Tag: children

Why Rejoice?

Indonesia VolcanoIsaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?

Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.

What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.

There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.

Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…

Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?

A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.

And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))

A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.

We have empathy fatigue.

It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…

Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.

It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.

Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?

There’s a million more crying for aid.

We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.

It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.

Because we weep.

Because we love.

At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.

To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.

We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.

We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.

We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.

Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

ISAIAH JOY

Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.

Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.

What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?

Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.

“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.

Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.

Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,

“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.

And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.

And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.

So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.

And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.

Isaiah continues,

“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”

In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.

Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.

Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.

Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.

And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.

And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.

And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.

And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.

But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.

PHILLIPIANS JOY

Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.

He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.

But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))

“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy.  ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
OUR JOY

Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.

So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.

Think of the county fair.

Think of your family and friends.

Think of your pets.

Your fall garden.

The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.

Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…

I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”

So I sat down and did them with her.

My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.

–sharing—

Amen.

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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.

Covenant People

Genesis 15:1-18
Luke 13:31-35

Is God trustworthy?

Abram doesn’t know.

God has made him some promises: God promised Abram would have descendants, heirs, and be the father of many. He would be as numerous as dust and own all the land about him… But so far… God hasn’t delivered. In fact, Abram’s one relative, his nephew Lot, has been kidnapped – maybe killed. Maybe Abram and Sarai are the last two people left in Abram’s family.

Abram isn’t 100% certain he can trust God.

Right before today’s reading, Abram hears Lot and Lot’s family has been captured by enemies kings. So Abram gathers up his neighbors and allies and went out and rescued everyone! Abram also got back all the possessions stolen by the kings.

Abram returns to Sodom, where Lot and all the people stolen live. There, Sodom’s king comes out and praises Abram: “Let the people go back to their homes, but you can keep all the possessions as a thank you!”

But Abram says no. He says he promised God that he wouldn’t take anything from those he saved. If Abram gets rich, it won’t be because of the king of Sodom.

I hear Abram saying these words to the king of Sodom… but I think he is thinking about God. God – you said you would give me children. They are the only riches I want. Can I trust you, God?

In today’s reading, Abram has a dream where God tells him that God is his sovereign, his ruler, and his protection and shield. Abram’s great reward for selflessly rescuing his neighbors and his nephew, and leaving them their livelihoods, is God.

But can God’s promises be trusted?

Abram doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know. He’s seen no proof that God delivers.

And he doubts God. He questions God. All alone, away from the rejoicing crowds and rescued people, back home, under his tree under the desert sky, Abram is in prayer with God and he’s not happy.

Great. My reward is God.

And land.

God, all I want is children. You haven’t even delivered in children! Why will you give me land when there’s no one to live on the land?! Why is there no one, because you still haven’t delivered me a single promised kid!

And God promises this single man, who is quickly getting up in years, he will have more offspring than the stars in the sky.

We’re told Abram chooses to believe God, and God credits to Abram as righteousness, as grace, as a gift to God.

Abram has doubts, has questions, about God — even as he believes in and trusts God. It reminds me of the man who cried out to Jesus in the book of Mark, “I believe; help me with my unbelief!” Abram believes, and wants help with his unbelief.

… in our journey with God, when promises get delayed, and when bad things happen, and even when life is great and average and ordinary – we have questions about God. We wonder, we question, we ponder, and have moments when the promises of God don’t seem real.

If God is always with us, where is God in the Middle East?

Where is God in all the violence we see in our own country?

How can there be a resurrection? Where will those billions of people live?

Does God really forgive sins – forgive them and forget the wrong – when we pray and ask God to do so? How can we be sure?

How can we trust there really is an afterlife; and what we do really matters; how do we know there even is a god?

We have doubts and questions at times, even when we have thousands of years of God’s “credit history.” We have the Bible, the stories of those who bought us to our faith, our our lives – as testimonies of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises… and yet we still wonder. Abram hasn’t any of these histories .

