Based on Leviticus 19; Matthew 22
Loving God, we give you what belongs to you: our hearts, souls, and minds. These tokens of our love we offer in hopes you will use them to share love with all people. Amen.
Based on Leviticus 19; Matthew 22
Loving God, we give you what belongs to you: our hearts, souls, and minds. These tokens of our love we offer in hopes you will use them to share love with all people. Amen.
Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?
Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.
What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.
There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.
Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…
Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?
A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.
And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))
A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.
We have empathy fatigue.
It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…
Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.
It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.
Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?
There’s a million more crying for aid.
We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.
It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.
Because we weep.
Because we love.
At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.
To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.
We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.
We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.
We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.
Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.
Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.
Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.
What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?
Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.
“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”
Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.
Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.
Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,
“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.
And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.
And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.
So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.
And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.
“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”
In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.
Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.
Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.
Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.
And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.
And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.
And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.
And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.
But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.
Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.
He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.
But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…
So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))
“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.
[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.
Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.
…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy. ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.
So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.
Think of the county fair.
Think of your family and friends.
Think of your pets.
Your fall garden.
The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.
Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…
I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”
So I sat down and did them with her.
My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I’m not exactly sure what to stand here and say.
Hundreds of Klu Klux Klan members, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and others forming the catchall phrase ‘Alt-Right’ have appeared in Charlottesville. You know this. Many came armed with AK47s, hand guns, knives, shields, armor and helmets. Armed for war. Armed for killing people.
They stood outside of a Jewish temple in the city with their guns. Made the women and men and children enter in for worship under the threat of being shot to death. And the Rabbi after service had to tell people to leave the temple by the back door. The local police did not come although they were called. They police later said they feared the armed radicals would shoot if they saw police arrive.
But this threat towards Jews is not what the national news reported, for that same night, the white supremacists went with torches. Literally a torch mob and hundreds confronted about a dozen around a Confederate statue scheduled to be removed. Again, the police did not come although called. Police did not arrive until after violence had began. And as the white supremacists went, they chanted “Jews will not replace us.” and “Blood and soil.” Blood and soil is a Nazi Germany phrase. What do Jews have to do with the Confederacy?
Nothing. This is not a conflict over statues. This was never about the civil war. This is a conflict about ethnic cleansing. Genocide. Murdering people.
And the white supremacists did.
The following day, an entire crowd was hit by a car going roughly 80 miles an hour. It was driven by an Ohioan. A woman about my age died. She wasn’t a radical leftist, wasn’t a professional political activist. She was a normal woman who said she wanted to stand up against white supremacists who had flooded her town. In response to her death, Christopher Cantwell, of the group United the Right, said this death was justified to ViceNews. Said that many, many more deaths are coming and are needed to purge the country of the evils of non-white, non-straight, non-ultra conservatives.
Our president said BOTH sides are doing wrong. The side that wants America to only be white, blond haired, blue eyed, white supremacists… and the side that wants America to be a great melting pot. The side that comes armed with military weapons… and the side that comes with placards.
You may be thinking ‘why can’t they all just get along and stop being so extreme?’
It is because we are literally speaking of the life or death for every Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh and Buddhist in America. We are literally speaking of a group wishing to incite violence, who preaches that the death of blacks, part-blacks, Asians, Mexicans, Africans, even CANADIANS does not matter. Only white American lives matter.
We can’t sit back and just wait for this to all blow over because ” All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” ((Edmund Burke))
How did Nazi Germany happen? There was no overnight call to exterminate the country’s Jews, Jewish-heritage, gays, political activists, college professors, liberal pastors, Romani, blacks, and ‘dissidents’ over night. It was a process of little steps. A process of making the white supremacists stance look legitimate.
Germany had studies to prove whites were smarter. How often I hear the reason fewer blacks graduate from high school than whites is because they are stupid, rather than due to impoverished school systems, and parents who have to work two or more jobs so aren’t there to help with homework.
Germany changed laws removing people who disapproved of the leadership. How many of our political leaders, environmental leaders, and media have been replaced when they speak out against the president?
Germany banned all churches that did not support the Nazis. Churches that were allowed to stay open kept Nazi flags in them, held prayers for Hitler and his party, and encouraged their children to join Nazi Youth groups. Church and state are no longer separate here. Pastors can, and do, tell their parishioners to only vote one way and only support one politician.
Germany closed its borders and made passports harder to get. We are closing our boarders and taking away passports.
