New Growth

Isaiah 43:18-26

You know the old story about the man who bought a mule, right? Well, it seems that one day there was a mule for sale, cheap! So, Sam thought, “why not? I could use some help around the far.” So, Sam bought the mule. Now, the seller told him that the mule understood English, so, he would do whatever he was ordered to do. The problem was, however, when Sam tried to get the mule to go forward and he just stood there. Sam couldn’t get him to move, at all, nothing. So, he turned to the original owner and said, “You lied to me, this animal doesn’t understand a word I say.” Well, the seller looked at the mule, looked at Sam, and then picked up a two-by-four and hit the mule right in the head with it. Then he said, “go forward.” The mule did it. Sam was shocked and said, “why on earth did you do that?” The seller looked at the mule, and he looked at Sam, then he smiled and said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do something dramatic to get their attention.”

We are creatures of habit.  We like things to remain the same, stable, predictable, under control.  And when a change is introduced, I think we’re like that old mule sometimes, we need a wake-up call. Because as you already know, life is constantly changing. It’s anything but predictable.  And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity!  You know what they say, “If you want to hear God laugh, just share your plans.”

Now, sometimes our discomfort with change leads us to make some irrational decisions. I read this week that one of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past-tense. By that, the author meant we look back with great fondness to a time when everything was just way we liked it.  And we hold onto that ideal image as a sort of security blanket when life in the present becomes overwhelming.  Of course, if we really went back to that point in time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we remembered it. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.

Now, the same thing is true of our faith.  We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith.  It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times.  Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time.  But when we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past.  I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.

I think that was at least a part of what was going on with the people of Israel in our lessons for today.  The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness.  These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared.  It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water.  You could die in the wilderness.[i] The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness.  The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” promised to do something brand new:  he would make a “way in the wilderness”.  God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[ii]

Now, it’s also possible, perhaps even more likely, that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins.  Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger.  The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city.  Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.[iii]

But what does all this have to do with Lent?

Well, in this Season of Introspection, on the journey inward, and as we attempt to create a time and a space to just be with God daily, a deep and lasting “change” is required. And that change of mind and heart isn’t possible unless we, like the Israelites of old, bring our faith in the God into the present situations of our lives and in our world. And, I know, this kind of connecting our historical faith with the issues of this world can be complicated, confusing, maybe even a little bit scary. But we cannot let fear overcome us. Do you know that phrase Jesus uses more than any other in the gospels? “Fear not.” And there’s a good reason for that. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear paralyses us while faith frees us. Fear keeps us in the darkness while faith exposes us to the Light. And fear wants to keep the status quo, at any cost, while faith invites us to step into the future.

My friends, we cannot deny that there are many challenges that we face in our world today. Global climate change, violence, on-going wars and genocide just to name a few. And the loudest voices in our society continue spew racially-charged and hate-filled rhetoric, dividing this nation rather than attempting to do the hard work of uniting us. And there’s our personal situations: loneliness, illness, grieving a loss or disappointment. All of these things can cause us to recoil in fear and dream of past days when things were different. And believe me, I can understand that. But I also believe with every fabric of my being, that God loves each of us. And in that love, there is hope, there is healing and restoration; there is new growth.

I would like to leave you today with a very hope-filled poem that I shared with the As Time Goes By group this week. It’s called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.[iv]

My friends, as we continue on this journey may you come to realize that you too have a place in the “family of all things”. And that you’re beloved, cherished, and interconnected with all of life by and through a loving Creator. And no matter what challenges you may face, no matter what change is coming down the pike, you don’t have to face them alone. You don’t have to be mired in fear, because in the end, “the world offers itself to your imagination.” In my mind, that’s finally the nature of faith; that’s finally the nature of God.

God is doing a new thing. Let us grow and be glad in it!

Amen and amen.

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[i] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.

[ii] Ibid. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”

[iii] Alan Brehm Present-Tense Faith (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2013

[iv] Wild Geese from Dream Work published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver

 

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.

…from Sleeping in The Forest by Mary Oliver © Mary Oliver

Natural Rhythms

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – Lent 3

Welcome to spring! Yes, spring, or as we like to refer to it “mud season” has begun. Now, spring is awesome because it represents a re-birth of sorts. Soon, the snow will melt away, the crocuses will poke through the tired earth, and the woods will begin its annual transformation from the dull, lifelessness of winter, as it adorns itself with the green cast of new life. And, for me anyway, one of the special things about living in the Northwoods is experiencing these seasonal changes; becoming a part of these “natural rhythms.”

Now, in addition to the changing seasons, our lives are also subject to natural rhythms. This concept was not lost on the author of today’ text. Called Qua-hell-et in the original Hebrew, and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes) in Greek, this wise person understood time quite differently from the way we often do in Western culture. You see, he wrote during a historical period that fell immediately after the Babylonian Exile, an event that taught the Hebrew people that the human experience wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park. It was a time of great fear, suffering, and change that was beyond their control.

