Tag: love

Never Orphaned

Acts 17:22-31hands-old-young
John 14:15-21

 

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.

Amen.

Rearview Mirror

Luke 24:13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

where-is-god.png

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.

Abundant Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, do you listen to love?

Do you live abundantly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

One Thing I Do Know

muddyhandsJohn 9:1-41
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why do bad things happen? It’s something we ask, again and again. And the people of the Bible ask it again and again. And just like we come to different conclusions, so, too, do our mothers and fathers in the faith. The most common conclusion back then, and today, is that a person gets what they deserve. This makes us feel good, and speaks to our sense of right and wrong and justice. Bad people get punished. Good people get rewarded.

It goes like this: why is a man in jail? Because he has bad morals and is guilty of a crime. Why is a woman poor? Because she spends too much money and doesn’t work hard enough. How do you be successful? By following the rules.

This is an easy answer to why bad things happen, and it is usually the first answer we concluded. So-and-so had something bad happen because they caused it to happen to themselves. The Bible goes further and some authors conclude that even things like blindness, sickness, and death are caused by moral failings – caused by a person sinning. Some interpretations of Genesis? Adam and Eve ‘earn’ death because of their sin. Plenty die in the Bible because they ‘ired’ God. Today, AIDS is often called the ‘gay disease’ and called a punishment for homosexuality. People with opiate or painkiller addictions are often accused of being thieves, druggies, addicts – others say their whole identity is their addiction.

This reasoning gets tricky when we see bad things happen to good people; or good things happening to immoral people. This threatens our notion of right and wrong, of justice. See, Job was righteous – yet terrible things happen to him. Jesus is literally SINLESS and yet horrific things occur to him. We know people who would give the shirt off their backs to help another, and yet they can’t seem to catch a break. And we know of cases, like my own daughter, where a child dies before they even take a breath. Who, then, is to blame? Surely you can’t say the baby sinned. Surely you can’t say Jesus sinned.

Over the centuries, some came up with the idea of Original Sin – the idea we are all born sinful. So even brand new babies carry sin – and that is why bad things still happen. In our scripture today, some of Jesus’ disciples assert the stance that parents’ sins are passed on to their innocent children. These aren’t outdated conclusions. Both Original Sin and parents’ sins are active conclusions nowadays on why bad things happen.

It’s why so many want their children baptized super young – to wash away that Original Sin.

It’s why we always ask, “Was her mommy a druggie?” or “What did the parents do wrong?” when we hear of young babies dying, or miscarriages, or stillbirths. Someone, somewhere, sinned. Someone, somewhere, is to blame.

If we don’t have someone to blame, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice, is thrown out the window. We don’t like to see innocents suffering, but it makes more sense to us if we can reason their suffering is because of their parents, or grandparents, or Adam and Eve… or any sin somewhere. It lets us still say that what people get, they deserve.

Today – Jesus’ disciples ask: did this born blind man sin, or did his parents? Who do we blame for him being blind?

Jesus replies: neither. The blame doesn’t lie on the man nor his family.

Why is he blind, then? The NRSV adds the words to the scripture, “he was born blind.” The original reads, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of He who sent me.” Our translation into English with its added words say the man was born blind SO THAT Jesus could show God’s work. Our translation adds in blame, and places the blame on God.

The Greek original doesn’t do this. Jesus doesn’t add blame. Doesn’t say blame the man, nor his parents, nor God. Jesus skips the blame and says if we want to see God, we must help this guy. No judgment. No placing morality on the blindness. Just saying – bad crud happens. Help each other out, and you will see God in the helping.

So Jesus does as he preaches.

And you see the result – the blind man comes to testify Christ while the whole town goes about finding someone to blame. Someone must be to blame for the blindness! Some blame Jesus – who worked on the Sabbath. Some blame the man, for secretly harboring sin. They call in his parents to try to blame them for doing something that caused their son to be born blind. In the end – they toss the man out of the town. That is easier than admitting…

… sometimes… terrible things happen… and no one is to blame.

God’s will? Maybe. Primordial chaos left over from God placing order and making creation? Maybe. Result of Original Sin, or just sins? Maybe. Just meaningless? Maybe.

