Tag: heaven

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20 armor.jpg
John 6:56-69

I have an issue. I have a fatal disease called life. Someday, it will kill me. Every day, it takes its toll on me and ages me more. Breaks my body down more. And leads me closer to my grave. Whether from TMB, too many birthdays, or another cause, some day, I’m going to die to this fatal disease.

And that issue, my mortality, weighs heavily on me. I do a lot of things to try to ignore it, cheat it, or prevent it.

I prevent it by wearing my seat belt, brushing my teeth, eating healthily.

I cheat my death by ‘fake’ dying… riding rollarcoasters, or watching scary movies, or getting into other situations where I can consider death… but I don’t actually die.

And I ignore my mortality. I get on with my life, enjoy the moment, and don’t think about if I’m wisely spending every tiny little second.

But this fatal condition influences most aspects of my life. It makes me eat, makes me drink, makes me sleep, makes me look both ways when crossing the road… it also makes me fear, and hate and be depressed.

Consider, the EPA is rolling back regulations on coal power plants. This means that about 1000 extra people will die a year due to the carbon particulates in the area. Just 1000, but a whole lot of financial savings. It sounds measly, right?

But that fatal condition tells me that those 1000 people could be, and statistically will be, me. Ohio produces a lot of coal power. We usually have pretty poor breathing air. And an asthmatic like me is really sensitive to what I’m breathing. Is my life worth those dollars saved? It is for most of the USA. But, personally, I’d rather be living. I’m kinda invested in my life and living… more than I am invested in two cents or so cheaper electric.

This makes me depressed. Sad. It makes me anxious because I feel there is little I can do. It makes me fearful of tomorrow, of the very air I breathe. It makes me hate policy makers and cooperations and even my fellow Americans who think this is okay.

My fatal condition leads me to view the world as threatening and scary, and I get full of negative emotions.

The same process of mortality leading to fear and hate and depression is occurring to the Ephesians that Paul writes. They are very mortal. In fact, I am 100% sure every single Ephesian Paul was addressing (and even Paul himself) are now dead. They saw their faith siblings being put on trial, and killed, for being Christian.

And the same is occurring to the disciples Jesus addresses in our reading. They see war and starvation and oppression from Rome and the local powers, everywhere they turn.

All of us are facing our own mortality. Each of us are going to die.

This disease called life has only been put in remission three or four times, and only beaten once, that I’m aware of.

Jesus tells his disciples that if they eat his flesh and drink his blood, this mortality is cured. They are given life eternal. As we spoke about over the last few weeks, Jesus is saying something completely scandalous. First the educated complained about this teaching. And today, we hear Jesus’ own disciples complaining.

“This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?” It is offensive that Jesus is telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It sounds sacrilegious. It sounds scandalous. It clearly is not the words of a military king. Now not just the people, or the educated, but Jesus’ own disciples are beginning to second-doubt following this rabbi.

And how can anyone cure mortality? Besides a few, like Elijah, everyone else has died, is buried, and their bones eventually turn to dust. After a few thousand years, that person not only is wholly physically gone… but even the memory of them is gone. How can eating flesh and blood cure death?

Jesus tells them, “You think this is offensive – what if you see me taken up to Heaven? How offended will you be then? What kind of a challenge to your faith will happen then? Think about this: The Spirit gives life. Not flesh.”

In other words, our bodies may be alive, but they don’t have the divine spark of a soul. That soul, that Spirit, is from God. So literally eating Jesus will not give you life. Literally drinking Jesus’ blood won’t give you life. The Holy Spirit gives you life. That Holy Spirit is in the words and teachings of Jesus. There is life and Spirit in the words he speaks.

Without the Spirit, our bread and our grape juice are just that — bread and grape juice. They become a sign of God, a remembrance of Christ, and a uniting sacrament because of the Spirit. In that Spirit, we gather. In that Spirit, we pray. In that Spirit, we respond to God’s invite to the table. In that Spirit, we receive eternal life.

