Tag: angels

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

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Do Not Fear

DSC_237012 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid.

This is a strange greeting, isn’t it? Yet this is how Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, says hello to Mary and Zechariah both.

Do not be afraid – this is the greeting the Angels give the shepherds.

“Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel.” ((Shivey Smith))

Jesus will tell Simon – do not be afraid, from now on, you wish fish for people. To Jarius – do not be afraid! Just believe, and your daughter will be healed. And to the disciples, and to us, Jesus will say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”

Do not be afraid.

It’s a strange greeting, but maybe one we should use.

Do not be afraid, it is Christmas Eve and the very God who crafted your bones from atoms, and the cosmos from chaos, who has numbered your head hair and set breath in the lungs of dinosaurs and humans alike – has come to us as a helpless baby who can’t even find his fingers to put in his mouth let alone walk, talk, or rule as our prince of peace.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this.

Do not be afraid – Mary – you are favored with a child conceived out of wedlock, to be born in a barn, raised as a refugee, condemned as a criminal, and murdered before your eyes.

But God’s got this.

Do not be afraid, Saint Michael’s – we have God’s favor, too. And it isn’t good times, and wealth. God’s favor isn’t an easy life and endless happiness. God’s favor is messier.

Like – new born diaper messy.

Like – 3-days dead Lazarus messy.

Like – empty tombs and locked doors and miracles and crucifixions and martyrs and loving that person you’d love to hate messy.

God’s favor is an invite to be part of the very re-creation of the world.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and God wants you to be a part of it.

Do not be afraid “functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God”” ((shivey smith))

Do not be afraid is our invitation to step out and do the unusual and the bold too – because the house and kin-dom of God are now forever sure.

The unusual – that which isn’t to be mentioned in polite company – we’re to bring up those topics and causes, and live out that unusual way of reaching out to the outcasts, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the hated. Do not be afraid – you’re going to get filthy on the outside, but inside, you’ll be whiter than snow. Do not be afraid – God is with you.

We’re invited to be bold. To speak the words people do not want to hear. To preach love when everyone is throwing stones. To be God’s advocate when that is anything but popular. But do not be afraid – God is with you.

Anything is possible for God… God does miracles in the Bible, and is doing miracles now. So why does God bother with the messiness of involving us? Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God.

However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation [between Mary and Gabriel] tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008).”

Think about it – if you’re not invested into the world, will you care for it?

If you don’t have ownership, will you protect it?

I hear this time of year many people complain that kids have too many belongings, that everything is handed to them, and they don’t appreciate what they have then.

I hear all the time that said about my own generation.

There’s some truth to this, and it has nothing to do with age or generation. It has to do with investment.

I care more about those things I have spent time on, loved, prayed over, hoped for, and fought for. I care more about what I have tangibly put my hands on than what I have only a dim understanding of.

I care more about people I know, then those I don’t know.

You’re likely the same.

Maybe, God comes with this strange greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ and then leaps into humanity on humanity’s terms as a messy baby to get us more invested, more involved, with the cares of God – with the cares of re-creating the world into a place of love, hope, peace and joy.

Maybe we have a hard time loving the hard to fathom God of the universe… but we know how to love a baby, a child, a person. And so, God in the flesh, invites us to start loving others here.

And, maybe you can’t really care about a billion people you’ve never met… but you can care very dearly for your neighbor. And God says – yes! Do it. Love them deeply. Do not be afraid – I got this – But I want you to be a part of it, doing your own small part.
Here we are – our last Sunday of Advent, on Christmas Eve it’sself – what charity am I going to speak about?

Our own. Where we are doing our small part.

I’m talking about the moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles and friends and cousins in Baltimore and around the city who are sitting down today to eat a meal you donated.

I’m talking about the kids who don’t have to worry about if there will be breakfast tomorrow on Christmas morning because of you.