Abram is who becomes Abraham. At this time, he hasn’t a single child… and yet, now he is the father to billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In this story, he can’t picture even one child – let alone children all around the world.

And our patriarch, our faith father, doubted and pondered and had unbelief, too. Just like we do sometimes. Yet, he chose to believe, and then pray ‘help me with my unbelief.’

And instead of getting angry with Abram, God answers his prayer! Just as Jesus helps the man who prays ‘I believe! Help me with my unbelief!’

When we doubt God’s promises, our relationship with God isn’t over. God counts our trust without evidence, without proof, as righteousness. God counts our confession of faith, and prayer for strength through our many valid reasons to wonder, as worship. Questions and belief, doubts and faith, can go hand in hand. In our reading today, Abram believes, but not without questions. In a bold move, God decides to make a covenant with Abram to seal God’s promises.

Covenants are weird things. First, this fancy word we seem to use only in church. I’ve never entered a covenant with my electric or water company. But in church, we speak of covential elders, Lori gives us The Covenanter newsletter, we speak of being in covenant with other UCC churches and the association, and every month: we hear Jesus’ words “This is the cup of the new covenant, in my blood.” What is this thing God is making with Abram?

Well, it’s something God initiated. God initiates covenants. So when we’re in covenant with other churches, it’s because God asked us to walk with one another as one body. So does that mean covenant is just a fancy word that means a contract with God?

No, not really. A contract is something like, ‘I will loan you $10,000 for a car, and you will pay me back $200 each month. If you miss a payment, I come and take your car.’ Covenants are more descriptive… such as “we will walk together with God.” What does it mean to walk together? Does walking together mean different things at different times? $200 is always $200. Covenants are more flexible and meant to change with the people in them. A contract is meant to be binding and solid – without wiggle room.

The lack of wiggle room in a contract is what lets the contract be enforced by lawyers and debt collectors, police and judges. But a covenant is “policed” by the people in it. It demands spiritual maturity. Demands the people in it stick together even in disagreement. Demands the people in the covenant relate to one another with humility and patience, justice and compassion; deal with one another with the Fruits of the Spirit – with God-given love. So difficulties in the covenant don’t split it, but rather challenge the covenantal partners to deeper relationships.

That is the incredible gift God offers Abram.

A relationship.

A covenant. A description of how to be in faithful relationship to one another.

God directs Abram to set up a ritual so Abram can see what God is promising. We are physical people, in tangible bodies. We often need signs to remind us of our covenants. Signs like the bread and cup. A rainbow. Signatures in frames. Rings.

Abram takes these animals at God’s direction and splits them in two – half a cow here, half a cow there. Half a goat, half a ram – but a whole dove and pigeon. No one really knows what that meant back then. What we do know is that the word for covenant in Hebrew, berith, comes from the word for cutting, making a space, just as is done with the animals.

And into this new space carved out, God walks.

If this were between humans, perhaps they would have sworn an oath – like ‘May God cut me in two, like these animals, if I break this covenant.’ Or ‘I will be faithful even unto being split into two.’

When you consider this is GOD making this pledge… God is pledging, promising, to be with Abram even if it means suffering and death.

Abram cannot know what we know – that the pledge God made that night, the pledge to make Abram a great nation with land… would bring God into the world as Jesus. Our second reading today is Jesus standing before the land of Abram, the city of Jerusalem, and God is still working to maintain the covenant.

“How often I have longed to bring you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks!”

And yet, how often you test our covenant, murder the prophets I send you, and anger me!

But still – God won’t end the covenant. God fulfills God’s promises. Even unto suffering and death.

In a covenant, people walk together, work together, live together, suffer and rejoice together, die together… and have new life together.

We have no evidence, no proof, that God is going to fulfill all of the promises made to us. Rather, we have stories of God’s faithfulness in the past, stories of God acting in the present, and so just faith – belief mixed with unbelief – that God will continue to fulfill God’s promises in the future.

We just have belief mixed with unbelief that God is actively forgiving sins.