So is communion, the literal bread and drink, necessary and essential for eternal life?

Consider this… as the fatal disease of life progresses, it makes some of us unable to eat and drink. What happens to someone if they cannot take communion any more? If they have a feeding tube, or are allergic to wheat and wheat bread if offered, or are a recovery alcoholic and only wine is offered? What happens if you’re in a service where communion is denied to you?

In all of these cases… are you cut from the vine that is Christ? Are you now denied eternal life?

Absolutely not!

Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

In our denomination, we understand that a person can partake of communion without physically drinking or eating. Sometimes, for any of the reasons mentioned or another, people cannot physically eat the bread and take the cup. But, Spiritually, they partake. Spiritually, they take inside themselves the life, the eternal words, the life-giving bread and ever renewing drink. This is because the flesh, the physical food and physical drink, isn’t what is important about communion. What is important is the Spirit of God uniting everyone, the Holy One of God, our Christ, remembered and presiding over the Table, and our Creating God recreating the world anew through the unity we find in the sacrament.

Jesus is saying that eternal life is not living in heaven in the future… but it is also living fully now. It isn’t waiting for the world to be destroyed, or hastening that destruction so that Christ will come again and save us… eternal life is living the words of God through Christ. It is making Earth the place in which God’s kindom is fully experienced, and the rule of God wholly known – that rule of love and grace and mercy – just like it is in heaven.

Every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and pray that Earth becomes like Heaven. That the eternal life of Heaven, the rich and fulfilled, the loving and peaceful, the understanding and merciful, the harmonious and whole life of heaven is also lived here. “Let thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”

Here, Jesus offers the balm of Gilead, the solution to our fatal disease: a well lived life. A Spiritual life. A life that doesn’t end when we die – die to greed, die to fear, die to hate, die from TMB or any other cause – but a life that continues on abundantly now and into heaven. And that complete, healthy, whole life is available for those who eat and drink Christ.

For we are what we eat! When we eat and drink Christ, we become like Christ, we do his words, and we live our lives in the eternal manner.

But death still happens. Fear still happens. Our bodies still break down, and still die. Bread still molds, drink still sours, and the physical passes away. So what are we to do when the fatal dis-ease, fatal – not- at – ease comes and makes us fear the future, hate our siblings, get depressed over the present, or defensive of our self, wealth, and lives?

That is what Paul is writing about.

When we feel threatened, war will not defend us. Swords will not be a comfort. Armor will always have weak spots and gaps. Walls will be circumvented. Every security measure misses something. Home-grown terrorism is a thing that banning people from nations with terrorist active will not prevent. Random acts of violence, random deaths by freak accidents, and even meaningless cruelty happen no matter who you are, where you are, or how Godly and Christian you are.

Evil is real.

Evil happens.

Evil always slips in, somehow.

So Paul reminds us that we’re not fighting enemies of flesh and blood. He reminds us that immigrants and refugees, transients and transsexuals, Muslims, Jews, skin-heads and Anti-fa, Republicans or Democrats and Capitalists or Socialists are not the enemies of Christians. These are people. Humans. Children made in the image of God. Somebody’s little daughter; someone’s beloved son. People with souls.

And people are mixed bags with good qualities and bad qualities all tossed into one body.

No; pointing out a group and labeling every member “My enemy” or “God’s enemy” is not Biblical. We’re not fighting physical people!

Instead, we are fighting systems. Fighting the status quo. Fighting the way things are. Our enemy is the world system that has policies which turn a beloved child into a terrorist. Our enemy is every government order this is cruel and inhumane. Our enemy is poverty. Power inequality. Greed.

Our enemy is the cosmic powers of this present darkness – the spiritual forces of evil. You don’t have to believe in Satan or the devil for there to be evil. Evil – intentional harm – is a cosmic power. A power outside of ourselves that is infused into our current world. A spiritual darkness bred out of our fatal disease of mortality makes us fear, and hate, and do harm to one another. Why are we greedy? Because the more we have, the more secure we are, and the further death feels from us. Why are we cruel? For the same reason. It makes us feel powerful. Like we can cause death on others but no one can cause death on us.