The Baltimore Thurston Food Pantry is our charity for today. It is messy. It is chaotic. It is God’s work in our community. It is an unusual and bold way God invites us to work alongside God.

Yes, there are food stamps. These takes weeks to apply and receive. People tend to like to eat every day and not once every few weeks.

Yes, there is emergency assistance. What if your emergency lasts a month – or two – before you’re able to find another job?

Yes, there are people ‘cheating the system.’ What does Tabitha do to earn a resurrection? What does Lazarus do? What have you done to earn God’s love?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

God just loves you. And we’re called to just love others.

No qualifications asked.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and wants us to get involved too.

Needing a gift for that hard-to-buy-for-person who has everything? Now? In the final hours? Consider donating in their name.

From manger to temple, and from senate and house to our local food pantry – from the lowly to high and high to lowly – God is working, and inviting us, to make the vertical world horizontal, to be bold, to be unusual, to love justice and walk humbly and let our lives be our message of God’s radical love.

Amen.

Sheep and Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24ararat-sheep-20

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the day we proclaim Christ is King over all the world, the lord over all lords, the highest politician, highest ruler, over all rulers. Everyone and everything belongs under Christ’s rule and we anticipate the day this reign is fully actualized.

This sounds fantastic.

Until you consider there are 1.3 billion Muslims; 1.1 billion atheists, 900 million Hindus, not to mention a billion some more Buddhist, Pagans, Jews, Sikhs and hundreds of more religions. These people are not Christian.

If Jesus were to return right now, this very moment, would 70% of the world’s population be instantly damned – just because they were born in non-Christian areas, or to non-Christian families, or found a connection to God in a non-Christian religion?

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to early Christians living among all the non-Christians. And Matthew recounts Jesus talking about sheep and goats among the nations.

Nations. Peoples.

Not just the Jews Jesus was speaking with, but the nations – the gentiles – the non-Jewish, non-Christian, Romans or Grecians or Egyptians or Babylonians — people who did not confess Jesus as Christ. People like all the neighbors and communities, indeed, families, of the early Christians.

The neighbors and communities and families of ourselves.

Jesus says when he returns, the whole world will be judged.

Are all non-Christians going to hell and all Christians going to heaven?

Jesus’ parable says that to the shock of the nations – to the shock of Christians and non-Christians everywhere – there are blessed people among all nations. There are heaven-bound men and women and children who are Muslim, and who are spiritual but not religious. There are faithful Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in heaven.

And each and every one say, “Jesus – when did I serve you? I didn’t.”

And Jesus, in his parable, replies, “Whatever you did to the most vulnerable in your community, you did to me.”

And Jesus takes the sheep, the people who followed the Good Shepherd without even realizing it, and takes them into his heavenly flock.

And what of the goats? When Jesus talks about the nations — all peoples and all religions – this includes all religions, including Christianity. We’re the largest religion on the face of the Earth.

Jesus tells his disciples that the goats are just as shocked as the sheep to be NOT included. They thought they were sheep, thought they were following the Good Shepherd, but instead, they were following other lords and kings and gods while giving lip-service to Jesus. They ran with the flock of sheep here on earth, but their hearts and deeds didn’t reflect the heart and deeds of Jesus.

These Christians say, “Jesus, when did we not aid you?”

And Jesus replies to them, too, “Whatever you denied the most vulnerable in your communities, you denied to me.”

Jesus here is referencing but also advancing the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel, the Israelites are scattered in exile across many lands. Why has this happened? Ezekiel says because the people have been exploited. The exploitation of the vulnerable, the weakest, the people have ruined communities and destroyed the nation. The shepherds of the people, their leaders, have failed them. The shepherds have gotten rich and changed rules to benefit themselves while the people have gotten poor and suffered injustices. As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3).

Ezekiel spoke about how God would go out and gather in God’s people from all the nations… and then God would separate the sheep from the sheep. They all look the same, but God sees a difference. A difference in who these sheep truly belong to. Remember – sheep follow the voice of the one who leads them – not a stranger.

