Tag: Jesus

Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?

Maybe…

The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?

Amen.

Wisdom is Known by Her Deeds

nadia-bolz-weber---civil-unions-2
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I recently read a sermon by Rev. Darrel Lakey called “Christian, you are upset about the wrong things.” To make his point, he uses a cuss word: ‘last night, 30,000 children died of starvation and most of you don’t give a …” And if your first response is: a pastor shouldn’t say such words…

… and here I am, not saying it…

… then his point is made: you and I are upset about the wrong things. Upset a pastor is cussing instead of how many children died.

He goes on to show, powerfully, how what we get upset about and argue about so often is the wrong thing – the wrong part of the problem. He doesn’t say cussing is good- but rather, we are spending our energy in inefficient, wasteful ways.

Correcting a person for a cuss word isn’t going to make much of a difference in the world.

Giving someone a meal is going to make some difference.

Changing the world so that food is more fairly distributed will make a world of difference.

Why get in a ruffle over the word, and instead, focus on the message? And then do something!

In our reading, Jesus, too, points out how people are upset with the wrong things and wasting their energy on appearances rather than on real issues.

He recalls to us John.

John ate honey and bugs. People were upset with him – anyone who eats such things must be demon possessed! They were upset with his appearances. When they should have been upset with the fact John had to preach his message in the desert and it couldn’t be received in the city. In fact, when he came to the city, he was murdered for his message.

So Jesus now points to himself, and says – after John, people became upset with me and my appearance. Not because I’m eating honey and bugs, but regular bread and wine like everyone else. But they say say I’m a drunkard and a glutton. And they’re upset I spend time with sinners.

People, then and now, are upset about the wrong things. People should have been upset that their religious institutions didn’t have space for sinners and thought sinners shouldn’t have access to a rabbi. They should have been upset that there isn’t enough food and drink for all to have in abundance. They should have been paying attention not to the inside of the vessels, as Jesus later says, instead of the outside. They should, and we should, know wisdom – know people – not by how they look, but by their deeds.

Wisdom is known by her deeds.

Not her appearance.

The deeds of John. The deeds of Jesus. The deeds that speak of God’s radical acceptance, generous hospitality, and abiding forgiveness. The deeds that speak Love.

Giving John a bath wasn’t the fix. Fixing the institutions driving him into the desert was. Telling Jesus to avoid sinners wasn’t the fix. Offering acceptance and welcome and forgiveness to sinners is.

Are you upset about tattoos, piercings, or cussing? I know very faithful pastors with so many tattoos, their arms are covered in as if in a sleeve. Others have multiple piercings. Some, like the one I opened with, cuss in their sermons. Should we be upset about their looks, or upset that LOOKS can deny you a job? Or housing? Or even healthcare? Does a person immediately become a better or worse worker because of a tattoo? If so – sign me up for the tattoo to make me more organized!

… Ageism is a huge appearance struggle in our country. Rather than being welcomed as a person with experience, those who are aged are seen as incompetent. And a younger person is chosen for a job… even though both applicants are qualified.

There’s a reason hair dye for men and women sell and turn a profit.

So what do we get upset about? Tell people who look older to go away and leave us alone?

Some churches concerned about this have started day cares that primarily employ elderly  so that the very young and the very old share a day together. Yes, it’s chaotic. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s hard work! But… the wizened are valued for their knowledge… and the next generation are taught that aging is a good thing.

This is how to change our world: through taking action. Changing relationships. Changing minds. Being upset about the same things that upset Jesus, and then, like Jesus, taking action.

I went to Washington DC once as a child, like many of us go. I was told to avoid the subway because it was full of “undesirables.” My mother and another mother were so offended by this word, they cut out of the official tour to take their daughters on the subway. And we saw workers, and peddlers. We saw people without homes and people in business suits. We saw Washington DC without the spit and shine of the tour company guiding us. And it was beautiful. A city of diversity.

It was also stunning and horrifying. A city with twice the average homelessness rate – 124 people – men, women, and their children – per 10,000 citizens. Homelessness so high that people can register cross roads as their mailing addresses. A city with four of the richest counties in the nation – averaging incomes of $70,000 a home. And a city where the rich live elsewhere and drive in, while the locals who are poor or middle income ride the subs. And the policy makers, the rich, never see them.

