Tag: Isaiah

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.

Treasured Treasures

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Whatever happened to the magi’s gifts?

Walk and think with me on this.

Some magi — likely priests of Zoroasterism — came to Jesus with treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Two were prophesized by Isaiah — the wealth of kings and the scent of a deity used in temple worship. But the third gift, myrrh, is unique. It is the scent used to anoint the dead. All three gifts are expensive and rare.

I don’t know how and why they picked their gifts. Maybe the gold is for the king, the frankincense for the services praying for the new king, and the myrrh for the king who died — since there can only be one king at a time over a county.

However it is, they take some of their wealth and they begin to follow a star to see over which country it appeared. The county happens to be Judea, whose capital is Jerusalem. But, as we know, King Herod is still alive and none of his sons have taken the throne as a new king. Yet the magi are certain there is a new king in this land, this land of the Jews, somewhere. So they keep seeking and following the star.

We know eventually they find Mary and Jesus in a house – maybe this is Jesus’ childhood home and Joseph is off working for the day. Toddler Jesus is there and these foreign priests bow to the boy and present their treasures to him. Our Epiphany, our realization, is that Jesus is both God and mortal; both king and sacrifice; both judgment and forgiveness.

But then the magi head home, avoiding Herod (or Herod Jr. We’re not really sure what year the magi came to Jesus.)

So have you, like me, ever wondered what happened to that treasure? I mean, does this treasure go towards buying carpenter equipment? Does it get stolen? Is it buried somewhere? Was it passed down in the family or help fund Jesus’ adult ministry?

As an adult, Jesus spoke about treasure. Our Lord tells us (Matt. 6:19) “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…” Was Jesus speaking out of personal experience? The precious oils and saps of frankincense and myrrh decayed and the boxes rusted and their cloth was moth ate and thieves took the gold. Maybe that’s what happened to the treasure.

There’s lots of stories outside of the Bible people have made up about what happened to these gifts from the wise men. Some said it helped them flee to Egypt, some say it started Jesus’ adult ministry, and one old story says it was stolen from Jesus by the very same thieves he was later crucified with.

In truth, we don’t know what happened.

But not knowing is kind of the definition of treasure…

Treasures are a pile of riches– usually ancient — and usually considered once lost and forgotten until discovered. I mean, we don’t say a bank is holding treasure… it has money. A set and counted amount of money. But we tell stories that a dragon has a treasure trove, and we mean a dragon has an unknown large amount of gold and gems, precious things we can’t even name, all which the world thought was forgot but now is found under said dragon.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is all about finding that unknown lost sum, the excitement, the mystery, and bringing the wealth back into the world.

Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights is all about learning the magic password – open sesame – and finding all the stolen treasures hidden in the secret cave – and how he takes these out and uses them.

Treasures are what we value, stored up, ferreted away, what was lost and is now found and returned to the world.

So since the magi brought Jesus treasure… and it was lost… doesn’t that mean we can find it again?

Like a treasure map with a big x to mark the spot, they had a big star to mark the spot they left their treasure. So maybe it’s just a matter of picking the right star and following it… but what if it was a star that wasn’t always there – it was just there a little while? Like a comet or an asteroid?

Or what if Matthew was trying to tell us a story with a deeper meaning rather than trying to give us a map to coins and perfumes?

I mean, later in Matthew, Jesus’ whole saying on treasure is: “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth no rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

Maybe the wise men are a foreshadow, a hint, at what later Matthew wanted us to remember about Jesus: Jesus didn’t value monetary wealth and the treasures of the earth. Jesus valued the treasures of heaven. Treasures like prayer, helping each other, being honest, loving each other and loving God.

Treasures that we can find, and give to the world, over and over again.

Or maybe, we’re to understand that the wise men went and put their treasure where their heart was. Jesus, their heart, is who they gave their treasures to. Herod, meanwhile, kept his treasures to himself and so kept his heart to himself. He only loved himself. The wise men were wise, and knew to love God.

See, I have heard before that we are the heart of Christ. And we are Jesus’ treasure. And since we are Jesus’ treasure, and his heart, Jesus stores us with himself in heaven. Safe and secure.

The reverse is this: When Jesus is our treasure, our hearts are with Jesus. So that we are encircled by Christ, surrounded by love, like treasure inside a protective chest.

