Tag: Communion

Abundant Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, do you listen to love?

Do you live abundantly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Temptations

temptation-in-wildernessGenesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

We begin Lent with two temptation stories. In the first, temptation is given in to – and its consequences are bad. In the second, temptation is resisted – and the consequences are good. The kindergarten level of these stories is that simple: resist evil, do good. But minus just a few of us, we’re well past kindergarten. And minus just a few of us, life is a whole lot more complicated than “just say no.”

In fact, I’d say all of us – including our kindergarteners and those younger – find “just say no” to temptations as easy to do as sprouting wings and flying. We wouldn’t call them temptations unless they actually had power over us. Actually did tempt us.

In Lent, many of us give up something or take on something to help us reflect upon our relationship with God, and to seek reconciliation, to seek atonement, to seek being one with God. These sacrifices of food, time, money, sweets or television or what-have-you… they’re not a sacrifice unless we want them. Not a temptation unless we want them, and they have some control over us.

When we add something –prayer time, journaling, meditation – it can still be a sacrifice as well Because we’re forced to still ourselves, to hold up a mirror, to converse – talk AND listen — with God. It is much easier to just pretend all is fine, to talk at God without listening, and to bury those emotions we’re avoiding under layers and layers of busyness. An honest conversation with ourselves and our God is a huge sacrifice to many of us. It’s much more comfortable to have a quick “Hiya, amen.” And mark it off as a a quick check mark on our “to-do” list. Anything more might lead us into a wilderness. Doing more means a reflection of morality. Thinking of right and wrong.

Fasting, or giving up sweets, giving up meat, or giving up coffee or pop? These are hard because our bodies crave these things. We can live on less than what we eat, and no one needs coffee or pop to survive – but food and drink are good ways to avoid reflection, too. Caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and so forth are drugs to our minds full of feel-good chemicals. When we cut these out, or cut out certain foods or meals, our very bodies remind us, tempt us, back to the way we were. These cravings we feel are a way of reminding ourselves of God throughout the day. It is a way of walking into wilderness. It means reflecting on our mortality. Thinking of time and death.

Have you ever noticed the snake doesn’t do anything other than talk? Just words. And the snake asks them to reflect upon what God has said. But “how often we find ourselves drawn to the non-productive, slick-talking agents of nothingness! Worse: the agents of shame and fear.” (Kathryn Matthews) That is just what the tempting snake gives. Shame. Fear. Adam and Eve knew they had done wrong, they knew shame, they tried to cover themselves, cover their shame, literally with clothes and by hiding from God.

In fear and shame, we know Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. So what is East of Eden? Maybe a desert, or a woods – some wilderness. It sure isn’t a garden. Surely a lonely place separated from feeling the immediate presence of God.

In such wildernesses, literally as they walked and spiritually as the Lent we walk, “you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is”

These words of Barbara Brown Taylor reverberate in my soul. They mean much to me. In my wilderness, out of the comfortable garden, out with my shame and my fears — I cannot help but notice my mortality. Scientists say we are all stardust, all matter, on a cosmic scale we briefly live and quickly die in less than a blink of an eye to the universe. The Jewish word for dirt, soil, and the ground, is adamah, Adam . Like him and every living thing since I’m going to die some day. Everything I do will eventually turn to dust. Because I, myself, am just animated dust.

Out in the wilderness, you, like me, may begin to think “how vain I am to think I matter, or that anything I do matters.”

You, like me, may look for someone to talk with about this – someone to distract us – give me a reason and a purpose for living… but when we’re alone in our wildernesses, there seems to only be the devil to keep us company. Only the tempter. The accuser. And he wears our own face and uses our own voices and this devil on our backs echoes our own words back to us in the worst way possible.

So many of us are our own worst enemies, and are hardest on ourselves.

What terrible things are whispered to you when you enter into Lent? When you quiet yourself, still yourself, and reflect? What awful things does that devil whisper to you? Tempt you to think about yourself? Tempt you to hate about yourself.

Perhaps…  like me, you think: No one is going to remember me.

And then that accuser in our minds replies, You’re right about that. Do you remember your great-great-great grandma? Do you even know her name?

Another time, like me, you may hear that awful lie: No one truly loves me.

And that devil replies, You’re right about that one, too. Not even you love yourself. So how could someone else love you?

And on goes the accuser, that voice in our head being our own worst enemy – saying : I am worthless.

… After God finds Adam and Eve hiding, what does God do? I’m not talking about the consequences of them falling for their temptation. I’m talking about God personally making them clothes. God takes away their leaves, their symbols of shame and gives them symbols of God’s love.

After Jesus succeeds in his trials and temptations, angels come and collect him up to care for his weary body and exhausted soul. God sends help, sends God’s love in a physical way.

And us? After we have so goofed, and face that horrid devil in us that accuses us of every wrong and sin – those we have done and those we haven’t – those shortcomings we really have and those we imagine – when we are alone in our wildernesses, God seeks us out, takes away that sin, that shame, and gives us the symbol of God’s love – God’s own son.

