Tag: God’s Love

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-19ahandful-of-dust
Romans 8:12-25

Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.

It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.

And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.

I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.

Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.

Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.

And as we read, he has a vivid dream.

In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”

And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.

The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.

There are no godless places.

I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.

I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.

It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?

Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.

Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.

God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.

It’s… just so hard to remember.

And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.

Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.

Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.

First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.

But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.

I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.

Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.

When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.

Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.

Amen.

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Who Is My Neighbor?

lovethyneighborPsalm 25:1-10
Luke 10:25-37

Fill in the blank:
“Into a bar walks a Rabbi, a Priest and a…” Minister.
“Moe, Larry and…” Curly.
Donald Duck’s nephews are Hey, Dewey and… Louie.
Not into cartoons? How about the movie: The Good, The Bad and… the ugly.

These sets of three we just KNOW. They’re tied together. Jesus’ time had them too. One of these sets of three was a Priest, A Levite and… an Israelite. So if you wanted to tell the bar joke, it would go: A Priest, A Levite and an Israelite walk into a bar…” Usually, the joke continued that the priest only wanted to study the law. The Levite only wanted to do the law. And only the Israelite is smart enough to both study God’s Word and do God’s word.

Jesus sets up this set of three in today’s story. First — the Priest passes the man in need. Then, the Levite passes the man in need. We know how the joke goes, right? Here comes the Israelite to save the day and do better than both of these ‘men of God.’

But instead of an Israelite, Jesus says the third person to come along is the backwards, persecuted, dirty, outsider Samaritan.

… it would be as shocking as if I opened with a joke going, “A Rabbi, A Priest, and an ISIS Suicide Bomber walk into a bar…” That’s not how the joke goes, and really… it’s crossing the line from joke to insulting.

… Politically correct was never Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way is God correct. Politically correct means to think about your words, and not use words that harm others. It’s a very good thing!

But God correct means speaking the Truth of God even when that truth is painful to hear, or acknowledge.

The lawyer — someone extremely educated in the scriptures and laws of the time — had asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of simply giving the lawyer the answer, Jesus did the true Rabbi thing of answering a question with a question.

Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? You’ve studied it a whole lot – how do you interpret it?” Both men acknowledge the Bible has a lot of ways to read it, and lots of different understandings. However, they have the same reading: to inherit eternal life, one must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

DOING this love is how one lives eternally.

But this is a lawyer. It’s his job to nail down the facts. So… just who is my neighbor? Just who am I responsible to love? And that’s when Jesus gets politically incorrect and tells his story about the Priest, the Levite, and the Enemy. “Which of these three, do you think, acted like a neighbor to the man?”

The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “The Samaritan.” He can’t admit that dirty, dirty word; that enemy. He changes it to the softer but still true phrase, “The one who showed mercy.” Whomever was merciful.

Jesus’ answer?

Go and Do likewise. Go and Do.

Go and love your neighbor.
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

Love them. Show them kindness and mercy. Love yourself. Show yourself kindness and mercy. Love God – by showing all of God’s children the very same kindness and mercy God has shown you.

When Jesus tells this story, Jesus never identifies who the man is other than what crime happened against him. He was beat up by robbers who took everything he owned. The man is stripped of anything to identify him: he may be Jewish, he may be a Priest, he may be a Levite, he may be a Samaritan. He could be rich or poor. Young or old. Jesus keeps the details sparse so we can imagine ourselves as the man.

When you are so, so desperate for help… your neighbor is ANYONE who helps you out.

I read about a church where a woman was going through a messy divorce. Her fellow church members told her, “Keep your chin up. God will take care of you.” Her minister told her, “We are praying for you.” There was another woman in the community who had three kids who didn’t name anyone as their dads. She went to the woman and said, “Let’s get coffee; I’ll buy. Bring your kids, they can play with mine. You need a friend and I want to be one.”

Everyone in the church was well meaning, but none went out of their way to help. The outsider, the stranger, the one judged… she went out of her way to someone not like herself. But she knew what it was like to need a friend; what it was like to raise kids all by yourself; and she acted as this woman’s neighbor.

Who our actual next door neighbors are isn’t the message of this parable. Rather, it is about who is acting neighborly: a neighbor is anyone and everyone who goes out of their way to help another. Anyone and everyone who provides for our needs and who takes care of us.

