Tag: Isaiah

Why Rejoice?

Indonesia VolcanoIsaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?

Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.

What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.

There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.

Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…

Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?

A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.

And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))

A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.

We have empathy fatigue.

It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…

Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.

It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.

Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?

There’s a million more crying for aid.

We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.

It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.

Because we weep.

Because we love.

At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.

To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.

We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.

We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.

We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.

Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

ISAIAH JOY

Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.

Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.

What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?

Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.

“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.

Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.

Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,

“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.

And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.

And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.

So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.

And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.

Isaiah continues,

“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”

In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.

Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.

Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.

Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.

And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.

And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.

And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.

And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.

But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.

PHILLIPIANS JOY

Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.

He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.

But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))

“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy.  ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
OUR JOY

Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.

So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.

Think of the county fair.

Think of your family and friends.

Think of your pets.

Your fall garden.

The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.

Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…

I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”

So I sat down and did them with her.

My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.

–sharing—

Amen.

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Come to the Water

Isaiah 55:1-51d126d3b6847e371ad47b1ce001f1437
Matt. 14:13-21

There was a farmer with a problem. A problem you may have too – his barn was full. It wasn’t rubbish and trash, it was things he needed. Like… there was the tall ladder. He needed it five or six times a year to clean out the house gutters, replace some light bulbs, and do minor repairs. And there was the post hole digger. Every time the septic got funky, he needed that to dig down to the cap. And what if he ever needed to replace one of the fence posts? The leaf rake. Needed every fall. And another leaf rake – it was a good deal on clearance last spring. The first rake might break. And a good lot of other little things you and I both know are just needed to keep a farm going. But all together, it filled up his barn.

And he had a neighbor who had a problem. His neighbor’s barn was full. And it, too, wasn’t rubbish! No, there was a tall ladder, a post hole digger, two leaf rakes, and lots of useful little things.

And the neighbor’s neighbor had a problem… you guessed it! Their barn was full…. with a ladder, and a post hole digger and…

I have a problem. My barn is full.

You know, if any one of us lived all alone, on a homestead, in the middle of no where… with no neighbors… I’d suggest building a second barn. Useful things should be kept!

But… that farmer had neighbors… I have neighbors… you have neighbors… and there’s really little reason for four houses side-by-side to have eight leaf rakes unless someone is starting a lawn care business; or four large ladders that are only used a few hours each year.

It makes a lot more sense for them to share. Maybe they only need one ladder, or two. It’s thinking in terms of scarcity, rather than generosity, that has made their barns full.

See, I super empathize with the man in the Bible Jesus speaks about who finds his bumper crops fully fill up his barn, and so he has to build a second. I mean, that’s what I think when I look at my full barn and know each thing is useful. I know I am going to need that ladder and that rake. I think in terms of rarity, scarcity, not having enough. I think like I am on a homestead where my nearest neighbor is a ten hour drive away.

I empathize with the disciples today who see they have five loaves and two fish among the twelve of them, and are looking at a crowd of 5000 hungry men, and their wives, and all their kids.

I empathize with people who say it is hopeless to start conserving water or resources now, when they look at how little they use versus a McMansion or heavy industry.

I empathize with people who ask ‘what will my two dollars do if donated to world hunger?’ when two bucks barely covers a loaf of bread, and it sure isn’t getting you milk and bread.

Scarcity is real. Needing things is real.

But it is also in our heads. How scarce, how needed, is all up here in our minds.

The Isaiah prophet and messiah prophet Jesus challenge us to change our minds.

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! Everyone thirsts. That is a real need!
Jesus saw the crowd and had compassion on them. He cured their sick. They have real needs!

But everyone is invited. To both of these events.
You who have no money, come.
You who are weary, come.
You who are rich, come.
You who are healthy, come.

