Tag: faith

Why?

Children’s Chat: Super Why! jesus

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

As a child, I learned the secret answer in Sunday School… I bet you did, too. It goes like this:

“Who walked on water?”
JESUS!
“Who cured the blind?”
JESUS!
“Who loves us?”
JESUS!

The answer to everything was either Jesus, God, love, or Jesus’ love for God. You get the idea. Our faith is simple, and boils down to love. But there’s an issue with this Jesus answer for everything… Sometimes, Jesus doesn’t fit the question.

“Who broke the vase?”
JESUS!
“Who gave you detention?”
JESUS! No – it was God?

As we experience more of life, the questions get harder, and the answer “Jesus!” or God or love fits even less.

“Why do I have cancer?”
Jesus. … Or God…
“Why is there evil in the world?”
… Jesus. God… love?

Our lives get more complex as we experience more, and satisfying answers get more complex. The simple answers don’t just cut it in the face of years of depression, years of feeling isolated, years of chronic illness. “Because Jesus loves you” is a terrible answer to why children die of starvation. Because Jesus loves you, he sent a drunk driver to kill your family. Because God loves children, God sends shooters into schools to kill children and make new angels for heaven. Because of love, our Sunday School theology applied to experienced life does so much harm.

In the words of Dr. Linda Mercadante – bad theology kills.

Bad theology kills our faith. Once we get to the notion everything is caused by God, and everything happens because God or Jesus loves us, we may come to the conclusion God is pretty evil. Or we don’t want Jesus’ love if this love looks like starvation. If God’s love is torture, who needs God? If Jesus’ love is hate, who wants to be a Jesus follower? The simple theology of Jesus is the answer to everything works when life is simple. And it kills faith when life is complex.

Bad theology kills.

It kills faith, but it also kills people. If the reason everything happens is because of God’s love, then any bad fortune is because someone has lost God’s love.

A woman on welfare must be lazy, sexual promiscuous, a thief, and not a good Christian woman. She is poor because she isn’t living virtuously. Her sins are why she is poor.

A man addicted to narcotics must be weak willed, violent, a thief, and not a good Christian man. He is addicted because he isn’t living sinfree. If he just confessed, he’d be clean and back in God’s love.

This theology kills. It denies food and shelter, love and education. It makes a class system when the least are treated as second class citizens – as left-overs – or as unwanted ‘undesirables’ of society. It also directs our public policy and research.

((Many are ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous even through there is no evidence it actually helps people. Oh yes – people leave alcohol there. But just as many do not. The only successful intervention scientifically proven is medication to help rewire the mind after the alcohol has wired it for addiction. AA is a great support network… but it doesn’t touch the physical addiction side of alcoholism. But our bad theology says the flesh is nothing, and the spirit everything. It says just confessing the sin of alcoholism will put you right with God again, and then, you ought to have no more issues.

But that’s not how our bodies work.))

This is bad theology.

Simplistic, early-learning theology.

And bad theology kills.

Jesus’ disciples began with simplistic theology. He told them do not fear, just have faith. And they got this. And it works while their mission is simple. They are simply curing the sick, helping the poor, and speaking of God’s love for people. When life is simple we need simple theology.

But then the disciples get more complex experiences, and Jesus begins to tell them the Messiah will be denied by organized religion, and killed by the government, and be resurrected by God. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Because the answers are terrifying.

Based on simple theology applied to a complex question – ie, bad theology – the reason Jesus will be murdered terribly is because of God’s love. I bet you’ve heard this.

How different is this reasoning than “divinely ordained child abuse?”

How different is this than adults telling little children they are abused out of love?

These are terrifying answers. These are answers that kill my faith and kill people.

If you think these are going to be the answers to “Why did Jesus die?” why would you ever ask the question?

And if you did ask… who would you ask? And when? Where?

Once we know Jesus is the answer to everything, and God is love, then it’s like… we’re scared to be seen as foolish by questioning these simple answers. So we bottle up the questions instead of asking them. Bottle them up because we don’t want judged by our fellow family, friends, and congregation members…. Bottle them up because we don’t really want to know the answers…. And bottle them up because we think we’re Christians and this is our faith and we ought to get it.

The disciples literally walked with God Incarnate and didn’t get it.

They were scared to ask the questions, too.

But the questions are… liberating. They let our faith grow more complex to answer our complex lives.

I am guilty of hiding my questions like the disciples. Before I found the United Church of Christ, I sat with a Buddhist who didn’t know anything about Christianity. I could tell her all my questions around Christianity and she wouldn’t try to give me the simple answers because she didn’t know them. She wouldn’t say my soul was in danger for questioning the goodness of God, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the Holy Spirit because soul isn’t really a concept in Buddhism.

She didn’t feed me answers at all. She sat with me in the questions.

She didn’t FEAR the questions.

And so I asked.

Of course, she had no answers. Christianity wasn’t her faith! But the answers weren’t as important as vocalizing the questions, looking at the questions, and considering the various answers. The journey into the questions was more important. And we journeyed in them together.

Jesus offers his disciples to ask him the hard questions. He doesn’t promise answers – he tends to answer in parables anyways – but he promises to stick with them through exploring the answers.

