Tag: John

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-31
Acts 4:32-35

Koinonia-Farm

Sister Sandra Schneiders tackles our first reading today and points out a different possibility in our translation of “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins, they are retained.” You see, in the second half of the sentence, there is no mention of sin in the original Greek. Additionally, what is possessive and what is objective changes. Therefore, we can also read this as “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you hold close anyone, they are held.”

This fits with John’s theme. This is the Christ who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Christ who came to forgive sins and embrace the outcast sends us out to forgive sins and embrace the outcasts.

The Christ who came to call us out of closed doors into communities that are not safe but in need of forgiveness, and being lovingly embraced.

A young couple named Florence and Clarence Jordan read these words of scripture, and those of Acts we heard today, and they believed. They were Georgian farmers, and they looked around and said – we should be one heart and one soul. We should distribute our wealth so no one is needy. When our Lord was resurrected, he came back with his wounds, but the wounds didn’t stop him. No one is so hurt, so poor, so sinful they cannot help another. Indeed, Christ came back with a mission – to go out from the locked doors and embrace the world.

So Clarence and Florence unlocked their doors. They teamed up with Rev. Martin and his wife Mabel English and started Koinonia (coy-a-nee-ah) Farm.

The name Koinonia is an ancient Greek word, used often in the New Testament, meaning deep fellowship. The community was built around four core beliefs:

-treat all human beings with dignity and justice,
-choose love over violence,
-share all possessions and live simply,
-and be stewards of the land.

Koinonia farm was a commune, where the produce and work was held in common. If that was not radical enough, Koinonia farm was integrated with black and white families living side by side, working side by side, eating side by side and being paid the same for their labor. This was 1942; in deep south Georgia; when Jim Crow ruled.

But the Jordan and England families knew the same issues that plagued sharecropping white farmers plagued sharecropping black farmers. They knew raising a farming family is hard with white kids and hard with black kids. They knew – poverty doesn’t care what color your skin is. And far more importantly – God loves the color God made your skin — from bluish ebony to snowy white and every hue on the face of the earth.

Together, the families were able to support one another’s crops so that if one failed, another succeeded, and no one went hungry. Together, they learned about what is was to be white in Georgia in the 1940s. What is was to be black in Georgia in the 1940s.

They did this in the name of Christ.

But also in the name of Christ, the Ku Klux Klan began to attack Koinonia. The placed bombs in their farmer’s stands. They drove by shooting at workers in the fields. They rallied 70 cars to drive through the farms terrifying the families. In the name of Christ, the KKK demanded the farm shut down.

The Koinonia farmers refused to take up firearms and fight back. They believed in their values: treat all humans with dignity and justice. This includes your enemies and those that hate you. Choose love over violence. This includes carrying your cross and not taking up a sword. Share all possessions and live simply. This means also sharing the hate, sharing the danger, sharing the wrath of the KKK. And be stewards of the land. Good farmers. Good caretakers.

So, when they couldn’t sell at their stands without being shot at, or bombed, they began to sell their nuts by mail. Their marketing was “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” And they did. Lots and lots of pecans. You can still order their nuts to this day.

As the farm learned more about poverty, they realized even housing is outside the ability of many families to own. And so they began to invite families to build houses, and then live in them. The no interest loans the farm gave out allowed the families to have a house when no bank would support them because they were poor, or black, or known to be against the KKK. Out of this grew the program we know as Habitat for Humanity.

Four years into the program, the Fuller family of Koiniona moved to Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, to begin the same program there. With them went Rev. Roger Miller, my belated mentor, of the newly created United Church of Christ. And this program was successful, and moved on – and now a half million houses around the world have been built by volunteers and homeowners for families to own with no-interest loans.

You have roots in all of this.

Koinonia. Habitat for Humanity. That Holy Spirit that stood up against accusations and triumphed over violence, over evil, with love, and humor, is still alive. It triumphed in Jerusalem. It triumphed in Georgia and Zaire. It triumphs here.