We have belief mixed with unbelief that our covenant with God and each other – to be one body, united in Christ – is eternal.

And that belief mixed with unbelief is counted as righteousness… because we’re willing to continue our walk with God even in uncertainties.

Is God trustworthy? Yes. And our covenant with God strong. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 2-21-2016

Many Gifts, One Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:4-27

Once there was a congregation of about one hundred. In this congregation there was a single mom we’ll call Diane, and her daughter we’ll call Hannah. Now, Diane and Hannah had been through a lot of churches over the years. It wasn’t the nasty divorce, or the custody hearings, or the poverty that made them move churches… it was Hannah, or rather, how people responded to Hannah.

Hannah has may mental disabilities.. She is like a perpetual 12 or 14 month old baby. Like most kids at that age, she loves sounds — the sound a bird makes, the sound the church organ makes, and most especially — the sound a cow makes.

So… picture a Sunday service, “And Jesus said to his disciples MOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! for the kingdom of heaven MMMMMMMOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” …. I cannot do justice to the moo Hannah can do. She can mimic a heifer better than an audio recording and is just as loud as if that cow was standing right in the center of the church.

Sometimes, pastors and well meaning parishioners took Diane aside and asked her if she could keep Hannah quiet during the sermons and scripture. Diane was so embarrassed, and she tried. But sure enough… come the next Sunday, there would be a penguin squawking from the back pew, or maybe a donkey braying — and always there was a heifer who really wanted milked.

“Diane, I know you’re trying, but Hannah is really disturbing the service. No one can worship God while listening to a flock of woodpeckers.”

So Diane began to keep Hannah outside of the main worship. The two would come to service, sit away from the congregation, and then go home. It didn’t feel like a community to Diane. It didn’t feel like the congregation wanted her and Hannah. So… she moved on to the next church and stayed there until the same thing happened.

Until she came to a church who understood what it means to be the Body of Christ.

Picture this: we are in church one Sunday. We are singing Amazing Grace. About the line of “how sweet the sound–” from the row behind us comes a full out elephant trumpet.

I about leap out of my skin. I look behind me, but I don’t see where the sound had come from. We keep on singing and now I hear a heifer, “Mmmmmooooooo!” This time, you and I see it comes from a woman of about 20 years of age who is rocking to the music with her eyes closed and has a big huge smile on her face.

That is how we meet Hannah.

Diane, one Sunday, tells our Sunday School group her story. She says, “This is the first church that welcomes Hannah as Hannah is. They welcome her to worship God in her own way, and they want us to be part of the community. We have never been asked to be quiet, to go in another room, or to not make a scene.” Diane tears up, “I always do my best with Hannah. I try to have her be good and quiet, but she is her own person, and if she’s happy, she likes to moo. They told me Hannah’s moos are angelic music, Hannah’s own prayers, and to let her moo with joy.”

Besides in our minds, have you ever been in a congregation with a Hannah? Look at those around you now: see that the body of Christ, sometimes, begins to be all ears, all eyes, and all hands. And we call that diversity. But it’s not. Many churches are missing Hannahs.

Besides eyes and ears and hands, the body of Christ has “less respectable” parts too. Paul points out that it is these less respectable parts of our body that we pay special attention to. We wear clothing over our torsos, but not our ears, eyes, and hands. So actually, we honor our less respectable parts more. And these less respectable, less presentable parts are actually much more essential to our health than an eye, ear, or hand! I quote, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” We aren’t a body without these folks.

Paul writes that our bodies need to be diverse. Need everyone. Need all the different gifts. Need the abilities others might think are shameful.

The body of Christ needs the gifts the “unruly” bring.

The body of Christ needs the moos of Hannah, the laughter of children, and the cries of infants. The body of Christ needs the elderly asking ‘what?’ and the teenager on their phone. The body of Christ needs each and every person even if that means the body is not all presentable — not all orderly and going as planned. Indeed… we especially need such… for without all, we are not a complete body but are missing pieces.