Indeed, if the tourist papers warning us of “undesirables” is any evidence, then this is very purposeful. Purposefully avoiding the “lowers.”

This was a community service trip. If anything, we should have been right there on the streets learning from the common people the wrongs the people in charge are doing to them. Learning what would really make their lives better – like access to free showers, and safe places to sleep. We should have been upset that we live in the richest country in the world and there are plenty who still starve… because those with money and food CHOOSE to ignore their need and CHOOSE instead to focus on their looks.

Are we angry, upset, with what we ought to be? Are we identifying the root of problems and rooting them out?

This is about taking responsibility for our action, and our INACTION. Our action in choosing to fight silly battles and our inaction to act with God’s grace, hospitality, witness and love.

Our Old Testament reading is a strange one to pair with today’s gospel, isn’t it? Except for the AGENCY, the action, the people in this love story have.

The first is the servant of Abraham. He could easily have chosen the first girl he came across as Isaac’s wife. However, he goes and prepares. He stands near a well which is where, in the old world, all true love stories begin. It is a trope. A theme. Then, he begins to pray. He prays for a woman to come who is so generous, she not only pulls up one jug of water for himself, but water for each of his camels. That is – twenty gallons of water for each of the twenty camels. ((Remember, the story of Isaac is one of laughter and humor. So of course this girl is a super strong woman with unheard of generosity!)) And he doesn’t care about her looks, or the clothes she wears, or if she speaks perfectly. Instead – he cares about her wise deeds. Her generosity.

And back in her father’s home? Her father does the unheard of – he ASKS his daughter if she wants to go marry the man. He gives her agency. He sees his daughter as a PERSON instead of just property.

It doesn’t matter to him that the man has told him Abraham is rich, and seen the jewelry given. He still wants this to be his daughter’s choice. And she chooses to go. And the Bible calls the relationship between Isaac and Rebecka as one of ‘love.’  One of the few relationships of the Bible called such.

Agency. Seeing others as PEOPLE instead of numbers, or undesirables, or enemies.

It’s seeing our aching world, and instead of saying ‘but what can I do?’ doing your own small part – whatever it is. Giving to the food pantries. Supporting world wide organizations like the UCC Great Hour of Sharing or the ANERA refugee fund. Doing small parts – like reading and hearing the stories of those displaced by war. Not ignoring. Even when reading and hearing is hard.

And it is practicing love. If people cannot feel welcome and accepted, loved and encouraged, forgiven and wanted here – in our church – where, then, can they find respite?

Jesus says his YOKE is light. Remember, he is on a mission saying the religious folk are heaping on burdens on the poor instead of lightening the burdens. And it’s our jobs to lighten burdens.

But a yoke isn’t freedom – not act however you will – it is a guide. Yoke yourself to me, Jesus says, and know a lighter burden. Know that with me, you can lay down your heavy burdens of getting upset over the wrong things.

You can take up the yoke, the work, of assisting the in breaking of God’s kindom.

You can spend your life doing more than correcting someone’s cussing for five minutes… or criticizing their clothes. You can tackle the real work of loving others and changing the world one relationship, one deed, one olive branch at a time.

It’s still work – but it is light work. Joyous work. Because it sets judgment and hypocrisy aside, and welcomes and rejoices with others. If one is starving, one is homeless, one is not welcome – our beloved Jesus is starting, homeless, and not welcomed. It is also foolish work – the work that the wise and intelligent often miss, but which children often see and do immediately.

It is the foolish work of dancing with those who dance. And mourning with those who cry. And being a friend.

Come, says Christ, and share this yoke. Share your burdens. In the sharing, all becomes lighter.

And that is wisdom.

Amen.

Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2017/06/christian-upset-wrong-things/

The Sacrifice of…

Genesis 22:1-14 us-healthcare-urrepublic
Matthew 10:40-42

Three bucks a day. Do I really want to pay three bucks to save a life? You know, that three bucks could also get me a serving of French fries and pop. Those three bucks could also be used towards group health care, or my own health care. Or I could just pocket it. You see, what if I give that money to save a life and that person doesn’t live their life like I live mine? What if I save a life that isn’t worth it?

Jesus doesn’t ask us to consider three bucks. He asks a single cup of cold water. Starts even smaller and asks : Do you really want to give a stranger a cup of cold water? We could use it to water plants. Or use the time it takes to pour it for something better. It could be risky. What if they sue us for the water being too cold?