Ezekiel says when God comes, God comes with justice. God reverses each wrong dealt to the people. Wounds are healed, bellies are filled, rest is given. God, God’s self, takes over and is in charge. And God separates the fat sheep from the lean. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will judge between sheep and sheep.” And the fat and strong sheep are destroyed, while the hurting ones are fed justice. Injustice has made them lost, injured and weak. Justice will make them strong, united, and healthy again.

Ezekiel is not speaking about Israelites and non-Israelites. He is speaking about all the Israelites. Among God’s own people – among the sheep and sheep – God is judging which of us have been bullies, and have led soft lives at the detriment of others. Which of us have gotten rich off the labor of the poor. Which of us use more resources than others. Which of us refuse to share and attack the starving, injured, or weak when they come to our areas.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on the throne to judge all nations… the surprise is there are many non-Christian sheep, and many Christian goats. The surprise is there are many holy and good people who are not Christian; and there are many sinful and evil people who ARE Christian.

The judgement is, who has, in the words of Micah, done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God?

In Matthew, being a Christian does not make you good or bad; does not mean you are Saved or Unsaved; does not mean you are pleasing or displeasing God. What you believe, and how you act upon that belief, determines your destiny. If you believe in the goodness of the world, and you believe we are meant to love one another, and you act in loving deeds – you are a sheep, whether or not you know it. And if you believe its a dog-eat-dog world, and no kind deed goes unpunished, and you act in selfish ways – you are a goat, whether or not you go to church.

Now, in our country, it is rare to find any politician who says they are a religion other than Christian. Being ‘Christian’ gets you votes. It means you’re mainstream, respectable, trustworthy. Being ‘Christian’ means you can claim God is on your side, and if people don’t vote for you, they are voting against God. Being ‘Christian’ means you are above any wrongs.

These ‘Christians’ are fat sheep and goats. These Christians are the ones who cry ‘Lord, lord,’ but who never actually know Christ. You know who these false Christians are because the way they vote in the House or Senate, or their executive orders, or the policies they advocate, harm the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable people in our country are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgendered, unwed single mothers, children, teachers, and those with criminal records. The most vulnerable people in this country are blacks, women, Native Americans, the elderly and millennials. The most vulnerable people in this country have mental health issues. Physical ailments. Addictions.

The fat sheep in our country are born here, are sexually ‘straight’ or pass as heterosexual, they are white, married, and male. The fat sheep in our country have never been in trouble with the law – or if they have, had had their record expunged. They are affluent, educated, and are able to shape the world about them through their financial, political, or social sway. Instead of using all the power they were born into to be a wise leader, a good shepherd, a guide to make the world a better place… instead, they use their power to make sure they have more power, more money, more sway.

The Internet Freedom movement is anything but freedom for you and I. It permits the rich to have freedom to choose what the poor must pay to access websites. Sites that speak truth to power, sites that challenge the way things are – sites that advocate for the most vulnerable – may not be accessible because you don’t pay enough… or may be blocked all together.

The tax bill the House passed gives steep discounts to owners of private businesses — but makes teachers pay for their own teaching supplies. It drastically reduces the taxes on the most affluent in the country and raises the taxes on the poorest. In other words, it rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

Those fleeing the lack of infrastructure, intense crime and poverty, and earth quake after tsunami after hurricane of Haiti are kicked out of the country. Along with all who try to escape Sudan. Although, we are now free to import all the oil we want from Sudan… but its people are denied sanctuary from the Sudanese wars where 6,000 some children fight in Darfur and crucifixion is still a legal way to kill political prisoners.

If what we do to the most vulnerable, we do to Christ…

We are deporting Jesus.

We are forcing Jesus to pick between paying his water bill or eating today.

We are telling Jesus he was born evil, thinks evil, and the world would be better off if he killed himself.

We are cramming Jesus into little prison cells and giving him 2 cents a day for his slave labor.