Germany blamed its economic woes on non-Whites rather than government policy. How often I hear The Mexican and The Jew have taken all the jobs and all the wealth. 4% of the US is millionaires, and they have more than 51% of the wealth of the nation…. 50% of US senators are millions. Who do you think is responsible for jobs and wealth? Half — half — of the USA is living in poverty. It isn’t because of Jews and Mexicans.
But, you say, these people are just practicing free speech! Let’s chat about what that actually means…. ((parapharase of Brandon Webb))
There seems to be some confusion on the subject of free speech. So I’ll break things down some using figurative Muppets.
Muppet: “I don’t like pie.” <- this is free speech, you stating your opinion.
Muppet: “I don’t like the Muppet President.” <- Still free speech, more likely to start an argument.
Muppet: “I don’t like Green Muppets.” <- While marking this Muppet out as prejudiced, this Muppet still is practicing free speech territory here.
Muppet: “I hate Green Muppets!” <- As above, still protected by the 1st Amendment. However, this Muppet is now entering the danger territory of discrimination and could get into other legal issues… but not 1st Amendment issues. Muppets can hate other Muppets for their color of their skin under the 1st Amendment.
Muppet: “We should do something about Green Muppets!” <- Now the Muppet has reached the end of the 1st Amendment limit without crossing out of it. The Department of Justice says that this is still protected, as it calls for eventual action, but did not promise immediate harm. Muppets using this speech can be considered hate groups, and can fall into all kinds of other legal issues… but not regarding the 1st Amendment.
Muppet: “Kill green Muppets!” <- This and speech like it is called incitement, it is not protected under the first amendment. In fact responses to Incitement can be classed as self defense by the Department of Justice. If a group of Muppets is calling for the death of green Muppets, they are likely to be classed with hate groups and terrorists. Anyone who responds and defends themselves against someone calling for death is considered legitimate protection of health and home.
This is because “in criminal law, incitement is the encouragement of another person to commit a crime. Depending on the jurisdiction, some or all types of incitement may be illegal. Where illegal, it is known as an inchoate offense, where harm is intended but may or may not have actually occurred.” ((Wikipedia))
In other words – encouraging others to kill is not protected by the 1st Amendment. This isn’t free speech. This is incitement and is illegal.
This is why hate groups always try to claim someone else did something to them and they are just responding. Blacks risked their families, so they’re just responding by killing all blacks. Someone make the car driver in Charlottesville feel threatened, so he was justified in killing.
Now, when you and I tolerate of this level of speech, calling others to violence, you and I become supporters of this violence. We become complicate in murders because we become a shield hate groups will willingly sacrifice to achieve their goals.
Will you stand by allowing incitement to be classified as free speech? Will you stand by letting yourself be used as political shield defending supremacists? What level are you going to tolerate? What level of discrimination? What level of speech? What level of calls for violence?
In Nazi Germany, far too many tolerated greater and greater discrimination because it wasn’t against their own class of people.
But think of Pastor Martin Neimoller’s Poem, written under Nazi Germany…
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
Right now they come for the blacks. The gays. The lesbians. The liberals. Will next it be the democrats, the Asians, the moderates? How long until you are classified as an enemy of the white nationalist supremacists?
If you’re not going to let them come for you, your friends and family, your neighbors, your country… you have to get off the fence and fight against white supremacy. Silence, or calling for a middle ground between accepting diversity and murder, both assist in ripping our country’s fabric which has always been built out of immigrants, different faiths, different backgrounds, and free speech… which means freedom to disagree and not all think, look, or act the same.
So! Four things! Four things you can do right now.
1. Listen more; speak less. If your circle of friends and news networks aren’t commenting on the bombing of mosques, intimidation of temples, police brutality against minorities, and hate crimes happening daily… you need to diversify who you’re listening to. These horrors are happening every day in our USA.
2. Get smart. Hear a term you don’t know? Look it up. Ask someone. What was Kristalnacht? Look it up. What hate groups are active here in Licking and Fairfield Counties? Look it up. We have several white supremacist groups. Get the lingo and the words and see what a dangerous world most of your fellows live in.