Maybe, we don’t want to make either of these concessions. What is mine is mine and what is your’s is your’s. Work harder if you want that 3 bucks and cup of water. Be born into a richer family. Be born without physical or mental conditions. Be lucky. Be luckier.

I am not your savior.

Yet, Christ tells us whomever welcomes another, welcomes Christ. And whomever derides, blames, ignores the needs of others… derides, disowns, and ignores Jesus.

Christ lives through us. Through Christ, we are each other’s earthly saviors. Through us, Christ loves and acts upon the world.

3 bucks. A cup of cold water. Jesus tells us even the smallest acts don’t lose their reward. God notices all mercy and hospitality.

3 dollars. A cup of cold water. A child, deeply loved.

God in Genesis gives Abraham a choice: take the child you have prayed and prayed and worked for, your beloved son, and give me that that little boy.

What will Abraham choose? God leaves it up to this human.

And Abraham doesn’t deny 3 dollars. Or a glass of water. Or even his own son. For the betterment of the world, so that God can work and enter more fully into human history, Abraham is willing to give up the person he loves the most.

God stays Abraham’s hand, and says God knows God has chosen the right person to be the father of God’s people now. Abraham is willing to sacrifice even what and who he loves the most for the salvation of the world. Abraham and God share a similar heart- a heart bent on mercy and hospitality.

When Jesus comes, he reminds us again and again that mercy and hospitality are core ways God loves us. And that we, those who profess we follow Christ and Christ’s ways, should also show much mercy and hospitality.

So why do so many balk at giving up $3 for health care?

Why do so many Christians balk at this?

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, raised taxes .9% on people who made $200,000 a year individually. If you made less than this, your taxes didn’t go up. Your healthcare costs likely did, because premiums tend to increase 3 to 5% every year normally.

It also made health insurance mandatory if you make more than $16,000 as an individual – not talking families or couples here. If you make less than this, nothing changed for you. You’re still considered too poor for health care. If you make more than $16,000, then you have been required to either pay between $695 to $2,085 as a yearly tax to have no coverage, or purchase a coverage plan for $4,500 to $12,000 yearly.

Why?

Because when we all give a little, there is enough for everyone to have care. Those who chose to have no coverage contribute money towards the group funds just like those who choose to have discounted coverage and those who make enough to be taxed. All of this is to attempt to provide coverage to people like a little boy I met this week. Let’s call him Adam.

Adam was born with cystic fibrosis. This is called a ‘childhood disease’ because people who are born with this genetic condition tend to die in childhood. It is where a defective gene causes mucus and thick sticky gunk to build up in the organs. Ever had bronchitis? Think of life-long bronchitis that just keeps getting worse. Our Children’s Hospital in Columbus is one of the leaders in treating and researching CF.

If you were born with CF in 1960, your parents would rejoice you reached your tenth birthday.

Today, most people with CF reach 37. This is because of new drugs and treatments. There is still no cure, but doctors are working on it.

Doctors are working with Adam. He is on an experimental drug. So far, it has literally stopped the gene from making mucus. As long as he has his medication, it is like he doesn’t have CF. He is a healthy, happy, normally developing boy. If this drug continues to work the way it is now, he will live a full life – live as long as any of us here.

But the drug is $3,000 a month.

Right now, he is a child. His parent’s insurance covers him.

When he is older… what is going to happen to Adam?

You see, insurance companies are not non-profits. They are not out to help you and I. They are out to make money. It is a gamble. You and I and they gamble on who is going to cost the other money. Each month, your premium is actually a bet. You are betting you will need health care. They are betting you will not.

However, just like at a casino, the house always makes money. The house, the insurance company, sets the odds. If you are someone they think will need health care, they’re going to make you pay more in premiums because it is more likely you WILL need care… which means they pay money out.

If you are more likely healthy, then they charge less, because it is less likely you’ll charge them money.

If you clearly are ill… something called a ‘pre-existing condition’… then insurance companies used to just deny coverage.

Have you ever tried to pay for any medical things without insurance coverage?

Now, Adam, he has a pre-existing condition, and an expensive one. Had he been born fifteen years ago… would his parents’ insurance still cover him? Or would that company have denied him? In fifteen years from now… will our public insurance cover him? Will companies with private insurance be allowed to deny him?