Our enemy is death, and all of the negative and hurtful things we do out of fear of death.

So Paul reminds us that death is defeated. Death has no sting. Death has no victory. Christ has saved us, redeemed us, made us no longer prisoners to all that the fear of death inflicts on us.

When we feel we need more protection, we’re not to pick up more arms and weapons. We’re not to build stronger borders and stronger alarm systems. We’re not to point to specific people and say ‘He is the Anti-Christ!’ or ‘She is pure evil!’ We Christians are to focus on boosting our Spiritual armor… for we are in a spiritual war. A war over the negative, life-stealing emotions that the fear of death inflicts in us.

So Paul writes: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day,” when fear and hate and insecurity invoke the devils and temptations in you to sin. “And having done everything” to be spiritually strong, “to stand firm” in your commitment to love and peace. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

This is the armor and arms we’re to have – truth, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, righteousness, and the words of God. All of these to be living in peace rather than living in fear.

“ Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”

Pray for one another! Pray peace for yourselves. Pray peace for your enemies. Pray peace for the world. Pray peace and the only arms and armor we will ever need is the whole armor of God.

Amen.

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Breaking Down the Dividing Wall

Ephesians 2:11-22 ArizonaBorder.jpg
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Let me tell you what’s in the news –

– Ah. I see winces. You don’t want to hear it. It isn’t the news you want to hear.

It’s news about how our nation is being made great again. It’s news about non-Citizens suffering wanton abuse from government officials. It’s news of traitors, protests, uprisings, capital punishment, corruption and refugees and job woes and trade wars and unfair taxes and …

These are the headlines… from 62 AD.

Into this mess, Paul writes the Ephesians a letter that makes them wince and look over their shoulders with fear.

He writes, “Remember, at one time you were immigrants by birth, called illegal immigrants by the citizens – a status given to you by humans and not God – remember that you were at one time without Christ, being an alien to the land of God’s people, strangers to its laws, and without hope, and without God. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For Christ makes our nation great again. He is our peace. In his flesh, he made both immigrant and citizens into one group and broke down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments of who is or isn’t a citizen based on birth, that Christ might make in himself one new nation in place of two, thus making the nation great again, thus the peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off in other lands and peace to those who were near in this land; for through Christ both of us have access in one Spirit to the same God.

So you are no longer strangers and aliens to one another. You are no longer countrymen and women of this human nation or that. But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the house, the nation, of God, built upon the foundation of the non-citizen apostles and the citizen prophets, with Jesus Christ as your cornerstone. As your president. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple, a holy place, in God. You, listening to this letter, are also built together spiritually as one into a dwelling place, a home, for God.”

Does it make you as uncomfortable in 2018 AD as it made the Ephesians in 62 AD? It should. Paul is challenging Caesar and his claims of making a great nation built on peace. That peace is built on the back of murdering people, such as Jesus. It is built on having citizens who can do as they want to non-citizens. It is built on corruption, deception, hostility, and lies.

The Spirit is challenging our nation and its claims of making itself great again and a land of liberty. This liberty is being built on the back of murdering people who are like Jesus: who are our fellow Christians. It is built on having citizens living safely in homes while non-citizens lie on concrete floors, with aluminum foil for blankets, in rooms kept at 62 degrees or lower. It is liberty built on corruption, deception, hostility, and lies.

I am uncomfortable. Like the Ephesians, I am looking over my shoulder and wondering who else just heard what Paul wrote. Who else heard Paul claim my citizenship — which lets me tuck my daughter into bed at night — and my skin color — which lets me drive without being at risk of a cop shooting me — and my flesh — all this who I was born as — Paul is claiming my flesh is nothing. God has taken it away. I’m wearing the flesh of Christ.