Jesus doesn’t offer the answer. He says don’t worry about placing the blame, instead, do something to help the situation. Don’t fret about if the person who is addicted has an ‘addictive personality.’ Be their friend and support now. Don’t fret about if parents didn’t eat right while the baby was in utero – comfort them now. Don’t fret about if a beggar has a job, or is getting food stamps, or deserves a hand out, or what they’re going to use that cash for… just help them out, now.

Jesus isn’t amoral. He isn’t advocating let everyone do as they please and let there be no consequences. He isn’t saying sin isn’t real. Jesus picks up John’s message telling us to repent and turn to God. However – Jesus is way more concerned that we live our lives helping one another than blaming one another.

Look at how much of this chapter is people blaming each other rather than helping the blind man and his family!

Look at their final action – tossing the formerly blind man out of the town – rather than rejoicing he now has sight!

Jesus isn’t answering our theodicy questions; he isn’t telling us why bad things happen. Instead, he’s giving us a way to respond to the bad we see — respond with love. Not judgment.

As the formerly blind man said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” No need to decide is someone is a sinner. Just be able to see them—help them, know them, love them.

Who Is My Neighbor?

lovethyneighborPsalm 25:1-10
Luke 10:25-37

Fill in the blank:
“Into a bar walks a Rabbi, a Priest and a…” Minister.
“Moe, Larry and…” Curly.
Donald Duck’s nephews are Hey, Dewey and… Louie.
Not into cartoons? How about the movie: The Good, The Bad and… the ugly.

These sets of three we just KNOW. They’re tied together. Jesus’ time had them too. One of these sets of three was a Priest, A Levite and… an Israelite. So if you wanted to tell the bar joke, it would go: A Priest, A Levite and an Israelite walk into a bar…” Usually, the joke continued that the priest only wanted to study the law. The Levite only wanted to do the law. And only the Israelite is smart enough to both study God’s Word and do God’s word.

Jesus sets up this set of three in today’s story. First — the Priest passes the man in need. Then, the Levite passes the man in need. We know how the joke goes, right? Here comes the Israelite to save the day and do better than both of these ‘men of God.’

But instead of an Israelite, Jesus says the third person to come along is the backwards, persecuted, dirty, outsider Samaritan.

… it would be as shocking as if I opened with a joke going, “A Rabbi, A Priest, and an ISIS Suicide Bomber walk into a bar…” That’s not how the joke goes, and really… it’s crossing the line from joke to insulting.

… Politically correct was never Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way is God correct. Politically correct means to think about your words, and not use words that harm others. It’s a very good thing!

But God correct means speaking the Truth of God even when that truth is painful to hear, or acknowledge.

The lawyer — someone extremely educated in the scriptures and laws of the time — had asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of simply giving the lawyer the answer, Jesus did the true Rabbi thing of answering a question with a question.

Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? You’ve studied it a whole lot – how do you interpret it?” Both men acknowledge the Bible has a lot of ways to read it, and lots of different understandings. However, they have the same reading: to inherit eternal life, one must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

DOING this love is how one lives eternally.

But this is a lawyer. It’s his job to nail down the facts. So… just who is my neighbor? Just who am I responsible to love? And that’s when Jesus gets politically incorrect and tells his story about the Priest, the Levite, and the Enemy. “Which of these three, do you think, acted like a neighbor to the man?”

The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “The Samaritan.” He can’t admit that dirty, dirty word; that enemy. He changes it to the softer but still true phrase, “The one who showed mercy.” Whomever was merciful.

Jesus’ answer?

Go and Do likewise. Go and Do.

Go and love your neighbor.
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

Love them. Show them kindness and mercy. Love yourself. Show yourself kindness and mercy. Love God – by showing all of God’s children the very same kindness and mercy God has shown you.

When Jesus tells this story, Jesus never identifies who the man is other than what crime happened against him. He was beat up by robbers who took everything he owned. The man is stripped of anything to identify him: he may be Jewish, he may be a Priest, he may be a Levite, he may be a Samaritan. He could be rich or poor. Young or old. Jesus keeps the details sparse so we can imagine ourselves as the man.

When you are so, so desperate for help… your neighbor is ANYONE who helps you out.

I read about a church where a woman was going through a messy divorce. Her fellow church members told her, “Keep your chin up. God will take care of you.” Her minister told her, “We are praying for you.” There was another woman in the community who had three kids who didn’t name anyone as their dads. She went to the woman and said, “Let’s get coffee; I’ll buy. Bring your kids, they can play with mine. You need a friend and I want to be one.”