Should we revoke the limitations on lifetime maximum payments and pre-existing conditions, does that mean that when Adam becomes an adult… it will be his death sentence as no insurance company helps pay for his life-saving medication?

But some insurance companies are even more insidious than denying coverage to people like Adam. A ‘pre-existing condition’ is ANYTHING that a person has before they are insured with the insurance company.

You know a pre-existing condition?

Life.

Stinks to be alive, you know, because you’re going to get older and get sick and injured and… well, we just don’t cover people who are alive. There’s evidence that the disease of being alive is 100% fatal.

Every woman here? I’m sorry. You were born a female. Pregnancy is expensive. Since you are a woman, your coverage will not only cost more… but may be denied if some of the Senate and House coverage changes occur. It doesn’t matter if you’re past the age of getting pregnant.

A major part of the new plans being debated now are on how much to cost women… and the disabled… and specifically elderly people.

If you are young, healthy, and male… the changes being debated help you out.

If you are older, need medication, and female… the changes mean you, like Adam, may be looking at the end of your health care… and the beginning of your rapid decline to death.

Did you know those without health care insurance have a mortality rate 25 to 40% higher than those with health care?

That means, you catch pneumonia and you have insurance. You recover just fine with some antibiotics. Or, you catch pneumonia, and you have no insurance. You can’t afford antibiotics. You have a higher chance of dying compared to the person who has the antibiotics.

Harvard estimated before the national health care, the USA lost someone every 12 minutes due to lack of health care.

Who is this the sacrifice of?

Why are we sacrificing our elderly, our disabled, and our women? Why are we sacrificing our poor, our at-risk, our fellow Americans?

Why, when Jesus tells us to give cups of cold water to strangers, do we argue about denying life-saving medication?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son for the benefit of the world.

Are we willing to sacrifice far, far less to keep beloved sons like Adam alive?

I pray so.

Amen.

(Sources https://cysticfibrosisnewstoday.com/cystic-fibrosis-life-expectancy/ and http://www.thebalance.com )

 

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.

Abundant Life

John 10:1-10 wentz-barn-gate-strap-hinges
Acts 2:42-47

Every evening, there is a ritual across the world – boys and girls, women and men, go out and lock up their barns. When I was a child, it’s what we did right after dinner. Close the goat barn – lock the door. Check the chicken coop for sneaky early evening ‘coons, then shut the two doors. Shut the big field doors as the cows do their sleepy moos. Turn off all the lights. Exit by the last door, and shut the last gate. And the doors and gates keep all the animals safe.

If something got into the barn, it was never through the door or gate. It was a coyote that leapt a fence; a raccoon that dropped out of the loft; or once it was my dog who decided sweet feed might make good dinner. Anyways – whatever it was – they didn’t enter by the front gate which was lit and could be seen from the house. They snuck in another way. And they snuck in with the intentions to serve themselves rather than the barnyard animals. We never had animals worth thieving – but I know of others that do – and again, the thieves entered in a way not visible from the house to lead the valuable horses out the back.

Jesus, today, tells us he is not only the good farmer, the good shepherd, who leads the animals into safety from the outdoors and brings them out again in the morning… but he’s also the protective gate that stands against the death-dealers all night long.

We hear this story as Jesus affirming the 23 Psalm, that the Lord is my Shepherd.

He is, but also, Jesus tells this story to the people in the middle of his healing ministry, when the religious leaders have told the people to stop listening to Jesus, and literally are tossing those Jesus heals out of the security of the town.

Therefore, Jesus’ message in context is not just about lambs in the field – Jesus is actually suggesting that the religious leaders are thieves and bandits set out to kill and destroy the people! They’re more concerned with their public image than the lives of individuals. They’re more concerned with obtaining and keeping power than sharing and being equals.

He’s saying that those who have power ought to use that power to protect people who are the most vulnerable.

He’s protesting getting rich off of other’s misery – such as many insurance and drug companies do. He’s protesting staying in power by silencing the weak – as many politicians do. He’s protesting anyone who comes as ‘wolves in sheeps’ clothing’ promising you’ll get rich if you just pray for it, you’ll be healed if you just have faith, and protesting anyone who says you’ll have an easy life if you just follow their lead or become Christian.

