Category: Sermon

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.

Never Orphaned

Acts 17:22-31hands-old-young
John 14:15-21

 

Orphan. This is one of those categories of people the Bible has a lot to say. Over and over again God tells us to care for the orphaned and the widows. To care for the fatherless and the stranger. To care for the outcast and the afflicted. A sign of God’s people is their love and care for those who are most vulnerable.

In these ancient cultures where our scripture comes from, men are the people who can own property and bring in income. So… a widow… or a child without a father…. where are they going to get food? Water? Shelter? Who is going to protect them from being victims of violence?

God says again and again – you are. You are their protection.

Jesus reminds us that it isn’t just widows and orphans God wants us to care for – but ALL. So he shows us again how to care for strangers, care for outcasts, care for the physically and mentally sick. Whomever is at risk, we are their guardians.

So who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

I tell you, I visited an orphanage.

I know – you tell me they are all closed. There are no more ran in the US and we only use the foster care system. But I tell you otherwise: I walked in and signed my name to the Visitor’s Sheet. Eyes poked out of doorways to see who this new person was with curiously and then disappeared back into their rooms. I got my badge that marked me as something even more different. That badge saying I’m permitted to be there, but not OF there. Permitted to enter, but also permitted to LEAVE. And I walked the halls of these orphans. Some laid in their beds calling for their mommies. Some had photos of their missing parents on their walls. Some asked me if I’d seen their loved ones, or knew who they themselves were.

Here, in this Alzheimer’s Unit, are the people who need others to give them food, and water, shelter. To protect them from violence. To be parental figures.

I found my orphan and she didn’t know who I was. But my orphan and I, we sat and talked anyways. Bit by bit, she told me a few memories of her parents, a sister… or a brother…

I sat and I thought it’s strange to think that nearly all of us will be orphans before we pass away. Eventually, nearly all of us, will bury first one parent, then a second, maybe even a third. We actually pray we pass away before our children, so it’s not a strange thing to be orphans… but yet… it doesn’t mean its any easier.

My orphan lost her parents decades ago, but the hurt was still so deep and fresh. And she still thought of them with mixed emotions. Relief – that they are no longer in pain. Relief – she’ll see them again. Sorrow – she doesn’t see them now. Sorrow she can’t ask them for advice, can’t introduce them to her great-grandchildren, can’t just share a cup of coffee. Simultaneously she recalled to me great bitterness and anger with her parents and great love and longing for her parents. No one has simple relationships with others when we’re honest.

The same is true in our scripture on feeling like an orphan today. This isn’t a simple relationship Jesus is describing. He is giving his farewell speech to his disciples. He’s telling them he’s going to a reunion with his father and they’re not welcome… yet. Telling them they know the way… but it isn’t on a map. And they are realizing Jesus is speaking about his death, and going to Heaven, and waiting for us there.

They are realizing they are about to be orphans.

Anger. They can’t go back home. They gave up their homes to follow Jesus. Fear. Who is going to protect them when Jesus is gone? Worry. Who are they going to turn to for advice? How are they going to keep following Jesus’ Way when Jesus isn’t there to lead them? Sorrow. There won’t be walks together and sitting down to dinner. Fear. How can they trust themselves to be the leader, the parent, the wise on when they know they know so little? Feeling so not ready.

And Jesus reassures them in these words. You do know the Way. What is more, the Spirit of Truth, which you have known through me, will be given to you to abide in you. This Holy Spirit will help guide you on the Way. We will meet again.

You will not be orphans. You will not be without someone caring for you. You have someone watching out for you, someone being your advocate – your helper and companion and champion – you have someone leading you, listening to you, loving you.

Want evidence? Lead, listen, and love another – and you will find you, too, are led, listened to, and loved.

So, again, who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember to lead, to listen to, and to love in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

Those who are aging are one of our brothers and sisters we need to give special protection to.