That is what living faith is about.

Exploring. Moving. Changing.

Our lives are not static. Our lives are dynamic. We gather more and more experiences. Our faith should be the same. Dynamic, growing, changing as we change.

The simplistic theology is important, and good, for when we are drinking the infant milk of our faith. But as infants age, they need solid food. They need carrots to crunch and meat to tear. As we grow into mature lives, we need a mature faith that is crunchy and has substance we can bite into. We need a faith that is satisfying to our more complex needs.

That faith can only come from permitting our faith to be exposed to life. The moment you feel you need to defend your faith from life is the moment you’ve outgrown your faith. Let her out! Let her stretch and grow and yes, pick up some bruises, but grow into the faith you need for your adult life!

The disciples have stopped growing in our reading today. They’ve begun to protect their concepts of Messiah from life. Jesus has been telling them of the bad fate for himself when he returns to Jerusalem, but they are scared to ask what this means. Instead, they focus on their simple faith in the messiah. The simple faith says the messiah will be a military warrior, go to Jerusalem, be crowned king, and toss out the Romans.

The simple faith says your lot in life is based on how much of God’s fortune you have earned. The simple faith says Jesus is a pretty amazing guy, so God’s going to reward Jesus with everything.

So they look at themselves who are also healing the sick and walking with THE Jesus, and they say – hey! We’re pretty amazing guys ourselves. Who is going to be the second most awesome person in the land and the second in charge for Jesus? Who has the most miraculous power, who’s cured the most ill, who’s preached the most good news? Let’s rank up!

And Jesus looks at them, hears their concerns, and realizes they have not grown into the new experience of a servant messiah at all. He realizes their faith is not ready. And we know Jesus is right. They all will desert him in the end.

And “It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.” ((Amy Oden https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356))

Faced with the terror of a suffering God, arguing over a victorious god’s right hand man is much easier. Faced with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world is much easier. But it leads to infighting, and all the other woes James writes about. When we avoid the hard questions, our faith doesn’t grow, and the small answers don’t satisfy and cause more issues. Remember, bad theology kills.

Jesus won’t abandon these disciples in their fear. He calls over a child. A child – who has not done a single miracle. Who cannot read or write. Who didn’t see the bread broke and the fish shared. A child – likely not baptized. Maybe not even Jewish. A child – someone wholly dependent on others for protection, food, and clothing. A young child who has no wealth, no status, nothing but themselves.

And Jesus says, “This is the greatest here.” Not any of the disciples, but this unnamed child. “Whoever welcomes the least, such as a child, in my name, welcomes me.”

Jesus is found in the lowest.

“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

God is found in the lowest.

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Not kings. Not princes. Not the best Christians. Not politicians. Not the rich. Not the sinless. And especially not in the person who says they have all the answers. But in children and those like them.

The greatest are the servants… the ones who are humble, low, don’t know better, and not scared of appearances. The ones with curiosity, who are growing, who are changing, who are embracing life as it comes.

The disciples are scared to ask Jesus questions. They want to look like they know it all to each other. And they don’t want their simple theology challenged.

The woman at the well asks Jesus lots and lots of questions. She doesn’t care what others think of her. And she hasn’t a simple theology to be challenged.

We, ourselves – are we scared to ask our hard questions? Do we fear what one another will think of us? Are we scared of how our faith may be changed, or challenged?

I’m guilty of this at times. At times it hurts to grow and the unknown is scary. It is painful to be vulnerable and suffer your friends, family, and congregation’s judgments (perceived or real.) It is terrifying to consider whether or not God is all good, all powerful, or all knowing.

But we’re a denomination of godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom. We’re a denomination of questions. Some of our mottos include

Don’t leave your brain at the door.
Never put a period where God has put a comma, God is still speaking.
Our faith is 2000 years old, our thinking is not.

Our roots are the Puritans who dreamed of free public education for every child, so that every person could read the Bible for themselves. Our roots are the Protestant Reformers who dreamed of a Bible translated into local languages and a physical copy there for each person to read. Our roots are roots of asking the questions and exploring answers.

How would our story of Christianity be different if the disciples had asked their hard and scary questions?

How will our faith be different?

How will our congregation be different?

This is a safe spot. We are on a journey together. We are asking the questions together. It is a journey, where sometimes we will find an answer to our questions that satisfies awhile, or satisfies one or two people but not all people. It is a journey where sometimes we won’t find answers at all… but we can live into the questions.

We can live into the faith.

We can live into the mystery.

There are no stupid questions. Carl Sagan once wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”

A question asked might risk you looking foolish for 5 minutes.

A question not asked may leave you foolish for 55 years.

Do not be afraid – ask!

Amen.

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To Gather Up All Things

Ephesians 1:3-14 glitter
Mark 6:14-29

Sometimes our lectionary hands us readings that are very difficult to understand and fathom. I feel like this Sunday’s have given us two hard to delve into texts. One is an introductory  letter to the Ephesians; and the other is a long aside about John the Baptizer in the gospel of Mark. Supposedly, they’re related! Whoever worked on the lectionary outline believes so.