I’m wearing the flesh of a Middle Eastern man who is challenging my government.

A man tortured and killed by my own government.

Paul’s news is uncomfortable. To we readers in 62 AD and in 2018 AD.

He tells me that the wall of hostility I was born into is false, wrong, and ungodly. In Christ there is only one flesh. If I am truly born again in Christ, then my body is Christ.

My citizenship is Christianity.

My brothers and my sisters are all who are Christian.

My cousins are all who follow God.

My neighbors are all of humanity.

For all who were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Or, there is neither Hispanic nor American, impoverished nor affluent, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There is a wall of hostility we are called to oppose.

We are called to break down walls that divide us. Physical walls – barrier walls – border walls. And social walls – walls preventing access to medical aide, equal rights, security. We’re called to break down spiritual walls – the kind that make us hate seeing a hijab or star of David, or making room for other faiths in our schools, and jobs, our homes, and even our churches. We’re called to be citizens of a new nation that abolishes all the old laws with a new law of love. We’re called to be citizens that give up our nationalities, our own flesh, our own births, for a new nation in Christ’s body through being born again in the Spirit.

We’re called to love our neighbor.

Love our selves.

And even love our enemies.

For we are known as Christian by our love.

What does this citizenship of God look like? All we have to do is look to Jesus as our role-model to see.

Jesus today makes more political commentary. Shepherd is the image of the leader of the land. The person who keeps the sheep, the people, safe. He or she is who provides peace, provides good food and clean water, scares off the wolves, and lets the people multiply. In the reading before today, we met ancient Israel’s shepherd, Herod. He foolishly takes his sister-in-law as his wife, and promises their daughter anything she wants. To fufill this promise, he has to murder the prophet of God, John. He fed his heads of state but served his sheep John’s head on a platter.

Out among the people, Jesus sees they are desperate. They have run from all the towns and villages around the sea of Galilee dragging and carrying their sick loved ones on mats and rugs, and on their backs and in their carts, laying them out in the center of the town begging Jesus to let them just touch the fringe of his cloak so they can be healed. The center of the town is the marketplace. The place of affluence. The sick are the outcasts, the homeless, the foreigners and supposed to stay away from the rich. But they overwhelm the shops, choke up the streets, and fill the air with their petitions.

Picture if the stock market had to be closed because the trading floor was filled with the family, friends, and neighbors of people targeted by ICE all begging for their children to be reunited, their loved ones having access to food, water, and a lawyer, and asylum. There would be anger from the elite who don’t want to be bothered by this. Chaos. Government officials calling for the ring leader of this ‘protest’ to be arrested, or shot. That ringleader is Jesus, and the Spirit.

Picture the highways now in Chicago – filled with black women begging the government to stop persecuting their sons as guilty criminals until proven innocent.

Picture the 99% protests.

These are people whose mortal shepherd has failed them. And Jesus has compassion. Jesus goes among them bringing healing. Tangible healing – such as attending a protest, or paying for a sitter or sitting kids so another can go to a protest, or donating money to organizations like HOLA Ohio to bail out mothers who have sat in prison for TWO MONTHS after being picked up here in Ohio…

And Jesus brings intangible healing along with the tangible, touchable, healing. Jesus we’re, told, begins to teach the crowds. He gives education.

Education such as… did you know that HOLA Ohio has found the rules to bail someone out is different every day? Currently: “Bond can’t be posted on the same day as court for the Michigan women; bond can’t be paid after 3 p.m. in the Cleveland office; bond must be paid with one cashier’s check, not two–even if both are addressed to U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security for the same individual on the same case, and were accepted that way last week, and so on and so forth.” (HOLA Ohio July 2018 Facebook Update)

