Tag: death

I Am With You Always

Genesis 1:1-2:4a3043479-poster-p-1-this-spiral-tree-of-life-fits-50000-species-in-one-infographic
Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning — there was God.
Silent and deep. Empty and a void. A cosmos of nothing. No time, no space, no dimensions but God.
And God made wind. Motion. Energy.
And God spoke. Noise. Vibrations.
And then there was LIGHT.
Particles moving, vibrating, so much that they put off energy into new forms – combine into new forms – produce light.

And then God got real fancy – water and land, plants and fish, birds and animals. And finally – God’s own image: humankind.

At one time, I saw the evolution of life on earth drawn as a spiral. For a long time, the spiral has only one or two lines. Just bacteria in water. Just microorganisms in water. But then those lines begin to branch off. God gets fancy. Plants and fish, dinosaurs and animals, birds and mammals, and the spiral’s thickness went from just a hair to as much room as the page would allow. It went from a single kind of life, to more life than we can ever count. It went from God’s first creation on Earth to this very moment, where God is now recreating alongside God’s own image: us.

And, although so much time has passed, our charge has not changed. We were placed in dominion over the earth, and to subdue.

It’s a terrible way these words have been used in English. Misused. Abused. In our recent human history, dominion over the earth, and subduing it, has been permission to mold the earth however we want, use animals however we want, and use whatever resources in whatever way we want. This has even extended to other cultures and peoples.

God never meant us to take these holy words and use them as a weapon against God’s beautiful creation.

In ancient Hebrew, the original language used here, subdue is kabash. It does mean subdue, enslave, even molest or rape. However – you can only use it when the other party is already hostile. So it is a victory term, a way of overcoming something that is already set against you. Micah uses the same word to describe what God does to our sins. Our hostile sins confront God, but God subdues them and brings us to life. Our hostile world confronts us, but we’re called to subdue it and bring it to produce good fruit. It’s like… a blight on your crops. It’s hostile. It’s causing death. When you subdue it, you bring about life.

Subduing is not supposed to be about enslaving other people, animals, or any part of the earth. Nor molesting, ruining. It is about taking what is harmful and actively set against God, and God’s creation, and having victory over that.

… I think, often, it is we, ourselves, in need of being subdued. Often, we ourselves, are what are destroying God’s creation, each other, and bringing about death rather than life.

It’s kinda like Jesus said… we need to get the plank out of our own eye before we can get the dust mote out of someone else’s.

… The next word we have abused is dominion, the ancient Hebrew word radah. So often we hear this in English as dominate! As to rule and rule with an iron fist and iron will and at the edge of sharp iron!

That’s not the kind of kingship, rulership, queenship, God likes.

God tells us that the good rulers deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. They have pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence they redeems the needy’s lives; and precious is their blood in His sight.

God is a ruler like this. We are precious to God. God wants us to rule like this, and in the Bible chastises those who do not heal the sick, seek the lost, brought back the exiled, bound up the injured, and strengthened the weak. God chastises those who do not help the least! Power, says God, is to be used to empower others.

So the Genesis passage shows us God subduing chaos, and having dominion over the world. God defeats death and brings forth life. Then God helps the life flourish.

And we are charged to do the same.

I think Rev. Christopher Brown of the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado reinterprets these verses clearly in their original meaning. He writes them as: “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” ((https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/genesis-128-to-subdue-and-have-dominion-over-creation/))

Rule with care. Fight against the powers of death.

Did not Christ give us the same example of ruling with care and fighting against the powers of death?

In out Mathew reading, the risen Christ, who has subdued death, gives last directions to his disciples. He says: “All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me.” Christ is the one with dominion. And he chooses to rule as God wishes us to: by using that power to empower others. Jesus then empowers his disciples telling them to go all over the world sharing the Good News of reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, a new life with God, and the greatest commandment: to love God, and to love one another.

And then, Jesus tells us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

From the beginning, God is with us subduing evil and using God’s dominion to empower us. To the end of the age, says Christ, our God: known to us as the creator, the Son, and the Spirit — is with us, subduing evil, and using God’s power to empower us.

So that from the beginning of our lives until at last we rest with Christ, we subdue and have dominion over the earth. We fight evil and use our power to give power to others.

We take the void, the nothingness, the chaos – and speak, work, create and bring forth life.

We take our place alongside our ruling God and co-create with God.

We take each other, tenderly, in hand and help each other subdue our own evils, and have dominion – have power – over our lives.

Remember the meaning of subdue – to defeat that which destroys life. And dominion – to use power to empower others.

