Working Smart, Working Hard

Genesis 25:19-34fac_wycliffe_open
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Picture a church lit by beautiful stained glass windows and decorated with statues and glittering images. The pastor preaches from the pulpit, but you cannot understand a word he says. You’re told he is telling the stories in the windows and alcoves. But what he’s actually saying you have no idea. They are magical, holy words. The words of Latin, which only educated people know, and in which Holy Scripture is writ.

But the words are so powerful that if the pastor misspeaks them, it is said God will send lightening down and strike him dead. And the words are so powerful all by themselves that people take them and use them for their own magic. Hocus Pocus – you know this is a holy word. The Father says it often.

The Father finishes the Latin and moves into your own language for the sermon… presumably, it is based on what you just heard. But you don’t know.

… Its this phenomenon John Wycliffe had issue with back in 1376. Wycliffe, like Jesus, and like the prophets, communicated that physically hearing the words of scripture and faith is not enough. You also have to understand them.

If you can’t hear them spiritually, understand them deeply, struggle and debate, love and use them… then the words are just noise. Seed that never bears fruit. Wycliffe wanted the Bible translated into people’s common tongues. He wanted them to know hocus pocus isn’t a magical word, but how people heard the poorly pronounced Latin words for ‘Hoc est potus [meum]’ “This is my body,” He preached all people needed to have access to the scripture.

Hundreds of years before, others had argued for this too. We need to not just know other’s understandings of scripture, but struggle with it ourselves, too. So long before Wycliffe, scripture was translated into common languages for people – but over the centuries, scripture became solidified as the Latin version only, and no one but the educated spoke Latin anymore. Many people had forgotten it’s all our jobs to listen deeply to scripture, and to come to the message. It is the meaning, rather than the particular words, that is important.

But anything not Latin, back in the 1300s, was considered not true scripture.

People who followed Wycliffe’s way of thinking got called Lollards. A word for mutterers. And were called heretics. And burned at the stake.

In our reading today, Jesus translates the message of the prophets and God’s words into people’s common lives. He was called a heretic. And hung on a cross.

Today – people still fight over what translation of prayers, and scripture, to use. One of the biggest fights is over the King James Version. Is it the only authoritative, only true, version?

 

What version of scripture you consider authoritative matters. If only the KJV will do, then you’ll have to accept that unicorns walked the earth with Jesus. If you’re okay using more than one translation, to try to get at the various meanings of ancient words… then you’ll have hard work, but you’ll also have smarter work. Then you’ll know the word some Bibles have as unicorns others have has aurochs and we know as… really big cows.

On the flip side, if only our NRSV is authoritative, who is his ‘Holy Ghost’ we sing to in our doxology? That word is Holy Spirit in the NRSV.

So which Bible is authoritative to you? Which one do you trust?

Red letter Bible?
King James?
New Revised Standard Version?
Common English Bible?
The Message?
Does it have to be a printed version, or is online okay? On a phone okay?

They all have pros and cons to their translation and transliteration. All of them make choices in translating old, hard words that may only appear once and have no context for us to know what it means. Is it debts or trespasses? Holy ghost or holy spirit? All of them also make assumptions about what their words mean to you or me.

For instance… my grandpa might ask you for a poke. What does that mean to you? Click a button on Facebook? Stick your finger into his belly? Or hand him a grocery sack? If you had to translate Grandpa’s request to someone… which one of those would you pick?

Those who provide us even the Latin Bibles have to make those choices… Let’s say you’re translating the Bible and come to the word describing Mary… should you say virgin, silly, child-like, naive, young, unwed, girl…? All of them are legitimate translations.

Even those listening to Jesus today had to decide what he meant with his words.

And this is why Jesus so often doesn’t just say something, but then demonstrates it too. And today he tells others to do the same: listen to understand, and then act on what you hear.

Wycliffe listened to scripture with an ear for action. Scripture said to spread the Good News to all. It said God’s Word is a lamp to our feet. And he took action to be sure all had access to this news and a lamp. His followers made secret and illegal copies of the Bible written in English. And this, along with the same happening in Germany for the Germans, led us to the Protestant Revolution. Led the church into multiple reforms where you can hear God’s Word in your own tongue in almost every church regardless of denomination. Led us to remember… the words themselves aren’t magic. The message is.