Education such as… RAICES “staff and volunteer pro bono attorneys arrived at the Karnes detention center to meet with clients and were told they couldn’t meet with anyone as Karnes was empty. Around 3:45pm two of our pro bono attorneys watched as a bus was loaded at Karnes with mothers and children. Having been lied to all day, they decided to follow the bus from Karnes to see where they were being transferred to. An hour in to the drive they call our Comms Director to let her know they had been pulled over by 3 state troopers in SUV’s for “illegally” following the bus and demanded to see their client lists. They were held for 15 minutes by police, and now continue to follow the bus which looks to be headed to Dilley detention center.” (RAICES July 2018 Facebook Update)

Detention centers where children are ordered to stand, “No sitting on the floor, no hugging your siblings, and it’s best not to cry.” Or face bleach in your water, and guards kicking you if you sit during the 16 hours a day you must be awake. Where over 1,000 reports sexual abuse have been filed against ICE agents. ((https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes; https://theintercept.com/2018/04/11/immigration-detention-sexual-abuse-ice-dhs/))

Education such as even though the government is purposefully trying to prevent lawyers and help to the refugees, groups like HOLA Ohio have volunteers who have “been spending up to 6 hours a day in the ICE office to post bonds, [paid] eight bonds to date, six bonds of $2,000 each and two bonds of $1,500 each, and arranged transportation through a network of volunteers for nine women to be reunited with their families.” A dozen more hearings are happening this week.

The Spirit of God is in us, because of our anointments in baptism in Christ, “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 18-19.

The Spirit of God is in us to tear down these dividing walls and be the good news to the poor. Be the ones paying bail. Be the ones teaching our family and friends and neighbors to open their blind eyes to see the hurt happening to the body of Christ — their own bodies. We are to use our privilege as citizens to the benefit of those oppressed. We are to proclaim the year of God’s favor — that God’s reign is now — the kin-dom is now — the nation of God is now — and no Mexican, Canadian, American, Russian, British or any other human government is going to stop us from loving one another.

Because we are citizens of heaven. Our leader is God. Our God is love.

Amen.

A Mother’s Prayer

1 John 5:9-13 prayer
John 17:6-19

 

Celine Dion, Kristin Getty and more sang about it – there’s a whole movie – and more books and plaques and bookmarks than you could ever read… there’s power in a mother’s prayer.

 

This week my daughter had nightmares one night. She crawled into bed with me and pulled my arms around her so that I was hugging her. I laid there, thinking about how I’d be trying to research and write this sermon in the morning on 3 hours of sleep. Worried.

 

And then I realized the treasure here… just with hugs, I made all her monsters go away and the world right again.

 

I remembered when she was a baby, and one night I was so sleep deprived I was in tears when she woke crying again. I sat in a rocker, holding her, humming, and cat napping most of the night with her in the crib or on my lap.

 

Just my presence was all she wanted to make the monsters go away.

 

On both these nights I prayed. My mother’s prayer. All my wishes and hopes for the little one in my care. All my concerns. I whispered, spoke, these over her. On and on I went, like weaving a protective blanket, which I prayed would wrap her like my hugs when I cannot do so myself.

 

So she’d always be prayed over, always have that hug to keep the monsters away.

 

I was just doing this without plan. Without pretty words. Without a format or goal and I am pretty certain there was no ‘amen’ because the prayer just keeps going on and I’m still praying the same good things.

 

I think about my own mother on this mother’s day. I bet she prayed this way over me. Those nights she rocked me as I slept on her arms, sick. Those nights I lived far away and she missed me. I don’t think she’s said amen yet. She’s still praying a protective blessing prayer over me.

 

I think about her mother, who prayed over my mother. I remember my great aunt rocking me to sleep, and I think about myself praying and rocking my little nephew.

 

How very many people are praying over one another. This community, itself, all Christians, have a mother’s prayer being woven over them by centuries of prayers.

 

And by Christ himself.

 

I hear a mother’s prayer in Jesus’ prayer today for us. It is rambling. Pleading. Speaking concerns. Confessing he will not always be there physically for his little lambs. So please, please God, please holy parent, protect these dear ones. Guard them from the harm and hate of the world. Don’t take them out of the world – but protect them while they are in it. Sanctify them. Guide them on their roads of life. Give them joy. Give them love. Give them truth. For their sakes this prayer is said.

