Tag: blessings

Easter Sunrise Remember Your Baptism

1 Peter 3:8-22 sunrise-sun-river-grass-hdr.jpg

Do you ever get accused of being naive? Our scripture this morning says when people ask ‘Why are you so optimistic?’ ‘How can you be happy in a time like this?’ ‘How do you remain hopeful?’ tell them about your faith. Tell them about how when everything seemed lost, God was not done with the story. Tell them about how love has the final word. Tell them about how second, third, fourth, forty times forty chances our God offers. Tell them of Jesus’ love.

But do it with love yourself. With gentleness and reverence. Don’t ever smack people over the head with your faith. Don’t preach brimstone and fire.

Speak of your God, who did everything to lovingly reunite us with God’s self. Speak of our God – who though Christ offered forgiveness and reconciliation and peace to all people in all times – even the times before Christ was born.

Speak of your baptism – it does not remove dirt from your body, but rather is an appeal to God through the baptized and resurrected Christ for a good conscious – for the Holy Spirit.

So this holy Easter morning, be a blessing to others. As scripture says and we heard today: You are called to be a blessing to others – and by being a blessing to others, you are blessed.

This holy Easter morning, remember your baptismal vows – those you said, or that someone who loves you very much said on your behalf – remember your confirmation – remember you ARE baptized and ARE a child of God – remember all those who are being baptized for the very first time this morning.

This holy Easter morning – remember where your undying hope comes from – an empty cross, an empty tomb – and a full heart.

Amen.

 

Remembering Our Baptisms (adapted from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship)

 

Pastor: Dear friends, as we come to this font of living water, let us recall the meaning of baptism. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, although many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

People: For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slave or free– all were made to drink of one Spirit.

 

Pastor: Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us pray: We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving word. Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters. Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life. Eternal God, we offer our prayers to you.

 

People: Be with us as we recall the wonder of our creation and the greater wonder of our redemption.

 

Pastor: Bless this water. It makes seeds grow. It refreshes us. It makes us clean.

 

People: You have made of it a servant of your loving-kindness: Through water you set your people free and quenched their thirst in the desert.

 

Pastor: With water you washed the Earth clean in the time of Noah. In the time of Moses, your people passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the promised land. With water, prophets announced a new covenant that you would make with all humanity.

 

People: By water, made holy by Christ in the Jordan, you made our sinful nature new in the bath that gives Rebirth.

Pastor: Let this water remind us of our baptism.

 

All: Let us share the joy of our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are baptized this Easter through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

 

Renewal of Baptismal Vows

 

Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?

I do.

 

Do you believe in God, the creator of heaven and earth?

I believe.

 

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the only one begotten of God before all worlds?

I believe.

 

Do you believe in God – the Holy Spirit?

I believe.

 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and community, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer?

I will, with God’s help.

 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

 

Those of you who would like to, please come forward to the font for a blessing.

 

Let us pray: Eternal God, you have come to us in Jesus Christ, given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and forgiven all our sins. Bless us now with the grace we need to fulfill what we have promised. Let us remain faithful and joyful in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ! Amen.

Go with God

anaiasJohn 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

 

When we’re children we sometimes play games that can be pretty morbid that we probably wouldn’t suggest as adults. One that I remember like that was called ‘Who’s in Hell?’ it goes like this: you name someone who HAS to be in hell because they did just horrible, horrible things they couldn’t be anywhere else. Then I name someone else who did even worse things and so must be in hell. We try to one-up each other, terrifying one another, and simultaneously reassure ourselves that we’re not going to hell because we aren’t as evil as these people. It’s a really bad, childish game.

And never once did Saul’s name come up – even though he arrested, drove out, split up the families of the first generation of Christians after Jesus died. He helped murder Stephen with stones. Saul was the one even the adults whispered in fear about. Saul had the legal authority to do whatever he wanted if he suspected you were a follower of the Way of Jesus. The city, the temple, the priests — he had documents proving their support for him to get rid of any of the heretics.

Religious-based violence is what Saul was carrying out. Violence, murder, and destruction, in the name of God.

In our reading today, Saul is leaving the cleansed Jerusalem and is on his way to the next city to pass judgment on the Jews he meets there and on the way. Anyone found suspicious is to be bound like cattle and hauled back for a trial that may end in crucifixion, stoning, being shoved off a cliff, testifying against family, betraying family, or denying ever knowing Jesus or his Way.