Today we are welcoming William into the body of Christ. What does he bring? I could wax, I could talk at length, about his future gifts. How in the future the Spirit will shine in him and he will be a toddler raised in the faith, a teenager going through confirmation, an adult certain in God’s love… but no. I think William, just as he is today — just months old — I think William’s gifts he already has are amazing and needed in the body of Christ.

The UCC writes that we do not know what occurs between an infant and God during an infant’s baptism. There may be a communication between them beyond what we can even fathom.

What we can fathom, what we can think about, is how we– the body of Christ — responds to welcoming in an infant. We can respond by smiling today and asking the infant to go to the nursery tomorrow… or we can respond by smiling today and smiling tomorrow. Offering help today and offering help tomorrow. Welcoming the infant today and welcoming the infant tomorrow.

Parents, grandparents, caretakers of all ages do their best with their kids…. but kids are kids. They get noisy, chaotic, and loud in services. And God bless those sounds of life!

Praise God for the Hannahs, for those who worship God in different ways; praise God for every child of Christ big and small, young and old!

May we always have space for every member of Christ’s body. Space to play, space to grow, space to worship, space to be ourselves, space to appreciate each other members’ individual way of praising God.

Let us this morning welcome William, and rejoice that the many, many different gifts in this room all come from the one loving Spirit of God! For we are diverse, but we are united in Christ. Amen!

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, 10-25-15, Baltimore, Ohio

Cravings and Temper-Tandrums

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

There are affinities among religions. Places where they touch each other and share truths. Today’s reading from James is a place where we share an affinity, a similarity, to Buddhism. Both the Buddha and James said cravings, deep hungers, cause suffering and unhappiness.James explains it as such – inside of us are competing desires. Cravings at war. Things we covet – things we want with envy and jealousy. Usually this is money, because money is power. But other things of power we crave – the power over our lives, over our jobs, over our time. The power over others, over creation, over God. James says we humans murder so we can steal; we fight when we’re envious; and we ask for things for selfish reasons. From all of this wanting and wanting and wanting comes hurt.

Our affinity with Buddhist is the man called the Buddha– which means the awake one, the one know knows– also taught wanting and wanting and wanting causes hurt. Understanding cravings and how to end them is the core of the philosophy of Buddhism. You may have heard of the Eightfold Path – if not – it is the eight ways to combat cravings.

Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

James, throughout his letter, is saying something very similar. He’s writing to early churches who are full of feuds. Full of temper-tantrums. He says look – understand where your conflict is coming from – it’s coming from having wrong cravings.

We can infer from his writing that everyone in this early church was doing good things – helping people out – but the helping was leading to fights inside the congregation. James says these fights are because people are helping each other for arrogant reasons, selfish reasons, because they crave more for themselves.

What’s this look like? Well, I think Jesus’ own disciples give us a great example today. They’ve left their homes and families. They are living hand to mouth, walking on the roads, following a heretical Jew who is gathering more and more followers and haters. They’ve sacrificed a lot. But they still are thinking with impure wisdom, with impure hearts and logic. They covet, they crave, to be Jesus’ right hand man. His number one.

So as the men walk to Capernaum they begin to bicker. Here they are – following Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed — here they are, not only witnessing miracles but being part of them. Here they are – personally chosen by God Incarnate for a New Revelation — and here they are, not happy with these honors because Mark might be a bit more chosen, or James might be a bit more loved, or that John a bit more favored by Jesus.

In Capernaum, Jesus sits down and asks them what they were talking about on the road. But no one answers. Silence. Shame. How embarrassing. None of them say a thing, for they all know Jesus heard them and they all know they were not focusing on the things of God.

Jesus had just told them he was going to die, and be resurrected! And they had all stayed silent because they didn’t understand and were afraid. Now they are afraid again and stay silent again.

And so again Jesus tells them a hard, hard lesson — Whoever wants to be first must be the last and servant of all.