Now, some see Ecclesiastes as the ultimate cynic. And maybe there’s some truth to that. Thirty-eight times throughout the course of this book the wisdom writer says, “All is vanity.” A little cynical I must admit, but I think I would call him more of a realist than a cynic, a practical theologian who refused to look at life through rose-colored glasses.

And we see this reflected in today’s reading. It catalogs the various seasons of life, right? Twenty-eight of them to be exact, arranged in sharp contrast to one another. And this list rings so true because it’s an undeniable part of our human existence. You see, the Author of Ecclesiastes understood that the universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. [i] And, this is key, that inner logic is not liner.

Maybe think of it like this. The existence of this planet with all of its diversity of life, from the first single-celled-ameba to the beautiful flora and fauna we enjoy today, have been evolving and changing for billions of years. But if we try to view creation through a liner lens, in other words, as a straight line with a beginning, middle, and end, then our entire existence might seem like a single grain of sand on an endless beach. But if we choose to view time as cyclical, like Ecclesiastes, like the endless changing of the seasons, then the nature of being begins to make more sense. We are all a part of the fabric of the universe, and when the season is right, we are born into this life. We live and then, someday, all of us will die, becoming a part of the universe again. “We are made from the dust of the earth,” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us, “and to it is to dust that we will return.”

Now, I realize that this is getting a bit philosophical. So, let’s move into the practical. Ecclesiastes, later in chapter 3, contends that one should not waste time and energy railing against life; instead, he advises that the best thing we can do is to be happy and enjoy this time on earth for as long as we can. To my ear, that’s good theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it’s a wise choice to be happy and to look for joy.

How? Well, I believe that joy: real, deep, lasting happiness is found in propagating and maintaining meaningful relationships. It begins with strong relationships with friends and family and expands to include a compassionate and a loving faith community that finds joy through fellowship within the congregation and by extending an extravagant welcome to others beyond the walls of the sanctuary. We can also find happiness in service to others, in the preservation and conservation of the environment; whenever we think of the other before self. And, finally, we can find true joy by deepening our spiritual connection with God.

Ah, you didn’t think I abandoned our Lenten Spiritual journey, did you? Of course not. There’s a great letting go of self, of stress, and of trying to do-it-all-on-our-own that comes with an intensifying relationship with the Sacred. And, there’s a deep abiding peace that indwells our being when give up worrying about those things we can’t control and instead, enjoy the gifts, the blessings, that God has given us.

And this connects us to Ecclesiastes’ other prescription for life. He set up these pairings of life events, these “complementary opposites” to borrow a term of Taoism, in such a way that the first set, “a time to be born and a time to die,” serve as the bookends to all the rest. What do I mean? Well, we’re born and while we are living this existence, we encounter all of these sets of opposing emotions and challenges and callings. We all experience, for example, the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in, and the time to let go.

My friends, God created time. God set the “natural rhythm” of reality; a rhythm that transcends this world and this life; a natural rhythm that is enhanced and understood, if even a tiny bit, by creating a deep, thoughtful, and life-long connection with our Creator. And as we continue on the journey of introspection that Lent has set us upon, and as spring once again blossoms around us and within our hearts, my prayer is that each of us will attempt to move ourselves a little closer to the reality of the Divine presence of God, in both our lives and to all the ends of the universe.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Joanna Adams Should There Be A Clock in the Sanctuary? (www.Day1.org) 2010

First Clearing

Joel 2:12-17

Each and every one of us know something about the wilderness; what it means to be lost from time to time, what it is to grieve, what it means to wander aimlessly in the darkness. And, like I said last week, the wilderness, and wandering through it from time to time, is an important part of the journey. But I think it’s easy to say that none of us want to stay there forever; none us wants to grieve endlessly or suffer needlessly.

So, bearing this in mind, as we begin the second week of our Lenten journey, I think it’s important to look for a way out of the wilderness. And we can do this by selecting a practice to well help us to begin to clear a space for discernment, for healing; for new growth and renewal. This week is about clearing a space to sit in the presence of the Sacred.

It’s kinda like starting a new garden. As the snow continues to melt, and spring eventually replaces winter, I intend to expand my garden… again. And like last spring, there’s a lot of work to be done. I must remove the grass, till the soil, add compost, and build a fence. And all of these things need to be finished within a short window of time if I am to plant anything in that new garden space. Now, it’s been my experience that my plans for garden expansion have often been too lofty. I am, well let’s say, lee-than-patient when it come to my gardening projects. In reality, the process of expanding my garden will begin this spring, but I probably won’t see any produce until a year from this fall. A new garden takes patients and discipline.

Now, this concept can also be applied to Lent. Lent inspires patients and discipline. For generations we have been asked to “give something up” for Lent. Chocolate or pop or some other vice is given up as a sign of discipline, of faithfulness to God, and the beginning of the process of clearing one’s heart and mind in order to repent. And while that’s not necessary a bad thing, in recent years I think we’ve come to understand that “taking something on” is perhaps a more effective way to honor this sense of introspection that Lent inspires. When we “take on” some sort of spiritual discipline it challenges us to think or feel in a new way, rather than just miss something we enjoy for six weeks.