Jesus’ story goes two ways then: it asks, are we neighbors? and who are our neighbors? In other words… are you going out of your way to help others; and are you letting others go out of their way to help you?

It’s that second one that really sticks in my craw; you too?

I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be invulnerable. Trying to be a self-sustaining one-woman island. I don’t need other’s help – I’m fine. I HELP OTHERS. OTHERS don’t help me. I donate to charity. I don’t take charity. I give out favors. I don’t rack up debts. I never want to be a burden. I give compliments, I don’t take them and I assuredly don’t take your pity and aide.

*tch* We rural folk, we’re strong. We survive it all. And this do-or-die-independence Jesus challenges. Jesus says being a neighbor involves not only giving help, but also being willing to receive it — and receive it especially from those not part of our immediate family and friends.

That hits me right in the chest.

When Jesus invites us into this parable as the beaten man, Jesus points out we’re all vulnerable. We all have times when we NEED assistance and help. We all have times when there are too many bills, or too much house work, or our bodies aren’t working as they ought, or we just are sad or lonely. We have times we’re stuck in the gutter and left in the ditch. And most of us choose to stay there, drag ourselves out, wallow in the mud, get infected wounds and suffer… rather than lifting a hand up and asking for help. Asking for someone to lift us back to our feet.

We ask God, if we ask anyone at all.

But what if God is working through those around us, and the answer to our prayer: God, help me through this! is God placing helpful people willing to be our neighbors in our lives?

Our psalmist writes, “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble God’s way. All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness,” Humble. Humble enough to give love. Humble enough to receive love.

It isn’t often socially acceptable to receive help… as in, by asking for help or receiving help you’re somehow less than others… but this humility and openness is a necessary way of following God’s path.

It is through giving AND receiving help, we build a web among us, a community among us. We knit the body of Christ closer and closer. One who only gives, and one who only receives, is like a dropped stitch; or like a tractor that only has forward or reverse but not both. You can work around a dropped stitch or a tractor missing gears… but it’s a whole lot harder than if you just had both. Giving and receiving, receiving and giving, is what makes us neighbors. So go and be loved by your neighbor!

Be open to being loved by
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

And do likewise. Love them back. Amen.

Completely One

That-they-all-may-be-one-1-300x196
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Thunder Bay Ontar

Acts 16:16-34

John 17:20-26

When you and I were in our mother’s wombs – we were sensitive to everything she did. What she ate, we ate. What she drank, we drank. What she breathed, we breathed. Good things: like cheese and bread and veggies — and bad things, like cigarettes and too many cups of coffee. Whatever she knew, we knew. Wherever she went, we went. When she was awake, we slept blissfully rocked by her motion. When she was asleep, we rocked her with our motion. We were separate people, but we were also one.

Jesus uses mothering imagery, birthing and nursing, to speak of God and God’s reign. Jesus tells us to be born again – one again – this time not with our biological mothers, but born of the Spirit. Born and connected to God.

Jesus says God cares for like a nurse, a sitter, a grandparent soothing a little one’s fears. He says we are welcomed into God’s presence like a lost son welcomed home by a loving father; and we are sought after like lost sheep, or coins.

God’s love is like these examples, but yet more. It is a love and desire for us that is even stronger than what we can feel for our significant others, our children, our families and friends.

Jesus prays that we — all Christians around the world, throughout all time — will come to know this closeness, this empathy, and love. So what one does, another feels. When one hurts, we all hurt and respond. When one is praised, we’re all praised. When some sleep, others are awake, and we work in partnership: united, as one.

Just as we cannot be literally born again, but must be spiritually reborn, so too we cannot literally be one with one another. There is a difference between you and I; there is a gap that we must work to cross. But scripture gives us many examples of how learning to be one-in-Christ looks like.

In today’s reading in Acts, Silas and Paul are in Philippi. As they go to tell people about THE way to salvation through THE God, a slave girl follows them who has a spirit of python, a spirit of divination from the Zeus pantheon. Zeus, too, is called The God Most High. And the words the Zeus-following-spirit give the girl are just true enough “a way of salvation” versus “the way of salvation” — not naming which God is being spoken of — that Paul and Silas’ mission is getting confusing to the locals. Are these Jews and slave girl one? Are they both saying salvation comes from Zeus?