We are punishing Jesus for being born not-White, for being not-Married, for being Middle Eastern, for being a refugee, for being an advocate of the poor and destitute, for being a promoter of women’s rights, for thinking children matter, for challenging authority and government, and for being a lean sheep.

We are only as Christian as how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Now… being white is not a sin. But it is being born with power. Born as a shepherd. Are you a good shepherd? Or are you a shepherd who’d rather ignore or harm the other sheep?

Being rich is not a sin. It is owning power. But it means we have a responsibility to generously and lavioushly share that wealth with others – so none are fat and none are thin.

Being straight, and/or male is not a sin. It means, however, responsibility as the ‘norm’ to invite the other in and LISTEN to how life is different. It means you are responsible to help make the world a better place for ALL PEOPLE.

This is Christ the King Sunday. We are celebrating the current reign of Christ, and anticipating the full reign.

Think of what that day will be — when the low are lifted and the high are lowered so all are equals.

Think of what that day will be – when we all eat justice. Will justice be sweet or bitter to you?

Do you look forward or do you fear that glorious day?

We are called to a radical life. Radical. Outside the norm. We are envisioning a radical future. A time of reversals. That time and day are ever closer – and we are invited to live into it now.

Come – live as Christ’s own and give up the selfish idols!

Come be a lamb of God! For God is seeking you, welcoming you.

Come, repent, change your ways, and return to the fold of Christ.

Come, follow the good shepherd, born in a barn, yet king over kings, yet lord over lords.

In your own hearts, recommit yourselves to being Christian.

Amen.

High on the Hog

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30myklove-thanksgiving-devo1

How is gratitude related to these two passages? It seems like a stretch.

In Jesus’ parable, it is helpful to remember Jesus is talking about when the reign of God will come, and what it will be like. This is shortly before he, himself, is arrested and murdered, resurrected, and on a journey that is now 2000 years delayed. Perhaps Jesus is the man in the parable who goes away. We usually interpret this parable this way – but Jesus could easily be one of the slaves, too. There is no ‘right’ way to understand a parable.

So let’s imagine Jesus is the man leaving. He brings forward those who serve him — people like you and me — and gives us ‘talents.’ Normally, we understand this to be talents like singing, dancing, ministry, financial intelligence, hopefulness and helpfulness…. English literally takes the word ‘talent’ for these things from this Bible verse. In the old Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, however, a talent was an obscene amount of money. So the man gives hundreds of millions of dollars to his servants. More money than any of them have ever imagined.

But since we’re trying to understand this parable with the man as Jesus, we know Jesus doesn’t give us money. In fact, if we’re getting rich because we’re Christian – we’re doing Christianity wrong. So what DOES Jesus give?

Forgiveness.

Jesus gets in trouble because he is forgiving sins, and reconciling people with God. He gets in trouble because he is saying, through him, we all can have second and third and one-hundred-million chances to turn back to God. What is the insane amount of wealth Jesus is offering and leaving with us? God’s forgiveness. God’s love. God’s reign.

So Jesus leaves on his trip, leaving us variously with different amounts of sins forgiven, and grace, and love, and experiences of the reign of God.

The worst sinners among us take that 5 talents of grace — unearned forgiveness — and wholly live into it. Full living high on the hog. And those worse sinners, now forgiven, go out and forgive twice as many people, bring twice as many the good news of abundant life with God, and by the time Jesus returns, the 5 talents of grace have turned into 10 talents of grace. All kinds of lives touched and forever changed for the better by inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and love.

The middling sinners are forgiven a middling amount. But still, their faith brings double the amount of goodness to the world!

Lastly, there are some people who live with just a little bit of sin in their lives, but God offers them forgiveness too. These servants of God also hear the good news, also know how much God offers, and also receive forgiveness. They, also, could double the grace.

The difference in this parable is not about how much forgiveness we need – but what we do with it. The difference isn’t whether we live deeply or lightly sinful lives, but what we do with the grace and new lives God offers us.