 

And like our mothers, our aunts, our cousins, our grandmothers, and all the women and motherly-figures in our lives… our motherly Jesus is still praying.

 

Not saying amen.

 

In our letter today, the author writes to the young Christians a mother’s prayer, also. Reassuring them. Challenging them. Reminding them who they are and whose they are.

 

He or she says – take courage… your own heart, the Holy Spirit within, whispers the truth to you: God loves you. God is with you. Eternal life is your’s through Christ.

 

Eternal life. What is eternal life? Who has it?

 

It’s some fancy concept of a future heaven for a lot of people. But in our scriptures, Jesus tells us the time has come. The bread of life is available now. Now, not in the future, there is the ever living waters.

 

The words we’re translating as Ever-living has two levels of meaning. One is the idea of being outside of time. Time passes, but the water, or person, is wholly unaffected. Unaging. Unchanging. Unmoving. No pain; no harm; and usually we imagine no worldly life. Ever-living in an after-life.

 

The second meaning is more akin to ever renewing waters, ever refreshing. Picture a fountain at Dolder’s or Millstream nurseries – the water flows endlessly. The flowing water is full of movement, and change, but it does not cease. The motion keeps oxygen in the water, and keeps the water from getting stale and stagnate. Stale and stagnate water is not good, grows mold, and nothing much else. But the living water supports all the animals (and people, if we’re feeling brave) who drink from it. Butterflies and sparrows, frogs and toads – maybe fish and irises and lotus.

 

Ever living water, in the second sense, is alive, and changes, but renews. It knows hurts and harms, but heals. It has concerns, and worries, and long nights that seem to never end… but it regains its sparkle over time.

 

It is a prayer that doesn’t end.

 

Jesus says he is these waters. In baptism, we invoke these waters. The Holy Spirit within us is these waters at work. From God, our loving parent, flow these waters.

 

They are our prayer that never ends. Like a mother’s prayer, like Jesus’ prayer, like the prayers each of us are speaking over one another this very moment.

 

Blessings. Renewal. A comforting monster-eradicating presence holding us in a hug all through our long nights. Not that you are outside of the world, aloof, removed, unchanging – but that you thrive in the world, walking with our Good Shepherd, and drinking deeply of the Ever Living Waters.

 

I finish this sermon today continuing the prayer your motherly caretakers began over you, long, long, before you were born:

 

Beannacht 
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life

(Source: John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings)

 

May you feel God,

who calls you Beloved Child of Mine,

holding you, encouraging you, carrying you, reviving you.

May you feel that love of God, your Holy Caretaker, at all times.

And may you always know Jesus prays for you.

Sheep and Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24ararat-sheep-20

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the day we proclaim Christ is King over all the world, the lord over all lords, the highest politician, highest ruler, over all rulers. Everyone and everything belongs under Christ’s rule and we anticipate the day this reign is fully actualized.

This sounds fantastic.

Until you consider there are 1.3 billion Muslims; 1.1 billion atheists, 900 million Hindus, not to mention a billion some more Buddhist, Pagans, Jews, Sikhs and hundreds of more religions. These people are not Christian.

If Jesus were to return right now, this very moment, would 70% of the world’s population be instantly damned – just because they were born in non-Christian areas, or to non-Christian families, or found a connection to God in a non-Christian religion?

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to early Christians living among all the non-Christians. And Matthew recounts Jesus talking about sheep and goats among the nations.

Nations. Peoples.

Not just the Jews Jesus was speaking with, but the nations – the gentiles – the non-Jewish, non-Christian, Romans or Grecians or Egyptians or Babylonians — people who did not confess Jesus as Christ. People like all the neighbors and communities, indeed, families, of the early Christians.

The neighbors and communities and families of ourselves.

Jesus says when he returns, the whole world will be judged.

Are all non-Christians going to hell and all Christians going to heaven?