Why Saul never made it into my harmful elementary school game is beyond me. Probably because I only ever remembered him as who he was AFTER he met Jesus: Paul. The author of so many of our foundational letters and scripture.

The Bible didn’t hide the details about Saul – Saul was a radical religious extremists bent on enforcing his understanding of God with violence. He was accounted as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women,”

Yet, as Stephen dies, he prays to God to forgive Saul and the other murderers — saying the words just as Jesus did: “Father, forgive them.”

And the Resurrected Jesus comes upon Saul in a blinding light. Saul KNOWS this is divine, he has read his scripture – he knows through and through that blinding light is likely a messenger or angel of God – but it is none other than Jesus himself. Jesus tells Saul ‘listen up!’ Pay attention to what is to occur to you in the city ahead and know who I am!

Meanwhile, in town, there is a man named Ananias who receives a call, a message and mission, from Jesus. Jesus tells him the specific house to find Saul… and then tells Ananias he is to lay his hands on Saul and bless him, cure him even, with a miracle from God invoked in the name of Jesus.

Ananias even questions Jesus – Jesus! Don’t you know what you’re asking? If I say ‘I’m here to bless you in the name of Jesus,’ I may get hurt, be arrested, or even stoned to death. Who knows what will happen to my family. This Saul, if he even THINKS you are Christian, can do whatever he pleases to torture, maim, and kill you. You want me to go announce I am Christian to him?!

Yes. Says God. Go.

And this faithful man complies with God’s vision and seeks out Saul. There, he touches the man who’s touch has murdered, and Ananias says, “Brother Saul, Jesus heals you; Jesus blessed you with the Holy Spirit.”

… What kind of faith does it take to pray for your enemies? Pray goodness upon them?

… What kind of faith does it take to bless those who persecute you? Bless them, and aid them?

… What kind of faith does it take to forgive and believe God forgives?

… My childish game forgot the basic message of our Risen Christ. It forgot the Good News: the Good News is that God Forgives. God Loves. God Gives New Life. The Good News is that Saul wasn’t sent to hell even though he murdered so many Christians… he was offered forgiveness, offered love, offered a new life in Christ. The Good News is that Peter — who denied even knowing Jesus three times — if offered three chances to say yes to Jesus, and he receives forgiveness, love, and a new calling, a new mission, a new life with deep purpose in Christ. These two men were offered such radical new lives they even took new names: Simon we know as Peter; and Saul we know as Paul.

The Good News is that we have received mercy beyond measure; offered forgiveness that is endless; we can never be beyond the love and redemption of God. Every time we come to the table Jesus invites us to, we come like Simon and like Saul — broken, having purposefully done wrong and unintentionally done wrong. We come carrying sins — sins we inherit from our society; and sins we make ourselves. We come with nets empty of nourishing fish, we come with our hands out stretched, our eyes clouded, and the taste of curses and threats lingering on our tongues.

We come like this… and here, in the name of Jesus, God offers to renew us. To refresh us.

God offers to be our partner in restoring the relationships we have with each other, with our own selves, and with God.

Our partner — who loved us first, so we can love others. Who forgave us first, so we can forgive us. Who blessed us first, so we can bless others. Who first showed us how to feed and attend to each other, so that we too know how to feed and tend to each other.

No one — no one — not Simon Peter, not Saul Paul — not a single person I naively named in my silly kids’ game — no one at all is beyond the mercy and forgiveness of God.

The Good News is for all people.

Amen.

Do we have enough to share?

1 Kings 17:8-16

Mark 12:38-44

Ask and ye shall receive!
Give and it will be given back to you!
Plant a seed and watch your blessings grow!
There are laws of faith called a blessing pact, where God returns your donations to you sevenfold!
Positively confess what you want and God will give it to his faithful!
Speak the word of faith and turn your one-dollar bills into twenty-dollar bills!
Let us raise our seeds over our heads as we pray aloud what God will give us in return for our payment.

Such things have been spoken by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and Bruce Wilkinson. You may also know the names Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Benny Hinn, or Eddie Long.

They preach a gospel known as Prosperity Theology. They preach the key to wealth is God. With enough faith, with enough gifts to the church to demonstrate this faith, God will gift in return for your financial contribution cures from cancer, give you economic wealth, send true love, or give you anything else the heart desires.

And yes, there are scriptures that support this thinking.

In Jesus’ time, this same thinking was taught in the synagogues and temple. Why is John Doe rich? Because God favors him. God gave him that money. Why is Bob So-and-So poor? Because he displeased God, and God cursed him.