Life is a wild place. A wilderness. A place full of temptations to do wrong. A place where morality and our own mortality barrage us every hour and every day. But God is seeking us wherever we are struggling, wherever we are hiding, and offering love.

Don’t listen to the devil tempting you to think you are anything more or less than God’s beloved child. Enter Lent to remember who and who’s you are.

And come to this table today, this symbol of God’s love, and be reassured you are known, you are welcome, and you are loved. 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.

We Don’t Want to Say Goodbye

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelations 21:1-6

Rodney Crowell wrote and sings a song called “Adam’s Song.” In it, he speaks of how the days are getting shorter, and the wind is colder, and the nights are clearer. The last leaves of November are falling and the stars are bright.

He sings that on these short days and long nights, our minds wander to our loved ones who have passed.

I think his song is so apt for All Saints Day and this late fall season.

You see, there are holidays coming up. Thanksgiving, and then Christmas… and when I think of these, I think also of Crowell’s lyrics, “We don’t want to say goodbye. We don’t want to feel that empty.” I wonder, am I going to set one less spot at the table for Thanksgiving? What do we do when writing out Christmas cards and that address is now… no longer needed? When I unpack the Christmas tree ornaments, which one is going to make my heart leap into my throat? What favorite food on the thanksgiving table will make my hands shake?

There are so many little extra loses, extra times of emptiness, after someone dies. And each little goodbye makes the emptiness feel bigger.

Each chair I don’t set out.

Each address I no longer write out.

Each present I don’t buy.

Each face I remember who used to be here, and now is not.

When I look at my grandmother and her eyes are so dazed at our Christmas dinner, I cannot help but wonder… who is she thinking of? Parents, siblings, and children who all used to be at this table? She’s outlived them all. Classmates she used to rush back from holiday breaks to share stories with; friends who died ten years prior? I almost can see the spirits reflecting in her eyes.

And yet, at that meal, we will pray and we eat like we always do. Because life is still going on, even though those holes are there. Crowell’s chorus is, “We’re just learning how to live with a life long broken heart.”

I think that’s so true. The emptiness continues, but so do we.

So we learn a new way of living. A new way of carrying on this broken heart, of saying new little goodbyes on our dead loved one’s birthdays, deathdays, the holidays, and those moments that hit us without warning — when we hear their song on the overhead speakers at the grocery store, or smell their soap on some stranger, or find an old list they wrote… a broken heart, but a life that’s still going on. A process of learning to live.

What do we do when it seems we can’t go on? Crowell sings about this too. Crowell sings, “When we cannot understand, when we cannot find new meaning, we’ll seek out the ones you loved, and love.” “It’s a privilege to remember. The sound of days done past will last.”

I see that as what we are doing today. We are seeking meaning to our loves’ deaths. We’re seeking to understand. We’re seeking a way to continue going on in this life without them. And in our seeking, we turn to the people who loved our loved one too, and together, we remember the days long past.

And together, we seek meaning in scripture. And in scripture, we hear our beloved God promising through the prophet Isaiah that God will wipe away the tear from every face. That someday, here on Earth, and this day, now in Heaven, God will lay a great banquet feast for all people. Death will be no more. The shroud, the funeral cloth, over us all — the weight of knowing we are going to die and all we love will die too — will be lifted permanently. And all things will be made new.

Our communion is a foretaste, an appetizer, before this great meal. In the Eucharist we get a little sampling of what it will be like to share in the great victory feast with God. Through this ritual, we share in Jesus’ death… the death we all will someday face too… and we share in Jesus’ victory over the death…. a victory we will one day know too.

We take communion with all the saints. All of the children of God. We come to the table and join the cloud of witnesses: all of those who we remember today. All of those who leave us learning to live with broken hearts. All of those who guided us to Christianity. All of those who formed and reformed our church. All of those who died countless generations ago.

We also take it with all of those yet to be born.

Here, in a sacred moment with God, we transcend time and place and partake in a little appetizer of heaven.

Understanding, finding new meaning, comes from those we love and who love us.

We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus. We are loved by the Spirit. We are loved by the Christians who came before us and who will come after us. We are supported by all of this love just as we support them. Together, walking together, we can face a life that is full of goodbyes…

… because a great reunion is in our future.

We don’t want to say goodbye, because we don’t want to feel that empty… but the goodbyes we say now are not forever goodbyes. These are goodbye, for now, and I look forward to when we meet again.

These are goodbye, I won’t see you when I we take communion, but I know you are there.

And some day, I’ll see you again.

And the tears we have won’t be tears of sorrow, but tears of joy.

And we will sit down to the full meal, the full feast, given to us by our most loving God. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, 11-1-15, Baltimore Ohio.

Who Are We?

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Our Psalmist asks — who are we that God would care for us?

James Taylor paraphrased our Psalm today into common English. He wrote,

“My God, my God,
how wonderful you are!
There is nothing like you in the whole earth.

I look up to the skies, and I see you there;
Babies and infants open their mouths,
and I hear them cry your name.
Compared to you, our weapons, our bombs,
our power to destroy,
dwindle into insignificance.
On a starry night, with your glory splashed across the skies,
I gaze into your infinite universe, and I wonder:
Who am I?
Why do I matter?
Why do you care about mere mortals?