When I think of my own heart, my heart is a treasure trove. A hoard of treasures. It is my wealth. In it is love and memories, loyalty and laughter, people, family, friends, pets, and places; and my God.

Sadly, however, even the treasure that normal moths and rust and thieves can’t take still can slip away like sand through my fingers. Time makes some memories fade, and like a thief in the night, some of my favorite places have been stolen for urban sprawl. Family, friends, pets… they all pass away.

So what do I do?

I think Jesus’ answer is still the best. Entrust him with this heart of treasure. Pray. Tell God our favorite memories, our favorite places. Tell God of our love for family and friends. Tell God our gratitude for loyal pets and good jokes. Trust God to take all of our treasures and store them in heaven where they cannot degrade, cannot fade, cannot be stolen or fall apart.

Treasures get lost… and found… lost and found. We might lose our treasured treasures on this earth, but those we entrust to God shall always be findable.

One day, what will you find waiting for you stored away in heaven? What stories, what memories, what loves, what joys, what prayers have you tucked away?

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC Baltimore, Ohio, 12-3-2016

Light of the World

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Darkness… nothingness… emptiness… silence…

There is a void, no form, and the spirit, the wind, the voice of God hovers over the face of the deep darkness.

And then suddenly, God SPEAKS. “Let there be light!”

And there is light – stars, burning blazing suns, glistening comets, churning atoms and vibrant energy — and God sees this light, and it is called good.

God speaks more, and more — land and water, birds and bees, trees and fish, bugs and animals, you and me — God speaks us into existence. God’s word is life.

In the beginning, the word of God, the voice of God, the intention of God always exists with God — and is God — and God creates all things into being by speaking. God’s speech and action are one and the same. When God speaks, life happens.

And this word, which is the truth of God, and which all things gain their breath of life, and which deeds and intentions, actions and word are one and the same — this incredible word became flesh and lived among us.

The word of God, God’s voice, became the man we call Jesus.

This light, the very light of God, was gifted to all who are the children of God.

The Gospel of John takes us to the Nativity Scene in such a cosmic route. He reminds us of Genesis, and how the speech and deed of God started everything, and the speech and deed of God continues everything. The speech and deed of God, writes John, is present in Jesus.

When Jesus speaks, his words change reality. When Jesus does something, his deeds speak loudly of who God is.

This concept of speech and deed being one and the same isn’t as heady as you might imagine. Think about this: when is a person ‘married?’ Maybe from the moment they said “I Do?” Those words change reality. These performance utterances CHANGE the world just with the speech.

“I name you John.”
“You are under arrest.”
“I apologize.”
“I dedicate this example to St. Michael’s.”
“Court is now in session.”

Reality before and after these words is different. The words change things.

Some of the most powerful words God ever spoke were through the mouth of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Go. You are forgiven.” and in doing so, forgave sins against God.

“This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In speaking such, he made it so.

In speaking forgiveness, forgiveness happened. In speaking a new covenant, a new promise was made.

John writes to us that this power to change reality we, too, possess. We can use our words, our deeds and intentions, to say “I forgive you of your debts against me,” and make it true. We can forgive as we are forgiven. We can love as we are loved. We can be a light to the world because the light of the world has come.

John goes to such lengths to explain how Jesus truly is the incarnate word of God – truly is God’s breath, Word, wisdom, truth put into a human body.

This is a very, very important concept in our religion. It is a huge point of difference between ourselves and our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We preach, and believe, that God God’s self was in Jesus.

That is why we say Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. That is why we say God chose to share our common lot. God became human. It is why we say God truly understands what it is to be human… because, in Jesus, God was human.

God experienced being born.

Teething.

God experienced the frustration and joy of siblings, cousins, relatives.

Those awkward teenage years.

God knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to be in pain, to be lonely. God knows what it is to be joyful, to be surprised, to be loved.

God knows what it is like to be you and me.

The incarnation of the Word of God is also why we say God came to us… rather than we went to God.

None of us can choose to be divine.

But God chose to come to us.

We are now already chosen. Already loved. Already forgiven. Already a child of God. It’s nothing we can choose, but a gift given to us. A precious, precious gift.

And all we can do is decide how to respond to this gift.

Joy? Hope? Love? Peace?

Awe? Stunned silence? Tears?

Perhaps something beyond words.

When we share communion today, listen to the words that are used. Listen to how words shape our reality, shape our response to God’s gift. Listen and say the words yourself.