Everyone in the church was well meaning, but none went out of their way to help. The outsider, the stranger, the one judged… she went out of her way to someone not like herself. But she knew what it was like to need a friend; what it was like to raise kids all by yourself; and she acted as this woman’s neighbor.

Who our actual next door neighbors are isn’t the message of this parable. Rather, it is about who is acting neighborly: a neighbor is anyone and everyone who goes out of their way to help another. Anyone and everyone who provides for our needs and who takes care of us.

Jesus’ story goes two ways then: it asks, are we neighbors? and who are our neighbors? In other words… are you going out of your way to help others; and are you letting others go out of their way to help you?

It’s that second one that really sticks in my craw; you too?

I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be invulnerable. Trying to be a self-sustaining one-woman island. I don’t need other’s help – I’m fine. I HELP OTHERS. OTHERS don’t help me. I donate to charity. I don’t take charity. I give out favors. I don’t rack up debts. I never want to be a burden. I give compliments, I don’t take them and I assuredly don’t take your pity and aide.

*tch* We rural folk, we’re strong. We survive it all. And this do-or-die-independence Jesus challenges. Jesus says being a neighbor involves not only giving help, but also being willing to receive it — and receive it especially from those not part of our immediate family and friends.

That hits me right in the chest.

When Jesus invites us into this parable as the beaten man, Jesus points out we’re all vulnerable. We all have times when we NEED assistance and help. We all have times when there are too many bills, or too much house work, or our bodies aren’t working as they ought, or we just are sad or lonely. We have times we’re stuck in the gutter and left in the ditch. And most of us choose to stay there, drag ourselves out, wallow in the mud, get infected wounds and suffer… rather than lifting a hand up and asking for help. Asking for someone to lift us back to our feet.

We ask God, if we ask anyone at all.

But what if God is working through those around us, and the answer to our prayer: God, help me through this! is God placing helpful people willing to be our neighbors in our lives?

Our psalmist writes, “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble God’s way. All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness,” Humble. Humble enough to give love. Humble enough to receive love.

It isn’t often socially acceptable to receive help… as in, by asking for help or receiving help you’re somehow less than others… but this humility and openness is a necessary way of following God’s path.

It is through giving AND receiving help, we build a web among us, a community among us. We knit the body of Christ closer and closer. One who only gives, and one who only receives, is like a dropped stitch; or like a tractor that only has forward or reverse but not both. You can work around a dropped stitch or a tractor missing gears… but it’s a whole lot harder than if you just had both. Giving and receiving, receiving and giving, is what makes us neighbors. So go and be loved by your neighbor!

Be open to being loved by
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

And do likewise. Love them back. Amen.

Like Father’s Voice

orlando1 Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29

All over the world, in all religions, people seek messages from the Divine to humanity. Where birds fly, how many times a cat licks her paw, meteors and shooting stars; the birth of a boy or girl; the outcome of a war or a sports game. We want to find evidence of God acting in our world and lives.

You know of the Orlando tragedies – of death after death. Because the terrorist attack was at a gay night club, there are Christian pastors saying this was God’s will, God’s punishment, on the men and women for being gay.

We have heard this rhetoric before. Why was New Orleans swamped and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina? Because of Mardi Gras. God chose to punish the sinful city.

Why did 9-11 happen? Because God chose to punish the sinful city of New York.

Name any catastrophe, any murder, any horror and somebody somewhere will be saying this terror was the will of God.

Our scripture, however, reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him,”

God wasn’t the hurricane and tornado; God wasn’t the earthquake and wildfire. God isn’t violence and harm and hate and hurt. God didn’t murder the priests in Elijah’s day. Didn’t scheme to raise Elijah as a prophet by destroying all the others. No. God, we must insist, is love. God is good. God is the sheer silence, the still small voice, the God who comes to Elijah and gives him food and drink. The God who hears Elijah’s prayers and responds powerfully. It’s God who is present.

Evils happen. Evils – where life is lost senselessly, where heartache and pain seem endless. God isn’t the evil.

God is in the voices and in the silences responding to evil. God is the voices saying, Let me help you. Let me bring you food. Let me bring you water. Let me pray with you. God is in the silences – the family and friends and strangers going to vigils, writing sympathy cards, and being shoulders to cry on.