Therefore, let’s take a close look at Ephesians and see what the author is claiming, and then let’s use that like a lens, something to help us focus, on Mark’s story.

The letter to Ephesians is broke up in English into sentences, but in Greek, it is one big long sentence listing blessing after blessing that is showed upon us from God.

1. The first blessings is that before the world was built, God chose us for adoption. To be children of God, although we have mortal parents, and although most of us aren’t biological descendants of Abraham – God’s chosen. So – why did God do this? Because God is good. God chose this for God’s own good pleasure and will. Not because of anything we’ve done. God just decided God wants to create us, and create us to be loved.

2. The second blessing is God freely chose to give us God’s Beloved. Not only were we chosen to be children, but given God’s beloved child Jesus. When God created us, we were created for praise. So just living praises Jesus.

3. Our third blessings is that in Jesus, we have redemption, forgiveness of our trespasseses or sins, and this is due to the rich grace of God and again – not because of anything we have done.

4. Fourth – we know the mystery of God’s will, because God wants us to know it out of God’s love for us. We know God’s will because we know Jesus. This will is to love God and love one another!

5. Fifth, in the fullness of time, in the right moment, God will gather up everything on heaven and earth and bring us all together as one. Love unites us.

6. Sixth, in Christ we’ve been given an inheritance — a gift– from God. This is the Holy Spirit within us. It, again, is a free gift from God.

7. Seventh blessing – That Spirit works in us to accomplish everything God has planned. So when you don’t know how to love God or love another, you can pause, pray, think, reflect, and listen for the Spirit to guide you.

8. An eighth blessing – As we work for God, we live in praise and glory of God. We’re not asked to live counter to our nature or to God. We’re asked to live our lives, and in living, love. That love is a constant prayer of praise for God.

9. Nine blessings! All who have the seal of the Holy Spirit, all who have the Spirit within them, have gotten a down payment towards the full redemptive work of God. It’s a foretaste, a little snack, of the big meal to come when we’re all one in love and unity in God.

10. And ten! Ten blessings! And all of this is because God is gracious and glorious. Not because of any deed any human has done.

So what does all that mean?

It means Christianity is a weed.

You might try to get rid of it, but it comes back because God generously spreads love’s seeds everywhere. You may ignore God, but God won’t ignore you. You may curse God, but God is going to keep showering love and blessings on you because THAT IS WHO GOD IS.

Who is God? We have seen God in Jesus. What did Jesus do? Live generously; preach courageously; advocate spiritual, physical, and mental health; and confront all forces that harm others. All this he did humbly, and did not return violence for violence.

Like a weed, this movement won’t die. It just keeps resurrecting. Because the love of God is life itself. All of creation was made and is made in love. Although death is a part of reality, it isn’t the final word. Life is the final word. Resurrection. Life after death. Life continuing to beat the odds and find a way because God wants it to.

It means Christianity is a weed, or glitter (as in the kids’ chat), or fire – and spreads and spreads because it is God’s will to spread love all around!

Mark tells us of how Jesus sent out his disciples spreading the movement of God’s love. They came back with good news of the success of healing people, inviting people into God’s new age, and forgiving sins. That’s when our story begins today when Herod realizes this love won’t die.

King Herod Antipas hears of this success of Jesus’ movement too. He hears some people commenting, “Jesus is John, come back from the dead!”
Others say, “Oh no. Jesus is Elijah, come back from heaven!”
And others say, “He is a brand new prophet, but is as powerful as our ancient prophets.”

Herod, however, has no doubts. He is quivering in his sandals. Jesus is surely John resurrected. And who killed John?

Herod.

Perhaps Herod is thinking of the prophets who have wrote God says ‘Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord.’ Perhaps Herod is terrified because he ordered the death of God’s holy man. This Jesus fellow can heal the sick, raise the dead, and has a direct line of communication with God. What is God going to do to the man who killed God’s prophet?

Herod is scared.

Mark takes a moment then to explain how Herod got in this position. Some years ago, Herod took his sister-in-law as his wife. John appeared from the desert saying, “Hey! That’s not right! You can’t take another’s wife just because you’re the king!” This is much the same situation that got King David in trouble, when he stole Bathsheba from her husband.

Now, Bathsheba hated David for doing this and killing her husband Uriah. She worked against David.

Herodias, however, doesn’t want her brother-in-law-husband to dump her. She likes being the queen. So she works against John.

The issue is… she can’t do anything without Herod’s permission… so she has to scheme a way to kill John and make it look like an accident… or convince her husband some way to kill John.

As Herodias schemes to kill John, Jesus begins to learn from John. This is the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is John’s disciple until John is arrested by King Herod just a few verses into the story. You see, Herod can keep a close eye on John in the dungeon. It is protective custody. It is saving Herod from Herod’s wife Herodias who has people out in the cities seeking to kill John.

Herod listens to John, and knows John is a holy man. John speaks and it perplexes Herod, but Herod likes it.

The first banquet of Mark is thrown for Herod’s birthday. Lots of people and guests and leaders attend. There, Herod and Herodias’ little girl dances. Her doting father is so pleased, he makes the same foolish offer as the king in Esther’s story: name anything you want, up to half of the kingdom, and it is your’s!

