Tag: heaven

Why Are You Standing There?

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

 

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

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

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

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

DUH!

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

DUH!

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

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

… say it with me…

Duh.

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

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

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

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

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

Duh. Of course not.

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

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

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

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

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

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

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

Duh.

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

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

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

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

What does this look like in action today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does?

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

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Tending the Sheep

dorcasActs 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17

Dorcas and Tabitha mean the same thing, sorta like feline and cat or Charlie and Chuck. This woman’s name is gazelle, and she is so important to the early Christians that she is the only woman ever called a ‘disciple’ in the New Testament! We can picture her as a leader in the Joppa church, if not THE leader. Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews of the UCC writes, “Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need.”

Yet, we know very little about who she is: does she have money? She weaves or sews clothing for those who can’t afford clothes. Is she a widow? The widows of Joppa mourn her terribly. Is she an older lady or a young lady? Luke doesn’t tell us. Her income, her marital status, her age… these things aren’t important. Remember that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, free person or slave. We are all equals. And so, Tabitha isn’t know for her statuses… but for her love. She is “devoted to charity and acts of good works.” She is a disciple. We know she is Christian BECAUSE OF HER LOVE.

… Did you know a rich Christian is not an oxymoron… but a greedy Christian is?

In 2010, the New York Times brought the public’s attention to the “Charitable Giving Divide” that sociologist had noticed for years. Now, more and more people are beginning to see the pattern that the POORER you are, the MORE you give to charity. Isn’t that strange? A PhD candidate at Berkeley, Paul Piff, recently found that in his tests, “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.” So… does this mean that a person becomes financially rich by being greedy, distrustful, self-reliant, and not giving away money? Or does it mean a person becomes poor because they give to every charity and homeless person they see?

Psychologists and sociologists went out to study this. And they found that no — a person’s wealth or poverty isn’t a result of their charity… their charity is a result of their empathy, and their empathy is a result of who they identify with. This same researcher primed his volunteer test subjects by showing sympathy inducing videos and encouraging them to imagine themselves in different financial circumstances. That changed their reactions — for both sets of income. In other words, the poor, imagining themselves rich, became less altruistic. The rich, imagining themselves poor, became more generous to the destitute and ill. Piff concluded: “Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients” in the generosity of the poor.

When a person identifies as rich, he or she believes others are or ought to be rich too. So she votes for laws that help rich people, and she doesn’t give out money because that person she gives it to might misspend it on something like cigarettes rather than something she values – like education. She doesn’t understand, sympathize, or feel compassion for the poor because their lives, their worlds, are so different than her own. She doesn’t know the little things like cigarettes are a real addiction, and that food-stamps make sure you don’t go hungry, but they don’t cover things like toilet paper, sanitary napkins, or soap. So the money may not be used on food… but it’s going to be used on whatever the poor needs most at the moment.

And the reverse happens. When a person identifies as poor, he or she believes others are poor and need help too. “Oh, I was in a similar situation once, and I needed charity. I bet you do too, let me help!”

This compassion, this empathy, so scientists are learning, isn’t due to our actual wealth or poverty at all. It has all to do with who we identify with. Tabitha may have been a rich matriarch, or she may have been a destitute widow – Acts doesn’t tell us because her actual status didn’t matter. What mattered was who she identified with: and she identified with Jesus. She was a disciple, a follower, someone attempting to live like Jesus. And so she, like Jesus, identified with the trod upon, the ignored, the poor, the sick, the sinners, the people who need help. She identified with the Good Shepherd and so she aided the Sheep.

Our reading of Paul’s vision in Revelation is all about identification, about thinking of how to be like Christ. He sees all the people of the world — every race, every tribe, every tongue, every walk of person, all robed in white with victory palms singing to God. He can’t tell one group from another — they ALL are in sparkling white. And he asks his guide in the vision, who are all these people? Paul is told these are everyone who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. This is an oxymoron – blood doesn’t make things white. It covers something, marks it. Paul is being told these people have been covered in a universal, new identity. This new identity is worshiping God. In other words, these are people who have left their individual identity as a richly clad Roman, or poorly clad Judean; people who have left their identity as broken bodied or as able bodied; people who no longer think of themselves as American, Spanish, Straight, Gay, Democrat or Republican — but think of themselves as a person who identifies with what is good, Godly, pure.