Paul gets annoyed – turns – and demands the spirit to leave the poor girl alone so she, and others, can think clearly.

But the girl was bound by more than just a spirit. She was also a slave girl, and her owners saw that their money left with the spirit. Where the presence of Jesus is, a person cannot exploit another. It is against Christ to become rich off of taking advantage, exploiting, another.

The account continues by saying the owners of the now-free-to-Christ girl drag Paul and Silas to court and charge them with disturbing the peace. That is such a broad charge that today plenty of people are still charged with it. And often, like Paul and Silas, they are activists who are trying to teach people a better way: the way of being one. The way of identifying with all people and loving all people. The way of standing in solidarity with those society likes to use, abuse, exploit, hide away, and shun.

The two missionaries are put in jail after being beat. They’ve not had a trial. They’ve never been given even a chance to identify themselves, let alone explain their side of the story.

But in the middle of this super unfair situation, they still praise God. Silas and Paul knew that God is one with us, and we are one with God. God is our father, our mother, our perfect love who doesn’t leave us in our darkest hours.

At midnight – there is an earthquake – and everyone’s doors and chains are released. Everyone! They all could run free! As soon as the jailer sees this, he gets his sword to kill himself. I mean – what else is he going to do? He’ll be tried as a criminal: he didn’t prevent all the prisoners from escaping. We know criminals die by crucifixion. A quick sword is a better death.

Much like Silas and Paul, and the slave girl, this jailer is in a prison too: and just like for Silas and Paul and the slave girl, the word of Christ releases the jailer.

The jailer hears “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here. No one escaped.”

The jailer gets a torch and comes into the prison — where all his prisoners calmly wait, freed, where without lights they knew the jailer was going to kill himself. These prisoners who didn’t fear their unjust treatment and praised their God… who in the world are these people? What gives them such strength?

The jailer doesn’t know who these people are, or who their powerful God is – but he wants to know: what must I do to be saved?

Saved from their God – who is far more powerful than anything the jailer knows? Saved from misery and hopelessness, as these people are? Saved from being selfish and saved from not identifying even with those who persecute and jail? What is the secret to these missionaries’ ever burning, hopeful, life-giving light?

They share: the source of their oneness, their love, is the Lord Jesus Christ.

And the jailer becomes one with the prisoners. He washes their wounds. He feeds them and gives them a place to sleep. The prisoners become one with the jailer. They baptize him and his family. They rejoice with him and his family. They all praise God, who brought them together.

Jesus’ prayer is this: that we love one another. That we all become one, as Jesus and God are one. That we convert the world with examples of our love for each other, and for the world. Compassion, empathy, willing to reach across divides and save the enemy- save the jailer- from themselves; save the imprisoned- save the slave girl- from those who exploit; and save each other -from the hopelessness of dark prisons at midnight– Jesus’ prayer is that our love reflect the love of our heavenly parent. And that our love be the balm that tends the world’s wounds. That the love – the love shown to us in Christ – may liberate the entire world so that we may all be one.

Amen.

The Appalling Mercy of God

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The only time I ever hear the word ‘prodigal’ is in reference to this story. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I’ve always thought ‘prodigal’ must mean something like ‘repentant’ or ‘returning.’

Did you know it actually means wastefully extravagant? Lavish, imprudent, boundless, someone who is told to go to the store for milk and comes home with an entire barn of cows.

Jesus’ story is the story of an entire family who is wastefully extravagant.

He tells the story in response to the righteous, upstanding, church folk grumbling that Jesus is too generous for sitting down with sinners, even UNREPENTANT sinners, and sharing meals with them.

So the story goes like this:

A dad has a really good piece of farm land. He got it from his dad, who got it from his dad, all the way back to when they originally moved here. Over the generations, this farm went from a little single shoddy house in the wilderness to a big farm with hired hands. Now this land feeds not only the original family, but also the other families who work on the farm as farm hands.

This dad has two sons. The older son, let’s call him Bobby, is a really good boy. He does everything his dad tells him to do. He always goes to church with his dad, he always gets the crops in before rain, and he never, ever does wrong. Whenever there was a broken dish, or crayon marks on the walls, or a goat that got into the grapes… dad knew it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.