The little girl goes to her mother and asks, “What should I ask for?”

Her mother doesn’t waste a moment. “The head of John the baptizer.”

Picture this little girl, the word means she’s under the age of 12, dancing back out to her daddy before all the heads of state and saying, “I want the head of John the baptizer… on a platter!”

Leave it to a child to embellish their requests with ‘on a platter.’ I wonder if she did it to try to gain her mother’s pleasure. I’m certain Herodias was tickled pink.

We’re told Herod is deeply grieved. But everyone is watching. Will he renege on his oath? If he will, what other oaths will he violate? He won’t even keep an oath to his little girl… imagine the lies he’s telling the other heads of state.

So Herod sends for a guard to behead John. The head is put on a platter and given to the child. She leaves and gives it to her mother. A sneaky, sly mother and a foolish, weak father led to the death of God’s prophet.

John’s disciples hear of the gruesome capital punishment, and come and get John’s body and bury him.

Why does Mark take all this space to tell us this story? Mark – who wastes no words and who’s favorite word is ‘immediately?’

Because it is foreshadowing John’s disciple, Jesus.

Jesus will host the next banquet in the story and invite all the outcasts from the state. He will preach against the state when its leaders are immoral. Jesus will be arrested and brought before the leader Pilate. Pilate will listen to Jesus, and be perplexed, and admire him. Pilate will find Jesus to be a holy man, and not want Jesus killed. But for the sake of keeping face, and staying in power, Pilate will order Jesus’ gruesome death during a time that should be a celebration. Jesus’ disciples will take Jesus’ body and bury it.

Will that be the end of the story?

Was it the end of the story for John?

No. God kept on acting. Bringing out new voices out of the woodwork, raising up new songs from the very stones every time people were silenced.

Like a weed, the movement won’t stop appearing.

Like a mustard seed, it just keeps growing and spreading.

As told to us in the letter of Ephesians, from the beginning of time God’s been working on teaching us humans generosity, love, care for God’s garden, care for each other, and morality.

From the beginning of time, God’s been sending us prophets, messages, dreams and visions and voices to guide us.

From the beginning of time, God’s been creating and recreating our world and we, in it.

From the beginning of time, God has willed, mysteriously, goodness upon all things.

Greed and fear can’t crush this goodness. It might kill it. It might spray Round-Up on it. Greed might steal the last miter of the widow; gobble up the single-parent houses; or make orphans of refugees. But God won’t let greed win.

Fear might drive the people to mob mentalities where they cry out to crucify their very savior; abuse their fellow neighbor; and attempt to exploit the strangers who are angels in disguise. But God won’t let fear win.

Blessing upon blessing continuously and ponderously tip the scales of the world towards goodness. Generosity upon generosity, forgiveness upon forgiveness, grace upon grace continue to counter whatever evil springs forth from our hearts, moves our hands, poisons our minds, and promotes a hell on Earth in the name of security, national pride, or the economy.

God does this not because we’re good. Not because we’ve got it all together. But because God is good. And God wants good for us. God wants good for God’s creation.

Our job is to be messengers of this goodness and help spread it along. We’re the rainbow of hope in our uncertain world. We’re the chosen community working to live into God’s reign, now. We’re the children of God who have chosen to give up our citizenship to the United States of America, or Great Britain, or Canada, or Mexico, or planet Earth and take on the citizenship of the Kindom of God.

So we’re ambassadors. Bringing messages like those very first disciples of repentance, forgiveness, healing, and love to village after village. We’re a rebellion. Preaching peace in war; forgiveness to wrongs; and God’s love for all. We’re God’s children.

Greed and fear will always be attacking us, locking us up, silencing us… but we’re mustard seeds. A light on a hill. A contagious laughter filled with the Holy Spirit that is resurrected again and again again until all things are gathered into one.

Amen.

Powerful Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 81vRnmnrlBL
Mark 6:1-13

Have you been Saved? Call out the day and the hour and the minute you felt Jesus in your heart!
Have you seen angels? When and where and what did they do?
Have you been touched? What miracle did you witness?
What about out of body experiences?
What about dreams of heaven and visitations from the dead?
Can you feel the Spirit!?

In some churches, the space between this world and the unseen is very thin. They feel these great revelations and know the flow of the Spirit as strong a presence as someone right here. Sometimes it is so strong they get possessed, speak in tongues, fall into seizures, or even faint.

And for some churches, and for some people, faith and grace keeps them going. Not supernatural experiences. Not out of body moments. Not miracles.

Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, they keep on going to church, keep on praying, keep to their religion in their emptiness.

And in emptiness, we are still strong.

Mother Theresa wrote the following confessing prayer to Jesus:

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

Over her life, she felt in her soul so alone, so empty, so without the Spirit in her…

… and yet, she came to see this as a gift.

She knew this is the feeling Jesus had on the cross. This is the pain that made him cry out “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?” This is the emptiness that Jesus poured himself to for us.

And that is the loneliness that the forsaken and poor of our world feel from society.