So, what does “taking-on a discipline” look like? Well, in the study that this sermon series is based upon, there are six suggested Lenten practices. The first of these practices is Daily Prayer or Meditation. This is one I’ve referred to before. Daily prayer or meditation asks us to set aside some time each day and clear a space to sit quietly in the presence of God. Some people like to read a devotional or Scripture passages, while others prefer to simply be still. Whatever works for you!

Now, the second practice isn’t unrelated to the prayer and meditation: it’s a Media Fast. A media fast involves abstaining from watching TV, listening to music, or even reading for a prescribed amount of time. Say, 7 to 9 pm each day. In my mind, this clears the space to sit in the presence of God.

Remember now, the invitation here is to choose one or perhaps two of these practices, not to try and master them all. The third alternative is Reflective Walking. This practice, like the first two, provides you with the opportunity to intentionally spend time with God, except this third practice involves motion, movement, and a connection with nature.

The fourth choice is Art. Painting, sculpting, drawing, and pottery are just a few examples. If the arts interest you, consider using your set-aside time to engage in a creative activity. By understanding creativity as a channel for God’s on-going act of creation, you’re letting God’s energy flow into the world through your art.

The fifth suggest practice is Journaling. A daily practice of writing can also help you engage God more deeply. Journaling as a spiritual practice may involve simply writing your thoughts and feeling out or perhaps it may take the form of writing letters or prayers to God.

Now, the final suggested spiritual practice falls a bit outside the box: Community Service. If your spiritual life leads you to engage with your community in a new or innovative way, this is perhaps the path your Lenten discipline is calling you to take.

So, there you go, six suggestions for cultivating a deeper relationship with God, perhaps you can think of others? There are no limits here and no wrong answers, only your desire to move closer to the Divine; to emerge from the wilderness and begin to clear a space for God in your everyday life.

But what does all this have to do with the Prophet Joel?

Well, remember Joel said that God wants us “to return with all our hearts, – with fasting, weeping, and sorrow.” In other words, we’re invited to look for God in our presence with more than just our eyes or our minds; we are to return to God with all of our being, warts and all, weeping or sad, and we are asked to do this through spiritual practices. That’s what the “fasting” part is all about.

But Joel doesn’t stop there, God says, “tear your hearts and not your clothing.” Remember now, in that day when a person was grieving or lamenting, they would tear an article of clothing that they were wearing as a sign of their despair. But Joel is reminding us that there is something beyond lament, beyond the pain and suffering; and that something is God’s grace.

Joel goes on to say, “God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” And I don’t know about you, but I need to find a way to be in the presence of God’s grace every day of my life! I constantly stand in need of God’s compassion and patients, love and forgiveness. And I need to symbolically “tear my heart” everyday so that it may become open to God’s Justice for all people, no matter what country they come from, or what language they speak, or who they choose to love, or what religion they choose to practice; and I need to open my heart every day to God’s Environmental Justice, the responsibility of humanity for the care for this earth, it’s forests and animals, it’s air and water and land. And finally, I need to slow down, and open my heart to the presence of God so that it may be exposed to the Peace that Paul says, surpassed all understanding.”

Do you see what I’m saying here? The tearing of one’s heart, the opening of one’s spirit to the Divine presence, goes beyond my meditation time in my living room. Being the presence of God naturally instills within us the desire and the will and the courage to practice God’s ways of Justice and accept God’s deep abiding peace. This is the blessing that Joel says, “God will lead behind.”

My prayer for all of us as we continue this journey, is that we will find and share God’s blessing in whatever form that blessing may take.

May it be so. Amen & amen.

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Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005) pgs. 107-108

Exploring the Wilderness

A Clearing Season: An Introspective Approach to Lent

Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of Lent

Lent begins in the Wilderness.

A couple of years ago, when we first moved to our current house, I couldn’t wait to explore the woods that surrounded our new home. So, on a beautiful spring day, I set out through the national forest to see what I could see. I immersed myself in the beauty of the wilderness that is my backyard. And I was happy! That is, until I realized that I was not really sure how to get back home. I wasn’t lost, no self-respecting man would ever admit being lost; I was simply “turned-around”. And since I didn’t think to bring a compass, finding my way out was a challenge. I followed a couple of old trails, but as I passed the same rock the third time, I decided to institute a new plan of attack. I looked up. By following the sun, I was able to determine east from west and eventually I did come out on Birchwood Road, a mile or so from where I began, but, in the end, the lost was found.

Now, the narrative that we have from Luke’s Gospel today, also has something to say about what we might find when we “explore the wilderness”; not a literal wilderness, like my experience in the Chequamegon, but a wilderness of the soul; a wilderness of self.