Another is those with physical or mental disabilities. Remember in Jesus’ time he cared not just for the widows and orphans… but also those with trouble walking, or speaking, or seeing. And those who suffered from mental illness and internal distress.

Today, our orphans are not in orphanages. They are in nursing homes, and at friends’ and families’ homes. And our orphans are in foster care and state custody. Our orphans are often homeless because there is so, so little help for those with mental demons.

Sadly, many police are like you and I, and not trained how to handle responding to someone in mental distress. So they see this ‘crazy erratic’ person, and choose to respond in ways that cause MORE distress and so more erratic behavior. Many, many mentally ill people are killed by responding officers because neither the cop nor the person know how to relate to each other – fear takes over – fear what the other will do – and one or the other goes from fear into attack mode.

Growing up, there was one of these guys living under a bridge near my hometown. Everyone knew him. He screamed at telephone poles most of the day. Where was his family? Did they know he was doing this? Had they passed away, had he run away and they lost track of him? Had he been more than what they could handle and care for?

… I’m his family, you know. So are you. Where were we?

Standing on the opposite street corner watching him and blaming his absent family. Judging them. When in actuality, Jesus commissions us – gives us the commandment – to love and care for those at risk and orphaned.

That man with mental illness is my brother. Your son. Our family.

And yes, he needed more help than any one set of parents, any one person, could give. But that is why we are more than one. We are the Body of Christ. Our parent in heaven, our risen Messiah, and our abiding Holy Spirit give us when we work together all that we need to care for all the orphans among us.

Paul argues to the Athenians in part that God isn’t like their statues. God doesn’t need us to feed God, bathe God, and bring God gold and silver because God provides US with everything and God isn’t IN a statue. Rather, God is in us and we are in God. We are God’s children, offspring.

In the same way, Jesus says he is in God, and we are in Jesus, and therefore with God. God doesn’t need us to care for God… but if we love Jesus, we will do as Jesus asks. Jesus asks us to love God – and love each other. Scripture tells us to love God, and love each other. The Spirit within us tells us to love God, and love each other. That Advocate reminds us again and again of the highest commandant: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind: and love others as you love yourself.

God doesn’t need bathed, need food, need support – God’s children do. The aging and the young, the physically or mentally challenged, or able or disabled, the often well or often ill – the widows and widowers – the orphans and the foster care kids – the moms and dads – the grandparents and neighbors – every single soul needs someone being their earthly advocate, just as we all need our Heavenly Advocate.

So who are the parents to the orphans?

Who are your parents?

We are. We are each other’s support, each other’s protection, each other’s advocates. We are each other’s family. We are the family of God.

Care for every person in some way – great or small.

Care for each other – here. And care for each other – out there, the strangers we are yet to meet.

We are never orphaned.

We are the children of God.

We are the family of God – and to love God is to love one another.

Amen.

In My Mother’s House

John 14:1-14names
1 Peter 2:2-10

Theological Professor Miguel de la Torre asks a question I like. He asks, “If Jesus ever came to North Carolina and needed to use the public restroom, I wonder which bathroom he would use?”

Dr. de la Torre uses this question to begin a talk on whether or not God is male. Often we assumed God is male because Jesus is God incarnate… and Jesus is a man. A Rabbi. And our pictures we paint and draw show God as a male. Think of the white haired old dude we usually associate as ‘God!’ in cartoons, in movies, in the Sistine Chapel…

But the Bible is a bit more… ambiguous. Jesus calls God ‘Abba,’ ‘Father,’ but Jesus also calls himself a mother hen, a gate, and a road or way. Jesus prays to God as Daddy, but also tells stories where God is a woman seeking a lost coin.

But it’s not just the Gospels. In the Torah, the Old Testament, we find Isaiah 49:15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

Here, God is pictured as a mother, with us as her nursing baby! And in Wisdom, God’s wisdom is referred to as Sophia, a woman, who is delightful and wise.

Yet, we can just as easily pick plenty of passages in the Torah where God is male.

So which is it?