She drew strength from the Emptiness

The weakness forced her to become Strong in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise

Jesus’ weakness of being human is the strength that unites us with God.

Jesus’ emptiness of his divinity on the cross to feel death is how no matter whether we live or die, our God is with us, our Christ experiencing and having had experienced this with us, and pulling us towards the final victory over death, over sin, over separation.

There is strength in not being self contained.

There IS strength in relying on Christ.

Whether we do so with the gift of tongues and visions, or we do so with the gift of a long, dark, night of the soul where we feel spiritually dry and alone.

There is still strength in relying on Christ versus solely ourselves.

And that is what Paul is arguing today.

Paul knows of churches where the Spirit manifests boldly.

Paul knows of people who have had great visions – himself included.

But he also knows there’s people who practice their faith for minutes, and hours, and days, and weeks, and months and years and never sense anything supernatural. But that does not mean they have less faith than those who can manifest Pentecostal tongues or those who have visions. No – he knows God has said “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Christ’s presence is all we need.

When we are weak, we are strong – because then we are relying on Christ and not ourselves.

When we have times when we really feel our faith we should delight in that. And delight in others who do. And when we have times we are just doing the motions out of faith, not out of feeling it, we should delight in that too. Those are times Jesus is carrying us. And we should delight in others who are being carried by Jesus too.

Remember this is Paul who will argue that the body of Christ is made of all kinds of parts and people. Not everyone can be an eye, for we need ears. Not everyone can be an ear, for we need eyes. Not everyone will be a mystic, and spiritual; we need thinkers and doubters and questioners. Not everyone needs to be a thinker and doubter and questioner either — we need our people sensing the divine.

It is our weakness – not being able to be everything for ourselves- that makes us strong. For then we rely on one another; and rely on Christ.

Jesus’ message is the same as Paul’s. Or rather, Paul was preaching similar lessons as Jesus.

We read today that Jesus came to his hometown after having been out and about preaching and doing miracles. He goes to the synagogue and begins to preach.

Just like at the other places, people are amazed at what he is saying. But instead of celebrating the good news of God’s forgiveness and the in breaking of the reign of God… they are amazed at his audacity. They’ve always heard of great preachers and prophets as larger than life characters. Amazing people. Astonishing in person.

But this is just Mary’s son.

There’s his sisters.

And his brothers.

He’s not some super trained doctorate of religion… he’s a carpenter. Look, I’m using the chair he made last year. And Bobby over there used to make mud pies with little Jesus and Tammy there changed his diapers.

This is no miracle worker. This is Just Jesus.

Our church is no church in Corinth. No Saint Paul’s Cathedral or none-denominational mega church. This is Just Saint Michael’s.

What can we do?

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought he was nothing and so saw him do nothing. They were limited by how much they would permit him to be. They knew the human Jesus who had faults and flaws and was so mortal. And they demanded miracle workers to be fully perfect and have everything in order.

But that’s not the message of God. God loved us while we were still sinners. While not perfect, we’re called. While full of the Spirit or full of spiritual emptiness, we are included into the Body of Christ and told there is a spot for us. Those full of visions and those questioning the existence of God both are called to be saints, and to “Come be [Christ’s] light” to the world. (Jesus to Mother Theresa)

So Jesus sends us out. Sends the disciples out. Sends us out. Not loaded with everything figured out and perfect, but carrying just Jesus. He tells them to go with the bare minimum and to rely on the hospitality of strangers. He tells them to go with nothing spare. No backups. No money. Not even an extra cloak or pair of shoes. Just themselves. “Eugene Peterson offers Jesus’ instructions this way: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment” (The Message).

God never calls the equipped. God equips the called.

God never picks perfect people, perfect churches, perfect situations. God makes perfect the strength in those called.

And we, all who are Christian, are called to be Christ’s light to the world.

In your weakness, strength is made perfect.

In your need of Christ, you are filled with Christ whether you feel it or not.

In your brokenness, you are the perfect person to help another who is broken.

In your pain, you understand the pain of another.

Rev. Sally Brown applies these thoughts to our world today. She writes, “…culture is eyeing the churches these days, testing our credibility. Congregations may imagine that they cannot think about public witness until their internal problems, doctrinal and budgetary, are all resolved. But it may be precisely our internal challenges that press us into the kind of engagement with each other and with the Spirit that can turn us, sooner rather than later, away from cloying self-absorption and outward to the world God loves. Even in our weakness, maybe even because of it, we become credible witnesses of saving news in this frantic, fearful world.”

In other words… our culture is looking to us, looking to church communities, to see how to get through our trying times.

America is fractured and fighting. As we fight ourselves, we affect our world. The effects are helping raise tensions everywhere. Are we heading towards another world war?

I don’t know.

I do know, that we, in our imperfection, are called to this hurting country and hurting world. Not because we have it all together, but because we’re authentic in our tries to live together in our diversity. We are the equipment. We are the witnesses. We are the people called to say, “I wholly disagree with you, but I can still love you.” “I will not ever vote like you do, but I will share bread with you.” “I am not you, but I am glad you are my neighbor.”