Now, if our wilderness experience in any way resembles that of Jesus, then this passage tells us that the wilderness, those places of discomfort and chaos that arise in our lives, are important and valuable and are not to be overlooked. We all tend, I think, to attempt to separate ourselves from discomfort or chaos. And I’m right there with ya. I love logic, routine, and calmness. There are certainly times when an emotional or even a physical distance from chaos is necessary.  But that being said, this wilderness text challenges us to try a different approach. It encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable, chaotic places for as long as possible. Why? Well, because it’s only when we confront the discomfort, when we acknowledge our confusion, and when we recognize the chaos swirling around us, that we can begin to deal with it.  It’s only in the recognition of our dis-ease, that we can begin heal; that we can begin to move back to a place of harmony and balance. “Denial,” as they say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we’re asked, or perhaps “led by the Spirit” to enter whatever “wilderness” is plaguing us. Now, finding these wilderness places is not all that difficult when we have the courage to look. The best way to find them actually, is to set aside some time, find a space free from distractions, and then sit quietly with God. The very act of sitting quietly can bring whatever wilderness you need to experience to the forefront.[I]

Granted, sometimes finding quiet can be a challenge. In my attempt to begin morning meditation this past Thursday, I was met with a groomed and ready for school Manny who wanted to watch You Tube. Not to mention phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook Messenger all “dinging” on my phone. The dog needed to go out, the goats and chickens wanted to be fed… My friends, the stuff of life can be a stumbling block to find our wilderness moments.

But it’s not impossible. Time and again, we see Jesus seek-out a secluded place, a place like the wilderness in today’s text, in order to face his challenges and temptations. And his temptations were much-the-same as the temptations we face in our lives. And upon closer observation, we see that the three temptations presented to Jesus all fall into the same category: putting self-need before the needs of others.

I mean, think about these three promises; the promise of a perpetually full belly, of absolute power, and of freedom from all harm. If I had these things my life would be awesome. But, what about the life of the person from whom the bread was taken? What about the vulnerable, voiceless person whose power has been usurped for my pleasure? How about those who remain in harms way in order to guarantee my safety?  Do you see what I’m driving at here? There’s a cause and effect in everything we do, in every decision we make. Our time in the wilderness is meant to help us to discern the outcomes of our decisions and to weigh the consequences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw a news story this past week that broke my heart. It was about the children of the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of an on-going civil war. With over 620,000 internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees, one in five Central Africans has fled conflict, leaving both home and land behind. In 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people, including 1.5 million children, two out of every three children in the country, will require humanitarian assistance. Of the 1.9 million people without access to safe water, 950,000 are children, and basic water and sanitation standards are not being met in many sites for displaced persons. Less than half of all children are immunized. In 2019, an estimated 38,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition.[ii] And these statistics say nothing about the abduction of young men who are then forced to fight in the war against their will or anything about the daily rape of young girls. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

But I was given a spark of hope by this story because they also presented some success that UNICEF has had in this region. They’ve recently been able, with the help of the United Nations, to distribute these ready-made food packets to children. They taste like peanut butter but are very high in nutrition. The news story ended by showing several children who earlier in the spot were on the brink of starvation but were now responsive and even smiling.

I share this story with you today, because as I reflect upon the wilderness experience that this news story led me through, I can’t help but think about all the distractions, the temptations that blind us to such great suffering.  It’s easy to turn-a-blind eye to places like the Central Africa Republic or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or any of the other places where people, children, are suffering. It’s far more difficult, I think, to allow ourselves to “suffer-with” those who suffer.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to be avoided is apathy?

As we continue on this Lenten journey and as we explore the wilderness of our minds and lives, my prayer is that we all find our way out, not by using a compass, but by thinking of the other before self.  If all of us could do that, this world would be a little better and it would become more just place for all people.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005) pgs. 13-26

[ii] UNICEF Official Website (www.unicef.org)

Love & Relationship

By Rev. Phil Milam

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us            -I John 4:17 (MSG)

Willian Slone Coffin once wrote, “What we need to realize is that to love effectively, we must act collectively.” (Credo 23) The author of the First Letter of John provides a foundation for Coffin’s assertion. You see, collective action, by its very nature, requires a certain amount of courage.  When I go-it-alone, I am in control, but it’s a little scary to surrender absolute control to the collective and journey together.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are two schools of thought when a pastor accepts a call to a new congregation. The first is to say, “make all the changes you can on day one because the honeymoon period is brief.” It’s been my observation that this line of thinking has led to many short pastorates. The second school of thought, however, takes the opposite approach.  It says, “change as little as possible in the first year, instead, use that time to build trust and relationships.” This second approach, relationship building, has enjoyed a far greater success rate than coming in like a whirlwind. But why? Why the disparity?

Well, perhaps the answer to that question goes back to Coffin’s statement, “…to love effectively, we must act collectively.” When we surrender a portion of our control in any relationship whether it’s a personal relationship, or in the work environment, even in church; in any successful relationship there must be some give-and-take; some level of shared responsibility. And the same is true when it come to our relationship with God.