Before today’s reading, Jesus has given the Sermon on the Mount… and this is its conclusion. He says: I have told you all these things. I have said them. Now… who has really heard me and will go and produce fruit? And who will start… but for this reason or that, not finish?

Who heard the words, and got lost in nitpicking just who is my neighbor and just who gets to be called the meek…

And who heard the words, and said: care for others, and be humble and kind.

And who heard the words… and went and cared for others in humble and kind ways?

It is those who took what was understood, and did more kindness, that produced 30, 60, or 100 times more good in the world.

Did you hear about the care chain in Indiana on Father’s day? A woman looked in her rearview mirror at McDonalds and saw a man who had four kids in his van. She decided to pay for herself and him at the window, and told the cashier to wish the man a happy father’s day. The father was so impressed and happy that he paid for the people behind him, too. This went on all day! The only reason this chain stopped was because the place closed! One good deed produced the fruit of an entire days’ worth of good deeds. And each one of those people’s moods were lifted, encouraged, and they left telling others of the goodness that surprised them. And everyone’s days were better and more loving because of it.

The words I say and the words we read and hear today are important, but are seed on rocky soil if they don’t land in your fertile hearts and lead to more good words and more good deeds.

The Genesis story of the twins Esau and Jacob touches a little on this.

Both boys have grown up hearing from their mom and dad about the promises of God. Both have heard how God is making a nation out of their family and how God’s blessing is passing down generation to generation. And both have been told how the older boy, Esau, is the one Isaac is passing down the bulk of his land and the blessing of God to.

The words are just words. Neither boy has seen God in action yet. The words fall on Esau and he doesn’t do anything with them. They are just stories. The words fall on Jacob and he does something – he envisions the future and he works for it. He believes in God’s promises.

And so, Esau gives up future promises for the immediate gratification of soup now. And Jacob believes in future promises, takes Esau’s birth right, and waits decades to see these promises come through.

Do you believe in God’s promises? Do you believe enough to take action on them? To risk your immediate benefits for long-term benefits?

Do you work hard – toil – at life or do you work smart – trust – God ?

The words we use are often forgotten. But the deeds we do are remembered. Carl Bueher and Maya Angelo said: “They may forget what you say – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

So… embody your scripture. And know your scripture enough to embody it. If it’s in a language too complex, get a different version.

So that, the words of God are more than just words, but a way of living and acting you can count on for your whole life.

Amen.

Wisdom is Known by Her Deeds

nadia-bolz-weber---civil-unions-2
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I recently read a sermon by Rev. Darrel Lakey called “Christian, you are upset about the wrong things.” To make his point, he uses a cuss word: ‘last night, 30,000 children died of starvation and most of you don’t give a …” And if your first response is: a pastor shouldn’t say such words…

… and here I am, not saying it…

… then his point is made: you and I are upset about the wrong things. Upset a pastor is cussing instead of how many children died.

He goes on to show, powerfully, how what we get upset about and argue about so often is the wrong thing – the wrong part of the problem. He doesn’t say cussing is good- but rather, we are spending our energy in inefficient, wasteful ways.

Correcting a person for a cuss word isn’t going to make much of a difference in the world.

Giving someone a meal is going to make some difference.

Changing the world so that food is more fairly distributed will make a world of difference.

Why get in a ruffle over the word, and instead, focus on the message? And then do something!

In our reading, Jesus, too, points out how people are upset with the wrong things and wasting their energy on appearances rather than on real issues.

He recalls to us John.

John ate honey and bugs. People were upset with him – anyone who eats such things must be demon possessed! They were upset with his appearances. When they should have been upset with the fact John had to preach his message in the desert and it couldn’t be received in the city. In fact, when he came to the city, he was murdered for his message.

So Jesus now points to himself, and says – after John, people became upset with me and my appearance. Not because I’m eating honey and bugs, but regular bread and wine like everyone else. But they say say I’m a drunkard and a glutton. And they’re upset I spend time with sinners.

People, then and now, are upset about the wrong things. People should have been upset that their religious institutions didn’t have space for sinners and thought sinners shouldn’t have access to a rabbi. They should have been upset that there isn’t enough food and drink for all to have in abundance. They should have been paying attention not to the inside of the vessels, as Jesus later says, instead of the outside. They should, and we should, know wisdom – know people – not by how they look, but by their deeds.