We live in a community that has rumbles of racism still deep in its core. We live in an America that is hell-bent on forgetting we are a nation of immigrants, a tossed salad of cultures and races mixed together, and we are better for it. We live in a time when Jim Crow laws are coming back and establishing white, male, heterosexual American men as the ideal and all other “deviants” from this are lesser people. Women. Homosexuals. Non-Americans. Anyone with any sort of skin color OR suspected non-White-American ancestors. The KKK and the Alt-Right violent movement groups are growing.

We could be like those early disciples. We could close our doors. Lock them. Gather together and not go out.

But that won’t protect us.

Walls are not security.

Ignorance is not security.

Active here is the Ku Klux Klan. But also the Creativity Movement. The Women of Aryan Unity and Vanguard America. All are Neo-Nazi groups. Add too the Aryan Nations’ Sadistic Sons and the Traditionalists Worker Party. The Daily Stormer, a world-wide known website for Neo-Nazi news, is published out of Worthington. Anti-Muslim groups ACT for America and Soldier of Odin operate here. Mission: America, the Bible Believers Fellowship, and Pass the Salt Ministries work to promote hate crimes against gays and lesbians. In the name of Christ – doing violence!

But we are doing good work. Through education, through refusing these ideologies that take our sacred scripture and turn it into a weapon of harm, of hate, we ARE reducing the number of hate groups.

We’re loving the hate away.

When I first started here at Saint Michael’s, Lancaster had 3 nationally known home-grown hate groups. Now, we do not.

Because we, here in Fairfield, here in Licking, here in Ohio, here in this very room – we will not tolerate abusing the neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner and the alien among us.

To be Christian, to be like Christ, is to go out proclaiming: Peace be with you.

I bring you peace.

The angels told the women to tell the disciples to go on to Galilee to see Jesus. Go on. Keep working. Keep spreading the message of peace.

But here they are, huddled and scared. So Jesus comes to them. And again – tells them – go and spread the word. Forgive sins. Embrace people. Spread the Good News of love, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and the unity of all kindred. All peoples. All nations.

And Jesus comes again the following week to tell them the same, again, and to gather up now Thomas to send him out, too. Spread the peace.

And Jesus comes again and again – here this very day – telling us the same – gathering us up and sending us out – go out to all peoples, all nations, and all kindred LIVING the Gospel. LIVING peace.

Jesus could have been furious with his disciples. They abandoned him. But instead, he gifts peace.

We could be furious with those who are different, physically or socially or culturally. But we are called to live in peace.

Go. Be the peace of Christ.

Go. Speak to relatives and friends. Don’t be quiet when someone tells a racist joke, or complains about “the blacks,” “the Muslims,” “the migrants,” “the immigrants,” or “the Mexicans.” Speak peace for and all people.

Be the peace of Christ.

Amen.

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Wounded Healers

Theodicy2
Full graphic here –> https://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2292 Does contain cusswords.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

Surely the day is coming when no one will ask “Who is God?” because we’ll all know – God’s ways are written inside of us. In our hearts. There’s no question. We just know.

Surely the day is coming when we will be in full understanding with God, and there won’t be need for teachers and pastors and theologians…

… But it sure doesn’t seem to be this moment. I testify this pastor struggles. We are here, in the final Sunday of Lent before Holy Week. Here- on this last Sunday of quiet reflection before we come to Jerusalem, and Jesus enters with the welcome of a King. Next week we’ll sing Hosannas. And we’ll consider during the week the cross.

That horrible thing.

The nearly unspeakable thing.

Sometimes, we rush from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss the heartache in between. Sometimes, we rush from Genesis and God calling us Very Good to the Gospels, where God So Loved the World.

And we miss the messy, messy reality in between.

The messy reality where murder happens, and senseless death. When armies rise up against armies. And homes are burned. And lives shattered. Children’s heads dashed on rocks and blood and guts and broken bones galore. We miss the slavery. The beatings. The rapes. The sin.