3. Open your eyes and don’t say (x) can’t happen in this day and age. It is happening. Privilege lets you not see it.
4. Don’t sit in the middle, say you are colorblind, and pretend things are fine.
This is because “[Colorblindness is] not a thing. Colorblindness is totally impossible in a nation whose land was taken from the indigenous inhabitants through an attempt at genocide and horrific colonization. The same nation that enslaved humans and exploited them in every way imaginable built a nation on their backs, hung them, hunted them, and for centuries kept them from their basic inalienable rights and still does. The same nation that exploits and deports immigrants who were promised refuge within the American Constitution. The same nation that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and continues to promote bigotry, exclusion, and violence against LGBTQ/gender non-identifying folks. This nation that allows swastika-wearing, Confederate-flag-toting, anti-Semitic racists to have a platform for their hate. The same nation that promised religious freedom, yet targets those who do not believe in a white, capitalist Jesus.
I love Jesus. And promise, Jesus was not white (literally brown, and wonderfully Jewish) and would have never been a capitalist.
It will never be possible for us to be colorblind, and we shouldn’t ever want to be.
I heard a saying once at an Al-Anon meeting that offered me liberation: “We are only as sick as our secrets (and our shame).” Shame can only live in the darkness; it can live within the systems of denial and defensiveness that we use to cover it up. We have to name these things, acknowledge them, and begin to do the deep work of transformation, restoration — and reparation.
Yup, now I’m talking about reparations.
Privilege means that you” you and I! We “owe a debt. [We] were born with it. [We] didn’t ask for it. And [we] didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming [us] for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.” ((Courtney Ariel on Sojo.net))
What comes out of your mouth defiles. Don’t defile the world.
Be like Jesus. When the Samaritan woman called him out on his racism, he praised her – and helped her.
Be like Jesus. Know we are all imprisoned in disobedience. We all have inherited the debts of those before us. Everyone needs mercy.
Be like Jesus. Maintain justice and do what is right.
Be like Jesus. Be love.
Be like Jesus.
Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.
It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.
And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.
I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.
Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.
Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.
And as we read, he has a vivid dream.
In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”
And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.
The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.
There are no godless places.
I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.
I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.
It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?
Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.
Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.
God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.
It’s… just so hard to remember.
And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.
Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.
Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.
First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.
But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.
I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.
Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.
When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.
Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.
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.
Orphan. This is one of those categories of people the Bible has a lot to say. Over and over again God tells us to care for the orphaned and the widows. To care for the fatherless and the stranger. To care for the outcast and the afflicted. A sign of God’s people is their love and care for those who are most vulnerable.
In these ancient cultures where our scripture comes from, men are the people who can own property and bring in income. So… a widow… or a child without a father…. where are they going to get food? Water? Shelter? Who is going to protect them from being victims of violence?
God says again and again – you are. You are their protection.
Jesus reminds us that it isn’t just widows and orphans God wants us to care for – but ALL. So he shows us again how to care for strangers, care for outcasts, care for the physically and mentally sick. Whomever is at risk, we are their guardians.
So who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?
I tell you, I visited an orphanage.
I know – you tell me they are all closed. There are no more ran in the US and we only use the foster care system. But I tell you otherwise: I walked in and signed my name to the Visitor’s Sheet. Eyes poked out of doorways to see who this new person was with curiously and then disappeared back into their rooms. I got my badge that marked me as something even more different. That badge saying I’m permitted to be there, but not OF there. Permitted to enter, but also permitted to LEAVE. And I walked the halls of these orphans. Some laid in their beds calling for their mommies. Some had photos of their missing parents on their walls. Some asked me if I’d seen their loved ones, or knew who they themselves were.
Here, in this Alzheimer’s Unit, are the people who need others to give them food, and water, shelter. To protect them from violence. To be parental figures.
I found my orphan and she didn’t know who I was. But my orphan and I, we sat and talked anyways. Bit by bit, she told me a few memories of her parents, a sister… or a brother…
I sat and I thought it’s strange to think that nearly all of us will be orphans before we pass away. Eventually, nearly all of us, will bury first one parent, then a second, maybe even a third. We actually pray we pass away before our children, so it’s not a strange thing to be orphans… but yet… it doesn’t mean its any easier.
My orphan lost her parents decades ago, but the hurt was still so deep and fresh. And she still thought of them with mixed emotions. Relief – that they are no longer in pain. Relief – she’ll see them again. Sorrow – she doesn’t see them now. Sorrow she can’t ask them for advice, can’t introduce them to her great-grandchildren, can’t just share a cup of coffee. Simultaneously she recalled to me great bitterness and anger with her parents and great love and longing for her parents. No one has simple relationships with others when we’re honest.