Richard Roar says, “Instead of an Omnipotent Monarch, let’s try what God as Trinity demonstrates as the actual and wondrous shape of the Divine reality, which then replicates itself in us and in “all the array” of creation. Instead of watching life happen from afar and judging it… How about God being inherent in life itself?” (The Divine Dance 36) This understanding of God as relational leads us to conclude that God is known devotionally and not dogmatically, that all life is sacred, or, again in the words of Rohr, that “everything is holy, for those who have learned to see.” (37) My friends, as we continue to progress and grow and deepen our relationship with God, each other, and those beyond our circle, may we too see that everything is finally sacred.

Shalom

Pastor Phil

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.

 

Astounding Glory

Luke 9:28-36 – Transfiguration Sunday

There was once a thriving monastery in a beautiful forest. It was a very spiritual place, full of devout monks and visitors coming to seek guidance. But the monastery fell on some hard times, which produced a negative attitude within the monks and a lack of spirit that was palpable. The pilgrims became fewer and fewer and there were no longer any young people coming to enter the monastic life. And this trend continued for a long time, until finally, there were only a handful of elderly monks left. It was a dark time in the forest monastery.

The elderly monk’s spirits were lifted, however, was when word would come to them that “the rabbi was walking in the woods.” You see, in the woods near the monastery, there was a small hut that a rabbi had constructed as a place of retreat, and he came from time to time to fast and pray. And the monks knew that they were included in his prayers, so they felt supported, affirmed and loved.

One day, the abbot of the monastery, hearing that the rabbi was walking in the woods, decided to go and see him. And when he reached the little hut, they greeted one another, silently prayed together, and then the abbot began to weep. He poured out his concern for the monastery and for the spiritual health of the monks. Finally, after listening intensively, the rabbi spoke. “You are seeking my guidance and I have only one piece of advice for you. My advice is this. Listen carefully. ‘The Messiah is among you.’”

Well, the abbot returned immediately to the monastery and gathered all the monks and to share the rabbi’s wisdom. “Listen carefully,” the abbot said, ” One of us is the Messiah.” Now, that wasn’t exactly what the rabbi had said, but this message caused them to look at one another in a different light. Is Brother John the messiah? Or Father James? Am I the messiah?

And in the days that followed things began to change. They began to treat one another with a new-found respect because any one of them might be the messiah. And this new sense of esteem and reverence was felt by the few pilgrims who came. Soon the word spread. The young people began to come again, and more and more pilgrims showed up to be blessed by the presence of God among these monks; all because they came to realize that God was among them.[I]

Now, this story reminds me of the Transfiguration narrative for a couple of reasons. First, I think this passage is meant to illustrate for us the paradox of a God who is both mysterious, transcendent, but at the same time, imminent, involved in human life. I mean, think about the elements of this story. There’s a sudden change in Jesus’ appearance, his face and his clothes were suddenly radiant; he was standing there talking with Moses and Elijah, Moses representing the law and Elijah the prophets. And don’t forget about the cloud that shrouded them and the voice of affirmation and direction from God, telling the disciples, and us, to “listen to him.”

I think the mystical elements of this narrative are inviting us to experience a transformation, a change in our hearts and minds. And what’s even more, the Divine affirmation of Christ is intended to instill in us a willingness to affirm others. And that’s the second similarity to the monks. When we listen to God, when we open ourselves to the mystery of the Divine presence, and when we accept others just as they are, for who they are, the astounding glory of God becomes apparent. Thomas Merton once said, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

But what does this transparency look like?

Well, it’s kind of like the little boy who was riding his wagon down the sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the wheels fell off. The little boy jumped out of the wagon and said, “I’ll be damned!” Now, the minister happened to be walking by, and he said, “Son, you shouldn’t use words like that! Instead, when something happens, just say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ and everything will be all right.” Well, the little boy grumbled and put the wheel back on the wagon and started on down the sidewalk. But about 10 yards down the sidewalk, the wheel fell off again and the little boy said, “Praise the Lord!” And here’s the crazy part! Suddenly, that wheel jumped up off the ground and put itself right back on the wagon. Now, the minister saw it all and exclaimed, “I’ll be damned.”[ii]

This is of course meant to be a humorous illustration of those mysterious moments in life when we become keenly aware of the transparent presence of God. But in our human-ness, like Peter, we sometimes want to bask in the moment; we want to build shrines and stay eternally in the feeling of awe. But you and I both know that we can’t, …or can we?

I don’t know. Perhaps we’re not looking in the right places. Perhaps the mystery and miracle of God is right before our eyes all the time.