We miss the cross when we gloss over Holy Week, or gloss over the Bible.

Our stories, our scripture, our message of God is so relevant because it is asking, and reframing, and asking again: what does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be God?

Why do good things happen?

Why do bad things happen?

And to be human, to be alive. is to know good and bad and everything in between.

“My soul is troubled,” said Jesus.

My soul is troubled today, I say. I look at this cross, and I wonder – how could it happen?

How could Peter turn and deny his savior, his master, his best friend?

How could all the disciples run away from Jesus’ last hours, dying there, a condemned criminal?

How could Mary abide seeing her son die?

How could God abide this wrong?

Or all the other wrongs in the world?

Who is God to permit such suffering?

Why do bad things happen?


Theodicy is a fancy term for this problem, for asking the theology of “why do bad things happen?”

The issue is set up like this: why does an all powerful, all knowing, all loving and good God permit bad things to happen?

Some have answered – there must be no god. My God, My God – why have you forsaken me? Because there is no god listening to your cries.

And some have answers – surely there is a god. We just have to tackle this theodicy problem.

These three descriptions of God set up a triangle. If we can resolve one of the angles of the triangle — all powerful, all knowing, or all good — the issue collapses upon itself and goes away. We have an answer for why bad things happen.

Let me give you an example… Maybe bad things happen because God is not all powerful. God loves us deeply and wholly. God knows bad things are going to occur. God works with us to try to stop these things. We pray and God works. We work and God gives the Spirit. But because we are sinful, or we have free-will,  or because God chooses to limit God’s own power… bad things happen.

Maybe the world would fall into chaos if God meddled too much in it and did a lot of miracles.

Maybe God wills a perfect world, but chaos and sin is still too powerful.

Maybe God set up the world to reward the sinful with pain and the sinless with blessings, and to meddle in this would be to disturb the order of things.

For one reason or another, God’s not all powerful. But God is all knowing and all loving.


 

Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all knowing. God can and does do everything. And God is all love. But God doesn’t know the results and the future. Sometimes, chaos slips into God’s plans. Truly humans plan, and God plans better, but even the best of plans can go wrong. God doesn’t plan the bad. Sometimes, it just happens.

Think of the Garden of Eden – it seems God was surprised that humans chose to eat from the trees God banned. God sure acted angrier than someone who planned on this happening!

Or maybe it just appears God doesn’t know what God is doing at times because we have very limited minds and perspectives. There must be a master plan – we just don’t know it.

Or God is just making things up as God goes along.

Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. All things are ordered and what seems random is actually determined due to quantum physics… But what if God DOES play dice? What if change, chaos, random occurrences, happenstance really is a thing… and we and God just plan the best we can?


Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all good. God can and does do everything; and God knows all that will be and has been; but God is not all hearts and sunshine and love. Instead, God is vindictive. Or God is righteous. Or God is just.

If you read the Bible, there is fire and brimstone. Maybe that’s the only way some people learn their lessons. There is hell, and punishment for sins, and punishment just for touching the Ark of the Covenant without permission.

Maybe God is so just and righteous, that the impurities of us on God’s honor, and God’s righteousness, means God HAS to demand satisfaction – demand payment – for our wrongs. There is a universal debt we’re racked up, and someone has to pay.

Or maybe God just appears to be not loving, but in actuality, is loving us like a parent and knows to teach us with soft knocks and hard knocks how to be better people. Maybe God is letting bad things happen to test us, to burn away the chaff, per se.

Maybe God could have designed a way for us to learn how to be good people without heartache, but then God could have just programmed us to be robots and we never would be able to voluntarily love God back or be in a real relationship. Because real relationships require freedom to say no. Freedom to walk away.

Or maybe God is like us… and not wholly all good but has spurts of anger and emotional outbursts.

Or maybe…

Maybe…


The lists and ideas go on and on and on. All of these justifications of God have been argued. And will be argued. And are currently being argued.