It was actually much more likely that dad’s younger son, let’s call him Timmy, forgot to close the gate. Timmy grew up in the shadow of Bobby. Bobby was older, the good kid, and always prudent. Timmy… well… sometimes Timmy felt like there was no place for him. He just couldn’t BE his older brother. His older brother was older- so of course he was better at things. He had more practice. To survive, to be his own person, Timmy had to find places Bobby wasn’t. Often, this was doing bad things.

I wonder if Jesus pauses here, before his crowd of church go-ers and sinners. The sinners are tax collectors, people who collect money for the Romans. Do you think these Jewish men would work for the Romans if they had an option? No! But, for one reason or another, this was the only job they could get. And what of these prostitutes? Do you think these women were little girls and said ‘One day, I’m going to have a job where I sell myself and everyone spits on me and looks down at me?’ No! Of course not. But circumstances, bad choices the girls made or that were made FOR them, forced them into this job. You Pharisees, you church-goers, you respectable people: listen up — this story is for you.

Jesus then continues that the younger boy Timmy wants to strike out on his own. He says, “Dad, when you die, you’re going to divide the farm between Bobby and I. Well, I don’t want to wait that long. Give me my share now.”

The dad is prodigal. He is extravagantly wasteful. He gives his son his son’s share of the farm.

And right away, the son is prodigal, extravagantly wasteful. He sells the land and sheep and goats and takes all the money far away.

Ancient Israelite farmers are much like modern Ohio farmers. The land we have is WHO we are when we say we’re farmers. This land has been cleared, fertilized, tilled and disked and cared for by our parents and grandparents. We love the land. It is a key part of our identity.

And our animals – and seeds – sometimes we have been breeding them from stock that’s just as old as the land.

The son does violence to his dad, to his ancestors, and to his community. Dad can’t hire as many farm hands now that a good portion of his land has been sold to strangers in a strange land.

These strangers come and they don’t know how to farm the land. Maybe they turn it into a McMansion or used car lot, or all the other development catastrophes we know. They bring in big trucks to build something in the middle of that beautiful piece of farmland and crush all the field tiles, tear down all the cattle fencing, and cut down the oaks your grandmother planted.

This younger son burns many, many bridges on his way out of town.

Where does he go? We don’t know. New York, Las Vegas, Columbus, Mexico – just somewhere that isn’t here. Somewhere where what it means to be a rural farmer isn’t understood.

And there, he blows through all the money from his dad’s work, his grandparent’s work, and his great-grandparent’s work. Broke, credit card debt past his eyeballs, the economy then tanks.

Hunger sets in. So Timmy looks for work. He’s a foreigner, a stranger, in this area. No one wants to hire him. They’d rather give a good job to a local. The only work he can find is being a farmer… ironic… and not a farmer like he knew back home, but a hired hand who has to do the dirtiest work.

Every good law-abiding Jewish person knows that swine, pigs, are dirty. The Romans eat them. But Jews do not. This foreigner, maybe a Roman, is making this Jewish kid help raise dirty food.

It’s kind of like the tax collectors. They are working for Romans… helping the Romans tax the Jews. It’s doing dirty work… so that they don’t starve.

I wonder if Jesus then asked, “Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners – how many times have you heard people whispering behind your backs, ‘Dirty pig!’ Was it foreigners calling you names, or was it people who are supposed to be your own community? Your own brothers and sisters?”

I think Jesus asks us to reflect… what names are we calling our fellow Christians?

… Especially those ones we see are sinning?

Are we calling them something else than beloved children of God?

Jesus then returns to his story: Hungering in the field after the pig’s bean husks, Timmy comes to his senses. He realizes that his dad’s hired hands are eating better than he is. If he wants to survive, he could go back to his dad.

Maybe Timmy really is sorry. Or maybe Timmy is just really hungry. We don’t know. We never know why people repent — why they turn back — why they say sorry. Maybe someone is truly sorry… or maybe they are doing it out of self-interest. Maybe people are saying sorry because they feel badly about what they have done. Or maybe they are saying sorry because they don’t want cut out of the will, or go to jail, or are scared of hell. We don’t know. And Jesus’ parable says the REASON someone repents isn’t as important as you and I would like it to be.

Rather, repentance and forgiveness belongs to the realm of grace. The realm of God. The realm of forgiving seventy times seventy or more times.

There’s no rap sheet with God.

No long list of, “Well, I already forgave you this same sin two times — this third strike? You’re out.”