Not just the basics Jesus offers – but RICH food. And SOUL food. And extravagant abundance. Thinking in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity, the Isaiah writer proclaims money is useless. Worthless. God has so much to give to people and money can’t buy any of it. Thinking in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity, Jesus says and then demonstrates God’s way of working miracles in the world: where the smallest things become the largest, and enough for everyone.

Like the mustard seed.
Like the least of these.
Like the widow’s two pennies.
Like five loaves and two fishes.

Thinking in abundance means there is enough for everyone.

The four neighbors, if they think in abundance, they will realize they can share their tools and everyone will have the tools they need, and have space in their barns.

If I and my neighbors thought in abundance rather than scarcity, could we even reach the point where we share gardens? Homes? Lives?

What a challenge God sets before us. God demonstrates it again and again. But it is against our culture. Against our survival instincts. We are greedy because greed tends to get us ahead in life… but we don’t live on bread alone. We need more than food and water, shelter and space. We need these things, yes… but they alone do not satisfy.

Satisfaction comes from meeting our basic needs for health, security, nourishment… and then meeting our spiritual needs of steadfast love, rich soul food, mercy, hope, forgiveness, COMMUNITY.

When I think in scarcity, I think ‘I only have enough canned up for a month or two,’ ‘I only have a single paycheck in the bank’ ‘I only have 24 hours in a day.’

When I think in abundance, I think, ‘I have more food than I can eat in a meal. Join me.’ ‘I have more money than I need. I can share.’ ‘I have 24 hours in a day. I have plenty of time for you.’

The first places me in worry and fret, fear and anger. The second places me in joy and gratefulness, generosity and love.

The first is seeing the cup half empty, and fearing God will not provide.

The second is seeing the cup half full, and knowing God will provide. Overflow the cup, even.

Come. Buy. Eat. Listen. Delight. See. This is Life.

Thinking in scarcity isn’t living. Isn’t satisfying. It is existing, but it isn’t living.

Living is delighting in God. Seeing God in action. Listening to God. Coming to God, buying without money all that God offers, and eating the Bread of Life. Taking God’s wisdom and ways and forgiveness and love into our bodies, and living The Way of Jesus.

Extravagant welcome, outrageous abundance, ever-renewing life — these are the signs of the New Creation. These are the signs Heaven is near.

Come this morning, taste and see, listen and live!

We are given in abundance.

Amen.

Empty?! Easter 2016

EmptyTombReliefbyJohnMarr
Empty Tomb by John Marr

Isaiah 65:17-25
John 10:1-18

Empty.

I don’t like that word. It makes me feel… empty. Lonely. Nothing about.

Mary wept to find the tomb empty. Someone, she supposed, had stolen Jesus’ body. Publically torturing and killing him wasn’t enough – now they were going to desiccate his body.

Empty is sad. Empty of company. It means I don’t have anyone.

Empty wallet – no money. Empty gas tank – going no where. Empty mind – thoughtless.

But we’re celebrating emptiness today! How can emptiness be a good thing?

How can Paul write in the Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself?” Poured himself out? (Philippians 2:6).

How can being poured out and empty be a time for joy and celebration?

Sometimes… to empty is to become more.

An athlete who pours herself into training, empties herself into training, becomes a better athlete. The more she empties, the more she is. The more she gives, the more she receives.

And an artist pours himself out on a painting, empties his heart onto canvas – but he never stops being an artist or runs out of heart. The out pouring, the sharing of his heart, makes room in himself for even more creativity and energy to bubble forth.

I see many people here today emptying their love onto others – children and spouses, grandchildren and siblings – but the more you empty this love, the more love you have to give.

Paul writes Jesus poured himself out, and emptied himself… and this kenosis, this self-emptying, didn’t mean Jesus was left a dry husk, with nothing in him… but rather, he is the source of life abundant, life ever renewing, life eternal… so the more Jesus pours, the more Jesus empties, the more life there is.

Emptiness can be a very good thing.

Sometimes, in the emptying, we find we have more resources, more love, more life than we ever thought.