And not just in academic books or in seminaries.

I hear phrases like, “That’s karma,” and it means “what goes around, comes around.” If you do good deeds, good things come back to you. If you do bad deeds, bad things happen to you. This is theodicy. Trying to explain our God and why bad things happen.

I hear things like, “God knew what God was doing,” or “It was just her time.” There is a master plan and God is following it. We’re just along for the ride. More theodicy. More explaining why bad things happen.

And I hear things like, “God must have needed another angel,” or “That’s the punishment of God.” Again… more theodicy. More trying to explain our world and our God.

After Jesus died, people struggled greatly to explain how God could let Jesus die. Some concluded Jesus must never had been the Chosen One, the Christ. Maybe he was a great prophet, but not the Christ.

Others concluded Jesus must have known this was going to happen all along. And they remembered things he said that seemed to foreshadow his death.

Still others decided the cross must actually be an act of God’s love, and Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that takes away sins… just like the lamb’s blood in Passover — the time when he was killed.

These are all theodicy answers.

All the gospel writers and early Christians and ancient Jews and ancient Greeks and Romans trying to understand what just happened and who God is.

None of them are right.

But none of them are wrong.

Theodicy is like balancing on a ball. You can do it, but you constantly have to make adjustments. And as soon as you have your balance, as soon as you have an answer, the ball and problem has moved again.

I think of it like a puzzle. I worry it for awhile, come to a conclusion that lasts a month – a year – maybe more — and then I have to come back to it again and think some more.

And people did this long before Jesus’ time, too.

The entire book of Job is a work of theodicy. Why do bad things happen? Each one of Job’s friends offers a different solution. And Job demands an answer from God God’s self — and God doesn’t give a satisfactory one. Or doesn’t answer. It’s hard to tell.

It’s like the author of Job knew we won’t have a satisfactory answer to why bad things happen until we can ask God ourselves face-to-face. Until then, we’re screaming at the sky.

Why bad things happen to people — good people and bad people — seems to never have a perfectly neat answer that works 100% of the time all the time for everyone.

So when you hear John’s answer today for why the cross happened, and why bad things happen, know it is John’s answer. Each Gospel answers it a bit differently. Each theologian answers it differently.

Each person answers it differently.

We all come to the cross as individuals, again and again and again, and each time, we see Jesus, we see God, we see why bad things happen, in a different light. Even if it is just slightly different than last time.

John’s theodicy answer is the cross had to happen. Jesus is like a single grain of wheat. And Jesus will fall, and the seed die, per se, and stop being a wheat seed. But it will then grow up and produce many, many wheat seeds. Much fruit.

And that we are to follow this – to reject the way of the world, and to accept the way of Christ. To stop trying to save our lives and start living for Christ.

John’s answer is that God spreads God’s salvation through what appears to be bad things, but is actually good. The cross looks like humiliation. It is degradation. It is shame. But it actually is glory, and honor, and is a way of lifting Jesus up for all people to see.

The seed appears to die, and all hope to be lost – but it is simply giving up itself in order to reproduce a hundred fold.

Jesus will appear to die, and all hope to be lost – but he is simply giving up himself in order to bring all people to him.

Sometimes I agree with John. Sometimes I do not. That’s the thing about theodicy… its a problem we never solve permanently. We just reach temporary solutions.

One temporarily solution for myself is to think of all of us, and God included, as wounded healers.

Bad things happen. God doesn’t will them, I think (for right now. My answer of course will change. All theodicy answers change.) But God wills good to come out of bad situations.

So God didn’t plan to put Jesus on the cross, but God planned to bring good out of what happened. And God did.

God doesn’t intend for us to have cancer, to lose loved ones, to suffer – but God does intend to help us bring good out of these situations.

God intends to help us become wounded healers.

Wounded healers are people who know what heartache is, who know what loss is, and through their own wounds, are able to heal others.