Who you are now, without everything figured out, is needed now to be Christ’s light.

Amen.

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

Sola Fide – Faith Alone

Matthew 22:15-22 (34-46)dawn_martinluther
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (2:1-8)

 

Picture with me the most evil person you can. Historic or not. The most evil.

Got them in mind?

Okay, now, if, on their death bed, they have a change of mind and soul, and had faith in Jesus – would they go to heaven? Even with having not one single good deed their entire life?

If you answer yes – you may be Protestant.
If you answered no – you may be Roman Catholic.

The 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation is this October 31st. And it is from that time we get the phrase ‘Sola fide,’ faith alone, and salvation through faith alone is the a root of the division among Protestants and Roman Catholics.

But back in 1517, there was no division here in the Western church. But there was a monk named Martin Luther who was thinking that no matter what he did, he wouldn’t get into heaven.

He could never be good enough.

Martin Luther was from a middle class family in what is now Germany. At his parents’ wish, Martin went into law to be a lawyer. But it’s not where his heart lay. He was obsessed with religion. But the clergy couldn’t marry and carry on family names and lineages. Lawyers could. Clergy gave up their lands. Lawyers did not.

One day, Martin, as a young man, was caught in a thunderstorm and lightening was hitting the ground all around him. He felt his life flashing before his eyes- quite literally. So he cried out to Saint Anne – save me! Pray to God for me! If you save me from this storm, I will be a monk! I’ll stop running away from religion! And the storm subsided. Martin wasn’t injured. So several days later, he left law school and joined a monastery.

To say his parents were happy is a bold faced lie.

Martin still loved studying, and read everything he could to do about religion.

“Many Christians of the late Middle Ages had a great fear of demons and devils, and were terrified of ending up in hell. Mortality rates were high and life was very uncertain due to disease, accidents, childbirth and wars. Luther shared those fears and his first years in the monastery he was tormented with the idea that all men were hopeless sinners in the sight of God and unworthy of salvation… Luther followed all the requirements of the cloister – prayer, fasting, living a spartan life – but carried everything to such an extreme that his superiors were worried about him.

He wore out his confessor with marathon sessions of confessing, going over every thought in detail, then starting again from the beginning. His confessor, Father Staupitz,” – think of that for a moment. His name is Stop-Itz! And stop-it is just what he told Luther. He said, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive- parricide, blasphemy, adultery -instead of all these peccadilloes.” ((https://www.uncommon-travel-germany.com/martin-luther-biography.html))

And still the weight of feeling unworthy before God weighed so heavily on Martin Luther.

See, the church taught that when one was truly sorry for their sins, and confessed them, a representative of God could forgive those sins.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Then a person had to pay back to debt they owed God for the sins. Every sin carries a different weight of debt, and priests sometimes kept books with lists of sins and what the debt was for that sin.

Lie? Pray 10 Hail Marys with your rosary.
Kill someone? Time to go on a Crusade and offer your life in return for the life you took. Or pay for someone else to go on a Crusade in your stead.

Other ways of paying off debt, for yourself or on behalf of others (like, say, your son or daughter), was to go view or touch relics. Relics are an item a holy person owned, or a piece of that holy person. By being in their presence, it’s like some of their holiness could wear off on you. And you could pray to them, or to other saints, to intercede for you. To talk with God on your behalf. And to negotiate to lower that amount you owe for all those sins.

And you could visit holy sites, pilgrimages.

And you could give money or land or even your children to the church.

But was it ever enough? How could you be sure you were going to heaven and not hell?

It wasn’t ever enough for Martin Luther.

He wrote, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”

He realized that even if he sat doing nothing, he was still sinning. Sloth. Or he was thinking unholy thoughts. Or he could have been doing something charitable and he wasn’t.

And he couldn’t pay off the debt of Original Sin.

And always feeling like he was a worm, and nothing, and never good enough for God, and feeling God was punishing people in life and in death, made the monk Martin Luther begin to hate God.

Could anyone make it to heaven? Luther was beginning to think the answer was no.

He wasn’t the only one. Perhaps pastorally, somewhere between Jesus and Martin Luther, the church had begun to teach about Purgatory.

Where would a death-bed confession from an evil person send that soul? The church 500 years ago likely would have answered “Did that person receive forgiveness for their sins after confessing faith, and their sins, and asking for forgiveness? If yes – they had Final Rights… then they died without sin… but with a MAJOR debt. So they are not perfect enough for heaven, but may be given the opportunity to choose purgatory versus hell.”

Everyone Luther saw was going to purgatory because everyone was sinning. Purgatory is where those sins are purged, removed, and soul made fully clean. It was hell, but temporary hell versus the hell of eternity.

So how long does someone end up in temporary hell? It depends on what the living on earth do for the departed. Praying for the dead, giving offerings in their names, lighting candles for them, or getting Indulgences. These are given by clergy as a remission, a payment, of some of the time owed. Sometimes it was wrote out as “The name signed below is given an indulgence of 40 years.” Meaning, it was worth as if the person had lived 40 years as a good Christian.