As long as you’re confessing, returning, seeking God – the mercy and forgiveness of God is still pouring out, still coming, still washing away those sins.

Kinda appalling, isn’t it? Not fair at all. Extravagant waste.

Jesus’ story just keeps getting more prodigal and more not fair.

Timmy goes home, back to the town he’s wronged big time. Back to where the neighbors hate him. Back to where everyone looks at Timmy’s dad and shakes their head saying, “What a shame! Why did he ever let his son get that way? Why did he give his son that land? I wouldn’t let MY son act like that.”

And as Timmy walks through the little town, his dad sees him and goes running towards him. It’s like this dad has no sense of shame at all. For everyone to see, this dad acts like a giddy school girl and goes running down the street towards his sinful son to greet him! Does this mean he approves of how the kid’s acted?! The kid has just started to return, and dad runs all the rest of the way to greet him.

Of course he doesn’t approve. He just loves his son that much. God loves us like this!

And the father greets him with even more extravagant waste! Kisses and hugs, brushing off the son’s practiced apology, calling for new clothing and riches to be draped over the boy, and to throw a gigantic feast for the kid. The dad is going to throw a party for the whole town to celebrate the kid coming home.

It isn’t just the good son who’s appalled. I think the town is too.

What are we going to do? What are we going to choose? There’s a great big party getting ready to be thrown for this kid. Are we going to cross our arms, huff, and refuse to join? Are we going to turn our noses up and refuse to associate with this prodigal family?

The older son, Bobby, is walking towards town from the fields. He’s been working all day. He hears the celebration in town.

And when he learns what’s going on – oh boy is he angry.

He crosses his arm and refuses to go in. He refuses to celebrate that idiot who did so much wrong, so much sin. “I don’t care if he’s back safe and sound. I don’t care if he says he’s sorry. He should have never left in the first place!”

So dad leaves the party to come talk to his eldest son, Bobby. Truly, this dad has no shame when it comes to pulling his sons into his presence. He’s willing to plead now before the town with his eldest son. Plead, not demand, but plead.

God pleads with us. Never forces.

But the older son angrily answers his dad’s pleading, “No! THAT son — I won’t call him my brother — THAT son of your’s devoured your property and you rejoice? I’ve been a slave for you and you don’t do anything special for me – not once!”

And dad replies, “All that I have is your’s, and you have always been in my presence. Your brother was dead, but now alive. He was lost, but now found. We must celebrate and rejoice.”

I think Jesus’ crowd was so, so angry over this story. You church go-ers have always had God in your presence. All of God’s love, and presence, and mercy has always been your’s.

This sinner, this lost one, who turned back… this is your brother! Your sister! I have to rejoice. I have to welcome them. I love them.

Will you rejoice, will you welcome, will you love them too?

It is appalling that God’s mercy knows no limits. It is appalling that God’s love is for those who stay by God and those who wander. It’s appalling… but so, so necessary.

That older son was also lost and dead. He was in the field, so concerned about working, so concerned about doing right – that he, too, had wandered away from his father. He was dead in his heart – he refused to call his brother a brother. He refused to welcome his brother home.

This story of abundant, extravagent, endless mercy and love is for both sons.

The son who sins openly; and the son who sins privately.

The sinner who the world points at with shaming fingers; and the sinner who the world lauds.

Jesus, sitting there talking to tax collectors and church go-ers alike, talking to prostitutes and priests – says you all need God’s mercy, and you all have God’s love.

God’s love isn’t limited.

When a person enters the circle of God’s love, there is not less love for everyone else. When a sinner is given a welcome home party, that party isn’t just for that sinner. The party is an invite for everyone – rejoice! God’s love knows no ends.

I once heard this story told as so: Saint Peter stood at the gates of heaven checking names off for who could enter. However, more people were in heaven than the number on Peter’s list. “Go keep looking and find out what the issue is,” Peter told some angels. So the angels looked through heaven, took another count, and again more people were in heaven than Peter had let in.

Finally, one of the angels found the problem. The angel returned to Peter and said, “Found the issue with the numbers, sir. It’s Jesus. He’s standing out by the back wall lifting people over.”

That is our God.

Endless mercy. Endless love.

It may strike us as unfair, as appalling…

… but without this endless mercy and love, who would get past the gate?

Amen.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Ephesians 4:1-16

What is stronger? Rock, or water?