Our Lord is God’s Word. And God’s word is a lamp unto our feet. A guide. A way to respond to the gift of God’s abiding, God-with-us, love. Amen.

We Don’t Want to Say Goodbye

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelations 21:1-6

Rodney Crowell wrote and sings a song called “Adam’s Song.” In it, he speaks of how the days are getting shorter, and the wind is colder, and the nights are clearer. The last leaves of November are falling and the stars are bright.

He sings that on these short days and long nights, our minds wander to our loved ones who have passed.

I think his song is so apt for All Saints Day and this late fall season.

You see, there are holidays coming up. Thanksgiving, and then Christmas… and when I think of these, I think also of Crowell’s lyrics, “We don’t want to say goodbye. We don’t want to feel that empty.” I wonder, am I going to set one less spot at the table for Thanksgiving? What do we do when writing out Christmas cards and that address is now… no longer needed? When I unpack the Christmas tree ornaments, which one is going to make my heart leap into my throat? What favorite food on the thanksgiving table will make my hands shake?

There are so many little extra loses, extra times of emptiness, after someone dies. And each little goodbye makes the emptiness feel bigger.

Each chair I don’t set out.

Each address I no longer write out.

Each present I don’t buy.

Each face I remember who used to be here, and now is not.

When I look at my grandmother and her eyes are so dazed at our Christmas dinner, I cannot help but wonder… who is she thinking of? Parents, siblings, and children who all used to be at this table? She’s outlived them all. Classmates she used to rush back from holiday breaks to share stories with; friends who died ten years prior? I almost can see the spirits reflecting in her eyes.

And yet, at that meal, we will pray and we eat like we always do. Because life is still going on, even though those holes are there. Crowell’s chorus is, “We’re just learning how to live with a life long broken heart.”

I think that’s so true. The emptiness continues, but so do we.

So we learn a new way of living. A new way of carrying on this broken heart, of saying new little goodbyes on our dead loved one’s birthdays, deathdays, the holidays, and those moments that hit us without warning — when we hear their song on the overhead speakers at the grocery store, or smell their soap on some stranger, or find an old list they wrote… a broken heart, but a life that’s still going on. A process of learning to live.

What do we do when it seems we can’t go on? Crowell sings about this too. Crowell sings, “When we cannot understand, when we cannot find new meaning, we’ll seek out the ones you loved, and love.” “It’s a privilege to remember. The sound of days done past will last.”

I see that as what we are doing today. We are seeking meaning to our loves’ deaths. We’re seeking to understand. We’re seeking a way to continue going on in this life without them. And in our seeking, we turn to the people who loved our loved one too, and together, we remember the days long past.

And together, we seek meaning in scripture. And in scripture, we hear our beloved God promising through the prophet Isaiah that God will wipe away the tear from every face. That someday, here on Earth, and this day, now in Heaven, God will lay a great banquet feast for all people. Death will be no more. The shroud, the funeral cloth, over us all — the weight of knowing we are going to die and all we love will die too — will be lifted permanently. And all things will be made new.

Our communion is a foretaste, an appetizer, before this great meal. In the Eucharist we get a little sampling of what it will be like to share in the great victory feast with God. Through this ritual, we share in Jesus’ death… the death we all will someday face too… and we share in Jesus’ victory over the death…. a victory we will one day know too.

We take communion with all the saints. All of the children of God. We come to the table and join the cloud of witnesses: all of those who we remember today. All of those who leave us learning to live with broken hearts. All of those who guided us to Christianity. All of those who formed and reformed our church. All of those who died countless generations ago.

We also take it with all of those yet to be born.

Here, in a sacred moment with God, we transcend time and place and partake in a little appetizer of heaven.

Understanding, finding new meaning, comes from those we love and who love us.

We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus. We are loved by the Spirit. We are loved by the Christians who came before us and who will come after us. We are supported by all of this love just as we support them. Together, walking together, we can face a life that is full of goodbyes…

… because a great reunion is in our future.

We don’t want to say goodbye, because we don’t want to feel that empty… but the goodbyes we say now are not forever goodbyes. These are goodbye, for now, and I look forward to when we meet again.

These are goodbye, I won’t see you when I we take communion, but I know you are there.

And some day, I’ll see you again.

And the tears we have won’t be tears of sorrow, but tears of joy.

And we will sit down to the full meal, the full feast, given to us by our most loving God. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, 11-1-15, Baltimore Ohio.