Jesus says he isn’t’ concerned about his public image, or obtaining and keeping power. He is concerned that we have life, and have it abundantly. That we are kept spiritually safe and secure, are led towards good things, and learn to listen to the voices that love us rather than the talking heads who lie for their own benefit.

So, do you listen to love?

Do you live abundantly?

What does love sound like? What does abundant life look like?

Luke tells us about the early church and how they listened to love and lived abundantly. They were in –awe– because of what generosity and love people were showing one another in the name of Christ. These early Christians were getting together to teach, share fellowship, break bread, and pray. They shared what they had with each other and anyone who had need, and they knew one another at church and out in the community. They sang praises to God and lived so abundantly, lived with so much joy and depth of emotion, people kept flocking to join them. People asked: where did that joy come from? Where does that source of strength in hard times come from? The hope? The love? Tell us more! And so, they did.

Have you ever wondered if WE are the early church? I don’t mean: are we living and praying and thinking like the people in Acts… I mean, like… in 2,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years… we ARE going to be the early church. And what will people say about us?

I kinda think they’ll say the same things Luke did in Acts.

People might say of us: They taught each other at Sunday School, and they shared Fellowship time. They broke bread together, and prayed for one another. They lived in awe because people kept being so generous with each other not just in the church, but in their community too. They spent time together not just in church, but outside of church too. Their community knew they were Christian. People asked them – why are you following that Christ? Why are you so hopeful? What keeps you going when things have gone so wrong? And they spoke of their faith.

So maybe we are listening to love, and are living abundantly…

… But you know, it’s a daily ritual to listen to the shepherd and enter the security of the enclosure each night, and then go back out into the world each morning.

It’s a daily ritual to face the world through prayer, through the gate of Christ, and listens to Christ’s words, and then come back together with other Christians to re-center yourself, recharge your spirituality, so that you can go out again later and serve the world.

No animal can live cooped up in the barn their whole live OR out in the field their whole life. We are meant to gather here, secure in the fold, break bread and share life and encourage one another – and then go out to spread the good news that the Shepherd had many flocks and is always calling more towards abundant, loving, life with each other.

Amen.

Knock knock!

John 20:19-31
Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Knock knock!
who’s there?
Luke
Luke who?
Luke through the peephole and find out!

Tsk! But Jesus never knocked! Not even in the book of Luke. Instead – he just jumped right into the scene – but that means we get ever more hilarity as the disciples start screaming ghost! And Jesus stands in the middle of the chaos saying Peace! Peace!

And when the disciples see it really is Jesus, and see he still has the wounds in his side and isn’t a ghost – but really is there – they rejoice! Jesus then gifts them the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes in joy of the Risen Lord!

Far too often, we forget to laugh – forget to take ourselves lightly – forget that the Bible tells us that just as there is time for sorrow, there is also a time to laugh.

Now is the time for laughter!

Rev. Lois Harder said, “God delights in our laughter and receives it as an act of worship. [We continue] the Easter story. We’re celebrating the greatest practical joke of all time: God overturned death. God, in fact, had the last laugh over death.”

Is it any wonder why Peter stands and proclaims his heart is glad, and his tongue rejoices, and his flesh lives in hope? “God will not abandon my soul to Hell! God has made me filled me with the Joy of the Spirit!”

The joy that Jesus is raised up, love is stronger than all powers, and we are now an Easter people!

Hallelujah!

Think about the upside down world Jesus introduced us to….

Jesus told us of workers who were given full day pays for minutes of work, stewards who were successful cheats, wasteful sons welcomed like kings, camels going through needles, people not noticing whole planks of wood in their eyes, and wedding banquets at all hours.

Then — Jesus showed us a few loaves becoming many, water turning into wine, calming the seas, walking on water, healing the sick, curing blindness and lameness, and literally raising people from the dead.

And Jesus showed us what the world could be – welcoming in the strangers, the sinners, the outcasts, the misunderstood, the feared. The woman at the well. The Good Samaritan. The woman who the town wanted to stone. The boy with schizophrenia. The countless multitudes who Jesus taught us to stop labeling by their conditions and start labeling Beloved Children of God. Jesus showed us to love and converse with all people as equals.

The reality of God’s reign is chaos compared to what we know! It is a world all turned around so that the least are lifted up and the greatest are pushed down. A world where those who don’t labor are still fed; and those who ‘fit in’ with the world are actually the ones who need to change.