Remember – we are talking about teachings 500 years ago. Modern Roman Catholic ideas on purgatory and indulgences and heaven and hell are, of course, 500 years more advanced and changed and refined. Just as none of us -I hope!- today preach and think just like Martin Luther… who really hated farmers and Jews, among many other categories of people.

Anyways – hell below, heaven above, and purgatory in between is how Martin Luther’s world understood things. The sinful and unrepentant below, the sinful but repentant in the middle, and the sinless and united with Jesus above.

If you answered that if someone has faith in Jesus before they die, that they’ll be in heaven… regardless if the whole rest of their lives they were evil…Then you’re thinking like Martin Luther in his later years.

After decades of beating himself up, Martin Luther read the works of Saint Augustine, from 300 AD. And he read the book of Romans extensively. Older Luther wrote, “I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’

Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” (Luther’s Writings 34:336-337)

Martin Luther had discovered “sola fide,” Faith alone. The righteous live by faith.

Faith alone, in Christ alone, means God alone gives grace, gives salvation.

No one is good enough for heaven. But God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus, if we have faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. No works, no deeds, no payments, no prayers, nothing we do on Earth, or in purgatory, will ever cleanse us of all sin. But God loves us anyways. And we can receive this gift of love, which we cannot lose, if we accept Jesus as our Savior. Jesus stands in for all that sin debt.

Martin Luther was so happy and released from his torment that he told EVERYONE about his discovery. We’re going to talk next week about how not everyone thought Martin Luther’s sharing was caring.

This week – we’re looking at sola fide. At solo, only, alone fidelity, faith, or trust.

Luther’s revelation is that NO ONE is good enough for heaven. NO ONE can get to heaven on their own merits. You can’t be a good enough person to stand in the presence of God. Somehow, in someway, you’re always carrying sin. Not a single person living or dead besides Christ is sinless.

But… Jesus promises us life with God, and reunion. So how is that possible?

It must be, Martin concludes, that even though we are sinners, and guilty – God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus.

And we have to trust this.

No dogmas, no creeds, no teachings, no indulgences, no special prayers get us into heaven. Nothing we do gets us there. This is God’s gift and in faith we receive it through Christ.

That also means there is no one more or less holy, more or less worthy. You either have faith, and receive the gift offered to you – or you don’t and reject the gift. And if received… there isn’t an organization to heaven.

You can’t be the first or the last in heaven. We’re equals. The greatest sinner and the greatest saint are all equals.

So, you might think like Paul – and ask – why should we ever live a life of love and charity then, if love and charity don’t give us rewards?

Some Protestants answered, like the Methodist, that good works are our way of becoming holy and ready for heaven while alive.

But Luther’s answer was we can’t be perfect. Instead, good works, faith works, are our response to God’s love. It is our work to bring the Reign of God closer. It is our voluntary choice to walk closer to God’s Way.

So Jesus, today, in our scripture, tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God? Our hearts, souls, and minds.

What more we give is out of love and in response to God’s love. It is not required. It is not demanded. It will not earn us Heaven because Heaven is already gifted to us – and we cannot get “more” or it or “less” of it.

So… it is a lie that you have to tithe to be Christian. It is a lie that you have to give money to a church to get into heaven. It is also a lie that willing money to a church safeguards you a place in heaven. Churches promising you a place in the afterlife that have a price tag attached are churches abusing your faith and… working as a cult.

God wants your hearts, souls, and minds. If you choose to support your church, that is your choice. It ain’t giving you more heaven.

It is a lie that if Betty gets 100k likes on Facebook God is going to heal her. Betty is a precious child of God and God wants to best for her whether she gets 100k digital thumbs up or none. Facebook pages doing this gather up all your likes, and then sell the page that used to belong to ‘Betty’ to another business, who changes the name, and then fills your Facebook feed with their advertisements. (Because you clicked ‘like’ on the page when it was for Betty.)

Don’t give Betty a thumbs up. Give a local charity money, or time, or donations if you feel moved to compassion.

What about the posts and messages saying “FORWARD IF YOU LOVE JESUS! Forward to 10 people in 5 minutes to prove you love the Lord!”

Nothing you post, don’t post, forward, or don’t forward, proves your love to God. Don’t get trapped in the guilt and in the manipulation. Don’t start thinking your deeds – or lack thereof – predicates, determines, whether or not you’re heaven-bound.

Salvation, peace, unity, reunion with God is through faith alone.

Trust.

Trust you are loved.

And let that trust, that love, guide your actions.

Let your deeds be faith deeds. Deeds you do out of your faith – not guilt deeds, or shame deeds, or hoping-for-more-heaven-deeds.

You’re good enough. Right now. You’re good enough tomorrow and tomorrow and eternally. God loves you. Right now.

No signing on the dotted line, honking, cross-wearing, movie-watching, radio-station listening, political candidate support or anything else required.

Just faith.

The classical Protestant belief is that faith alone is all that is required.

Amen.

Why Are You Standing There?

Acts 1:6-14 Angels-Talking-To-Disciples-After-The-Ascension-Of-Jesus
John 17:1-11

 

Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.

The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.

I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.

But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

DUH!

This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”

DUH!

Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

… say it with me…

Duh.

Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.