My friends, God is in the beauty of nature, in all its glory; God is in those moments of unconditional, tender love we share; God is here, between the lines, when we share our stories and our fragile hopes; and God is here, in our suffering, and in every moment of rescue, restoration, and resurrection.[iii]

As we enter once again this Season of Lent, our shared focus and journey for the next few weeks will revolve around introspection; a deeper look at how God is always present in our lives and in the world. Beginning at the Communion table today, I invite you to open your minds and hearts, and to allow yourselves to become aware of the sacredness of all things, the blessedness of all people, and the intrinsic holiness of the natural world. And, through this Lenten journey, may we all discover a path that leads us closer to the Divine.

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

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[i] Cf. Francis Dorff. The Rabbi’s Gift (Charles Duvall, Seeing Things in a New Light) www.Day1.org 2013

[ii] Robert Sims Connections that Count (www.Day1.org) 2004

[iii] Katheryn Matthews Living in Glory (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38

“Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” We know these words as the Golden Rule, right? But what you may not know is that they’re not unique to Jesus. Some version of the Golden Rule can be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks; Homer and Seneca and Philo and in virtually every major religion: It’s found in the sacred writings of Hinduism and Judaism, it’s been echoed by the voice of the Buddha and Confucius and Lau Tzu, and it can be found in the Koran, the holy text of Islam. The Golden Rule is a concept that crosses cultural and religious boundries. “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the kind of practical wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we’d like to be treated.

Now, it’s sometimes tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one verse like this one. It’s a verse we can understand, and it gives us a foundation upon which we can begin the process of peacemaking; the process of getting along with each other. But unfortunately, it’s not possible to boil the whole of Scripture, or even today’s reading, down to just one verse, even one as awesome and as wise as this one. Because if we pull the Golden Rule out of today’s text as a summary of everything Jesus said, then we’ll miss the deeper message.  In other words, “doing onto others” is predicated upon “loving our enemy.” And, Jesus says, loving our enemy is lived out when we practice that laundry list of seemingly impossible or at least, improbable tasks.  A list that includes turning the other cheek, giving up your shirt along with your coat, praying for someone who’s done you wrong. In our time and in our terminology, we would call this “non-violent resistance.”

Now, we need to pause here for a second and acknowledge the fact that Jesus was speaking to those who were victims rather than victimizers; to those who were oppressed rather than their oppressors. AND this is an important distinction. It’s important because we must understand that Jesus wasn’t calling on victims to roll over and play dead! Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean be quiet and continue taking the abuse. Praying for someone who’s oppressing you doesn’t mean you’re giving them the win. That’s not it at all! Jesus isn’t telling people to remain victims, but instead, to find new ways of resisting evil.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. And that, in concert with “do onto others” is the crux of this passage. Loving leads to peace, both inner peace for ourselves and an external peace among tribes and nations. Sharing what you have, both your material goods and of yourself, builds relationships. But it’s a two-sided coin. Violence leads only to more violence. The old adage “if you hit me, I’ll hit you back harder” doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because an even harder, more violent response will be coming your way. “You were taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you,” Jesus said, “when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other one to them also.” Non-violent resistance.

This is the ethic that moved Dr. King to march across that bridge in Alabama, to kneel down in front of water hoses, and to be arrested without returning any of the violence being perpetrated upon him and his followers. Now, many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they told him. But the authorities didn’t know what to do with this kind of non-violent resistance. They knew the power of violence and they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn’t seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely.[I]

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

And I know, these are tough word to wrap our minds around and maybe even tougher to live-out. But when I hear these words from Jesus, I can’t help but remember the words of a grieving mother; grieving for the loss of her son, Matthew. Mathew Shepherd. Do you remember him? Matthew Shepherd was brutally beaten for no other reason than being gay. Two homophobic men beat him over and over again, they tied him to a fence on a country road and left him, bleeding and alone, to die in the freezing night. And by the time someone found him the next morning and got him to the hospital, there was no way to save him. Matthew Shepherd died as hundreds stood in candlelight vigil outside the hospital.

Now, the two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of a hate crime. Proved guilty of first-degree murder, they were given the death penalty in accordance with the law of the state of Wyoming. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge asking the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men; these men who brutally murdered her son.

I cannot begin to understand what she must have gone through in all the agonizing months leading up to the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? What sort of people could do this to another human being? But there she was, pleading for the lives of her son’s killers.[ii]

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

Matthew’s mother, I would contend, demonstrated a faith that was shaped by a gospel that’s deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. And that’s the gospel that Jesus would have each of us take out into the world as we continue to be the church.  A gospel of inclusion, of extravagant welcome, of opening our hearts and door and minds to all kinds of new possibilities and people; it’s a gospel that challenges us to think of the “other” before “self” by sharing our lives and our faith and our wealth with those who are lonely or struggling or hungry. It’s a gospel that, on the surface anyway, may not seem very practical, or even probable in our nation’s climate of hate-filled rhetoric and distrust. But, my friends, it’s finally a gospel of love, love of God, love of neighbor, love of the environment, and yes, love of enemy; it’s finally a gospel of love that will change this world.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Barbara K. Lundblad. Simple, But Not So Simple (www.Day1.org) 2001

[ii] Ibid Lundblad.