Dr. de la Torre points out that the 10 Commandments ban making graven images… as in, we’re not supposed to paint or draw or carve images. Muslims have interpreted this as images of any person. Because people will then worship the image and not God. So Islamic decorations are made with shapes, flowers, birds, and beautiful calligraphy. But not people. Jews have interpreted this commandment as not to draw God – because God is beyond what we can ever capture on paper. Even the name of God is too holy to say; how could we possibly profane the image of God with our chicken scratch and scribbles? Christians? We… well, we’re highly influenced by the Greeks and Romans who became Christian… and they loved their statues of gods.

So here we are. With lots of paintings and drawings and images of God, and Jesus, and other holy people our Abrahamic siblings would shudder at.

Maybe they were on to something… because seeing God in all these images as an old white-haired man in a robe and sandals means we picture God in only that way. And seeing Jesus as a blue-eyed blond-haired bearded young man means we only picture Jesus that way…

But the Bible never gives us either image! The Bible tells us God is a Spirit, an Eagle, a Rock, a momma Bear, a master, a shepherd, a gate, a burning bush and a still small voice and more and more. But God is also more than each of these images.

In the same way, our scripture today calls Jesus a stone and a building block. In past weeks we have spoke of Jesus as bread and water and wine. But, we know – Jesus is more.

These are examples, to help us understand our relationship with God, the Spirit, and Jesus and how the Godhead relates with us.

Sort of like I call many of you my grandmas and grandpas, my aunts and uncles, my brothers and sisters – although only a few of you today are biologically that close to me. The biology doesn’t matter – the relationship does.

What God looks like doesn’t matter – the relationship we share with God does.

But if we really want to get Biblical about the image of God, we’re specifically told in one place what God looks like: in Genesis: Genesis 1:27 “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.”

We are made in God’s own image. All of us. Maybe… God is beyond sex and gender then. Or maybe, God is all sexes and genders. Or maybe… sex and gender don’t matter at all… what matters is relationships.

By reminding ourselves these images of God as Father or male are flexible, and meant to show us an example of relationship rather than state what God looks like or what gender God is… by reminding ourselves, we can reclaim our scripture and faith from idolatry. We can remember our God is more than what any mind can fathom or eye can see or ear can hear.

We can do things like re-read our scripture with the relationship terms that speak to us most.

Such as… In my mother’s house are many rooms.

Show us the Aunt and we will be satisfied.

Our Grandma, who Art in Heaven…

This Mother’s Day – celebrate the relationship of ‘mother.’ If that relationship is with someone who is also the female who gave birth to you, so be it. If not – no worries. The relationship is what matters.

And always, read scripture with an eye towards the relationships.

For relationships are what matter.

Amen.

Rearview Mirror

Luke 24:13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

where-is-god.png

Elie Wiesel, his parents, and his sister were told to board a train. Upon debarking, they were separated. It was the last time he ever saw his mom or little sister. His father and he were placed together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He writes about he witnessed as men were beat, starved, tortured, and murdered. Day after day. Jews, Romani ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, people who disagreed with the government, and those suspected of being any of these categories – all subjected to cruelty.

Around the boy Wiesel the men confront their faith. Why does God permit this to happen?

Is God good?
Is God just?
Is God loving?

Is this a punishment from God? If so – what could a mere human do to deserve to watch their toddler tortured to death or their grandpa murdered by his fellows over a scrap of food?

Elie Wiesel writes in his memoir ((Night)) of how some people still prayed, and still praised God, even in deep heartache. But he could not. He writes,

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

The torture, the anger, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment led many prisoners to wonder… where IS God?

Wiesel recounts watching a very young boy being hung to inspire fear into the camp; “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” But God doesn’t save the boy and the boy hangs – but he is too light and so instead of a quick death, slowly suffocates. Wiesel continues, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where-hanging here from this gallows…”

God is dying. God is dead.

Later, a Rabbi in the camp says, “”It’s over. God is no longer with us.” And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?””