In this story, the man who receives the single talent is terrified of losing that single iota of grace from God. He thinks God’s generosity is limited. He hides the forgiveness God has given him. Is he ashamed? One way or another, he doesn’t live life fully. He doesn’t permit himself to invest in others, or spread the wealth he’s been gifted around. He doesn’t even use it for himself. He just buries it. He doesn’t lose this forgiveness, but what good does it do?

When the man comes back, when Jesus returns, he finds the deeply forgiven person has doubled the grace given to him. So too, has the middling. But the person who was scared of God, who felt God took things that didn’t belong to God and was cruel, did nothing. They lived in terror of the return of the man. And Jesus, if he is the man in the story, chastises the scared servant. “Oh! You just KNEW I was cruel, huh? You could have at least given the talent to the bank!” You could have at least given the new life I gave you, the grace, the forgiveness, the time and money and skills, to another who could invest it and do good. Instead, you just lived isolated. You could have lived richly, but chose to live in poverty. You could have lived high on the hog and feasted on shoulder cuts, but instead, chose to barely get by with spam and hog feet.

We’re supposed to be like our master – supposed to be extravagantly generous. Supposed to take whatever talents we’re entrusted with, and invest them! In the words of Paul, we’re to always be encouraging one another! Praying for one another! Loving one another! Investing into one another. That is the holy life. That is the life living into the reign of God. That is the life that isn’t hiding the gift of Christ.

Thanksgiving is a time of generosity and extravagance. A time of feasting. WE are called to FEAST. Called to eat our fill, eat until our bellies are round and our pants too tight, on the bread of heaven. Our cups are literally overflowing – so full of the wine of life, the fruits of God, that they spill out all over us and splash onto those we encounter. God’s thanksgiving feast is such that hundred-million-dollars is a token amount. A tiny amount. This feast is spilling from our Bibles and Communions, our pews and hymnals, our deaths and our lives – like seed scattered, bread crumbs on the floor, coins tipped off a table and sheep let loose after a winter in the barn — this grace gets everywhere!

Unless we dig a hole and hide it.

Fear not, says Jesus. Do not be afraid, say the Angels. If you are scared, says Paul, you’ll want armor… but don’t take up arms and Kevlar. Don’t buy guns and glower at strangers. Instead, faith and love are your flak vest. Salvation is your helmet. And that is all you need to be secure. Whatever darkness comes, whatever makes you want to dig a hole and hide, you don’t need to be afraid. Extreme love has been shown to you and will continue to be shown to you. Hiding in the hole will not help. God knows us whether we are sleeping or awake, attentive or distracted. God seeks us wherever we wander. And God finds us to offer us forgiveness and love.

So do not fear.

Come on out of the hole you’ve dug. Bring out your talent, and let’s live high on the hog. Let’s celebrate. Let’s rejoice. Let’s give thanks that we are the beloved children of light, children of the day, children of God.

Let us celebrate! Let us give thanks!

What do these two passages have to do with gratitude? I believe they suggest that lives who have received forgiveness – and that is every person! – are best lived investing that forgiveness into others gratefully.

We are to double the love we’re given.

Amen.

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-19ahandful-of-dust
Romans 8:12-25

Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.

It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.

And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.

I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.

Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.

Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.

And as we read, he has a vivid dream.

In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”

And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.

The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.

There are no godless places.

I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.

I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.

It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?

Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.

Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.

God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.

It’s… just so hard to remember.

And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.

Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.

Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.

First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.

But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.

I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.

Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.

When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.

Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.

Amen.

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.

Humble Pie

humble-pie-final-dribbbleHebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always heading towards food, eating, or just having left food. Ever noticed that? Luke centers his retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all around food!

You think it’s kind of weird, but we do the same thing. Birthdays have – birthday cake. Weddings? Usually a wedding feast and wedding cake. 4th of July cookouts, and halloween candy. Christmas cookies. Someone dies? We want to send their family flowers and… food. You know what starts this week? The Millersport Sweetcorn Festival celebrating… food!