A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

Give me a text on “fishing for people” and I will give you fishing jokes! I think it’s the law. Anyway, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi decided to go fishing and to keep things fair each of them agreed to bring something. The priest brought the sandwiches, the minister brought the drinks, and the rabbi brought the bait.  But after only an hour of fishing, they ran out of worms. So, the rabbi said, “no worries, I’ll just go and get some more.” And then he proceeded to step out of the boat, walk across the lake to get more bait. A few minutes later, he returned in the same fashion. Now, the minister couldn’t believe his eyes, but since the priest wasn’t phased at all, he chose to be quiet. Well, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the rabbi got back, they ran out of food. So, the priest said, “I’ll go and get some more.” And, you know it, he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake, retrieved some more food from the cooler in the car, and returned to the boat in the same way he had left. Well, the minister was shocked, and to be honest, feeling a bit “spiritually outgunned.” So, when the drinks began to run short, he boldly announced, “I will go and get more.” He then proceeded to step out of the boat and sink straight to the bottom. Now, perhaps feeling a little guilty, the priest turned to the rabbi and said, “do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones?”

That’s my first fishing joke and the other one is this: Yes, I know only two fishing jokes and you’re being blessed with both of them today! A grandpa and his grandson go fishing. On their way down to the river they encounter a fisherman, so the grandpa inquires, “are they bit’in today?” “Are they bit’in!” replies the fisherman, “they’re bit’in so good I had to hide behind a tree to bait my hook!”

Now, you may have noticed that I sometimes like to start my message with a little humor, especially when the text is one that challenges us to leave our comfort zone and strike out into the unknown. This is kind of my way of living-into the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”  I think these words encapsulate so well the meaning of today’s text. Jesus, as we just heard, wanted to share the good news with a gathering crowd. So, to be better heard and seen, he borrowed Peter’s fishing boat, and pushed out into the shallow water at the edge of the lake. And from there, he offered his message of reconciliation and renewal; his message of release, recovery, and liberation.

But I think it’s important to pause here for a moment and recall one of the hallmarks of Luke’s writing style. You see, for Luke, when Jesus says something, it’s followed by an action. He doesn’t just “talk the talk” as it were, but he “walks the walk.” And this is present in all the gospels, but I think it’s especially prevalent in Luke and key to understanding Luke’s deeper desire for us to view Jesus through the lens of social justice.

Now, this “fish of people” narrative that we have today is no exception. Jesus pushes out into the lake, gives his address, and then proceeds to offer them, and us, a miracle of abundance. Peter and the boys had been fishing all night and caught nothing. But Jesus tells Peter to go out further and cast their nets. And of course, they catch so many fish that their boat begins to sink. Peter almost had to hide behind a tree to bait his hook!  And Peter is so moved by this miracle, so convinced that he and James and John drop everything and follow Jesus and to fish for people.

Now, that’s wonderful you might say, an inspiring story and the jokes were funny, but what does all this have to do with my life; with our shared journey of faith? How is a teaching about fishing with nets, and catching a bunch of fish, relevant in 2019?

Well, I’m glad you asked. They deeper meaning here seems to dwell in the realm of “leaving everything and following Jesus” I think Luke is challenging us to let go of the idea of “security in the form of the known.” What does that mean? Well, security in the form of the known, sometimes referred to as “our comfort zone”, describes those things that prevent us from growing, from adapting, from changing our thinking in ways that are necessary to shake the world in a gentle way.

Now that being said, security in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We all want to feel safe, respected, and at ease in our lives and especially in our church. Amen? That’s why things like a “safe-space” and “Open & Affirming” (http://www.ucc.org) polities are so vital to who we are and what we believe.

But if your security is actually fear; fear in disguise, then it really isn’t secure at all. As I’ve said many times and will continue to say, “fear is the opposite of faith.” Fear causes us to withdraw while faith challenges us to expand. Fear attempts to shield us from the “other” while faith calls us to embrace the other. And finally, fear wants the status quo to remain, at any cost; But not faith, faith seeks to shake up the status quo; in a gentle way, faith would have us shake the very foundations of the world.”

But How? How can we gently shake the world?

Well, in response to that question I’ll defer to two wonderful theologians: Parker Palmer and Madeline L’Engle. Palmer says, “In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.”[i]   And Madeleine L’Engle supports this position when she says, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[ii]

My friends, the world hungers for the good news and today Jesus challenges each of us to “fish for people” not by telling them that their wrong but by showing them that the Light of love and compassion and gentleness is so lovely that they will, with all their hearts, to know the source of it.