On that long, seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I believe a similar conversation occurred. I am not saying it was as hellish as that Wiesel suffered, but similar conversation may have happened. I think the two walking had to ask each other:

Where is God?
Where is this God of Mercy and love?
If this Jesus was the Chosen One of God… how could mere mortals murder him?
If this Jesus was the Messiah to bring in God’s reign, why do bad people still rule and good people die?
Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty go rewarded?
If this is God’s reign… where is God? If this is God’s world – where is god?
What if… there is no god?

In situations not as hellish as seeing Jesus die. Not as hellish as seeing everyone you know tortured to death. But similar words you may have asked: where is God?

Is there a God?

Wiesel’s faith of God changes, wavers, stops all together at times and flourishes at others. He alone out of his family survives the concentration camp. As an old man, he spoke with a news paper reporter. ((The Star Ledger)) The reporter asked Wiesel,

Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?

A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.

Q: How often do people ask you this question?

A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’

Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?

A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.

Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?

A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’

Elie Wiesel lives on with a wounded faith.

Out of that wounded faith, he inspires others to remember HUMANS caused the Holocaust – not God. We bear the sin. We bear the responsibility to never do this again.

Out of wounded faith, Wiesel heals.

Walking to Emmaus, I wonder if the two have a wounded faith. All their dreams and expectations have been murdered. Hung on a cross. Left to die. Buried. Already the close disciples of Jesus have begun to be captured up, to be stoned to death… murdered.

How could God torture and murder God’s own son?
How is that just?
How is that right?
Are we going to laud divine child abuse?

… Maybe, as with the holocaust… God didn’t do it. Humans did.

Humans accused Jesus. Humans killed him. The holocaust was not some part of a great big plan. Nor was the cross.

In the words of George Santayana:” If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”

UCC Rev. Terry Williams continues, “Suffering is never redemptive. Christ’s love for us is shown in how he chose to live; our sinfulness is shown in how we chose to end his life. Suffering is never God’s will.”

Where is God?

God isn’t the one inflicting the pain.

God is hanging from the gallows.
God is hanging on the cross.
God is with the person suffering.

In our scripture, these two are suffering and Jesus comes up along side of them. They don’t even notice. Jesus joins in their reality, their conversation. Jesus then reassures them. The word ‘fool’ here is the kind of fool we call a beloved friend. Foolish beloved friend, the deranged babble of the women is true. God doesn’t leave you in suffering. God goes alongside with you. God accompanies you even with your wounded faith, because God has wounded faith in humanity. And together, we abide, side by side, and hope and trust in better tomorrows.

In Emmaus, the two invite in the stranger who has walked with them. And the stranger then becomes their blessing – and disappears.

In sudden hindsight, they realize Jesus was with them all along. In sudden hindsight, they realize that by welcoming in the stranger they welcomed in Christ. By welcoming in the lonely, they welcomed in Christ. By walking with someone and speaking of faith, even though they themselves felt their faith was wounded, they found Christ and found deep assurance that indeed- the Lord is Risen.

When I am in the middle of hell on Earth, I don’t always see where God is. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always trust God is love.

But in the rearview mirror… I see… I was never alone.

God was in the care strangers showed me. God was in the prayers of others. God sat with me while I asked the hard questions of: God – why? Why? Why? And WHERE ARE YOU?

In the rearview mirror… I see with twenty-twenty… it’s a talent and a skill we must develop to recognize our Lord in the present moment. For God is present. Right here. In our joys, but also in our deepest questions and sufferings. Amen.

Abundant Life

John 10:1-10 wentz-barn-gate-strap-hinges
Acts 2:42-47

Every evening, there is a ritual across the world – boys and girls, women and men, go out and lock up their barns. When I was a child, it’s what we did right after dinner. Close the goat barn – lock the door. Check the chicken coop for sneaky early evening ‘coons, then shut the two doors. Shut the big field doors as the cows do their sleepy moos. Turn off all the lights. Exit by the last door, and shut the last gate. And the doors and gates keep all the animals safe.