Because I’ve been in those shoes, I know how to help. Because you’ve been in my situation, you know what I need most. No two people have the same exact experience… but every heart is carrying a wound.

And that wound, that hurt, is a soft spot that God can help us use to connect with one another.

It’s not the Law of God written on our hearts… maybe. But maybe it is: maybe the new covenant is a covenant of love that connects in these wounds, and unites us through the common experience of being human.

The common experience of knowing heartache. And joy. And suffering. And elation. And pain. And death.

That’s the thing about theodicy – about understanding God and why bad things happen – our hearts and minds change as we experience more.

As we transition this week into Holy Week, and into Palm Sunday, I invite you to reflect on the cross – what does it mean? Why did it happen?

Agree with John. Disagree with John. Agree with Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul or disagree with all of them.

What is the cross to you?

Who is God to you?

Who is Christ?

And why do bad things happen?

Amen.

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

I Dare You

what-would-jesus-do-flipping-over-tables1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Two weeks ago I met with Liberty Union High school Superintendent Todd Osborn. He spoke to our Senior Citizens and myself about LU. With him were some of our seniors. They spoke about how many programs are at LU – active and social programs, like sports. Quiet and reflective programs, like chess club.

They were there to reassure us. One of them said,  “Nothing like what’s happening at other schools will ever happen here. If there’s a gun threat, our whole community would turn out with their own guns to take out that shooter.”

This week, two students threatened to shoot up the school. They were interviewed, and arrested.

Wake up – wake up! What is happening at other schools, in other communities, is happening right here too – with our own seniors. Our own kids. Our own babies.

“That shooter” is OUR shooter.

“That shooter” is OUR child.

“That shooter” who we were so confident the whole community would rally against, is not some outsider. It not some stranger. Is not some demon dropped into our laps.

That shooter is somebody’s kid. Somebody’s brother or sister. Somebody’s classmate. That kid is our grandchild, our nephew. Our niece. Our FFA member.

“Nothing like that is ever going to happen here” is not true.

We just had a brush with gun violence in our own school.

What are we going to do about it?

You’ve heard the story about a frog sitting in a pot of water. It will sit there, letting the water creep warmer and warmer, until suddenly it realizes the water is TOO warm. But by then, it is too late for the frog to leap out.

Gun violence in our country is warming water. The water has gotten warm enough that its threats are being felt in our own tiny community. How warm will we let it go before we do something?

Before we leap out?

You hear — it is mental health. That is why kids shoot up their schools. If this were the case, wouldn’t all counties have the incredible number of school shootings we have? We’re up to one every few weeks. Think of that!

It is not just mental health.

Why children are shooting up schools is complex. It cannot be simplified to just this or that. It is a combination of isolation, as Superintendent Osborn spoke about. It is a combination of bullying – which is made worse with access to instant social media. It is a combination of youth: death and mortality is a hard concept to just about everyone under age 30. It is a combination of our fractured society where people are numbers and not individual souls. It is more. It is complicated. It is nothing that can be resolved just with medication and saying anyone with depression is a potential violent threat.  struggle with depression.

No, the desire to harm your fellows is complex. Multifaceted.

However, solid evidence shows – although the desires are complex… the ability to actually follow through depends on a large part on access to guns – especially guns designed to kill multiple people in a short time.

The DESIRES are hard to control, predict, and work with. The desires are countered by the programs our teacher and staff and family and friends are implementing. We caught and acted on the voiced desires this time. We did rally together. We did listen. We are a community. The desires to harm are countered by our desire to stand together, to love, to truly listen to one another.

Desires ARE being addressed.

But access is not.

And this is a two-sided coin where we are only polishing one side.

I spoken with kids who have considered shooting up their schools. Their desire came from complex issues at home, at school, at life. Desires are complex. I don’t want to demonize any of our kids. They’re normal kids. Golly – I remember wanting to burn my own school some days thinking it’d get me out of a test. That desire is there. And when we’re young, desires are often very, very poorly thought out.