Every race. Every nation. Every walk of people John sees. And each and every one is washed in purity because she or he has known the great ordeal of being faithful to the kindness, love, and generosity of God when those things too often bring us heartache. These saints identify with the Lamb, and so tend to the Lamb’s sheep.

… As Jesus told Peter in our reading last week… if you love me, tend my sheep.

If you love and worship Jesus, if you consider yourself a Christian – a follower of Jesus – tend his sheep.

Love others. Help others. Be generous. Imagine yourself in the position of others and think how best to love them. How best to tend to them. How best to be like Christ to them.

Our Good Shepherd gives us food and water, rest, sits with us even when we’re surrounded by enemies and bad times. Our Good Shepherd tells us not to fear, leads us to prayer, leads us to living ever renewing waters, leads us to where we can trust in God.

If we identify as Christians, our lives ought to be Christ-like.

Amen.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hidden-motives/201008/why-are-the-poor-more-generous

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.

Blame Game

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

Who’s to blame? Jesus’ disciples are trying to get their heads around the idea Jesus is preaching. An idea that isn’t popular in Jesus’ day, or our own day…

That message is don’t blame victims for their plights.

In our reading, Jesus is speaking privately to his disciples, but people keep bringing him more and more issues to address. There are so many, the scripture says the people began to trample and step on one another. And someone in the crowd calls out, “Rabbi! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus is upset with how greedy and lacking empathy the people coming to him are.

Some other person in the crowd comes and tells Jesus about an attack. Pilate murdered these worshipers as they brought their offerings to the temple. The person telling the story suggests, “Surely God protects God’s own people. So since these good faithful worshipers were killed in the middle of worship… they must have actually been sinners and made God so mad, God used Pilate to kill them. Right Jesus? So we can go boycott their funerals right?”

Jesus replies, “Ah, so then the 18 people who died in Jerusalem recently when that building fell – they must have been the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem, right?” I think the crowd must nod. Yes, that’s right.

Jesus says, “No, I assure you. They weren’t the worst sinners. But unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.”

Who’s to blame when bad things happen?

When bad things happen – we, like the crowd, often lack empathy and we blame the victim. We say they weren’t a victim at all. They brought this on themselves. This is their own fault.

If a woman is pestered by a man, catcalled, touched: it’s because she shouldn’t have worn that clothing. She brought his attention on herself.

If a kid is bullied in school, he should be more of a man and stop crying. No one likes a whiner.

If a man is cheated on, he really should have been a better husband. Good husbands have faithful wives.

These people deserve their fate.

Do you remember how many preachers were saying hurricane Katrina was God’s response to Mardi Gras? It was God punishing the sinners of Louisiana? Surely Louisiana is the most sinful state of the US. So they deserved all that death, destruction, disease, and destroyed families.

How many preachers and politicians right now are saying the US is not flourishing because of “those sinners.” Depending on who you ask, those sinners are women seeking reproductive health care, gays and lesbians, non-Christians, or drug users.

Surely God is punishing the US, and that is why we aren’t the world’s only super power.

No! Says Jesus. No!

No to all of this! Each of these cases heap burdens on those already burdened.

Do not judge lest you be judged.

Nations rise and fall; hurricanes happen; good men are cheated on; all kids are bullied; and a woman isn’t responsible to police men.

Blaming those already in hurt turns us into sinners: into people who are hypocrites because we preach love but do harm.

One’s luck in life – whether good or bad – is NOT because of one’s sins. And, unless we repent of judging others, repent of harming others, repent of sin… we will perish. We will die on the inside. We will be heartless, and cruel, and continue to judge others…. continue to play the blame game and tell victims they deserve their bad luck.

Jesus, when no one understands what he means, tells a story about a fig tree. The land owner wants to cut it down, because the tree doesn’t produce figs. The gardener says, “No! Let me change the tree’s environment. It may be a bad tree, if so – then cut it down. It’s a bad tree. But give this tree the benefit of doubt. Give it a chance. Change the environment and you may be surprised.”

What does that mean?

… Often, we are victims of our circumstances, our environments, and not wholly to blame for our deeds.

Did you know one of the largest, if not THE largest, mental health institution in the US is the Cook County Jail in Chicago? It houses 9000 people, of which 35% are mentally ill. That’s 3150 mentally ill people at all times.

It didn’t always used to be like this. There had been social workers working the streets, and mental health places, and homeless shelters… but the city cut the funding for these projects. They said having these aids available encouraged people to be homeless. And, they said that with “Obama Care” everyone has health insurance, so now there is no need for free and low-income mental health help.