As if this wasn’t hard enough, he then takes a little kid – some little girl or boy who can’t properly talk, might still need help going to the bathroom, and is utterly helpless without adults caring for him or her – this little grimy kid who isn’t even considered fully human, fully a person yet, because she or he likely will die before reaching adulthood. Jesus picks the kid up and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me welcomes not be but the one who sent me.”

In other words, whoever greets a the very low of the low as if they were seeing and welcoming Jesus himself, are actually welcoming not only Jesus but God.

What we do, how we act, how we treat the most personless people is how we greet God.

The people who can’t pay you back; the people who can’t give you honor; the people who can’t give you favors; the people who the world scorns… we are to serve them as if we are serving God.

I saw an example of this once. For this story, I’m going to call the boy Bobby. In a hospital room a boy lay in a bed. He was there for a routine procedure – routine for someone who has severe mental and physical disabilities. He’d been there so often he was now a non-person. I went in to visit with him and greeted him good morning. I talked with him about the cartoons on the TV and told him about my favorite ones. A nurse came and checked his vitals. She looked at me and said, “He can’t respond.”

“I know – it’s fine. Bobby, do you like Thomas or Percy better?”

The nurse asked me in the hall to explain the boy’s medical condition and asked me, “What are you doing? He can’t answer. He can’t think.”

I explained, “That boy is still a boy. Still a person. Still human. So I’m going to treat him human. It’s okay he doesn’t respond. I don’t expect him to. But thank you for letting me know.”

Later I saw the nurse speaking to Bobby the same way I had been. She saw me and said, “I agree. He’s still a person. This is good karma.”

Here in the west, we usually use the word karma to mean tit-for-tat. What goes around comes around. But in Buddhism, it is a religious word that means something a little differently. It means actions, deeds. Good karma is made of good deeds. Things that follow the core teachings of Buddhism: discernment, virtues, and will. In other words, being wise, thinking, reflecting; not lying or using words to hurt others, and having a job that doesn’t hurt others; and focusing on the good, being aware of our bodies and others, and focusing on higher thoughts.

The Buddhist nurse and I shared in our faith traditions that good deeds to those who cannot even respond are deeds we ought to do to be faithful to our faith.

These lessons are quite similar to the ones James gives us. Don’t focus on evil! Focus on God. When you focus on God, you and God become closer. Don’t turn your prayers into ways to hurt others. Use them for good. Don’t be envious of each other. Help one another. What is wise is working with gentleness, compassion, compromise, mercy, impartiality, and truthfulness. What is wise is greeting and treating each person as if they were God…

Because Jesus says how we treat others is how we treat God.

We are made in the image of God. Christians carry the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ.

Bobby in his bed. The child in Jesus’ arm. The man on death row. The pregnant teenager. The “welfare mama” and the “bleeding heart liberal” and the Teaparty extremist — we are all the body of Christ.

Since there is no human who lacks the image of God, there should be no one we ever think we can treat as less than the very reflection of God.

The Hindi phrase ‘nameste’ means something very similar. Not only is it hello, but it also means “I greet divinity” or “Not for me, but for you.” In other words, it means recognizing the divine is also in the other person; and saying that you will be a servant. These are rough translations, but namaste is a place of affinity, of similarity, where we can relate with Buddhists.

We both teach that the divine resides in people. And we both teach that we’re to think of the community, the whole, before individuals.

This is radically, radically different than our culture. Our culture lauds, approves, of selfish ambition. We celebrate a self-made man or woman. But James points out that selfish ambition and individual success is made possible by hurting others. To be standing at the top of the heap means standing on top of everyone else.

And Christianity is about giving up being up there at the top – but instead, going down to the bottom and joining everyone there. It’s about coming to the world like a child – unaware the CEO and the janitor are any different. It’s about welcoming God by welcoming all with the peace of Christ.

So, to paraphrase Helen Keller – let us long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but know it is our chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. It is a small task to treat all as we would treat Christ, but it is a hard task, and a very great and noble one. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio 9-20-15