doers of God’s Word, and not just hearers.”[v]

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  During a Saturday afternoon community service day, Pastor Bill White writes that he was walking down a narrow side street in the city of Compton, California, heading towards one of the worksites sponsored by a local church.

It was towards the end of the work day, and dozens of yellow-shirted church volunteers—maybe 50 in all—were streaming out of the site, getting ready to head off to dinner after finishing a complete makeover of a local house. Bill was six or eight houses away when he passed a married couple working in their own yard. He paused to compliment the woman on her roses, and she asked him what they were doing down the street. He replied that they represented a band of churches united in by desire to serve the city. They then continued to chat about the radical neighborhood transformation that she had witnessed by their simple acts of kindness. Now, during their conversation the woman’s husband had been working on other side of the front yard. But when he saw Bill’s yellow “volunteer shirt,” he came over and joined the conversation.  Pastor White then said, “I will never forget his words. After looking into my eyes, he nodded approvingly towards the renovated house down the street and then said, ‘I love your heart. Where can I get a heart like yours?'” Flabbergasted, Bill replied, “We got our hearts from Jesus, and he would be glad to give you one like his, too.”[vi]

 

Conclusion

Friends, the unparalleled Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change hearts, homes, neighborhoods, and indeed the world.  When we take the good that is within our hearts, and share it with others, that good is multiplied.  When we “live out” our faith by serving all of God’s people, whether they are from our church or not, we reflect the face of Christ to all who see us. Because remember, “… in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based upon the benefits it brings to its nonadherents.”[vii] And who knows, maybe someone who is on the fence, who has been hurt by the church in the past, someone who’s only experience of Christianity is flipping past the TV preachers… maybe someone like that will see the goodness of your heart, if you are letting that goodness flow out, by reaching out to others in need. And maybe, just maybe, that call starts today.

[i]  Luke 6:43-45. Common English Bible (CEB)

[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible. (NIB) Vol. IX (Abingdon Press: 1995) 151

[iii] Excerpt from Luke 6:43-45. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Eugene H. Peterson

(NavPress Publishing Group, Colorado Springs, Co. 2002)

[iv] NIB. 151

[v] James 1:22 (CEB)

[vi] Story told by Bill White, Paramount California (www.preachingtoday.com) 2012.

[vii] A Generous Orthodoxy Brian D. McLaren (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2004) 111