The same is true in our scripture on feeling like an orphan today. This isn’t a simple relationship Jesus is describing. He is giving his farewell speech to his disciples. He’s telling them he’s going to a reunion with his father and they’re not welcome… yet. Telling them they know the way… but it isn’t on a map. And they are realizing Jesus is speaking about his death, and going to Heaven, and waiting for us there.
They are realizing they are about to be orphans.
Anger. They can’t go back home. They gave up their homes to follow Jesus. Fear. Who is going to protect them when Jesus is gone? Worry. Who are they going to turn to for advice? How are they going to keep following Jesus’ Way when Jesus isn’t there to lead them? Sorrow. There won’t be walks together and sitting down to dinner. Fear. How can they trust themselves to be the leader, the parent, the wise on when they know they know so little? Feeling so not ready.
And Jesus reassures them in these words. You do know the Way. What is more, the Spirit of Truth, which you have known through me, will be given to you to abide in you. This Holy Spirit will help guide you on the Way. We will meet again.
You will not be orphans. You will not be without someone caring for you. You have someone watching out for you, someone being your advocate – your helper and companion and champion – you have someone leading you, listening to you, loving you.
Want evidence? Lead, listen, and love another – and you will find you, too, are led, listened to, and loved.
So, again, who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember to lead, to listen to, and to love in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?
Those who are aging are one of our brothers and sisters we need to give special protection to.
Another is those with physical or mental disabilities. Remember in Jesus’ time he cared not just for the widows and orphans… but also those with trouble walking, or speaking, or seeing. And those who suffered from mental illness and internal distress.
Today, our orphans are not in orphanages. They are in nursing homes, and at friends’ and families’ homes. And our orphans are in foster care and state custody. Our orphans are often homeless because there is so, so little help for those with mental demons.
Sadly, many police are like you and I, and not trained how to handle responding to someone in mental distress. So they see this ‘crazy erratic’ person, and choose to respond in ways that cause MORE distress and so more erratic behavior. Many, many mentally ill people are killed by responding officers because neither the cop nor the person know how to relate to each other – fear takes over – fear what the other will do – and one or the other goes from fear into attack mode.
Growing up, there was one of these guys living under a bridge near my hometown. Everyone knew him. He screamed at telephone poles most of the day. Where was his family? Did they know he was doing this? Had they passed away, had he run away and they lost track of him? Had he been more than what they could handle and care for?
… I’m his family, you know. So are you. Where were we?
Standing on the opposite street corner watching him and blaming his absent family. Judging them. When in actuality, Jesus commissions us – gives us the commandment – to love and care for those at risk and orphaned.
That man with mental illness is my brother. Your son. Our family.
And yes, he needed more help than any one set of parents, any one person, could give. But that is why we are more than one. We are the Body of Christ. Our parent in heaven, our risen Messiah, and our abiding Holy Spirit give us when we work together all that we need to care for all the orphans among us.
Paul argues to the Athenians in part that God isn’t like their statues. God doesn’t need us to feed God, bathe God, and bring God gold and silver because God provides US with everything and God isn’t IN a statue. Rather, God is in us and we are in God. We are God’s children, offspring.
In the same way, Jesus says he is in God, and we are in Jesus, and therefore with God. God doesn’t need us to care for God… but if we love Jesus, we will do as Jesus asks. Jesus asks us to love God – and love each other. Scripture tells us to love God, and love each other. The Spirit within us tells us to love God, and love each other. That Advocate reminds us again and again of the highest commandant: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind: and love others as you love yourself.
God doesn’t need bathed, need food, need support – God’s children do. The aging and the young, the physically or mentally challenged, or able or disabled, the often well or often ill – the widows and widowers – the orphans and the foster care kids – the moms and dads – the grandparents and neighbors – every single soul needs someone being their earthly advocate, just as we all need our Heavenly Advocate.
So who are the parents to the orphans?
Who are your parents?
We are. We are each other’s support, each other’s protection, each other’s advocates. We are each other’s family. We are the family of God.
Care for every person in some way – great or small.
Care for each other – here. And care for each other – out there, the strangers we are yet to meet.
We are never orphaned.
We are the children of God.
We are the family of God – and to love God is to love one another.
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Elie Wiesel, his parents, and his sister were told to board a train. Upon debarking, they were separated. It was the last time he ever saw his mom or little sister. His father and he were placed together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He writes about he witnessed as men were beat, starved, tortured, and murdered. Day after day. Jews, Romani ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, people who disagreed with the government, and those suspected of being any of these categories – all subjected to cruelty.