Amen.

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

One Thing I Do Know

muddyhandsJohn 9:1-41
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why do bad things happen? It’s something we ask, again and again. And the people of the Bible ask it again and again. And just like we come to different conclusions, so, too, do our mothers and fathers in the faith. The most common conclusion back then, and today, is that a person gets what they deserve. This makes us feel good, and speaks to our sense of right and wrong and justice. Bad people get punished. Good people get rewarded.

It goes like this: why is a man in jail? Because he has bad morals and is guilty of a crime. Why is a woman poor? Because she spends too much money and doesn’t work hard enough. How do you be successful? By following the rules.

This is an easy answer to why bad things happen, and it is usually the first answer we concluded. So-and-so had something bad happen because they caused it to happen to themselves. The Bible goes further and some authors conclude that even things like blindness, sickness, and death are caused by moral failings – caused by a person sinning. Some interpretations of Genesis? Adam and Eve ‘earn’ death because of their sin. Plenty die in the Bible because they ‘ired’ God. Today, AIDS is often called the ‘gay disease’ and called a punishment for homosexuality. People with opiate or painkiller addictions are often accused of being thieves, druggies, addicts – others say their whole identity is their addiction.

This reasoning gets tricky when we see bad things happen to good people; or good things happening to immoral people. This threatens our notion of right and wrong, of justice. See, Job was righteous – yet terrible things happen to him. Jesus is literally SINLESS and yet horrific things occur to him. We know people who would give the shirt off their backs to help another, and yet they can’t seem to catch a break. And we know of cases, like my own daughter, where a child dies before they even take a breath. Who, then, is to blame? Surely you can’t say the baby sinned. Surely you can’t say Jesus sinned.

Over the centuries, some came up with the idea of Original Sin – the idea we are all born sinful. So even brand new babies carry sin – and that is why bad things still happen. In our scripture today, some of Jesus’ disciples assert the stance that parents’ sins are passed on to their innocent children. These aren’t outdated conclusions. Both Original Sin and parents’ sins are active conclusions nowadays on why bad things happen.

It’s why so many want their children baptized super young – to wash away that Original Sin.

It’s why we always ask, “Was her mommy a druggie?” or “What did the parents do wrong?” when we hear of young babies dying, or miscarriages, or stillbirths. Someone, somewhere, sinned. Someone, somewhere, is to blame.

If we don’t have someone to blame, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice, is thrown out the window. We don’t like to see innocents suffering, but it makes more sense to us if we can reason their suffering is because of their parents, or grandparents, or Adam and Eve… or any sin somewhere. It lets us still say that what people get, they deserve.

Today – Jesus’ disciples ask: did this born blind man sin, or did his parents? Who do we blame for him being blind?

Jesus replies: neither. The blame doesn’t lie on the man nor his family.

Why is he blind, then? The NRSV adds the words to the scripture, “he was born blind.” The original reads, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of He who sent me.” Our translation into English with its added words say the man was born blind SO THAT Jesus could show God’s work. Our translation adds in blame, and places the blame on God.

The Greek original doesn’t do this. Jesus doesn’t add blame. Doesn’t say blame the man, nor his parents, nor God. Jesus skips the blame and says if we want to see God, we must help this guy. No judgment. No placing morality on the blindness. Just saying – bad crud happens. Help each other out, and you will see God in the helping.

So Jesus does as he preaches.

And you see the result – the blind man comes to testify Christ while the whole town goes about finding someone to blame. Someone must be to blame for the blindness! Some blame Jesus – who worked on the Sabbath. Some blame the man, for secretly harboring sin. They call in his parents to try to blame them for doing something that caused their son to be born blind. In the end – they toss the man out of the town. That is easier than admitting…

… sometimes… terrible things happen… and no one is to blame.

God’s will? Maybe. Primordial chaos left over from God placing order and making creation? Maybe. Result of Original Sin, or just sins? Maybe. Just meaningless? Maybe.

Jesus doesn’t offer the answer. He says don’t worry about placing the blame, instead, do something to help the situation. Don’t fret about if the person who is addicted has an ‘addictive personality.’ Be their friend and support now. Don’t fret about if parents didn’t eat right while the baby was in utero – comfort them now. Don’t fret about if a beggar has a job, or is getting food stamps, or deserves a hand out, or what they’re going to use that cash for… just help them out, now.

Jesus isn’t amoral. He isn’t advocating let everyone do as they please and let there be no consequences. He isn’t saying sin isn’t real. Jesus picks up John’s message telling us to repent and turn to God. However – Jesus is way more concerned that we live our lives helping one another than blaming one another.