Jesus’ parable says that to the shock of the nations – to the shock of Christians and non-Christians everywhere – there are blessed people among all nations. There are heaven-bound men and women and children who are Muslim, and who are spiritual but not religious. There are faithful Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in heaven.

And each and every one say, “Jesus – when did I serve you? I didn’t.”

And Jesus, in his parable, replies, “Whatever you did to the most vulnerable in your community, you did to me.”

And Jesus takes the sheep, the people who followed the Good Shepherd without even realizing it, and takes them into his heavenly flock.

And what of the goats? When Jesus talks about the nations — all peoples and all religions – this includes all religions, including Christianity. We’re the largest religion on the face of the Earth.

Jesus tells his disciples that the goats are just as shocked as the sheep to be NOT included. They thought they were sheep, thought they were following the Good Shepherd, but instead, they were following other lords and kings and gods while giving lip-service to Jesus. They ran with the flock of sheep here on earth, but their hearts and deeds didn’t reflect the heart and deeds of Jesus.

These Christians say, “Jesus, when did we not aid you?”

And Jesus replies to them, too, “Whatever you denied the most vulnerable in your communities, you denied to me.”

Jesus here is referencing but also advancing the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel, the Israelites are scattered in exile across many lands. Why has this happened? Ezekiel says because the people have been exploited. The exploitation of the vulnerable, the weakest, the people have ruined communities and destroyed the nation. The shepherds of the people, their leaders, have failed them. The shepherds have gotten rich and changed rules to benefit themselves while the people have gotten poor and suffered injustices. As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3).

Ezekiel spoke about how God would go out and gather in God’s people from all the nations… and then God would separate the sheep from the sheep. They all look the same, but God sees a difference. A difference in who these sheep truly belong to. Remember – sheep follow the voice of the one who leads them – not a stranger.

Ezekiel says when God comes, God comes with justice. God reverses each wrong dealt to the people. Wounds are healed, bellies are filled, rest is given. God, God’s self, takes over and is in charge. And God separates the fat sheep from the lean. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will judge between sheep and sheep.” And the fat and strong sheep are destroyed, while the hurting ones are fed justice. Injustice has made them lost, injured and weak. Justice will make them strong, united, and healthy again.

Ezekiel is not speaking about Israelites and non-Israelites. He is speaking about all the Israelites. Among God’s own people – among the sheep and sheep – God is judging which of us have been bullies, and have led soft lives at the detriment of others. Which of us have gotten rich off the labor of the poor. Which of us use more resources than others. Which of us refuse to share and attack the starving, injured, or weak when they come to our areas.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on the throne to judge all nations… the surprise is there are many non-Christian sheep, and many Christian goats. The surprise is there are many holy and good people who are not Christian; and there are many sinful and evil people who ARE Christian.

The judgement is, who has, in the words of Micah, done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God?

In Matthew, being a Christian does not make you good or bad; does not mean you are Saved or Unsaved; does not mean you are pleasing or displeasing God. What you believe, and how you act upon that belief, determines your destiny. If you believe in the goodness of the world, and you believe we are meant to love one another, and you act in loving deeds – you are a sheep, whether or not you know it. And if you believe its a dog-eat-dog world, and no kind deed goes unpunished, and you act in selfish ways – you are a goat, whether or not you go to church.

Now, in our country, it is rare to find any politician who says they are a religion other than Christian. Being ‘Christian’ gets you votes. It means you’re mainstream, respectable, trustworthy. Being ‘Christian’ means you can claim God is on your side, and if people don’t vote for you, they are voting against God. Being ‘Christian’ means you are above any wrongs.

These ‘Christians’ are fat sheep and goats. These Christians are the ones who cry ‘Lord, lord,’ but who never actually know Christ. You know who these false Christians are because the way they vote in the House or Senate, or their executive orders, or the policies they advocate, harm the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable people in our country are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgendered, unwed single mothers, children, teachers, and those with criminal records. The most vulnerable people in this country are blacks, women, Native Americans, the elderly and millennials. The most vulnerable people in this country have mental health issues. Physical ailments. Addictions.