Around the boy Wiesel the men confront their faith. Why does God permit this to happen?
Is God good?
Is God just?
Is God loving?
Is this a punishment from God? If so – what could a mere human do to deserve to watch their toddler tortured to death or their grandpa murdered by his fellows over a scrap of food?
Elie Wiesel writes in his memoir ((Night)) of how some people still prayed, and still praised God, even in deep heartache. But he could not. He writes,
“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”
The torture, the anger, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment led many prisoners to wonder… where IS God?
Wiesel recounts watching a very young boy being hung to inspire fear into the camp; “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” But God doesn’t save the boy and the boy hangs – but he is too light and so instead of a quick death, slowly suffocates. Wiesel continues, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where-hanging here from this gallows…”
God is dying. God is dead.
Later, a Rabbi in the camp says, “”It’s over. God is no longer with us.” And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?””
On that long, seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I believe a similar conversation occurred. I am not saying it was as hellish as that Wiesel suffered, but similar conversation may have happened. I think the two walking had to ask each other:
Where is God?
Where is this God of Mercy and love?
If this Jesus was the Chosen One of God… how could mere mortals murder him?
If this Jesus was the Messiah to bring in God’s reign, why do bad people still rule and good people die?
Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty go rewarded?
If this is God’s reign… where is God? If this is God’s world – where is god?
What if… there is no god?
In situations not as hellish as seeing Jesus die. Not as hellish as seeing everyone you know tortured to death. But similar words you may have asked: where is God?
Is there a God?
Wiesel’s faith of God changes, wavers, stops all together at times and flourishes at others. He alone out of his family survives the concentration camp. As an old man, he spoke with a news paper reporter. ((The Star Ledger)) The reporter asked Wiesel,
Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?
A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.
Q: How often do people ask you this question?
A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’
Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?
A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.
Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?
A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’
Elie Wiesel lives on with a wounded faith.
Out of that wounded faith, he inspires others to remember HUMANS caused the Holocaust – not God. We bear the sin. We bear the responsibility to never do this again.
Out of wounded faith, Wiesel heals.
Walking to Emmaus, I wonder if the two have a wounded faith. All their dreams and expectations have been murdered. Hung on a cross. Left to die. Buried. Already the close disciples of Jesus have begun to be captured up, to be stoned to death… murdered.
How could God torture and murder God’s own son?
How is that just?
How is that right?
Are we going to laud divine child abuse?
… Maybe, as with the holocaust… God didn’t do it. Humans did.
Humans accused Jesus. Humans killed him. The holocaust was not some part of a great big plan. Nor was the cross.
In the words of George Santayana:” If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”
UCC Rev. Terry Williams continues, “Suffering is never redemptive. Christ’s love for us is shown in how he chose to live; our sinfulness is shown in how we chose to end his life. Suffering is never God’s will.”
Where is God?
God isn’t the one inflicting the pain.
God is hanging from the gallows.
God is hanging on the cross.
God is with the person suffering.
In our scripture, these two are suffering and Jesus comes up along side of them. They don’t even notice. Jesus joins in their reality, their conversation. Jesus then reassures them. The word ‘fool’ here is the kind of fool we call a beloved friend. Foolish beloved friend, the deranged babble of the women is true. God doesn’t leave you in suffering. God goes alongside with you. God accompanies you even with your wounded faith, because God has wounded faith in humanity. And together, we abide, side by side, and hope and trust in better tomorrows.
In Emmaus, the two invite in the stranger who has walked with them. And the stranger then becomes their blessing – and disappears.
In sudden hindsight, they realize Jesus was with them all along. In sudden hindsight, they realize that by welcoming in the stranger they welcomed in Christ. By welcoming in the lonely, they welcomed in Christ. By walking with someone and speaking of faith, even though they themselves felt their faith was wounded, they found Christ and found deep assurance that indeed- the Lord is Risen.
When I am in the middle of hell on Earth, I don’t always see where God is. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always trust God is love.
But in the rearview mirror… I see… I was never alone.
God was in the care strangers showed me. God was in the prayers of others. God sat with me while I asked the hard questions of: God – why? Why? Why? And WHERE ARE YOU?
In the rearview mirror… I see with twenty-twenty… it’s a talent and a skill we must develop to recognize our Lord in the present moment. For God is present. Right here. In our joys, but also in our deepest questions and sufferings. Amen.