And this is key as we think about evangelism in our context? Evangelism, effectively “fishing for people” can only occur if we’re passionate about the ministry and mission of this church. When we truly have an attitude of inclusion and forgiveness, of grace and wonder, as I believe we do; it’s then that we will naturally want to invite others to come alongside us on this journey of life and faith. It’s kind of like real estate: but instead of location, location, location, it’s invite, invite, invite. And I know, inviting someone share something as personal, as intimate, as one’s spiritual-self and practice of faith; that takes courage. But invitation, even if it takes several attempts, and even if it ultimately goes nowhere, is still worth the risk. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

One final thought. Perhaps the last thing those tired fishermen were expecting was a miraculous showing of God’s abundance right there, at the end of another long day. And the same might be said of our “long-days”; that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and in the world around us. Someone once said that “God still shows up and surprises us, and next thing you know, our lives are changed forever;” the next thing you know, we’re gently shaking the world.[iii]

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Parker Palmer. In the Company of Strangers (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[ii] Madeleine L’Engle. (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[iii] Katheryn Matthews. Being Surprised (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Prophet on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

Choosing is an action that’s full of consequences; some intended and some unintended.  Especially when it comes to choosing people.  If you choose someone, you’re passing over or not choosing someone else.

You know, back when I was a kid, this was played out almost every day on the school playground. When it came to choose sides for kickball, two captains would gaze over the crop of perspective kickers and choose the most popular and most athletic kids first. Now, what we learned from this pre-game tradition was that it feels pretty good, rather affirming to be the first chosen for something. It makes you feel special and wanted. It doesn’t, however, feel so good when you’re the last one to be chosen, if you’re chosen at all.

Now, the Bible is full of the language of choice. We can read passage after passage about God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, to be “God’s people.”  And as the centuries progressed, this gave the Jewish nation a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a people chosen and blessed by God. Unfortunately, as many of the prophets have made clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity, of the Jewish faith, was the belief that they were chosen by God. In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).

But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations”.  This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.  It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur, and God called him for a special purpose.  The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.[i]

Now, I think this is a big part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum–a city they considered sinful and filled with sinners.  It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Realm with those who were not a part of the “chosen” people. That’s why Jesus gave them two examples of God doing just that; examples of Elijah and Elisha sharing the blessing of God with Gentiles.[ii]  In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s Realm of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for a chosen few, but for the whole human family; that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth”.[iii]  My friends, God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. Matthew tells us that God visits sun and the rain upon all people, and the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and care extend to all the people on earth. [iv]

I think this is the first thing that Jesus was trying to teach us through this exchange in the synagogue, and this was the second: Jesus wanted his audience back them, and us still today, to have the courage to “speak truth to power.” Remember, Jesus had fame, he was “the hometown boy who done good” but rather than exploit that power by falling in line with the religious authority and spouting the party line, he chose to risk being tossed off a cliff because of what his hometown religion had become.

Which leads us to an interesting question. How might this challenge to “speak truth to power” translate into our time, our context; how might it inform our worldview?

Well, the most obvious answer to that question ties back into this idea of “refusing to forget.” It’s not enough to simply remember or give lip service to the concept that Jesus came for all people, we must refuse to forget, activity resist the notion that we are somehow specially chosen above all other nations, races, or religions.

Former President Ronald Reagan quoted Isaiah when he famously said, “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” Now, some people in the years since have taken this quote to mean that we’re a nation chosen above all others, set apart by God. And they have allowed this concept of separation to breed isolationism and a fear of the other; whether the “other” is a refugee or an immigrant, an adherent of the Islamic faith, or a person of color.

But that’s not what President Reagan, or Jesus for that matter, would have us believe. In that same speech, Reagan also said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”[v] In other words, President Reagan held that God has blessed us to be a shinning beacon to all who wish to seek freedom; to all who seek to be  liberated from oppression. Somehow that lesson has gotten lost over the years.

But maybe it’s time to rediscover it. Perhaps today, in our context, our call to “speak truth to power” takes the form of welcoming refugees, immigrants, no matter what their religion, ethnicity, or skin-color. And I specifically quoted President Reagan today for a reason. I chose him because his words defy the place we find ourselves as a nation today when it comes to welcoming refugees. You see, this isn’t and conservative vs. progressive thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or Green Party, or an independent; it’ finally a matter of living-out our covenant with God and humanity as a people of faith. A covenant that challenges us to extend an extravagant welcome to all people, just as Jesus did.

One final thought this morning. I think Al Carmines encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ love for all people in his hymn God of Change and Glory. The refrain from that song goes like this: “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one God known in many ways.”[vi]

My friends, as we come to the sacred table today, and as we refuse to forget Jesus and his compassion and grace and love for all people and all creation, may we do so with the confidence that we have been chosen, along with all of humanity, to be God’s hands and feet, heart and voice in this world. And as we leave this place today, may the blessing of the One God, known by many names, go with us.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.

[ii] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!

[iii] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152: “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.

[iv] Alan Brehm Chosen (www.thewakingdrreamer.com) 2013.

[v]  Ronald Reagan The Shinning City Upon the Hill, January 25, 1974

[vi]  God of Change and Glory by Al Carmines, New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995)