If you make too little money to afford health care insurance, you get a paper from the government that says you’re excused from purchasing it. So in reality, many people still do not have health insurance. Mostly the poor.

If you are able to get health insurance, next to none of them cover the full cost of prescriptions. Mental health drugs are expensive – $100 a pill at times. Even a good insurance plan that pays 80% of drug costs leaves a person paying $20 a day for their medication… and that is $20 most poor people have a hard time coming by.

Food stamps don’t cover medication.

In cities like Chicago, in cities like Columbus, like Lancaster, and even in rural areas like ourselves… the mentally ill fall through the cracks, often don’t have family or friends to help them, and end up homeless, hungry, and off their medication for months.

They do things like Daniel at Cook County did. His family was very rough growing up, and since he was 11, he’d been battling depression and PTSD. These things happen when you see your own relatives murdered.

When he turned 18, he was too old for foster care, he couldn’t get the money for his prescription antidepressants. So he went cold turkey. That was way too hard. He couldn’t afford a doctor, or the health care insurance, or the prescription drugs – but he could afford alcohol and street drugs. So he used these to self-medicate. One day, cops picked him up for loitering and found the drugs on him.

Daniel, like many in the Cook County Jail, are glad to be in the new environment. In jail, there is food, access to the right medication, and people to help kick addictions. But he worries when he gets out… where will he get this support?

Back on the streets, back to being homeless, now with a criminal record – so it’s harder to get a job – back to being without access to his medication… what is he going to do? Will he still produce good fruit when his environment is so bad?

Daniel is one of over 3000 people DAILY in this jail suffering from mental illness. Daniel is one of 9000 people there DAILY who are there because of something they did, some crime, but untold thousands of them did the crime because of circumstances outside of their control. They are victims of their environments. With different environments, with some fertilizer and a caring hand, with some love – they may just start producing good fruit.

Jesus is telling us that we are fruit trees, and supposed to produce good fruit: fruits like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness…. We’re supposed to produce the same fruit our parent tree, God, produces.

Here, this church, is a garden. We invite the gardener in to tend to us, to give us a good environment, to give us a place of welcome and forgiveness.

Jesus’ controversial teaching to his disciples and the crowd, his hard message to us today is that good people don’t have God’s magical protection barrier around them. Jesus is saying that bad things happen to people regardless of how much they sin.

Indeed, Jesus is saying that good people don’t go to heaven.

Forgiven people go to heaven.

For as our psalmist writes,

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We are not good people. We try to be. But our environment, our circumstances, means we often sin. Instead, we are forgiven people. People who know what its like to rely on mercy.

Jesus came for the sinsick. Came for fruit trees like you and me who need a better environment. God, who’s ways aren’t our ways and thoughts aren’t our thoughts, abundantly pardons us when we ask for forgiveness.

God is merciful with us. Let us be merciful with one another. Let us forgive each other. Let us forgive ourselves.

Let us not play the blame game, but worship God with love for God and one another. Amen.

Resource http://www.vice.com/read/what-life-is-like-inside-the-massive-jail-that-doubles-as-chicagos-largest-mental-health-facility?utm_source=vicetwitterus))\

Delight!

John 2:1-11
Psalm 36:5-10

For a sake of a good story, let’s make up some details to our Gospel story today: Picture! Joe and Jane are getting married. They’ve invited all their family and friends, and the whole town. It is completely acceptable in their culture to just show up at any wedding you hear about. So, Joe has a lot of company to feed. And they get roast lamb and crisp bread and as much wine as they can drink. An exciting, bountiful wedding means an exciting, bountiful marriage, right? And in this ancient time, Joe needs to turn his financial wealth into a wealth of children!

But in the middle of the wedding, long before people are ready to go home, the wine runs out. This embarrassment, this social disaster, may haunt Joe and Jane the rest of their lives.

Picture a boss looking over two applicants to work his vineyard: does he want Benny who gave good wine his entire wedding to the whole town… or Joe who was stingy, took our wedding gifts and tossed us out before we even were buzzed?

If Joe didn’t get enough wine because he’s poor, he’s looking at being a whole lot poorer in the future as the town of Cana shuns him.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is full of compassion and empathy. She sees the growing problem, recognizes it, and immediately takes it before God.