Look at how much of this chapter is people blaming each other rather than helping the blind man and his family!

Look at their final action – tossing the formerly blind man out of the town – rather than rejoicing he now has sight!

Jesus isn’t answering our theodicy questions; he isn’t telling us why bad things happen. Instead, he’s giving us a way to respond to the bad we see — respond with love. Not judgment.

As the formerly blind man said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” No need to decide is someone is a sinner. Just be able to see them—help them, know them, love them.

Things Unseen

Protesters Demonstrate In Philadelphia During The Democratic National Convention

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Our election this season is one of fear. Fear, feelings of persecution, feelings of unheard, feeling misunderstood, feeling marginalized, feeling belittled, feeling silenced. Fear leads it all. Followed by anger, and hate, and more fear.

Our African American citizens fear the cops. The cops fear the African Americans. On edge, the two confront one another – and far too often someone is misunderstood, marginalized, and forever silenced. Fear of authority; fear of the other; these fears fuel terrors into our election.

Sexual fear drives us. Fear of loved ones being abused; fear of being killed for whom one loves; fear of sex and bodies and passions themselves. A rhetoric of hate comes out of these fears and spews from the mouths of politicians and Christians alike. There is no attempt to overcome the fear – just destroy anyone or anything that reminds us of the fear.

And so: education on sexual health is banned from schools, access to sexual health services are denied, protection for gays and lesbians is denied, and transgendered adults and even children are murdered. All of this coming from fear of our own bodies.

And this fear drives our votes, too.

Insecurity is a major fear among us right now. There is the insecurity of being a white, high school educated, man. At one time – that’s all you needed to be to be very successful in America. But now – women and non-whites compete for the same jobs. This means college is often needed to stand out. It means when once being born a straight white man was ticket to wealth is no longer the truth. And that insecurity, that feeling of being less-than, drives our election.

When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Just as Jesus said: the low will be raised and the high lowered, so all are equal. But this feels like oppression to those who once were high. And that makes them feel fear, insecurity, and hate.

The fear inside insecurity is what makes us speak of a wall between ourselves and Mexico. Speak of bombing other countries. Speak of banning whole religions, whole regions, from ever visiting family or friends here. Fear drives us to isolate ourselves, and inside our little bubble… we forget that we fear a very small minority… and the majority of the world’s people are just like you and I. But because of a few, we fear them all.

The very early church knew much fear, too. They had once been privileged: Hebrews, Jews, people of not great but not bad standing. Middle class, per se. And now… as soon as they began this Christ business… they were banned from places of worship. The cops always thought they were up to no good. Some people said they were planning a rebellion and so abused, terrorized, murdered Christians. Some people hid their belief in Christ for their, or their family’s safety. Some people were more open. But all together… they knew fear.

What would they do with it? Isolate themselves and stop living out their faith? Would they pretend to be secular, or follow Zeus or Caesar, in public?

Would fear drive them to make strict rules about who could, or couldn’t, enter their congregations? We now have a rule that only those with a Christian parent may enter the sanctuary. We now have a rule that only those who haven’t sinned in the last week. Now only straight people. Now only Americans. Now only white straight Americans whose parents were born here and none of them have ever ran into the law or defaulted on bank loans or crossed the street without looking both ways.

How ridiculous do we want the rules to get to make us feel safer? Will they help?

No.

There’s always more to fear… because each of us have a little portion in us that fears even the very things we do. What if someone else finds out? Will they still accept me? How long until I’m kicked out?

A cycle of fear is a cycle that works like setting a pot of water on a hot stove. A little bubble, a little fear, leads the water of people to a rolling boil, roiling fear; leads to fear flowing over the edges of the pot and eventually – no water, no people, are left in the pot at all. Everyone is gone. Fled. Hiding. And there is no more church.

Paul, when he writes the Hebrews, addresses their fears. Jesus, when he talks to his disciples, addresses their fears. The Bible tells us not to fear more than any other phrase! Do not fear, I am with you. Do not fear, I am your God. Do not be afraid, you are loved. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

To the early Hebrew church, Paul reminds them that we aren’t walking by this world’s standards, and this world’s answers to fear are not God’s answers. He reminds them, and us, that we walk by faith, we are convinced of things not seen, and we do not have to be ashamed of this faith and assurance in things that we cannot see at all.

For instance, I turn on the news, and I don’t see love. But I have faith in it. I trust is exists even through I don’t see it. My hope and my promise is in God, who is love, and who says love conquers all things.