Wisdom is known by her deeds.

Not her appearance.

The deeds of John. The deeds of Jesus. The deeds that speak of God’s radical acceptance, generous hospitality, and abiding forgiveness. The deeds that speak Love.

Giving John a bath wasn’t the fix. Fixing the institutions driving him into the desert was. Telling Jesus to avoid sinners wasn’t the fix. Offering acceptance and welcome and forgiveness to sinners is.

Are you upset about tattoos, piercings, or cussing? I know very faithful pastors with so many tattoos, their arms are covered in as if in a sleeve. Others have multiple piercings. Some, like the one I opened with, cuss in their sermons. Should we be upset about their looks, or upset that LOOKS can deny you a job? Or housing? Or even healthcare? Does a person immediately become a better or worse worker because of a tattoo? If so – sign me up for the tattoo to make me more organized!

… Ageism is a huge appearance struggle in our country. Rather than being welcomed as a person with experience, those who are aged are seen as incompetent. And a younger person is chosen for a job… even though both applicants are qualified.

There’s a reason hair dye for men and women sell and turn a profit.

So what do we get upset about? Tell people who look older to go away and leave us alone?

Some churches concerned about this have started day cares that primarily employ elderly  so that the very young and the very old share a day together. Yes, it’s chaotic. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s hard work! But… the wizened are valued for their knowledge… and the next generation are taught that aging is a good thing.

This is how to change our world: through taking action. Changing relationships. Changing minds. Being upset about the same things that upset Jesus, and then, like Jesus, taking action.

I went to Washington DC once as a child, like many of us go. I was told to avoid the subway because it was full of “undesirables.” My mother and another mother were so offended by this word, they cut out of the official tour to take their daughters on the subway. And we saw workers, and peddlers. We saw people without homes and people in business suits. We saw Washington DC without the spit and shine of the tour company guiding us. And it was beautiful. A city of diversity.

It was also stunning and horrifying. A city with twice the average homelessness rate – 124 people – men, women, and their children – per 10,000 citizens. Homelessness so high that people can register cross roads as their mailing addresses. A city with four of the richest counties in the nation – averaging incomes of $70,000 a home. And a city where the rich live elsewhere and drive in, while the locals who are poor or middle income ride the subs. And the policy makers, the rich, never see them.

Indeed, if the tourist papers warning us of “undesirables” is any evidence, then this is very purposeful. Purposefully avoiding the “lowers.”

This was a community service trip. If anything, we should have been right there on the streets learning from the common people the wrongs the people in charge are doing to them. Learning what would really make their lives better – like access to free showers, and safe places to sleep. We should have been upset that we live in the richest country in the world and there are plenty who still starve… because those with money and food CHOOSE to ignore their need and CHOOSE instead to focus on their looks.

Are we angry, upset, with what we ought to be? Are we identifying the root of problems and rooting them out?

This is about taking responsibility for our action, and our INACTION. Our action in choosing to fight silly battles and our inaction to act with God’s grace, hospitality, witness and love.

Our Old Testament reading is a strange one to pair with today’s gospel, isn’t it? Except for the AGENCY, the action, the people in this love story have.

The first is the servant of Abraham. He could easily have chosen the first girl he came across as Isaac’s wife. However, he goes and prepares. He stands near a well which is where, in the old world, all true love stories begin. It is a trope. A theme. Then, he begins to pray. He prays for a woman to come who is so generous, she not only pulls up one jug of water for himself, but water for each of his camels. That is – twenty gallons of water for each of the twenty camels. ((Remember, the story of Isaac is one of laughter and humor. So of course this girl is a super strong woman with unheard of generosity!)) And he doesn’t care about her looks, or the clothes she wears, or if she speaks perfectly. Instead – he cares about her wise deeds. Her generosity.

And back in her father’s home? Her father does the unheard of – he ASKS his daughter if she wants to go marry the man. He gives her agency. He sees his daughter as a PERSON instead of just property.