You see, four days ago she saw Jesus baptized and John testified he saw a spirit like a dove descend from God and alight upon Jesus. The following day, some of John’s disciples believed John’s epiphany, his realization, that Jesus is the Lamb of God. So they began to follow Jesus.

Then Mary saw Jesus begin to gather fishermen as disciples. Nathaniel proclaimed, “You are the son of God!” And Jesus replied, “You will see greater things than these.” Greater things than Jesus knowing Nathaniel before Nathaniel introduced himself.

Today, the third day, Mary states her epiphany – her realization – she knows who Jesus is. And so when she sees a need, and turns to prayer – she turns to Jesus since she knows he is the son of God, the Lamb, the one who has come to take away sins, the very in breaking of the new age of God.

She turns to Jesus and states her prayer: “They are out of wine.”

… It’s kind of a silly prayer. “Oh God – there is no wine to drink. Send wine.”

It reminds me of the Simpson’s episode “Pray Anything.” In that episode, Homer Simpson watches the super-Christian Ned Flanders being successful in life. He asks Flanders what his secret is. Flanders tells him things like “work hard,” “eat healthy” “and a little prayer.”

Homer only focuses on prayer, since he doesn’t like the other two. He begins to pray for things like help for finding the TV remote, and a new tasty snack, and help with a plugged up sink. He finds the remote, chocolate-covered bacon is invented, and he comes up with a scheme to make money for the sink.

His wife tells him, “God isn’t some sort of holy concierge. You can’t keep bugging him for every little thing!” But Homer ignores her.

The message of the episode isn’t that Marge, (Homer’s wife) is right, – Homer’s prayers are answered until he blanetly sins and hurts other Christians, and forgets God – No, in the episode, the message is rather to have faith.

You know, I don’t think there are any silly prayers. Prayer is a conversation, a dialogue, between you and God; between people and God; between creation and God.

Our conversations with each other have trivial things in them. Trivial concerns. Trivial joys. Trivial squirrelly thoughts that go no where. God isn’t a holy concierge, but God delights in us and does want to know about every little thing.

Mary’s prayer, this wedding at Cana, is evidence to me of this fact.

God cares for our normal, daily, life – including our frustration when we lose the TV remote.

God cares for our heart-stopping, monumental life – including the moments when we feel we can’t go on and the moments when we’re talking on Cloud 9.

God cares for us – in the big times and the little times.

God wants to hear from us when we have no big concerns and when we have gigantic concerns.

Mary’s prayer is for a single wedding. Yet God responds exuberantly in God’s own time.

Mary tells Jesus, “They’re out of wine!”

Jesus’ responding words in English sound harsh, but in his native tongue they don’t sound as bad. However, he still dismisses her. “Why is that our problem? It isn’t my time.”

John’s wonderful double meanings are in Jesus’ words. John’s whole gospel is full of this kind of word play. This isn’t Jesus’ wedding. It isn’t time for him to give out wine. But it also isn’t Jesus’ hour — time — of self-revelation and glory.

Mary, however, cannot be dissuaded. Like many of the women in the Bible, she refuses to give up hope. She turns to the servants who are working the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

Now she places the time, the action, back into Jesus’ hands. If he tells the servants nothing – then nothing will happen, the party will end, and people will leave. If Jesus decides to act, then he can tell them what to do to assist with fixing the end of wine problem.

We read that near the wedding were gigantic stone water jars. These water jars once held clean water for people to use to wash their hands. Now they are empty. Every jar can hold twenty to thirty gallons of water. So 120 to 180 gallons of water. If that’s hard to picture, picture three of your hot water tanks.

Jesus tells the waiters and waitresses to fill the jars with water, and the workers do so all the way to the brim. Then Jesus tells them to take some of the liquid to their boss. So they stick in a dipper, remove some of the water, and find it is not the same stuff they put in it.

Faithfully, without question, they take this to the chief steward, their boss. He’s standing there thinking, “Well, this party is over. Pretty soon someone’s going to ask for wine, and we have none. This Joe really has messed up big time.” So the waiter gives the head boss this cup, the boss tastes it, and is shocked at what good wine it is. He calls over Joe with glee and laughter, “Joe! You crazy man! Everyone else gives out the good wine for their toasting and socializing, and then they use the cheap wine after everyone is drunk. No one knows the difference then. But you! You rascal! You’ve saved the best for last!”

But the servants, and the disciples who were watching, and Mary and Jesus… they know the truth. The three tanks, the six jars, the gallons and gallons of good, excellent, expensive wine was actually water just a few minutes ago. Jesus has turned plain water into excellent wine. An extravagant, overly generous, miracle has just occurred.