Jesus’ example tells us not to fear emptying ourselves, for life ever-abundant flows into us from God.

So, we can empty ourselves of fears, and hates; we can pour our love and mercy on each other; we can empty our minds of clutter and negative voices; and pour out, live out, who we really are.

Have you ever noticed we have an empty cross? This reminds us the crucifixion has happened, is over, Christ has moved on — and we have an empty tomb. Christ’s death has happened, is over, and Christ again is moving on.

The empty cross reminds us of the empty tomb, and calls us to be an emptying people: people who are ever pouring out life, love, and mercy without reservation because these gifts have come to us without reservation!

Praise God! The tomb is empty! Praise God! Christ is Risen!

Like a Fragrance

Daniel F. Gerhartz annointing Jesus
Painting by Daniel F. Gerhartz

Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

 

I have a friend who has her grandpa’s ball cap in a box in her room. She told me, “Whenever I’m feeling down, I go get that box and open it up. Immediately, it’s Papa’s smell – and I can feel his arms around me – and the whole day just is that much better.”

For another friend, it is the perfume Primo! – the knock off of Giorgio Beverly Hills. That is the smell of mom.

Baking cookies. A warm horse saddle. Rose water. A campfire. Laundry from the line.

Fast Orange.

That’s one of mine. It’s the pumice mechanic soap – that’s the smell of my grandpa. Whenever I use it, I remember the sounds of his auto shop and the feel of sitting on his lap eating lunch with oil-stained hands. I feel his love, over a decade after his passing, though the smell of this orange soap.

Fragrance, smells, take us places. Good and bad.

The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha begged Jesus to not go to his dead friend Lazarus, “He stinks, my Lord!” Lazarus had been dead for days, in the desert heat, sealed in an crypt.

People weren’t embalmed back then as they are now. Today, a funeral can be delayed until it is a good time for the family. The deceased looks dead, but pleasantly dead, as if they are sleeping, whether the funeral is held the same day or a few weeks later. Chemicals, refrigerators, makeup… we delay the natural process of decomposition.

This sanitizes death.

Even a hundred years ago death was a much, much smellier affair. We say we send flowers to funerals to lift up the spirits of those who are mourning, and to symbolize life… but we originally sent flowers to help cover up the smell.

The smell of death.

Death, decaying bodies, is one of those smells that sticks in your nose, clings to your clothes, and Martha was so right to hold Jesus back and warn him, “Lord, he reeks!” Don’t remember your dear friend by making a memory of this smell. Remember him living!

The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha tried to save him of this experience and smell. He didn’t need to remember his friend Lazarus through the smell of death. Let him remember Lazarus with the smell of meals shared.

As you remember, Jesus ignores Martha’s practicality and tells people to open the stinking, reeking, tomb. He then told Lazarus boldly to come out. Lazarus does so! Still wrapped up in reeking, stinking, grave cloths. When these are removed, Lazarus is just fine. Resurrected.

Everyone who saw this believed in Jesus. Word spread like wildfire that the Messiah had arrived. The Jewish authorities got terrified – for as soon as word reached Rome, Rome would come in and destroy Israel. They put out orders that should Jesus come to the Passover festival, he was to be arrested, and then put to death, for as they argued, “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50).

Jesus became an outlaw, hiding, until he set his eyes for Jerusalem and knew his hour was coming – the hour, the time, of God.

Today, Jesus has returned the home of the three siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Returned to Bethany, where everyone knows he resurrected Lazarus. Returned to a stone’s throw from Jerusalem where there is an order to capture Jesus. Returned to where the scent of death lingers.

Six days before Passover. A week.

Next week… Jesus knows… he will walk into Jerusalem. He will face his greatest challenges. He will plead with God for another way. He will trust his disciples to continue his mission in his absence. He will not perform miracles selfishly to save himself. He will be betrayed. Paraded about. Mocked. Tortured. Murdered. By the same people who will welcome him with palm branches as their king.