But the ability to follow through on that desire? The access to military style weapons?

I don’t know about our LU case, but in the case of those I’ve spoke with, the lack of easy access to guns stopped the horror. All the hoops and procedures needed to buy the guns they’d need, and the ammo, was too much. It would take time. It would take money. It would take someone to drive them. These teens’ impulsive desire faded as they aged, as family and friends and teachers and students built relationships with them. As they passed out of high school and out of the insanity that is called the hormones of being a teen.

Desires are complex.

And we’re addressing them.

But not access; and not our relationship with guns.

I’ve spoken with you all before about guns. You know I don’t think guns are evil, but are a tool. Like fire. Fire is neither good or bad. It is useful, and harmful, depending on who uses it and if they’re trained to use it and how they use it. You know I don’t think guns should be outright banned. We use them, especially in rural life.

The issue is we then, and now, are so reluctant to change our relationship with guns. Then, I said we’d offer thoughts and prayers… be outraged… but nothing would happen. I showed how already the world was moving on – publishing news on those murdered at the Jason Aldeen concert on the same page as advertisements for guns.

The children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leading a charge to change this. To change businesses when the law is too stalemated to change. To change how we relate with guns – to not host gun blessings in churches and to not worship guns.

We live by Jesus the Christ – not the Second Amendment.

We live by the Prince of Peace – not the idol called MY GUN.

So I dare you.

I dare you to cleanse our temple.

Jesus strode into the temple in Jerusalem and saw business as usual. Everything needed to run the temple was occurring – people were buying sacrifices, changing their foreign money for local money – doing normal life preparing for Passover.

We’re here. Doing normal life, preparing for Easter – which occurs in Passover. We’re doing everything we need for the traditions of our religion. We’re planning Easter eggs hunts and family dinners.

And Jesus strides in and is infuriated.

Infuriated – not because we’re celebrating. Jesus celebrates the Passover.

Infuriated – because dedication to God had been replaced by idolatry. The Temple and its festivals were not God. As Jesus said, there will be a time when you worship God neither here nor there – for we worship God wherever we are. God is not contained by a building. Jesus wanted them to know the Temple would be destroyed, but our access to God would not be.

Has our dedication to God been replaced by idolatry? How can we celebrate new life, cute bunnies and chicks, and spring colors while ignoring the snuffing of life, the little cold hands who used to cradle bunnies and chicks, and the spring flowers laid on fresh graves?

Jesus dared people to over throw their system, their government, even their own church, to get back to following God and God’s way.

Jesus dares us to do the same. To demand change. To enact change. To be change – even if we get the ire of our systems, our government, or our own churches.

Whatever is stopping you from following God is an idol. It replaces God.

Whenever an object is more important to you than the love of others – that object is an idol.

Whenever a human law is more important to you than God’s law to love God and love your neighbor – that human law is an idol.

We have a stumbling block. Something foolish. Something stupid. Something that makes no sense. It’s called a crucified savior.

A savior who loved others so much, he was willing to lay aside his angels, his sword, his gun, and die for others without a weapon or even a spoken defense.

A savior who loved God so much, he was willing to wholly submit to God’s message of inclusive, love, and radical earth-changing shift in priorities.

A savior who taught us that if we destroy our systems, our temple, our laws, our devotion to guns… even if we’ve spent our whole lives defending these things… That savior will resurrect us. That savior will forgive us. That savior will guide us. That savior will lead us. That savior will, and does now, and always will, love us.

Saint Michael’s, we almost had a Sandy Hook. A Rancho Tehama Elementary. An Umpqua College. A Virginia Tech.

We don’t because people listened to their youth and responded. Let us keep listening. Keep responding. Keep working together.

I dare you to repent, to turn back to God, to release idolatry, and to cleanse the sin of gun-worship in the USA.

I dare you to write to your politicians.

I dare you to speak with your family and friends.

I dare you to speak with your feet at rallies.

I dare you to speak with your money, and where you choose to shop.