It doesn’t matter to him that the man has told him Abraham is rich, and seen the jewelry given. He still wants this to be his daughter’s choice. And she chooses to go. And the Bible calls the relationship between Isaac and Rebecka as one of ‘love.’  One of the few relationships of the Bible called such.

Agency. Seeing others as PEOPLE instead of numbers, or undesirables, or enemies.

It’s seeing our aching world, and instead of saying ‘but what can I do?’ doing your own small part – whatever it is. Giving to the food pantries. Supporting world wide organizations like the UCC Great Hour of Sharing or the ANERA refugee fund. Doing small parts – like reading and hearing the stories of those displaced by war. Not ignoring. Even when reading and hearing is hard.

And it is practicing love. If people cannot feel welcome and accepted, loved and encouraged, forgiven and wanted here – in our church – where, then, can they find respite?

Jesus says his YOKE is light. Remember, he is on a mission saying the religious folk are heaping on burdens on the poor instead of lightening the burdens. And it’s our jobs to lighten burdens.

But a yoke isn’t freedom – not act however you will – it is a guide. Yoke yourself to me, Jesus says, and know a lighter burden. Know that with me, you can lay down your heavy burdens of getting upset over the wrong things.

You can take up the yoke, the work, of assisting the in breaking of God’s kindom.

You can spend your life doing more than correcting someone’s cussing for five minutes… or criticizing their clothes. You can tackle the real work of loving others and changing the world one relationship, one deed, one olive branch at a time.

It’s still work – but it is light work. Joyous work. Because it sets judgment and hypocrisy aside, and welcomes and rejoices with others. If one is starving, one is homeless, one is not welcome – our beloved Jesus is starting, homeless, and not welcomed. It is also foolish work – the work that the wise and intelligent often miss, but which children often see and do immediately.

It is the foolish work of dancing with those who dance. And mourning with those who cry. And being a friend.

Come, says Christ, and share this yoke. Share your burdens. In the sharing, all becomes lighter.

And that is wisdom.

Amen.

Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2017/06/christian-upset-wrong-things/

The Sacrifice of…

Genesis 22:1-14 us-healthcare-urrepublic
Matthew 10:40-42

Three bucks a day. Do I really want to pay three bucks to save a life? You know, that three bucks could also get me a serving of French fries and pop. Those three bucks could also be used towards group health care, or my own health care. Or I could just pocket it. You see, what if I give that money to save a life and that person doesn’t live their life like I live mine? What if I save a life that isn’t worth it?

Jesus doesn’t ask us to consider three bucks. He asks a single cup of cold water. Starts even smaller and asks : Do you really want to give a stranger a cup of cold water? We could use it to water plants. Or use the time it takes to pour it for something better. It could be risky. What if they sue us for the water being too cold?

Maybe, we don’t want to make either of these concessions. What is mine is mine and what is your’s is your’s. Work harder if you want that 3 bucks and cup of water. Be born into a richer family. Be born without physical or mental conditions. Be lucky. Be luckier.

I am not your savior.

Yet, Christ tells us whomever welcomes another, welcomes Christ. And whomever derides, blames, ignores the needs of others… derides, disowns, and ignores Jesus.

Christ lives through us. Through Christ, we are each other’s earthly saviors. Through us, Christ loves and acts upon the world.

3 bucks. A cup of cold water. Jesus tells us even the smallest acts don’t lose their reward. God notices all mercy and hospitality.

3 dollars. A cup of cold water. A child, deeply loved.

God in Genesis gives Abraham a choice: take the child you have prayed and prayed and worked for, your beloved son, and give me that that little boy.

What will Abraham choose? God leaves it up to this human.

And Abraham doesn’t deny 3 dollars. Or a glass of water. Or even his own son. For the betterment of the world, so that God can work and enter more fully into human history, Abraham is willing to give up the person he loves the most.

God stays Abraham’s hand, and says God knows God has chosen the right person to be the father of God’s people now. Abraham is willing to sacrifice even what and who he loves the most for the salvation of the world. Abraham and God share a similar heart- a heart bent on mercy and hospitality.

When Jesus comes, he reminds us again and again that mercy and hospitality are core ways God loves us. And that we, those who profess we follow Christ and Christ’s ways, should also show much mercy and hospitality.

So why do so many balk at giving up $3 for health care?

Why do so many Christians balk at this?