If something got into the barn, it was never through the door or gate. It was a coyote that leapt a fence; a raccoon that dropped out of the loft; or once it was my dog who decided sweet feed might make good dinner. Anyways – whatever it was – they didn’t enter by the front gate which was lit and could be seen from the house. They snuck in another way. And they snuck in with the intentions to serve themselves rather than the barnyard animals. We never had animals worth thieving – but I know of others that do – and again, the thieves entered in a way not visible from the house to lead the valuable horses out the back.

Jesus, today, tells us he is not only the good farmer, the good shepherd, who leads the animals into safety from the outdoors and brings them out again in the morning… but he’s also the protective gate that stands against the death-dealers all night long.

We hear this story as Jesus affirming the 23 Psalm, that the Lord is my Shepherd.

He is, but also, Jesus tells this story to the people in the middle of his healing ministry, when the religious leaders have told the people to stop listening to Jesus, and literally are tossing those Jesus heals out of the security of the town.

Therefore, Jesus’ message in context is not just about lambs in the field – Jesus is actually suggesting that the religious leaders are thieves and bandits set out to kill and destroy the people! They’re more concerned with their public image than the lives of individuals. They’re more concerned with obtaining and keeping power than sharing and being equals.

He’s saying that those who have power ought to use that power to protect people who are the most vulnerable.

He’s protesting getting rich off of other’s misery – such as many insurance and drug companies do. He’s protesting staying in power by silencing the weak – as many politicians do. He’s protesting anyone who comes as ‘wolves in sheeps’ clothing’ promising you’ll get rich if you just pray for it, you’ll be healed if you just have faith, and protesting anyone who says you’ll have an easy life if you just follow their lead or become Christian.

Jesus says he isn’t’ concerned about his public image, or obtaining and keeping power. He is concerned that we have life, and have it abundantly. That we are kept spiritually safe and secure, are led towards good things, and learn to listen to the voices that love us rather than the talking heads who lie for their own benefit.

So, do you listen to love?

Do you live abundantly?

What does love sound like? What does abundant life look like?

Luke tells us about the early church and how they listened to love and lived abundantly. They were in –awe– because of what generosity and love people were showing one another in the name of Christ. These early Christians were getting together to teach, share fellowship, break bread, and pray. They shared what they had with each other and anyone who had need, and they knew one another at church and out in the community. They sang praises to God and lived so abundantly, lived with so much joy and depth of emotion, people kept flocking to join them. People asked: where did that joy come from? Where does that source of strength in hard times come from? The hope? The love? Tell us more! And so, they did.

Have you ever wondered if WE are the early church? I don’t mean: are we living and praying and thinking like the people in Acts… I mean, like… in 2,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years… we ARE going to be the early church. And what will people say about us?

I kinda think they’ll say the same things Luke did in Acts.

People might say of us: They taught each other at Sunday School, and they shared Fellowship time. They broke bread together, and prayed for one another. They lived in awe because people kept being so generous with each other not just in the church, but in their community too. They spent time together not just in church, but outside of church too. Their community knew they were Christian. People asked them – why are you following that Christ? Why are you so hopeful? What keeps you going when things have gone so wrong? And they spoke of their faith.

So maybe we are listening to love, and are living abundantly…

… But you know, it’s a daily ritual to listen to the shepherd and enter the security of the enclosure each night, and then go back out into the world each morning.

It’s a daily ritual to face the world through prayer, through the gate of Christ, and listens to Christ’s words, and then come back together with other Christians to re-center yourself, recharge your spirituality, so that you can go out again later and serve the world.

No animal can live cooped up in the barn their whole live OR out in the field their whole life. We are meant to gather here, secure in the fold, break bread and share life and encourage one another – and then go out to spread the good news that the Shepherd had many flocks and is always calling more towards abundant, loving, life with each other.

Amen.