Jesus does his miracle on his own accord, his own time, but in response to prayer.

He then took what was old — the old Jewish stone jars. The old ways of doing things — but he made something new inside of the old. Judaism isn’t replaced, but something new is growing out of it. The prophets, the Old Testament, the teachings of Elijah and Moses and Abraham aren’t outdated and useless… but out of them, a new gospel, a new message, arises.

It’s sort of like how Jesus takes us — our same old bodies and souls — but fills us with new, marvelous Spirit.

And, when it seems like the party is over… when all is said and done… when hope is lost and there is nothing left that we can do…

… we can still pray…

… and God still has the final word.

Hope is never fully lost.

Even death – which claims us all – doesn’t have the final word.

Our bridegroom is preparing a wedding feast for us. Our bridegroom is gathering us together for the most extravagant wedding feast. Our bridegroom is coming, at some unknown hour, to start a celebration for the ages. Our bridegroom has the final word — not death, not sickness, not separation. Not isolation, or depression, or feelings of low-self worth. Our bridegroom has the final word: and that final word is one of superabundant grace, extravagant welcome, and unlimited grace.

Delight!

Our God delights in us!

We delight in our God!

God delights to hear from us! God delights when we share our life with the divine!

Let us pray without ceasing. Let us pray when we have big problems and small. Let us pray when we have little joys and big joys. Let us pray by the way we live our lives! Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC 1-17-2016 Baltimore, Ohio.

Possessed!

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

Have you heard George Carlin’s act “A place for my stuff?”

It goes a bit like this:

I would have been out here a little bit sooner…
…but they gave me the wrong dressing room…
…and I couldn’t find any place to put my stuff.
And I don’t know how you are…
…but I need a place to put my stuff.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing back there…
…just trying to find a place for my stuff.
You know how important that is, that’s the whole…
…that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it?
Trying to find a place for your stuff.
That’s all your house is…
…your house is just a place for your stuff.
If you didn’t have so much […] stuff…
…you wouldn’t need a house.
You could just walk around all the time.
That’s all your house is, it’s a pile of stuff…
…with a cover on it.
You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down…
…and you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff.
Everybody’s got their own pile of stuff.

And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up.
Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.
They always take the good stuff.
They don’t bother with that […] you’re saving.
Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.
They’re looking for the good stuff.

That’s all your house is, it’s a place to keep your stuff…
…while you go out and get more stuff.
Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move…
…you gotta get a bigger house.
Why? Too much stuff.
You’ve gotta move all your stuff…
…and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.
Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keeping…
…an eye on your stuff.

[…]

Now, now, sometimes you go on vacation…
…you gotta bring some of your stuff with you.
You can’t bring all your stuff, just the stuff you really like…
…the stuff that fits you well that month.
Let’s say you’re gonna go to Honolulu…
…you’re gonna go all the way to Honolulu you gotta…
…take two big bags of stuff…
…plus your carry on stuff, plus the stuff in your pockets.
You get all the way to Honolulu and you get in your hotel room…
…and you start to put away your stuff…
…that’s the first thing you do in a hotel room…
…is put away your stuff.
Now I’ll put some stuff in here, put some stuff down there…
…here’s another place some stuff here…
…I’ll put some stuff overthere.
You put your stuff overthere, I’m putting my stuff over here.
Here’s another place for some stuff.
Hey, we got more places than we’ve got stuff.
We’re gonna have to buy more stuff.

And you put all your stuff away, and you know that you’re…
…thousands of miles from home, and you don’t quite feel…
…at ease, but you know that you must be okay because you do have…
…some of your stuff with you.
And you relax in Honolulu on that basis.