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, raised taxes .9% on people who made $200,000 a year individually. If you made less than this, your taxes didn’t go up. Your healthcare costs likely did, because premiums tend to increase 3 to 5% every year normally.

It also made health insurance mandatory if you make more than $16,000 as an individual – not talking families or couples here. If you make less than this, nothing changed for you. You’re still considered too poor for health care. If you make more than $16,000, then you have been required to either pay between $695 to $2,085 as a yearly tax to have no coverage, or purchase a coverage plan for $4,500 to $12,000 yearly.

Why?

Because when we all give a little, there is enough for everyone to have care. Those who chose to have no coverage contribute money towards the group funds just like those who choose to have discounted coverage and those who make enough to be taxed. All of this is to attempt to provide coverage to people like a little boy I met this week. Let’s call him Adam.

Adam was born with cystic fibrosis. This is called a ‘childhood disease’ because people who are born with this genetic condition tend to die in childhood. It is where a defective gene causes mucus and thick sticky gunk to build up in the organs. Ever had bronchitis? Think of life-long bronchitis that just keeps getting worse. Our Children’s Hospital in Columbus is one of the leaders in treating and researching CF.

If you were born with CF in 1960, your parents would rejoice you reached your tenth birthday.

Today, most people with CF reach 37. This is because of new drugs and treatments. There is still no cure, but doctors are working on it.

Doctors are working with Adam. He is on an experimental drug. So far, it has literally stopped the gene from making mucus. As long as he has his medication, it is like he doesn’t have CF. He is a healthy, happy, normally developing boy. If this drug continues to work the way it is now, he will live a full life – live as long as any of us here.

But the drug is $3,000 a month.

Right now, he is a child. His parent’s insurance covers him.

When he is older… what is going to happen to Adam?

You see, insurance companies are not non-profits. They are not out to help you and I. They are out to make money. It is a gamble. You and I and they gamble on who is going to cost the other money. Each month, your premium is actually a bet. You are betting you will need health care. They are betting you will not.

However, just like at a casino, the house always makes money. The house, the insurance company, sets the odds. If you are someone they think will need health care, they’re going to make you pay more in premiums because it is more likely you WILL need care… which means they pay money out.

If you are more likely healthy, then they charge less, because it is less likely you’ll charge them money.

If you clearly are ill… something called a ‘pre-existing condition’… then insurance companies used to just deny coverage.

Have you ever tried to pay for any medical things without insurance coverage?

Now, Adam, he has a pre-existing condition, and an expensive one. Had he been born fifteen years ago… would his parents’ insurance still cover him? Or would that company have denied him? In fifteen years from now… will our public insurance cover him? Will companies with private insurance be allowed to deny him?

Should we revoke the limitations on lifetime maximum payments and pre-existing conditions, does that mean that when Adam becomes an adult… it will be his death sentence as no insurance company helps pay for his life-saving medication?

But some insurance companies are even more insidious than denying coverage to people like Adam. A ‘pre-existing condition’ is ANYTHING that a person has before they are insured with the insurance company.

You know a pre-existing condition?

Life.

Stinks to be alive, you know, because you’re going to get older and get sick and injured and… well, we just don’t cover people who are alive. There’s evidence that the disease of being alive is 100% fatal.

Every woman here? I’m sorry. You were born a female. Pregnancy is expensive. Since you are a woman, your coverage will not only cost more… but may be denied if some of the Senate and House coverage changes occur. It doesn’t matter if you’re past the age of getting pregnant.

A major part of the new plans being debated now are on how much to cost women… and the disabled… and specifically elderly people.

If you are young, healthy, and male… the changes being debated help you out.

If you are older, need medication, and female… the changes mean you, like Adam, may be looking at the end of your health care… and the beginning of your rapid decline to death.

Did you know those without health care insurance have a mortality rate 25 to 40% higher than those with health care?

That means, you catch pneumonia and you have insurance. You recover just fine with some antibiotics. Or, you catch pneumonia, and you have no insurance. You can’t afford antibiotics. You have a higher chance of dying compared to the person who has the antibiotics.

Harvard estimated before the national health care, the USA lost someone every 12 minutes due to lack of health care.

Who is this the sacrifice of?