I see people using our faith as a weapon, and committing religious violence, acts of terrorism, against others in the name of God. I see this – I see the hate and fear – but I trust what I don’t see.

I trust the unreported, unremarked upon woman who drops pennies and quarters into the charity jars and donates her time to volunteer work.

I have faith and believe in the man never interviewed by the news and never praised by politicians; this man who stops to help change a flat tire and who lets people ahead of him in line.

I don’t see it, but I believe in the children who stand up for one another against bullies. I trust in the children who make ‘get well soon’ cards for teachers and bus drivers.

My eyes don’t tell me, but my heart tells me, to believe in the teenager girl who struggles with so many issues, so much daily fear and misunderstanding – and yet, not to participate in hate speech at work.

I have faith in the unseen. I trust in the hope of God. I trust in what the world ignores. I know we are sojourners, travelers, in a strange land. This land would have us believe that everyone is selfish, evil, and out to harm us. I know there’s a lot to fear, I have been scared… but I also trust in the promises of God.

As Paul writes, Abraham and Sarah never saw their descendants be more than the stars… they died without seeing the full promise come to fruition. Yet they had faith, and what God promised came to pass.

Isaac and Jacob too. They died without the full promise occurring… but their faith led to the next generation, and generation by generation, God worked and fulfilled the promise.

Do not fear, little flock, do not fear.

We walk by faith – not fear, not hate. We walk together – not isolated, not cut off from the world. We walk with God – and because we walk with God, we do not have to fear any evil.

You and I will likely die without seeing God’s full reign on Earth as it is in Heaven. We’ll likely die without Christ having yet returning in full glory. And yet, we can pass on this faith and trust for we know… as Jesus told us, it is God’s delight to gift us the kin-dom. It is God’s good pleasure to work with us to make the promises of peace on earth a reality.

Amen.

Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.

I Will Follow

P1020212.JPG2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Luke 9:51-62

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

Growing up, I had a neighbor who was like my grandmother a woman who I would talk with whenever I needed advice or companionship. She could do everything: kept a two acre garden by hand — and that was the vegetable one alone. She had more for flowers. Mowed, managed acres and acres of property, did all her own laundry, canning, cooking, selling at the farmer’s market, shopping, housework and bills… Her husband had died, and her kids grown – but this elderly woman kept an active life that put my own family of kids and 30-something year olds to shame. She honestly had far better lawns, gardens, and home-made meals than us. And you never, ever, saw her without her hair done perfectly and her makeup on.

In high school, I remember standing in my bedroom looking out across the corn fields and I saw an outline in the crop. I realized it was the old edge of my neighbor’s garden. Over the years, the farm land had crept into her garden, and her garden had shrunk to about an acre. It was so slow, I hadn’t noticed.

In college, the little creep had really begun to become noticeable in other areas of my neighbor’s life. Weeds – formerly an unheard of event – sometimes showed up in her flowerbeds. She stopped driving, and had her son drive her instead. More meals came from the freezer. Less tomatoes were boiled and canned each summer. Sometimes, her lipstick was crooked.

How far will you go with someone? How rough?

In graduate school, I no longer lived at home, but I still went to visit home and my adopted grandmother. She now had a ramp, and had a yardstick she used as a cane, and more often than not sat the day away. When once she told me with stunning clarity about riding the train to go meet her husband home from Army, or how as a child her parents used a team of horses to move her house on logs to its current place… now she struggled to remember what she ate for breakfast, and who the dashing young man with a bride was in the photos on the wall.

Some of her friends stopped visiting. It was too hard, too rough, to see their loved one… going away, moment by moment, erased and leaving a shell of the woman they loved behind. She would hate to know she’s out in public without makeup. Do we tell her? Cause her that pain? If we don’t, are we treating her like a child, babying her? She’d hate that too!

How do you love someone who has always been perfect, always been in charge, always been your leader and role model and guide… and now they need help remembering how to use a spoon? How do you stick by someone who goes from being parent to child? How far can you stick by a loved one’s side?

I don’t think we know until we try.

It was so hard visiting my neighbor in a nursing home the final days of her life. I felt like neither she nor I belonged there. But this is where the journey was taking us – to the river’s edge, or where the sweet chariots would swing low, the final fight with pain, or whatever analogy you want from scripture and songs: it’s the same. We were coming to when we would be separated by death.

She didn’t know me anymore. She only knew her daughter (usually). I could easily have stopped visiting and she wouldn’t have known the difference. But I kept going. This woman had mentored and tutored me from diapers to grad school. And we talked of birds and flowers and nothing consequential. We shared presence.