I dare you to speak with your youths. Listen to them. Ask them about how they feel. Ask them for their guidance. For “out of the mouth of babes,” no?

I dare you to pray.

I dare you to act.

I dare you to love.

Love as Jesus loved.

What would Jesus do?

Tossing over tables, chasing people with whips, making a scene, and being political are within the realms of possibility.

So too is being crucified, scorned, mocked, arrested and beaten.

So too is living into the Reign of God now, and being resurrected, and given new, ever refreshing, ever fulfilling life.

What would Jesus do?

I dare you to do it.

Amen.

Testify to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28
egg-3
Rachael Djaba and Ben grin and show off a couple of the family’s hens. (by Heifer International)

Isaiah sounds as if he is writing a song of joy… saying things like “Good news to the oppressed!” and “I will greatly rejoice!” but Isaiah is actually writing a lament. A song of sorrow.

You see, returning is not restoration.

The exiles from Babylon have returned to Jerusalem and found the holy temple of God destroyed. The city and its surrounding cities destroyed. Ruins. And at first, they were so happy to leap into action. The returning Jewish population told the local population who were not exiled just what was what. The returning population were those priests and scribes and educated folk. The population who stayed were average people, and poor people. Over time, strife grew among them.

“Let’s build back the temple of God!” said those returning.

So the locals did… but the new temple was not as marvelous as Solomon’s. And the returned Jews grumbled, ‘You just can’t get good help! This thing looks awful!’

And the remaining Jews grumbled, ‘This is the best we could do. Who are these soft people to tell US what to do? WE who had to stay and try to survive in ruin?”

And the two groups bicker.

Isaiah brings the Good News to both: the oppressed locals and the brokenhearted returned exiles. He says God will gift them joy, garland, instead of sorrow and ashes. They, together, are a planting of the Lord and will be great trees to display God’s glory. Together they will rebuild cities and the devastations of many generations.

Indeed – returning is not restoration.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

Consider the families in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (among many other places). When they return home from evacuating from fires and hurricanes, they don’t find a HOME. They find a place, where once their home was. Houses are gone. Familiar trees and landmarks reduced to rubble. There is a long process of rebuilding the houses.

And even when the rebuilding is done, over months, there is still not restoration. Some people never come back and choose to live where they evacuated. Your neighbor of twenty years now lives 2000 miles away. Some buildings are not rebuilt. If, God forbid, we were to lose this church we’re in… you cannot build a new church and have it be 175 year old lovingly restored brick and slate. It is a new building, with a new history.

And our lives- their lives- are forever changed. All that time without work, all that money invested into rebuilding, all that effort.

The American Civil War was 152 years ago and yet STILL you can see its effects in our politics, in our buildings, in our church denominations even and so forth.

Returning to a place, or even liberating a people, does not mean there is restoration.

Restoration is a hard job that takes more than just being present.

Each Sunday I have been speaking about an alternative gift idea for your loved ones for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, I spoke about reusing, regifting, and also passing on your photos and stories as ways to live into hope and future-thinking.

Last Sunday, I spoke about ANERA, the American Near-East Refugee Aid, as a way to gift peace monetarily into the Middle East. I also spoke about working locally living peace by learning about and welcoming the stranger.

Today, I speak about Heifer International – who are bringing joy around the world and not just being in an area, but restoring an area. Today I ask you to consider giving a flock of chickens, or a pair of goats, to a family somewhere in the world in the name of a loved one for Christmas. Just as our Baltimore – Millersport kids gifted sheep with our Barn Yard Round Up VBS.

Now, if you don’t know the story yet, let me tell you a bit about the non-profit.

“Dan West, a farmer and youth leader, was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. While passing out powdered milk to children on both sides of the conflict, he grieved when the supply of milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He reasoned that these people needed “not a cup, but a cow.” He challenged his farmer friends at home to send heifers. Because he believed that everyone who receives should also experience the dignity of giving, West came up with the idea of Passing on the Gift. Every family who receives a Heifer animal, he insisted, should pass on one of their animal’s offspring to someone else in need.”