That’s when your friend from Maui calls and says “Hey…
…why don’t you come overto Maui forthe weekend…
…spend a couple of nights over here?”
[…]
Now what stuff do you bring?
Right, you’ve gotta bring an even smaller version…
…of your stuff…
…just enough stuff for a weekend on Maui.
And you get over, and you are really spread out now…
…you’ve got [stuff] all over the world.
You’ve got stuff at home, stuff in storage, stuff in Honolulu…
…stuff in Maui, stuff in your pockets…
…supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain.
But you get over to your friend’s house in Maui…
…and they give you a little place to sleep…
…and there’s a little window ledge…
…or some kind of a small shelf…
…and there’s not much room on it but it’s okay…
…’cause you don’t have much stuff now.
And you put what stuff you do have up there…
…you put your imported French toenail clippers…
…your odor eaters with the 45 day guarantee…
…your cinnamon flavored dental floss…
…and your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you know you’re a long way from home…
…you know that you must be okay because you do have…
…your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you relax in Maui on that basis.
That’s when your friend says…
…hey, I think tonight we’ll go to the other side of the island…
…stay at my friend’s house overnight.
[…]
Now what do you bring?
Now you just bring the things you know you’re gonna need…
…money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hankie, pens… […]
Think of Carlin’s words — “that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff.”

Protecting it from rain and weather.

Guarding it from robbers.

Paying others to guard your items.

And accumulating more and more stuff all around the world, and then finding a place for it.

Carlin is so extremely funny because he speaks truth to us in a way we hadn’t heard it before. We’ve heard Jesus’ message about stuff too often for it to really hit home – so Carlin repeats it in a new way. But it’s the same old story!

Who is possessing whom? Do you have possessions or are you possessed?

The young man who comes to Jesus is a good young man. He’s following the Torah very diligently. He comes to Jesus not to catch Jesus in a word trap, like so many others, nor to ask for a healing – no, he wants to know, how can he inherit eternal life?

Jesus tells him to follow the commandments of God. The young man says he already is doing so.

“Jesus looked at him, LOVED him, and said ‘You lack one thing… sell what you own and follow me.'”

And the poor man goes away in grief. In sorrow and agony “because he had many possessions.”

We always assume the man doesn’t sell everything and follow Jesus because he leaves in sorrow. But the text doesn’t say that. Perhaps the man left in grief and sorrow because he HAD SO MUCH STUFF! So much to sell, to organize, so much to say goodbye to… but maybe, someday, he did get released from his possessions and followed Christ.

I am guilty of being possessed by possessions. Some of them I’m holding on to because you know, I might need that some day or I think I’ll get around to fixing them. It’s half a can of paint, but you know, the moment I donate it to the ReStore, to Habitat for Humanity, is the day I’m going to need just a little dab of paint. And yeah, I have two sweepers – the old one just needs a new belt rotor. I’ll fix it some day. It’s only been broke… for four years. So there it is, in my closet.

Other things I’m holding on to because they are fond memories or are just cool. I’ve got my kindergarten coloring book and I smile when I see it. It means nothing to everyone but me. It’s marks on big bold pages from some kid. But to me, it’s days sitting at my aunt’s house and great-grandma’s. There’s also a stack of wedding invitations from all my friends who have gotten married.

And the cool things — like this magnifier glass that folds into a leather case — but I digress. I hold on to all of this. I move it, from this apartment to that, and now to a home. I haven’t used any of these in years — almost decades — and yet they stay on.

Stuff.

I think, I feel like if I get rid of the stuff, I also get rid of the memory.

It’s like, I don’t want to throw away my key to those memories by throwing away the invite or the book. So I carry them on. I don’t want to forget Katie’s wedding or lunch at Great-Grandma’s. I don’t want to lose that special feeling I have when I think about those times.

And yet — here, I just recalled to you those memories without the items physically in my hand. I can access those memories without a physical key. I don’t need the old coloring book or wedding invite to remember, to feel the emotions, to smile…

… If Jesus had told me to sell all I own, give the money to the poor, and follow him… I would go away grieving too. Even if I eventually did just that – it would feel like Jesus had asked me to give up all my memories.

… and that is not at all what Christ is asking.

Christ is asking that we own possessions, rather than being owned by them.

Asking that we hold on to our items with lose hands, so that we share what we have easily and quickly.

Asking us to not be the person in Carlin’s skit who feels stretched thin with stuff all over, but to be a disciple of Christ who owns only what they can possess and use… nothing that possesses them and uses them.

If I donate my paint to Habitat and find I need a dabble, I bet one of my neighbors has some I can borrow. I can rely on my community. If I asked my community, I bet someone even has the part for the sweeper or wants mine for parts.

Jesus comes preaching freedom to the captives. He preached freedom to this captive rich young man — freedom from stuff — but the freedom price was so heavy. It was the weight of houses and storage units, stuffed garages and boxes. And fear.

Jesus especially preaches freedom to the richest nations, such as ourselves. Freedom from bigger houses and places to store stuff, freedom from going into debt for more stuff and more places to put stuff, freedom from fretting over what stuff to buy this upcoming Christmas season. We have more than we ever will need already.