Why are we sacrificing our elderly, our disabled, and our women? Why are we sacrificing our poor, our at-risk, our fellow Americans?

Why, when Jesus tells us to give cups of cold water to strangers, do we argue about denying life-saving medication?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son for the benefit of the world.

Are we willing to sacrifice far, far less to keep beloved sons like Adam alive?

I pray so.

Amen.

(Sources https://cysticfibrosisnewstoday.com/cystic-fibrosis-life-expectancy/ and http://www.thebalance.com )

 

Dead to Sin, Alive to God

Genesis 21:8-21diseased-or-dead-tree-1
Romans 6:1b-11

In our first reading, Sarah sins and is cruel to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham weeps, but complies with his wife and sends Hagar and her baby into the wilderness desert with a bit of water. When their water runs out in the desert, Hagar places her baby under a bush and goes away – she can’t bear to watch her son die of thirst. A bow shot away, she cries out to God.

And God hears.

Ishmael, the name of the child, literally means: God Hears. God hears Ishmael’s weeping, and Hagar’s weeping, and gives them a whole well of water. The boy grows up to be a great bowman of the wilderness.

The sins inflicted on Hagar and Ishmael hurt, but God won’t abandon them. God gives them new life. Where the world gave them just a single skin, a thermos, of water – God gives them an entire well. The world hoped they would die, forsaken, in the desert. God made them the start of a great nation.

God brings us to waters in deserts. God brings us to peace where the world thought we’d know only woe. God grants us new life when death surrounds us.

Paul writes about this death and life in our second reading. I hear it sort of like… I have two apple trees at my house. I can cut a branch off of either. Now if I cut a branch off of the East one, the tree keeps a wound where the branch was, but it heals over. A year or two, and you’d never know. It will fill in the hole and produce lots of good fruit. The tree keeps flourishing and growing. It is full of life.

However, if I cut a branch off the West one, the tree not only keeps the wound… it never recovers. It cannot grow a new branch in the place of the old. A year or two, and that absent branch will still be apparent. And there will still be no fruit. This second tree is dead.

This is how I understand what Paul is writing about when he tells us that through baptism we die with Christ and are risen with Christ; we remain dead to sin and alive to God. You see, he is arguing about the worth of baptism. If baptism saves us from sin, or reunites us with God, and we can only be baptized once… what good is baptism? Should we save it until the very end of our lives hoping to reduce the amount of time we have to potentially sin? Or should we be baptized, and then keep on living a life of sin because we’re confident our sins don’t count? Neither, says Paul. Rather – live for Christ.

Whether or not we’re baptized, we’re going to sin. Both of my apple trees are going to lose a branch. Sin – things that separate us, do damage, to ourselves, those around us, or God – just happens whether we intend it or not.

The difference, argues Paul, is whether we are dead or alive.

The dead don’t recover from their sins. They spurn God’s assistance and sit in bitterness, not producing any good fruit. Each sin separates, destroys, more of themselves.

The living recover from their sins. God is there, encouraging new life, new growth, and good fruit. Each sin hurts, but they recover, regrow, and flourish with God.

The baptism we all share is our death to sins’ permanent effect and our birth into the eternal, rejuvenating, life God offers through Christ.

It is our sign and seal, our promise from God, that the strength of sin is broken.

We are always alive in God!

Amen.

I Am With You Always

Genesis 1:1-2:4a3043479-poster-p-1-this-spiral-tree-of-life-fits-50000-species-in-one-infographic
Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning — there was God.
Silent and deep. Empty and a void. A cosmos of nothing. No time, no space, no dimensions but God.
And God made wind. Motion. Energy.
And God spoke. Noise. Vibrations.
And then there was LIGHT.
Particles moving, vibrating, so much that they put off energy into new forms – combine into new forms – produce light.

And then God got real fancy – water and land, plants and fish, birds and animals. And finally – God’s own image: humankind.

At one time, I saw the evolution of life on earth drawn as a spiral. For a long time, the spiral has only one or two lines. Just bacteria in water. Just microorganisms in water. But then those lines begin to branch off. God gets fancy. Plants and fish, dinosaurs and animals, birds and mammals, and the spiral’s thickness went from just a hair to as much room as the page would allow. It went from a single kind of life, to more life than we can ever count. It went from God’s first creation on Earth to this very moment, where God is now recreating alongside God’s own image: us.