The fat sheep in our country are born here, are sexually ‘straight’ or pass as heterosexual, they are white, married, and male. The fat sheep in our country have never been in trouble with the law – or if they have, had had their record expunged. They are affluent, educated, and are able to shape the world about them through their financial, political, or social sway. Instead of using all the power they were born into to be a wise leader, a good shepherd, a guide to make the world a better place… instead, they use their power to make sure they have more power, more money, more sway.

The Internet Freedom movement is anything but freedom for you and I. It permits the rich to have freedom to choose what the poor must pay to access websites. Sites that speak truth to power, sites that challenge the way things are – sites that advocate for the most vulnerable – may not be accessible because you don’t pay enough… or may be blocked all together.

The tax bill the House passed gives steep discounts to owners of private businesses — but makes teachers pay for their own teaching supplies. It drastically reduces the taxes on the most affluent in the country and raises the taxes on the poorest. In other words, it rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

Those fleeing the lack of infrastructure, intense crime and poverty, and earth quake after tsunami after hurricane of Haiti are kicked out of the country. Along with all who try to escape Sudan. Although, we are now free to import all the oil we want from Sudan… but its people are denied sanctuary from the Sudanese wars where 6,000 some children fight in Darfur and crucifixion is still a legal way to kill political prisoners.

If what we do to the most vulnerable, we do to Christ…

We are deporting Jesus.

We are forcing Jesus to pick between paying his water bill or eating today.

We are telling Jesus he was born evil, thinks evil, and the world would be better off if he killed himself.

We are cramming Jesus into little prison cells and giving him 2 cents a day for his slave labor.

We are punishing Jesus for being born not-White, for being not-Married, for being Middle Eastern, for being a refugee, for being an advocate of the poor and destitute, for being a promoter of women’s rights, for thinking children matter, for challenging authority and government, and for being a lean sheep.

We are only as Christian as how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Now… being white is not a sin. But it is being born with power. Born as a shepherd. Are you a good shepherd? Or are you a shepherd who’d rather ignore or harm the other sheep?

Being rich is not a sin. It is owning power. But it means we have a responsibility to generously and lavioushly share that wealth with others – so none are fat and none are thin.

Being straight, and/or male is not a sin. It means, however, responsibility as the ‘norm’ to invite the other in and LISTEN to how life is different. It means you are responsible to help make the world a better place for ALL PEOPLE.

This is Christ the King Sunday. We are celebrating the current reign of Christ, and anticipating the full reign.

Think of what that day will be — when the low are lifted and the high are lowered so all are equals.

Think of what that day will be – when we all eat justice. Will justice be sweet or bitter to you?

Do you look forward or do you fear that glorious day?

We are called to a radical life. Radical. Outside the norm. We are envisioning a radical future. A time of reversals. That time and day are ever closer – and we are invited to live into it now.

Come – live as Christ’s own and give up the selfish idols!

Come be a lamb of God! For God is seeking you, welcoming you.

Come, repent, change your ways, and return to the fold of Christ.

Come, follow the good shepherd, born in a barn, yet king over kings, yet lord over lords.

In your own hearts, recommit yourselves to being Christian.

Amen.

Sola Fide – Faith Alone

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

 

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

Got them in mind?

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

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

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

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

He could never be good enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

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

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

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

And you could visit holy sites, pilgrimages.

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

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

It wasn’t ever enough for Martin Luther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we have to trust this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust.

Trust you are loved.

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

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

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

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

Just faith.

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

Amen.

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

Why Are You Standing There?

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

 

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

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

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

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

DUH!

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

DUH!

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

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

… say it with me…

Duh.

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

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

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

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

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

Duh. Of course not.

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

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

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

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

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

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

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

Duh.

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

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

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

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

What does this look like in action today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does?

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

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.