Rock seems stronger than water. Rocks keep water back, such as with dams. A rock goes through a window a whole lot easier than a rain drop. People build solid foundations out of rocks – not on sinking watery ground.

But let’s consider water: with enough time, water seems stronger than rocks. It finds cracks in that dam and slowly erodes the rock away. With enough time, it carves solid rocks and makes holes as gigantic and as deep as the Grand Canyon. A rock shatters with a big impact against it. Water, however, splashes, moves, around the rock that hits it and keeps on moving – unchanged.

In the short term, rock may be stronger.

But in the long term, water is more enduring. Water is stronger.

Perhaps this is why the Bible speaks of hearts that get hardened, that get turned into stone. Pharaoh’s hardened heart ignored the plight of the Israelites and turned Moses away. Hardened, cold, stony hearts made Jesus sad and angry. People who owned these hearts were more concerned about the proper way of doing things, about propriety, than simply helping others whenever the opportunity arose.

Jesus asks his disciples if they have hard hearts when they argued about how to share a single loaf of bread among them. Jesus reminded them that they had just seen him feed thousands of people with a few loaves – do they not understand?

A single loaf can feed many people.

But only if their hearts are not hard, but rather: are strong.

Hearts of stone never think there is enough to go around. Hard, solid, stony hearts are a dam, a defensive wall, that shuts out others and shuts out God. Isolated and alone inside that dark, cold, chamber, we huddle fearful of the outside world. Scared that our single loaf of bread will run out, and scared to share it too.

Soft hearts, strong hearts, hearts drenched in holy waters, are like river stones. These hearts are porous, full of holes. Gently, baptismal waters have carved space into these hearts. Space for the Holy Spirit to flow. Space for Christ. Space for others. These holey hearts, full of holes and God’s love, know we have more than enough resources when we all share. These kinds of hearts have windows to let the world in, and the graces given to us by God out.

You see, when we are baptized, we baptize with water and the Holy Spirit. The water cleanses away what is old – washes off the dirt, sins, and fear. We die with Christ in Baptism, and we arise with Christ in Baptism. So as the Spirit fills us, we become full of new life – a purpose – full of gifts to share for the community.

These gifts are graces, gifts from God, and never meant to be hidden away.

Like the children’s song ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ these gifts, these lights, are supposed to shine.

In us, from Baptism, the light of Christ burns. It is our own little candle. Our candle to shine out of our porous hearts to guide others towards love, towards Christ, towards God. This holy light we carry with us, wherever we go, as a beacon of the strength of water.

The world tells us to be harsh, to be cold, to be rock hard.

But our God tells us to be patient, to be kind, to be loving.

In the short term, a person can get ahead by playing by the world’s rules.

But in the long term, water is stronger. God is stronger.

For as Paul wrote us, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

That long term, permanent love – that love that breaks holes into even the toughest of hearts – that love that is patient enough to work for decades eroding away a spot to plant the light of Christ – that love of God is stronger than all else.

We, today, are privileged to witness an act of that love.

We, today, are witnesses to God and Ella Grace communing in a way beyond words.

We, today, are the eyes, the ears, the memories, the hands, the mouths, that will remind this little girl as she grows up of this moment. We will tell her we were present for this holy moment when the Spirit alighted upon her. We will pledge, during her baptism, to guide her and her family, aide and assist, pray and support, them as Ella grows. Part of that will be telling her that she is a beloved child of God, a child who has God’s ever lasting love, a child who has been washed with baptismal waters and the Spirit, a child who carries Christ’s light within her.

And when she is five, fifteen or a hundred and fifteen, these truths will not have changed.

Let us, we the people of one faith, one Lord, one baptism – the people who are children and yet gifted the Words of God – let us now prepare ourselves for this holy, once-in-a-life-time rite of Ella’s that we are privileged to be a part of.

Called By Name

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Do I have any Inside Out fans? Anyone who’s seen the movie? That’s a movie about more than emotions. That’s a movie on identity.

And what happens when your identity begins to crumble.

The main human girl, Riley, moves with her mom and dad from Minnesota to San Francisco. This change in location changes her core-memories, the core of her personality. The emotion-people in her head try to keep her the Riley they knew in Minnesota, but the worlds inside of Riley keep collapsing as her external world keeps NOT being Minnesota.