Sabbath dinners are like Sunday dinners – a bigger affair than the normal meals during the week. And, who a person ate with and where they sat and their table manners all meant a lot.

Again, we do this today. There are Donor Dinners. Special big dinners with overpriced chicken to raise money. Being present there is the important part. You’re being seen (and sometimes entertained) for giving the money. And if you get an invite from a someone famous for a supper? Don’t people say: “Wow, what an honor!”

Weddings are some of my favorite places to watch people jostle over their food. There is a head table with a bride and a groom – and to their left and right the rest of the Bridal party. They usually have nicer glasses than everyone else, and get served food first. Sometimes their own cake separate from everyone else’s. Sitting near this head table are the “Guests of Honor.” Parents, siblings, friends who are special but not quite special enough to sit at the head table… From there, aunts and uncles, and so forth. In the very back of the room – the awkward people who had to be invited but the bride and groom don’t really want to see. And every couple who has noisy kids. By the time the table way in the back gets served, the meal is cold, the dessert mostly gone, and the bridal party on the dance floor.

So picture a well known man like a senator is hosting a special dinner for THE Jesus – the man of the hour. And like at a wedding, everyone who comes jostles and bumps around for the best seat near the front. And there are people tsking and shaking their heads if someone takes a seat near the front who isn’t important enough. Did you see he just took the last seat? Now the senator’s wife has to sit in the back! Scandalous! Does he think he’s more important than the senator or his wife?!

Jesus watches all of this, and decides even though he’s the special guest, the man everyone is here to listen to and speak with, he’s going to go sit in the dark corner with the awkward people.

Now, everyone at the head table can’t see or hear him as well, and the people who just barely got an invite are sitting with him themselves! All the honor in the room has been reversed.

Back there at the rickety table with mismatched utensils, Jesus tells the people, “When you get invited to dinner, don’t go fighting and scrambling for the best seat. Not only is it embarrassing when the host has to tell you to give up your seat for someone else, but you get honor when the host asks you to come up closer. Also, remember… the first will be last and the last will be first. True honor, true glory, doesn’t come from other humans. It comes from God. And God doesn’t care how many fancy meals you’ve been invited to. God cares how you treated others.”

Then Jesus turned to the host – who had to be so red in the face. And he tells the host, “When you host a dinner, don’t go inviting your family and friends and people of power.” In other words, everyone this host had invited. “These people might repay you the kindness. Instead, invite people who’ve never had the opportunity to eat this kind of a meal. Invite those who can’t repay you. Invite the outcasts and you’ll be blessed. Remember: the first will be last and the last will be first.”

When I think about this, I think about the Catholic social worker Dorothy Day who wrote, “I firmly believe our salvation depends on the poor.”

Think on that a moment.

Our salvation… depends on the poor.

She argues that Christ said whatever we do, or don’t do, to the least of others is what we do, or don’t do, to Christ Christ’s self. The last will be first because how we have treated the last, how they have encountered us, is how Christ will judge us.

If the poor have never seen us, never been invited into our homes, never came to our celebration dinners and received welcoming arms and radical hospitality… will Christ say then, too, on the day we stand before God face to face: “I’ve never seen you before.”

And although Day speaks of the poor, Jesus speaks of those who are outcast – people decent church folk would never be seen around. It’s they, Jesus says, who don’t need to jostle for a position closer to God. God is WITH the outcasts. It’s us, we, who need to get closer to the outcasts to be closer to the blessings of God.

This reminds me of my mother saying to me, “Love the unlovable, Whitney, they’re the ones who need love the most.”

Welcome the inhospitable, children of God, they need the hospitality the most.

Feed the hungry, children of God, they need the food more than the sated.

Give alms, money, to the poor, children of God, they need money the most.

And do random acts of kindness to strangers, for by doing so, you may just help an angel.