Heifer only enter communities upon invitation. They train project participants extensively on a host of topics that range from animal husbandry to gender equity. Even down to what kinds of grass produce the best milk. But the education and generosity doesn’t end there.

Each family who is given all this know-how AND the flock of chickens, milking cows, goats, or llamas or sheep are asked to pass this same knowledge and animals to another family when their own animals have offspring. This turns people who received, into givers, and empowers everyone. Also, “the impact of the original gift is doubled, at minimum, proving that small actions lead to big results” – lasting, transformative change occurs not just for one family, but for the whole community.

For instance, hear the story of Rachael Djaba, of Ghana, She and her husband and seven biological kids, live in “a rural area, populated mostly by subsistence farmers and fiishermen. For many of them, their income rarely stretches to cover much more than banku and fufu, traditional fare made of plantains, cassava or corn. These foods offer plenty of carbohydrates, but little else.” Many people in this area are stunted, anemic, and very ill. One day the family found a week old baby abandoned by his mentally ill mother. So they took him in as their eight child because, as Rachel says, “Even though we think we are poor, there are people more poor than us.”

This little baby, named Ben, seven months later, qualified the family to participate in a research project on nutrition with a university teamed up with Heifer international. The requirement was a family who had a child under the age of 1. And, because the Djaba’s chose to help out others even in their poverty, they, blessedly, now would be the recipients of aid.

All the families “who joined the project received 40 chickens and training on how to raise, care for and sell any excess eggs and poultry that were left after providing children in the family with at least one egg a day. Families also got seeds for home gardens. Because vegetables had been considered a rare luxury before, project participants had to learn how to cook with them and incorporate them regularly into their diets. By introducing eggs and leafy greens to the families’ diets and helping them set up businesses that produce a regular stream of income, Heifer and their partners hoped to curb malnutrition and give children a better start.”

In the Djaba’s case, baby Ben is THRIVING! And so are the 40 birds. They have turned into 170 birds on the little farm with another 80 birds already given or sold away. 20 crates of eggs are sold locally now. At one time, Rachel had to take out loans to buy medication for her constantly ill kids and they rarely went to school. Now, they haven’t been ill in two years and are in regular schooling.

And it’s because of generosity. People generously give to Heifer International, the Djaba family were generous to the little week old baby, and now everyone in their rural area has access to eggs and vegetables and are much healthier.

This is what restoration is. This is what the kin-dom of God looks like. This is fortunes reversed, the earth springing forth new life, and liberty from debt, release from poverty, comfort to mourners, and joy.

The joy of God.

The joy that loves justice and builds up others.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

John comes baptizing and calling people back to God. As you know, believers and doubters and the plain curious go out to meet him in the desert. They go out to the place. Most he calls vipers and snakes. Some realize the truth he is preaching and return to God.

To all, John says you’re here – at the PLACE – returning back to God, but that’s not the same as restored. “I baptize with water; but there is one who is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie his shoes.” As you know, other Gospels continue, “He will baptize you with fire, and the Holy Spirit.”

John says, I give you a cup of milk — but the cow is coming.

I give you a band aid, but the great physician is on his way.

I am not the light – but I testify to the light.

WE are called to do the same. WE are called to live into this light, to testify to it, and to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’

We are called to restore each other and lead one another to the ever-restoring waters of Christ. We are called to not just go to a place – not just go to church – but be the church that is restored, and restoring, others.

We are not the light, but we testify to the light.

And for this light, for this invitation to not just return, but to be RESTORED – we can rejoice!

The Lord has anointed you with water, and fire, and the Holy Spirit to bring good news, and proclaim the favor of the lord. Go and do so!

Amen.

 

All quoted text that isn’t Biblical is from Heifer International’s website, December, 2017, and their children’s Christian education flyer

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/

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.