In the book of Job, Job’s friends tell him the same thing. Clearly you lost God’s favor, clearly you are cursed, because you must have cursed God. If you were a good person, if you worked harder, if you had better morals, you wouldn’t be so poor.

Yet Job is adamant he never did a thing wrong against God and yet Job lost everything… We, the readers, know Job is telling the truth.

… and the book of Ecclesiastes… “The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.” Ecclesiastes says where wealth and poverty land is due to time and chance… it is meaningless, senseless, and not based on the moral worth of a person.

Against the prosperity gospel’s message that wealth is a sigh of God’s favor is the entire New Testament about Jesus, the very incarnation of God, who is born poor, lives poor, and dies poor. And his disciples, who he told to become poor. And Paul, who suffered and suffered and died… imprisoned and poor.

That sweet easy life Prosperity Gospel preachers teach us is not the life Jesus demonstrates. The bible never says an easy life can be earned, and in fact says being Christian is choosing a narrow way — a way not wide and comfortable. But a tight, hard, ragged path. The Bible says Jesus died to make us one, atone us, with God. Died to have a victory over death… it never says he died to take away poverty and make us rich.

In fact, Jesus said the poor will always be.

Today, we are given two readings… similar readings… both about widows who believe, who have faith in God, and who give up all they own. One from the old testament, and one from the new…

In 1 Kings, there is a great drought going on. Years without rain. Israel says it is because Kind Ahab has turned to worship Baal with his wife Jezebel. Their Canaanite neighbors say it is because Baal has died, but will be resurrected eventually. The prophet Elijah has said the rain will return when the Israelites return to the God of Abraham.

But that’s a very unpopular message. It’s against the king.

So Elijah is hiding out in a wadi, a wet ravine. Here, God has been sending him food from ravens. Ravens are considered really unclean to the Israelites. But these unclean birds are doing God’s will and sustaining Elijah. However, eventually, even the wadi goes dry. So Elijah travels on when he hears the word of God.

God tells him to ask an unclean, destitute widow from the neighboring capital city for food. It’s like the ravens weren’t bad enough — now Elijah has to go stoop to the level of asking unclean women, a poor woman, who worships Baal, to share her food.

Are you ready to ask for the only piece of moldy bread from the unwashed hand of a homeless drug dealer who worships Satan?

This is kind of what God asks of Elijah. Asks him to identify with this level of humbleness with other humans.

And Elijah is this faithful.

The widow, when she hears the stranger’s request, says she doesn’t have enough food to bake bread. In fact, she and her son are starving. When they finish this last cake of corn meal, she says there is no more food and they will die. The famine from the drought will be the end of her and her child.

Elijah hears the word of God again, who promises the corn meal and the oil the widow has will not run out until God — not Baal — makes it rain. And God — not Baal — will be feeding Elijah, the widow, and her son.

The woman strangely agrees. Perhaps she thought she has nothing left to lose. She and her son are going to die, what does it matter if she risks sharing their last tiny meal with a stranger? This foreign man and his foreign god at least offer a little hope that this meal will not be their last.

When Elijah takes a risk, and the woman takes a risk, the miracle God promises occurs, and the two adults and little boy survive the famine. Surely this is evidence supporting the Prosperity Gospel, right? Enough risk, enough faith, and things will always turn out alright.

… but the woman never confesses she believes in God. She never converts. She actually curses Elijah and our god later, and still! Still God blesses her by resurrecting her son when Elijah prays for such. This woman begins as a worshipper of Baal and ends as a worshipper of Baal… yet God’s blessing comes to her.

God’s love doesn’t seem to be limited to only the faithful.

Our second widow story comes from Mark. In this reading, Jesus warns his disciples against rich people who make huge donations to charity, even as they make their riches and profit off of the very people the charity helps. It’s a bit like cigarette companies donating money to a hospital for a new lung cancer wing (complete with their logo and complementary cigarettes in each patient take-home bag.) Or like Wal-Mart offering free “how to apply for food stamps” programs to its employees rather than offering a living wage or full-time hours with benefits. Or a big Prosperity Gospel church educating how to become financially stable while saying one can only be financially wealthy if a person buys their expensive holy oil or makes big donations to the church.

The good deed — donating to a hospital, offering education, ministering — is over shadowed by the fact the good deed wouldn’t be as desperately needed if the deed doer wasn’t MAKING or making worse the bad situation these charity cases are in!