In other words, she has an identity crisis.

Who is Riley that lives in San Francisco?

She isn’t the Riley who lives in Minnesota and plays hockey on the pond.

Who is Riley?

Have you ever been like Riley and not known who you are? It usually happens when we’re teenagers — when we feel stuck between being a kid and being an adult… That moment when you realize hanging out with the kids is boring because they’re too concerned with make believe, and hanging out with the adults is boring because they’re too concerned with the real world… and you don’t fit well in either place. Who are you? Where do you belong?

I felt this way when I realized I was now engaged and going to marry my husband. Up to that moment, my identity was ‘seeking.’ Watching for someone to date, watching for a match, giggling with friends about what ifs… and suddenly, all of that was over. Somehow, I had slipped from my cohort of single girls seeking guys into the category of girl with a guy… And not only I felt it, my friends did too. How were they to relate to me?

I have seen a man or a woman lose their love one before, after a long and blessed marriage, and that widow or widower is so… lost. For decades, their identity was ‘I am a wife/husband.’ For decades, they knew who to turn to, to share stories, ask questions, and center their lives around. But now… it is as if their life is hollow. The core of their life is gone. When we lose someone so dear to us, it feels like a piece of us has died… perhaps it really has died… for we are no longer the same. But who are we then?

Divorces. Kids. Parents who no longer can care for us but who now need us to care for them. Loss of job. Change of job. A new illness. A disability. Aging…

… Am I still the world’s best cook when I can’t get the energy to cook anymore?

I wonder what the people coming to John the Baptist were struggling with. I can think of many things… They had been told for a long, long time… for generations… that they were God’s chosen people. Called by name. That nations would be paid – sacrificed – to rescue them. Told again and again God loved them, was with them, favored them as God’s own children…

… and yet, here they were: occupied. Paying their food and money to their occupiers. They no longer had the Davidic line ruling; instead, they had puppet kings of Rome.

Their own religion was threatened. Caesar sent out gospels, good news alerts, of how he’d taken this town or that town — occupied new regions– and the people should pray to him because through Caesar alone salvation came. Caesar gave roads, gave food, gave unity, gave peace: but you had to submit and worship Caesar as the son of the gods.

… The people of Israel witnessed loved ones beginning to believe the propaganda. Watched loved ones say, ‘I could be a Jew and a second-class citizen, or a slave, all my life… or I could just convert, praise Caesar, and become a Roman Citizen.’

The people coming to John had people who were in identity crises. Who am I? What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to wait for the Messiah? What does it mean to be a child of God? Can I serve two masters at one time – Caesar and God? Can I be Roman during the week and Jewish on the holidays and Sabbath? Who am I?

And they also asked John, Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is going to provide answers? Are you the one we’re waiting for? Can we stop waiting?

You heard in our reading, John tells the people he is not the Messiah. He predicts God will come and sort the people into the pure and the impure. God will give rest to the pure, and purify the impure. “I baptize you with water… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

A spirit of holiness, the Spirit of God, and flames, fire to add to the river’s water.

I hear in John’s words an echo of the Prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah once prophesized that God said, “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”

Through water and fire, through rivers and flames, through good times and bad times, through life and death, God will be with us. Whatever we wade through, whatever trials by fire we face, and even death itself – none of these will be the last of us. Our promise and assurance is that God has the final word.

As John’s baptism gave people the opportunity to commit themselves to the coming Christ; gave them the opportunity to say ‘I stand with God and not with Caesar;’ gave them the opportunity to claim their identity as a Child of God… so too, did Isaiah give us an identity.

Isaiah tells us the words of God. The words that proclaim God made us. God redeemed us. God tells us not the fear for, “I have called you by name. You are mine… I am… your God.” All that I do, I do “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear for I am with you.”

Who am I? Who is my core?

Each time we recall our baptisms, we can recall just who is at our core. Who our solid center is. This world is always changing, always making new identities for us, but we can cling fast to our identity as children of God: formed, redeemed, called, and loved.

Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God’s grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago, with Jesus right there in their midst. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God’s words from Isaiah long before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”

God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). God’s love didn’t start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is ancient, before time, it is from of old, and it is focused on each and every one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It’s as if God is trying to say to each one of us, “No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God.””

Who are you?

A precious and beloved child of God.

Amen.