We humans are less than specks of dust in your universe.
We have existed less than a second in the great clock of creation.
Yet you choose us as your partners.
You share the secrets of the universe with us;
you give us a special place in your household;
you trust us to look after the earth, on your behalf—
not just the sheep and oxen,
but also the wolves that prey on our domestic animals;
the birds, the plants, and even creatures we have never seen
in the depths of the sea.

My God, my God! How amazing you are.”

Sometimes, I wonder the same things the Psalmist and Taylor do –

Who am I?
Why do I matter?
Why do you, God, care about mere mortals?

If we’re raised thinking humans are de facto rulers over the earth, this question doesn’t really bother us. Who are we? We’re humans – that’s what! Rulers. We have dominion.
But if you stop and think about it… like the author of Hebrews does… we humans don’t actually have dominion over the earth.

Hurricanes ruin our homes and take lives.

Floods take our crops and homes and lives.

Wild fires, tornadoes, bitterly cold winters — even the melting ice caps — we influence a lot, but actually having dominion? Actually having full control?

No. We’re powerful, but not all powerful in the least.

None of us can stop the sun from rising or death from coming. We are mortal.

Our mortality really strikes home when I look at a time-line of the Earth. If earth was a 24 hour day, life began here around 4 in the morning. It’s not until 2 in the afternoon cells develop. Seaweed shows up around 8:30, land plants at 9:52. Dinosaurs begin to roam the Earth around 10:56 pm. Mammals around 11:39. The very last minute and a half — 11:58:43– humans appear. My own life of 28 years is .0000268 seconds on this 24 hour clock. Over ten thousand times than a blink of an eye which is .3 of a second. On this scale, even the pyramids are young. Stonehenge was made a blink ago. One blink ago people learned how to grow crops for the very first time and to make pots out of clay.

We humans, on the scale of this earth, are mere hundreds of seconds. Dinosaurs are minutes. God spent hours and hours on rocks! Hours and hours on making the moon! We… aren’t even a blink yet.

… and our planet it young. Our planet isn’t a blink to the universe.

… Who are we, that God — God who has spent more time than we can wrap our heads around on ROCKS — on planets we’ll never see and stars that were born, lived, and died before life even existed on earth — who are we that we matter to God who created all of this?!

How can the Psalmist say we’re in control of all of this?

The authors of Hebrew is looking at the world about 60 years after Jesus died. He sees a world much like our own – waiting on Jesus’ return, continue on as it always has, bad stuff still happening, people still sinning, and a whole lot of stuff outside of human control. We cannot even control the results of our actions! How often has a good intention caused really bad consequences?

Yet our psalm says God made us in charge of all of this; and in Genesis we’re told we’re stewards of the Earth… but the author of Hebrews argues we clearly aren’t in charge. There’s so, so much that happens we’d rather not happens. I mean, if I were in charge, there’d be no more cancer, there’d be peace among all the nations, and no one would have too much or too little.

So the Hebrews author argues the mortal who was made lower than the angels for a little while who will be in full charge in the future is Jesus. Clearly he was mortal, argues the author of Hebrews, for Jesus suffered and died. People are still alive – very elderly at this point – but when Timothy or whoever writes this, there are still people alive who remember Jesus dying. They were kids then, but they remember.

So Jesus was mortal. Yet clearly he was also more than mortal, since Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory, and a exact imprint of who God is, and sustains us with his powerful word.

Why a mortal? Why not send Jesus as an angel, or a spirit? Why a lowly mortal? Who are we that God would have God’s own spirit and image in our tiny little fragile frame?

Neither author in today’s reading – the author of Hebrews or the Psalmist—answers why us. Instead, they end in praise that we are the children of God. We never earned this, but we can respond to it.

We don’t have full control over all of the world. We do not yet see the master plan, the reason God notices and made we tiny, tiny humans.

What we do see is Jesus.

And in Jesus, we see God.

And we see that God made all things, sustains all things, and loves all things.

We see we all have one creator, one parent, one source whom we all come from.

The rocks and trees, the fish and birds, the distant galaxies and stars and moon — even the angels and our beloved Jesus… we all have one Father.

Or mother, or parent, or grandmother, or grandfather, or whatever human term you use to think of the one who loves you the most like a parent loves a child: a perfect love, a deep love, a love that only God contains but which we try to explain in human terms.

How limited we are to explain our encounter with God. We are babes. Infants. And yet, God listens. Listens and loves.

How befitting is this passage on World Communion Sunday. Today we affirm we share a single faith with Christians everywhere. Those who have passed, and those who are yet to be, those who are here and those who are scattered about the world.

We all have one sacrament. We are a community. We commune together. We all have one God we know through Jesus. We all share one Holy Spirit. Let us come in humbleness, in joy, in great worship and love to this holy meal with our God, our Sovereign, and our brother Jesus, and all our brothers and sisters around the world. Amen.

Given to St. Michael’s United Church of Christ 10-4-15