In the story, Jesus is watching people come and leave coins in a donation box at the temple. People he has chastised, the wealthy, come and leave a large sum of coins… but what they leave is only some of what they own. They give a percentage of the money they have gained.

Then a widow, a person with no income, and dependent on charity to survive, comes and leaves all she has. She trusts God, trusts the temple, and now is completely broke.

Jesus points her out to his disciples. She has given more than everyone else. We understand she has given 100% while the others gave .05% or at max, 10%…. even though the rich gave more money, what they gave is a less percentage of what they own compared to the widow.

But what is Jesus meant even more in his comment than simple percentage math?

What if he meant this woman has given all her hopes and dreams to the temple? She is all in. She feels compelled to give the last money to feed herself and her children to the church.

And yet, nearby, stands the affluent church and community leaders, who give a little portion of their income, and reap lots of praise. You know — get their name on the wall for their contribution and get on TV where they say ‘I am wealthy because I am faithful to God!’

Is their .05% faithful more faithful than the widow’s 100%?

Why is she still poor if wealth is a matter of God’s faithfulness?

Where did the wealth of the scribes and religious leaders come from? Work, yes… but also inheritance, and rich relatives, luck of birth and chance good deals, but also donations and gifts. The money given to the temple. And the assets they ‘devoured’ from the widows, the congregation members, who trusted them to guide their lives.

Widows needed a man to manage their legal affairs. Many of us need someone to help us with finances. And just as it was in Jesus’ time, so it is today – some people get rich by ripping off, stealing from, the elderly. Tricking the average person. Some claim to be good hearted and helpful even as they help themselves to eating up all the savings of an duped man or woman.

I see this happening today! Some Prosperity Gospel churches preach that if a person simply gives enough to God through the church, ANYTHING that person prays for will happen. It just takes faith! If your cancer doesn’t go away, if your debt doesn’t go away, if true love doesn’t appear… it isn’t because God or the church have failed you, it is because you haven’t demonstrated enough faith. Give more. Believe more. Pray more. Buy more.

Recently, I read about a woman who was dying of cancer. She trusted so much in the messages of Prosperity Gospel that she gave all her income, went into great debt, praying and trying to demonstrate her faith that God would cure her. She even began to skip chemo treatments to maintain her big donations. Her daughter said, “Right up to the end, mom was writing in her diary how she knew God would cure her if she could just give a few more dollars and believe a bit more.”

… No.

No.

God’s favor cannot be bought!

Richness and poverty are not from blessings and curses.

We follow the god who was born in a barn to an unwed mother, raised by a day laborer step-dad, lived in a tiny no-horse town in an impoverished occupied Middle Eastern country. We follow a god who had no place to rest his head, who was cursed, spat on, betrayed. A god who went through a kangaroo court and was dealt injustice, and then killed through capital punishment in a public and brutal way.

Our God never promised us a rose garden. Our God promises us companionship in the awfulness of life and in the beauty of life. Our God promises us that one day, God God’s self will dry our tears and feast with us. Our God promises us that we and God together can make this world a better place.

We Christians are given an incredible responsibility – we don’t just have to donate to the poor, and to our churches, and to one another… for there will always be need. No — we have to destroy the systems that cause poverty, destroy the churches that harm people, and sit in the dirt with each other when the storms hit. We have to speak truth to power, even when that makes us unpopular. We have to protest injustices even when that means we have to give up the power those injustices give us. We have to be like Christ, be like Jesus… and not take the easy route, the easy explanation, for wealth inequality.

Do we have enough to give? It depends on who you ask and why they are giving. If you’re giving to earn God’s blessing — stop. You already have the blessing of God’s love. If you’re giving to help others with no expectation of return — continue. Such is how to live Christian. If you are giving out of your wealth to be seen — stop. You are harming God’s work. If you are giving out of your heart for the mission of God — continue. Whatever you give large or small God will use. — and money is just one type of gift. The most important gift you can give at all if the gift of a loving life.

In the words of Amy Pectol, the wealthy in the past and those of today “actually give less than those who have middle or lower incomes… those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy! Jesus is NOT endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is… and challenging US to see the structures that allows this to continue. [So!] What can WE DO to make society and… our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?”

Go out. Be bold. Speak truth. Live like Christ. Throw some money changers and other hypocrites out. Let’s make a world where no one is down to their last two pennies while others sit on mounds of gold. Let’s make the kindom of God now and no one has too much or too little! Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-8-15