The scent of death doesn’t come so much from Lazarus’ old clothes, but from what Jesus knows is coming. He has told those around him of this, but… so few have understood, or believed.

But Mary.

Like the family last week, Mary is prodigal. Extravagantly wasteful. She wants to give and give and love and love regardless of the cost.

Mary knows Jesus raised her brother from the dead, and in doing so, convinced enough people Jesus is the messiah and got a death warrant on Jesus’ head. Mary knows coming back to Bethany and Jerusalem is the end for Jesus. Mary, a prophet in her own right, sees what is going to happen.

She can smell the death even in the celebratory meal Martha sets.

You remember that we use flowers to cover up the smell of death; in ancient Israel, they sometimes used the exotic perfume called spikenard or nard. It would be rubbed onto the feet of the deceased to help with the smell for the burial. The fragrant plant came from the Himalayans, and was used in the temple worship of God, and was used when put on the head of a king to anoint him.

Mary comes with an entire bottle of the strong, pure oil – worth an entire year’s wages – and dumps it all over Jesus’ feet. Once, she sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him preach, now she uses her own hair like a cloth to wipe Jesus’ feet clean and rub in the nard.

Remember, Jesus will use a cloth to bathe the feet of his disciples, like the lowest of the lowest slaves, and he will tell them to do the same for each other – for they are equals, servants, to one another.

Mary, long before Jesus directly tells the men to humble themselves, to serve one another, understands what Jesus is teaching and doing.

Mary knows Jesus is heading to his death. She is already mourning.

Mary knows to follow Jesus is to extravagantly love others. She is already loving extravagantly.

Mary knows to extravagantly love, a person cannot be too prideful, cannot view others as lower and less than.

Mary knows the scent of death can only be overcome with the fragrance of love.

So she loves- and loves and loves and loves – the entire house is filled with the smell. Was it choking? Like walking into the detergent aisle at the grocery store, or taking a full on sniff of a bottle of perfume? Did the nard soak into everyone’s clothing so that the rest of the trip to Jerusalem they continued to get whiffs of it?

I think Judas must begin protesting even before Mary is done. I like that Jesus defends her. I like that he recognizes she is acting more like a Christ-follower than Judas, and has listened more deeply than the other twelve about what is to come. I like that he honors her as she honors him – and they share the new fragrance memory of nard.

How many weeks did the siblings’ house smell of nard? And Mary’s hair! The fragrance of the nard in her hair had to stay for what seemed like forever. Every time she smelled it, I wonder if she thought of the man who brought her brother back from the dead, the promised Messiah who had came at last, and her Rabbi.

There is a Nigerian saying that the heart is what does the giving… the fingers only let go.

Mary has given from her heart… for Jesus had given from his heart… for God had given from God’s heart.

And like a fragrance, that giving, that love, lingers and persists. And it is stronger than the smell of decay, of separation, and of death. We are about to enter Holy Week – the week beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Holy Saturday. It begins with celebration and ends with death. But, like the nard, the fragrance of God’s love isn’t easily wiped away and gone with. Like nard, it persists into the grave… and is stronger than death. For we have a new week, a new day, a Sunday Easter resurrection waiting – a day where love is poured over us as freely as the costly oil Mary poured on Jesus.

For thus says the Lord: “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Can you not smell the fragrance of God’s love ever battling the stench life often throws at us?

Can you not perceive, not notice, that spring is among us, and what was dead shall come to life?

As the Psalmist sings,

“Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.” (Psalm 126).

With God, tears of sorrow become tears of joy.

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))\

Called By Name

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

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

And what happens when your identity begins to crumble.

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

In other words, she has an identity crisis.

Who is Riley that lives in San Francisco?

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

Who is Riley?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I? Who is my core?

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

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

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

Who are you?

A precious and beloved child of God.

Amen.