And, although so much time has passed, our charge has not changed. We were placed in dominion over the earth, and to subdue.

It’s a terrible way these words have been used in English. Misused. Abused. In our recent human history, dominion over the earth, and subduing it, has been permission to mold the earth however we want, use animals however we want, and use whatever resources in whatever way we want. This has even extended to other cultures and peoples.

God never meant us to take these holy words and use them as a weapon against God’s beautiful creation.

In ancient Hebrew, the original language used here, subdue is kabash. It does mean subdue, enslave, even molest or rape. However – you can only use it when the other party is already hostile. So it is a victory term, a way of overcoming something that is already set against you. Micah uses the same word to describe what God does to our sins. Our hostile sins confront God, but God subdues them and brings us to life. Our hostile world confronts us, but we’re called to subdue it and bring it to produce good fruit. It’s like… a blight on your crops. It’s hostile. It’s causing death. When you subdue it, you bring about life.

Subduing is not supposed to be about enslaving other people, animals, or any part of the earth. Nor molesting, ruining. It is about taking what is harmful and actively set against God, and God’s creation, and having victory over that.

… I think, often, it is we, ourselves, in need of being subdued. Often, we ourselves, are what are destroying God’s creation, each other, and bringing about death rather than life.

It’s kinda like Jesus said… we need to get the plank out of our own eye before we can get the dust mote out of someone else’s.

… The next word we have abused is dominion, the ancient Hebrew word radah. So often we hear this in English as dominate! As to rule and rule with an iron fist and iron will and at the edge of sharp iron!

That’s not the kind of kingship, rulership, queenship, God likes.

God tells us that the good rulers deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. They have pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence they redeems the needy’s lives; and precious is their blood in His sight.

God is a ruler like this. We are precious to God. God wants us to rule like this, and in the Bible chastises those who do not heal the sick, seek the lost, brought back the exiled, bound up the injured, and strengthened the weak. God chastises those who do not help the least! Power, says God, is to be used to empower others.

So the Genesis passage shows us God subduing chaos, and having dominion over the world. God defeats death and brings forth life. Then God helps the life flourish.

And we are charged to do the same.

I think Rev. Christopher Brown of the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado reinterprets these verses clearly in their original meaning. He writes them as: “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” ((https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/genesis-128-to-subdue-and-have-dominion-over-creation/))

Rule with care. Fight against the powers of death.

Did not Christ give us the same example of ruling with care and fighting against the powers of death?

In out Mathew reading, the risen Christ, who has subdued death, gives last directions to his disciples. He says: “All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me.” Christ is the one with dominion. And he chooses to rule as God wishes us to: by using that power to empower others. Jesus then empowers his disciples telling them to go all over the world sharing the Good News of reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, a new life with God, and the greatest commandment: to love God, and to love one another.

And then, Jesus tells us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

From the beginning, God is with us subduing evil and using God’s dominion to empower us. To the end of the age, says Christ, our God: known to us as the creator, the Son, and the Spirit — is with us, subduing evil, and using God’s power to empower us.

So that from the beginning of our lives until at last we rest with Christ, we subdue and have dominion over the earth. We fight evil and use our power to give power to others.

We take the void, the nothingness, the chaos – and speak, work, create and bring forth life.

We take our place alongside our ruling God and co-create with God.

We take each other, tenderly, in hand and help each other subdue our own evils, and have dominion – have power – over our lives.

Remember the meaning of subdue – to defeat that which destroys life. And dominion – to use power to empower others.

Amen.

All the Lord’s People are Prophets!

pentecostNumbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21

Let me set the scene for you in Numbers: the people are complaining. Give us meat to eat, Moses! We had meat in Egypt. Give us leaks or cucumbers or anything other than this manna! Day in and day out – all we have is manna. Moses!

So Moses and God talk about this. And God says it is too much for Moses to be the only one leading the people. Gather up seventy men, God says, and I will gift them the Spirit. Then they can help lead.

So Moses obeys God, gathers up the seventy, and they go outside of the tent village where God descends upon them like mist, or a cloud, and they speak wonders.