When Elijah comes to the mountain top, God asks Elijah again and again – why are you HERE. Why HERE? And Elijah tells God – God! Your people have forgotten your ways. They’ve destroyed your places of worship. They’re murdered your priests! Doesn’t God already know this? Wouldn’t God already be wholly aware? Elijah isn’t there telling God some news. God isn’t remote. God is present.

No, Elijah is really saying: God. I’m scared. They want me dead. I’m alone.

And God’s answer is — no, you’re not alone. A peace beyond understanding, a supernatural silence, goes with you wherever you go. This peace is me, God. Yes, you’re scared. But I am with you. Yes, your enemies want you dead. But I prepare a feast before them and anoint you with oil – for the valley filled with the shadows, the threats, of death don’t scare me. I am God. I am with you.

Then God tells Elijah to go right back into the valley. Tells him to go right back to the Israelites who have forsaken, forgotten, God. Go back. And why?!

Because God isn’t a wildfire, earthquake, or tornado. God is a Word, a voice, a silence, a verb, a deed – God is a presense. And God sends Elijah back so that those who don’t know God will come to know God through Elijah.

God isn’t a terrorist, isn’t out to send hurricanes, or level cities. God didn’t murder the men and women of the Pulse Night Club. Because, God isn’t some disciplinarian, writes John. God isn’t a temperamental father waiting to strike you down if you mess up. No – God is our LOVING parent. God is like a LOVING dad; or LOVING mother, grandma, grandma — a caretaker who wants to wipe away tears and be present with us.

If God was a disciplinarian who sent out disasters, terrorists, and death to every person who sinned… who among us would be here today?

Jesus asked the same: who among you is without sin? You may be the first to judge.

Yes, there will be a judgment, a time, when God directs us to face our hearts and minds and deeds. But that is in God’s hands and on God’s time schedule. As Jesus said, not even the angels know when.

What we do know is to call ourselves Christian, we cannot be casting stones. To call ourselves Christian, we cannot be claiming God is punishing this sinner but not that sinner. To call ourselves Christian, we have to obey the Greatest Commandment: to LOVE God, and to LOVE each other.

LOVE, we have been commanded. Not JUDGE. Love.

Because, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There is no sinner or non-sinner. There are simply children of God, robed in Christ.

Elijah is sent back – to people who want him dead – to spread the message of God.

We are sent from our churches, our homes, our comfort places – to people of all walks of life – to spread the message of God.

The message of acceptance and love.

This Father’s Day there are at least 49 fathers missing children who were murdered last week. There is a father missing a toddler. There is a father missing a daughter. Since Pulse happened, a 125 more shootings in the US have occurred — most 1 on 1 — but 125 dead by guns. All around the world fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandparents, lovers, siblings, friends, and children are weeping.

We are sent.

We are sent to carry God’s presence into the world. We are sent to love.

We pray to God as Father, as Jesus did. So we often think of God as Father. But if our earthly role model of father has a raging voice as loud as a hurricane, and a temper as hot as wildfire, if he split rocks and threw things and was violent… we should be very careful not to confuse our Heavenly Father with our Earthly one. For our Heavenly Father wasn’t any of these things… but was the tender voice, the guide, the caretaker.

Your earthly caretaker – whomever he or she is – they speak with a voice like God.

You – child of God, heirs to the promise of God’s abiding care and presence – you are an earthly caretaker. It’s your job to be the voice and be the presence of God – for many won’t make the trip to the mountain, or church, or Bible. So it’s your job to live the Christian message. Your job to be the Christian message. Your job to be love when there is so much hate.

May your presence, love, and voice be a counter to the hate the world likes to think Christians spew. Amen.

Tending the Sheep

dorcasActs 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17

Dorcas and Tabitha mean the same thing, sorta like feline and cat or Charlie and Chuck. This woman’s name is gazelle, and she is so important to the early Christians that she is the only woman ever called a ‘disciple’ in the New Testament! We can picture her as a leader in the Joppa church, if not THE leader. Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews of the UCC writes, “Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need.”

Yet, we know very little about who she is: does she have money? She weaves or sews clothing for those who can’t afford clothes. Is she a widow? The widows of Joppa mourn her terribly. Is she an older lady or a young lady? Luke doesn’t tell us. Her income, her marital status, her age… these things aren’t important. Remember that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, free person or slave. We are all equals. And so, Tabitha isn’t know for her statuses… but for her love. She is “devoted to charity and acts of good works.” She is a disciple. We know she is Christian BECAUSE OF HER LOVE.