We have but to hold on to our stuff more loosely.

And to not fear letting go.

To trust.

To follow.

Jesus speaks to us in this rich nation specifically today. “How hard it is for Americans to enter the kingdom of God! It’s as hard as driving a F150 through the eye of a needle. Impossible – but for the grace of God.”

And why us specifically? Because the more stuff you have, the richer you are, the harder it is to share. The harder it is to let go. The harder it is to freely follow Jesus rather than to be labored with, burdened with, caring for, organizing, working to afford, and housing stuff.

Stuff is stuff, I think Jesus would say. Stuff doesn’t matter.

People do.

Don’t ignore people for stuff.

For the kindom of God is made out of people… not forks and spoons, houses and cars, clothes and books. The kindom is people.

All this stuff you’ll leave behind. What you take is what’s in you. Memories. Relationships. Loves. Invest in those, not more stuff.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio 10-11-15

A Great Homecoming

Genesis 28:10-17
John 14:1-4; 15-19
Once a man laid down his head and he had a vision – a vision of angels coming and going from where he was up to heaven. And he heard the voice of God promising God will always be present and will finish the good work God has begun.
So dreamed Jacob. And he took the stone he had slept upon, set it upright, and made an altar to worship God.
Today I ask us to imagine… what did our founders dream? What did Mr. and Mrs. Amschpacher dream in 1917? They’d only lived here four years when Rev. George Weisz came by on horseback.
What dream inspired them a year later to trust the land across the street towards the work of God? Where they laid down their heads, those men and women, who came from three different denominations, did they dream of unity?
Dod they ever dream their little log cabin would grow into a brick church, and continue to grow to have a fellowship hall?
What vision did they see to found a church out of their families and neighbors?
You know, back in Germany, the German Lutherans, German Presbytarians, and German Reformed churches did not talk much. Yet here they shared a single one room church!
What whispers of the Holy Spirit, what lessons of Jesus, what messages from God urged them together?
Picture these people who would not speak often to each other in Germany sharing one building here on the rural American frontier. I think surely this is our evidence of the Holy Spirit uniting us, working with us, towards Christian unity.
I think of God’s words to Jacob: I will not leave my good work undone.
God will not give up on the good God starts.
The uniting work began almost two hundred years ago right here on this road is good work, and work God is assisting.
You heard it in our songs today – we have Methodist Trinity hymns, and down-home Baptist toe-tappers. We’ve sang modern Mennonite hymns and classic English, Gaelic, and Catholic hymns. These are the favorite hymns of Saint Michael’s. These are the hymns of a people who have come from many different backgrounds and yet have found a home here in this rural country church.
These are the hymns of a rural country church who has been welcoming in all with the peace of Christ for centuries.
When you look back on our history of pastors, that history, too, speaks of our diversity, our bravery in trying new things, our commitment to discover what it means to be the body of Christ in each day and age.
For we are the body of Christ. We are always the body of Christ. And this body changes, grows, moves and acts – but always it is filled with the Spirit of Truth.
This Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, is what reassures us, comforts us, when we face hard times. I’ve been here so short compared to most of you, and yet I have heard of some of the hard times. Yet in these hard times St. Michael’s was not alone. Not orphaned.
As long as two or three gather in the name of Christ, Christ continues to live in the hearts of our communities. Our language may change — from thou and thees to you and yours– and our looks might change — all German to the plethora that sits here today and the kaleidoscope of tomorrow — and our worship style may change — from no musical instruments or art to today’s piano, organ, and banners — all of these things may change, but our faith remains. Our Christ remains. Our body continues to live. The Holy Spirit continues to bring us dreams of heaven; continues to show us that where we lay our heads — this common earth — is where angels tread.
And the good work God begins, God will finish.
This day, this marvelous day, we welcome home all who have made St. Michael’s a place God surely is.
And we rejoice that our body extends beyond these walls and out across the world. We rejoice that God has walked with us here in this place for so many years, and before that traveled with us on horseback, and in Pennsylvania, in Germany, in Italy, in the Middle East, in Egypt, in Eden.
We rejoice God will continue to walk with us, continue to gather us, unite us, as one. The good work God begins God shall finish — and what a homecoming that day will be!
Praise God we get a little sample of that day now! Amen.
Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, on 9-13-2015 for their 198th Year Anniversary