Tag: God’s Love

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

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High on the Hog

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30myklove-thanksgiving-devo1

How is gratitude related to these two passages? It seems like a stretch.

In Jesus’ parable, it is helpful to remember Jesus is talking about when the reign of God will come, and what it will be like. This is shortly before he, himself, is arrested and murdered, resurrected, and on a journey that is now 2000 years delayed. Perhaps Jesus is the man in the parable who goes away. We usually interpret this parable this way – but Jesus could easily be one of the slaves, too. There is no ‘right’ way to understand a parable.

So let’s imagine Jesus is the man leaving. He brings forward those who serve him — people like you and me — and gives us ‘talents.’ Normally, we understand this to be talents like singing, dancing, ministry, financial intelligence, hopefulness and helpfulness…. English literally takes the word ‘talent’ for these things from this Bible verse. In the old Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, however, a talent was an obscene amount of money. So the man gives hundreds of millions of dollars to his servants. More money than any of them have ever imagined.

But since we’re trying to understand this parable with the man as Jesus, we know Jesus doesn’t give us money. In fact, if we’re getting rich because we’re Christian – we’re doing Christianity wrong. So what DOES Jesus give?

Forgiveness.

Jesus gets in trouble because he is forgiving sins, and reconciling people with God. He gets in trouble because he is saying, through him, we all can have second and third and one-hundred-million chances to turn back to God. What is the insane amount of wealth Jesus is offering and leaving with us? God’s forgiveness. God’s love. God’s reign.

So Jesus leaves on his trip, leaving us variously with different amounts of sins forgiven, and grace, and love, and experiences of the reign of God.

The worst sinners among us take that 5 talents of grace — unearned forgiveness — and wholly live into it. Full living high on the hog. And those worse sinners, now forgiven, go out and forgive twice as many people, bring twice as many the good news of abundant life with God, and by the time Jesus returns, the 5 talents of grace have turned into 10 talents of grace. All kinds of lives touched and forever changed for the better by inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and love.

The middling sinners are forgiven a middling amount. But still, their faith brings double the amount of goodness to the world!

Lastly, there are some people who live with just a little bit of sin in their lives, but God offers them forgiveness too. These servants of God also hear the good news, also know how much God offers, and also receive forgiveness. They, also, could double the grace.

The difference in this parable is not about how much forgiveness we need – but what we do with it. The difference isn’t whether we live deeply or lightly sinful lives, but what we do with the grace and new lives God offers us.

In this story, the man who receives the single talent is terrified of losing that single iota of grace from God. He thinks God’s generosity is limited. He hides the forgiveness God has given him. Is he ashamed? One way or another, he doesn’t live life fully. He doesn’t permit himself to invest in others, or spread the wealth he’s been gifted around. He doesn’t even use it for himself. He just buries it. He doesn’t lose this forgiveness, but what good does it do?

When the man comes back, when Jesus returns, he finds the deeply forgiven person has doubled the grace given to him. So too, has the middling. But the person who was scared of God, who felt God took things that didn’t belong to God and was cruel, did nothing. They lived in terror of the return of the man. And Jesus, if he is the man in the story, chastises the scared servant. “Oh! You just KNEW I was cruel, huh? You could have at least given the talent to the bank!” You could have at least given the new life I gave you, the grace, the forgiveness, the time and money and skills, to another who could invest it and do good. Instead, you just lived isolated. You could have lived richly, but chose to live in poverty. You could have lived high on the hog and feasted on shoulder cuts, but instead, chose to barely get by with spam and hog feet.

We’re supposed to be like our master – supposed to be extravagantly generous. Supposed to take whatever talents we’re entrusted with, and invest them! In the words of Paul, we’re to always be encouraging one another! Praying for one another! Loving one another! Investing into one another. That is the holy life. That is the life living into the reign of God. That is the life that isn’t hiding the gift of Christ.

Thanksgiving is a time of generosity and extravagance. A time of feasting. WE are called to FEAST. Called to eat our fill, eat until our bellies are round and our pants too tight, on the bread of heaven. Our cups are literally overflowing – so full of the wine of life, the fruits of God, that they spill out all over us and splash onto those we encounter. God’s thanksgiving feast is such that hundred-million-dollars is a token amount. A tiny amount. This feast is spilling from our Bibles and Communions, our pews and hymnals, our deaths and our lives – like seed scattered, bread crumbs on the floor, coins tipped off a table and sheep let loose after a winter in the barn — this grace gets everywhere!

Unless we dig a hole and hide it.

Fear not, says Jesus. Do not be afraid, say the Angels. If you are scared, says Paul, you’ll want armor… but don’t take up arms and Kevlar. Don’t buy guns and glower at strangers. Instead, faith and love are your flak vest. Salvation is your helmet. And that is all you need to be secure. Whatever darkness comes, whatever makes you want to dig a hole and hide, you don’t need to be afraid. Extreme love has been shown to you and will continue to be shown to you. Hiding in the hole will not help. God knows us whether we are sleeping or awake, attentive or distracted. God seeks us wherever we wander. And God finds us to offer us forgiveness and love.

So do not fear.

Come on out of the hole you’ve dug. Bring out your talent, and let’s live high on the hog. Let’s celebrate. Let’s rejoice. Let’s give thanks that we are the beloved children of light, children of the day, children of God.

Let us celebrate! Let us give thanks!

What do these two passages have to do with gratitude? I believe they suggest that lives who have received forgiveness – and that is every person! – are best lived investing that forgiveness into others gratefully.

We are to double the love we’re given.

Amen.

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.

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.