I wasn’t there for her final hours. God granted she spent those in the loving arms of her children, in one of their homes. I’m so glad for that; and I look forward to our conversations again.

Friends can so often be as close or closer than family.

Elisha is not Elijah’s biological son. Elisha was a teenager or so, working his dad’s lands with oxen, when Elijah the prophet walked by. Elijah dropped his mantel, the cloth, he’d used to hide his face from God on the mountain, over Elisha. Elisha was so excited – so thrilled – to be chosen as a prophet he nearly ran away from Elijah to go tell his parents and family. Elijah had to remind him to pray first – and THEN celebrate. Elisha burned his wooden plow, butchered his oxen, prayed a lot, had a big goodbye party, and joined the prophet.

Elijah became an adopted dad, a mentor, a guiding friend for Elisha.

And when Elijah felt his time on earth was done, he began to remove himself from the world. A little bit at a time, a city here, a city there — saying goodbye — telling the prophets he had helped raise up around Israel to stay behind. But Elisha would not stay. He vowed to stick by his friend through thick and thin, though the good times and bad times, through sickness and health, life and death.

We hear today how at last Elijah comes to the Jordan river. On the other side is where the great prophet Moses died, and it’s there that Elijah feels called for his ending. He again tells his followers — stay here. And again, Elisha vows he will follow.

Like Moses, Elijah splits the water in two, and the mixed family of Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan. Alone, just the two, Elisha asks Elijah to give him a double portion of his spirit. Maybe he means make me your son; or maybe he means let me do twice as many miracles. What’s certain is Elijah tells him this is a big, big wish… and only possible if Elisha can stick through this to the very, very end. As they walk and talk in the desert on the other side, abruptly there is a whirlwind and fiery chariots from God. In the chaos, Elijah is whisked up to heaven and Elisha cries out after his adopted dad, and when he can no longer see him, he sinks to the ground tearing his clothes as he cries.

Eventually, the sorrow passes, and Elisha picks up the mantle Elijah dropped, and continues the prophetic work of Elijah for God.

Elisha had stayed to the very end – through the loneliness and sorrow. Through the unknown. Through the reversal of roles. He stuck by Elijah.

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

In our second reading, Jesus knows his end is coming too. And like Elijah, he begins to walk towards where he knows he will be “lifted up.” However, as he goes, the going gets rough. How far will those who love Jesus go with him?

Through Samaria, where Jesus bans them from returning violence for insult?

Through homelessness and a lack of a safe place to lay your head?

Though inconvenience and misunderstanding?

Will those who would follow Jesus know to stick by Jesus’ ways even when their family obligations call them elsewhere?

I will follow you wherever you go is a very, very big promise. Jesus points this out right up front. Tells all those who would follow that the Way of Christ demands much. Even Elisha had time to go back and say goodbye to his family before following Elijah… but Jesus says to be Christian, there is a bigger cost – a cost where we may be at odds with our families. A furrow gets all crooked when we try to plow and look behind us. It’s like trying to drive a car on the interstate while watching the rear view mirror the whole time.

Jesus says to these would-be followers… Are you sure you mean you’re ready to commit all of yourself? To burn the plow and eat the oxen — no going back — as Elisha did? Are you sure you mean you’re willing to follow me all the way to end? Do you know what a hard thing you’re asking?

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? Jesus warns us up front it isn’t always easy to be Christian, and to be a follower of Christ… we will have hard tasks and hard days.

Will you travel with Christ and the Christians knowing it isn’t an easy path?

Knowing it leads to a cross long before it leads to any heavenly ascension?

As Christians, we’re supposed to stick by each other through to the end and beyond. This journey, this walk, is a hard one that demands following it through to the end when memories fade, bodies fail, there is no more that medicine can do, and prayers don’t seem to work.

It’s a walk that takes us through times when Christianity is healthy and young and full of life – a thriving new church, full pews, prophets full of fire and dreams… And through times when our faith is sick, feels weighed down, and feels hollow and dead. When we’re not certain what tomorrow will bring.

Walking with other Christians means walking when the weather is fantastic; and walking in snow and sleet. Walking when we all agree, and walking when we bitterly disagree.

Walking with each other means sticking together when roles get reversed due to illness, age, and changes. It means loving our adopted family from cradle to grave, and beyond.

Other commitments, other priorities, will always come up and demand our time. But may you keep your eye on the goal of Christ – your eyes ahead and focused on where you are going – so that in all things, at all times, whatever you’re doing, you live your life as a faithful disciple following the leadership of Christ. Amen.