Speaking the word of God has a lot of power. Scripture tells us that it was God’s Words that created everything from Light to you and me. It’s no wonder that people told Moses that Eldad and Medad were acting as prophets. Moses’ friends probably thought these two were trying to take control of the camp. And if they weren’t, at the least, they weren’t part of the 70 chosen to be prophets and so God may be furious at their speaking God’s Words.

Moses’ right hand says — stop them!

But Moses isn’t worried, or upset, or slighted, or jealous. He’s thrilled that others are speaking Gods words, spreading God’s message and says he’d be glad if everyone did this: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the Spirit on them!”

Indeed, if you recall, later in the letter to Corinthians we hear that it is only by the Holy Spirit we are able to say “Jesus is Lord.”

Moses knows anyone that is working for God, even if they don’t have official permission to do so, or aren’t pastors, or maybe even aren’t of the same faith… as long as they are doing God’s work and speaking the Spirit of Truth – let them be!

In the days of Joel, the prophet foretells the end of the world. A scary end times full of blood and fire and smoke. He calls these the Last Days.

In the days after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there were people prophesying without official authority. Without official permission. Without clearance. Once again.

We hear how the early Christians are gathered together when violence strikes. This microburst of wind bellows through the house and tongues made of fire appear above the heads of everyone there — every person — and every person suddenly spoke other languages.

Just like at Babel, languages are spread out.

Just like at Babel, confusion reigns.

People come running to the house – what was that roar from heaven? What is this that everyone is speaking all these languages eloquently and they are NOT from our home counties? How are we to understand this?

Like with Moses, some said — stop them! They’re drunk and out of their minds.

Like with Moses, a leader stands up: this time it is Peter. And Peter, like Moses, says don’t stop the Spirit! Interpret what is happening through the prophet Joel — in the last days, God will pour out the Spirit on sons and daughters, young men and young women, old men and old women, babies and toddlers and preteens and teenagers and the married and unmarried and those who are free and those who are repressed; those who are upstanding citizens and those with criminal pasts — everyone will speak of God and God’s wonders.

As Joel said — there will be signs from heaven. And signs have happened. The Lord’s Great and Glorious day is here: the reign of God, Heaven itself, has come close. All who call upon God are welcome in.

In our days, now, there were people prophesying without official authority. Without official permission. Without clearance. Out of the mouth of babes are words praising the wonders of God. Out of the dreams of the elderly are visions of heaven and God’s good work. Out of the work of the middle aged are glimpses of the Kin-dom of God. What is to be done?

Stop them?

Absolutely not!

Wherever the Spirit moves, inspiring people to praise God and spread goodness, love, mercy and forgiveness — it should be permitted to flow freely. ((I also don’t think we could stop the Spirit if we tried.))

God’s Holy Spirit comes upon us at all ages and all times infusing us with the power to have faith, keep hope, and do good to one another. It is outside all establishments, cannot be ordered about, cannot be silenced — as Christ told us, we do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes. The Spirit moves, enlivens, and we move and are enlivened with it.

What does that mean? It means in our days, now, the Spirit is testing our church and our lives. Showing us how we need to be more open, more inclusive, and speak words of love and welcome to people we’d rather not… but the Spirit gives us that language and Jesus tells us to go. Go and speak of God’s wonders wherever you find yourself in whatever languages you are gifted to whomever you meet.

The official authority, official permission, official clearance to be a prophet, a witness of God, a pastoral presence, has been given to you. You here today received this when you were baptized with water and with the fire of the Spirit.

Therefore, we are all God’s prophets. All God’s witnesses; because we are all God’s children.

Why Are You Standing There?

Acts 1:6-14 Angels-Talking-To-Disciples-After-The-Ascension-Of-Jesus
John 17:1-11

 

Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.

The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.

I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.

But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

DUH!

This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”

DUH!

Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

… say it with me…

Duh.

Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.

We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.

And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”

Duh. Of course not.

She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.

Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?

That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”

Duh.

But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.

Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.

So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.

As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.

What does this look like in action today?

The first example I can think of is our offering today.

A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.

Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.

Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.

Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.

But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.

The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.

The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.

And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.

We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.

You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.

Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.

What does?

Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.

Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.

Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.

This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.

But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.

So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…

Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?

Amen.