We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.

And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”

Duh. Of course not.

She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.

Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?

That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”

Duh.

But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.

Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.

So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.

As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.

What does this look like in action today?

The first example I can think of is our offering today.

A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.

Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.

Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.

Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.

But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.

The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.

The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.

And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.

We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.

You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.

Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.

What does?

Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.

Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.

Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.

This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.

But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.

So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…

Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?

Amen.

Rearview Mirror

Luke 24:13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

where-is-god.png

Elie Wiesel, his parents, and his sister were told to board a train. Upon debarking, they were separated. It was the last time he ever saw his mom or little sister. His father and he were placed together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He writes about he witnessed as men were beat, starved, tortured, and murdered. Day after day. Jews, Romani ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, people who disagreed with the government, and those suspected of being any of these categories – all subjected to cruelty.

Around the boy Wiesel the men confront their faith. Why does God permit this to happen?

Is God good?
Is God just?
Is God loving?

Is this a punishment from God? If so – what could a mere human do to deserve to watch their toddler tortured to death or their grandpa murdered by his fellows over a scrap of food?

Elie Wiesel writes in his memoir ((Night)) of how some people still prayed, and still praised God, even in deep heartache. But he could not. He writes,

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

The torture, the anger, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment led many prisoners to wonder… where IS God?

Wiesel recounts watching a very young boy being hung to inspire fear into the camp; “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” But God doesn’t save the boy and the boy hangs – but he is too light and so instead of a quick death, slowly suffocates. Wiesel continues, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where-hanging here from this gallows…”

God is dying. God is dead.

Later, a Rabbi in the camp says, “”It’s over. God is no longer with us.” And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?””

On that long, seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I believe a similar conversation occurred. I am not saying it was as hellish as that Wiesel suffered, but similar conversation may have happened. I think the two walking had to ask each other:

Where is God?
Where is this God of Mercy and love?
If this Jesus was the Chosen One of God… how could mere mortals murder him?
If this Jesus was the Messiah to bring in God’s reign, why do bad people still rule and good people die?
Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty go rewarded?
If this is God’s reign… where is God? If this is God’s world – where is god?
What if… there is no god?

In situations not as hellish as seeing Jesus die. Not as hellish as seeing everyone you know tortured to death. But similar words you may have asked: where is God?

Is there a God?

Wiesel’s faith of God changes, wavers, stops all together at times and flourishes at others. He alone out of his family survives the concentration camp. As an old man, he spoke with a news paper reporter. ((The Star Ledger)) The reporter asked Wiesel,

Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?

A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.

Q: How often do people ask you this question?

A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’

Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?

A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.

Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?

A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’

Elie Wiesel lives on with a wounded faith.

Out of that wounded faith, he inspires others to remember HUMANS caused the Holocaust – not God. We bear the sin. We bear the responsibility to never do this again.

Out of wounded faith, Wiesel heals.

Walking to Emmaus, I wonder if the two have a wounded faith. All their dreams and expectations have been murdered. Hung on a cross. Left to die. Buried. Already the close disciples of Jesus have begun to be captured up, to be stoned to death… murdered.

How could God torture and murder God’s own son?
How is that just?
How is that right?
Are we going to laud divine child abuse?

… Maybe, as with the holocaust… God didn’t do it. Humans did.

Humans accused Jesus. Humans killed him. The holocaust was not some part of a great big plan. Nor was the cross.

In the words of George Santayana:” If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”

UCC Rev. Terry Williams continues, “Suffering is never redemptive. Christ’s love for us is shown in how he chose to live; our sinfulness is shown in how we chose to end his life. Suffering is never God’s will.”

Where is God?

God isn’t the one inflicting the pain.

God is hanging from the gallows.
God is hanging on the cross.
God is with the person suffering.

In our scripture, these two are suffering and Jesus comes up along side of them. They don’t even notice. Jesus joins in their reality, their conversation. Jesus then reassures them. The word ‘fool’ here is the kind of fool we call a beloved friend. Foolish beloved friend, the deranged babble of the women is true. God doesn’t leave you in suffering. God goes alongside with you. God accompanies you even with your wounded faith, because God has wounded faith in humanity. And together, we abide, side by side, and hope and trust in better tomorrows.

In Emmaus, the two invite in the stranger who has walked with them. And the stranger then becomes their blessing – and disappears.

In sudden hindsight, they realize Jesus was with them all along. In sudden hindsight, they realize that by welcoming in the stranger they welcomed in Christ. By welcoming in the lonely, they welcomed in Christ. By walking with someone and speaking of faith, even though they themselves felt their faith was wounded, they found Christ and found deep assurance that indeed- the Lord is Risen.

When I am in the middle of hell on Earth, I don’t always see where God is. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always trust God is love.

But in the rearview mirror… I see… I was never alone.

God was in the care strangers showed me. God was in the prayers of others. God sat with me while I asked the hard questions of: God – why? Why? Why? And WHERE ARE YOU?

In the rearview mirror… I see with twenty-twenty… it’s a talent and a skill we must develop to recognize our Lord in the present moment. For God is present. Right here. In our joys, but also in our deepest questions and sufferings. Amen.