Rev. H.A. Williams’ in his book Tensions writes, “[It is] No wonder the Pharisees, who seem to have been always wholly serious, had to have Jesus put down. He couldn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely standing everything on its head and making their piety look ridiculous. Why, in the end, they might even laugh themselves, and that would be the ultimate catastrophe.

“…but Eternity had the last laugh after all. Here are Caiaphas and all his crowd, Pilate and Herod and all theirs, sitting complacently in a state of grave and dignified self-congratulation. They have done their duty and justified the authority vested in them by efficiently disposing once and for all of a dangerous fool. He is safely dead. And with solemn calm again restored, they can concentrate once more on the really serious matters to which their lives are dedicated.

“But behind their backs, without them having the slightest inkling of what is going on, the fool has popped up again like a Jack-in-the-box and is dancing about even more vigorously than before and even more compellingly. People here, there and everywhere are falling under his spell…

“If that isn’t funny, nothing is. It (the resurrection) is the supreme, the final, the ultimate joke. And since laughter, although not irresistible is none the less highly contagious, perhaps the brass hats themselves will in time catch the disease, turn around, see the joke, and then laugh with the rest of creation because the kingdom of God has drawn near.”

What a beautiful, beautiful reign it is!

Alright! Time for a joke break! Got one to share? If not… there should be one in your bulletin…

[jokes]

Ready for a few from our Bible? Listen to 2 Chronicles 21:20 NIV: It reads: “Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.”

Guess we know what people thought of Jehoram’s leadership skills!

In … Elijah and the priests of Baal are in a competition to see whose God will light up their own altar. They wait and wait and wait on Baal. Elijah gets tired of the waiting and in 1 Kings 18:27 we have this line, “About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

Your god might be sitting on the porcelain throne. You best shout louder! Yes, we have a potty joke in the Bible. This is the cleanest of several.

There’s a ton of sex jokes too – but you’ll have to ask me about those after the sermon!

And we have funny stories… which are meant to be funny!

When God comes to Abram and Sarai to say they – at 99 and 100 – are going to have a son, Abram – whose name means ‘Father’ – doesn’t understand and Sarai laughs. And their son’s name? Isaac – which means, He Laughs.

The entire book of Jonah is rolling in puns and humor! For example: Go to Nineveh, Jonah, and warn them. Jonah refuses. Runs away. And so a storm hits his boat. And his boat mates ask ‘Who made their god mad?!’ So Jonah is tossed overboard. He’s happy! He’ll escape God’s mission to Nineveh in death! But a big fish swallows him and spits him out back on the route to Nineveh. The story goes on and on like this with Jonah attempting to escape his mission to save a city with just his words and God refusing to let Jonah kill himself!

So!

Knock knock?
Who’s there?
Babylon.
Babylon who?
Babble on, I’ve stopped listening.

Means it’s time for our take home message: Psalm 17:22 “A joyful heart is good medicine.”

Let us laugh with holy humor! Let us rejoice in our Risen King!

Superhero!

Philippians 2:5-7

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Everyone has superheroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Helen Keller. I have always held Mother Teresa as one of my super heroes. One of the great things about superheroes is how they inspire us and give us hope. However, if you’re like me, you tend to place these people on pedestals. They are more amazing than is humanly possible (Clark Kent literally isn’t human.) So when I learn my heroes have faults, I actually take heart and like them more rather than less. It gives me more inspiration and hope because it tells me a person with faults like myself could do these amazing things. For example, Mother Teresa worked tirelessly with the poor of India out of love of Jesus… but she also struggled with faith doubts and questions. Since I sometimes do too, this doesn’t disqualify me from doing amazing work. Indeed,  it was out of her spiritual loneliness that Mother Teresa received strength to work with the loneliest people. Passages about Jesus’ humanity – complaining to his mother at the wedding, crying over Lazarus – inspire me too. We are called to have a mind like Christ. How could that be possible for us if Jesus’ mind wasn’t human? We’re called to live our lives in Jesus’ Way. How could we if that way was beyond what’s humanly possible? Therefore, our Savior came as both fully divine, and fully human. Our God took on human flesh, and knew what it is to be human… and then showed us how to live like superheroes.

 

Published in the Fairfield Towne Crier 4-21-17