… Did you know a rich Christian is not an oxymoron… but a greedy Christian is?

In 2010, the New York Times brought the public’s attention to the “Charitable Giving Divide” that sociologist had noticed for years. Now, more and more people are beginning to see the pattern that the POORER you are, the MORE you give to charity. Isn’t that strange? A PhD candidate at Berkeley, Paul Piff, recently found that in his tests, “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.” So… does this mean that a person becomes financially rich by being greedy, distrustful, self-reliant, and not giving away money? Or does it mean a person becomes poor because they give to every charity and homeless person they see?

Psychologists and sociologists went out to study this. And they found that no — a person’s wealth or poverty isn’t a result of their charity… their charity is a result of their empathy, and their empathy is a result of who they identify with. This same researcher primed his volunteer test subjects by showing sympathy inducing videos and encouraging them to imagine themselves in different financial circumstances. That changed their reactions — for both sets of income. In other words, the poor, imagining themselves rich, became less altruistic. The rich, imagining themselves poor, became more generous to the destitute and ill. Piff concluded: “Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients” in the generosity of the poor.

When a person identifies as rich, he or she believes others are or ought to be rich too. So she votes for laws that help rich people, and she doesn’t give out money because that person she gives it to might misspend it on something like cigarettes rather than something she values – like education. She doesn’t understand, sympathize, or feel compassion for the poor because their lives, their worlds, are so different than her own. She doesn’t know the little things like cigarettes are a real addiction, and that food-stamps make sure you don’t go hungry, but they don’t cover things like toilet paper, sanitary napkins, or soap. So the money may not be used on food… but it’s going to be used on whatever the poor needs most at the moment.

And the reverse happens. When a person identifies as poor, he or she believes others are poor and need help too. “Oh, I was in a similar situation once, and I needed charity. I bet you do too, let me help!”

This compassion, this empathy, so scientists are learning, isn’t due to our actual wealth or poverty at all. It has all to do with who we identify with. Tabitha may have been a rich matriarch, or she may have been a destitute widow – Acts doesn’t tell us because her actual status didn’t matter. What mattered was who she identified with: and she identified with Jesus. She was a disciple, a follower, someone attempting to live like Jesus. And so she, like Jesus, identified with the trod upon, the ignored, the poor, the sick, the sinners, the people who need help. She identified with the Good Shepherd and so she aided the Sheep.

Our reading of Paul’s vision in Revelation is all about identification, about thinking of how to be like Christ. He sees all the people of the world — every race, every tribe, every tongue, every walk of person, all robed in white with victory palms singing to God. He can’t tell one group from another — they ALL are in sparkling white. And he asks his guide in the vision, who are all these people? Paul is told these are everyone who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. This is an oxymoron – blood doesn’t make things white. It covers something, marks it. Paul is being told these people have been covered in a universal, new identity. This new identity is worshiping God. In other words, these are people who have left their individual identity as a richly clad Roman, or poorly clad Judean; people who have left their identity as broken bodied or as able bodied; people who no longer think of themselves as American, Spanish, Straight, Gay, Democrat or Republican — but think of themselves as a person who identifies with what is good, Godly, pure.

Every race. Every nation. Every walk of people John sees. And each and every one is washed in purity because she or he has known the great ordeal of being faithful to the kindness, love, and generosity of God when those things too often bring us heartache. These saints identify with the Lamb, and so tend to the Lamb’s sheep.

… As Jesus told Peter in our reading last week… if you love me, tend my sheep.

If you love and worship Jesus, if you consider yourself a Christian – a follower of Jesus – tend his sheep.

Love others. Help others. Be generous. Imagine yourself in the position of others and think how best to love them. How best to tend to them. How best to be like Christ to them.

Our Good Shepherd gives us food and water, rest, sits with us even when we’re surrounded by enemies and bad times. Our Good Shepherd tells us not to fear, leads us to prayer, leads us to living ever renewing waters, leads us to where we can trust in God.

If we identify as Christians, our lives ought to be Christ-like.

Amen.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hidden-motives/201008/why-are-the-poor-more-generous