Tag: Poverty

Offertory Prayer

Based on 1 Corinthians 8:8a

Lord, we know food will not bring us closer to you, and yet, without food, focusing on you is so very hard. Therefore, we devote these gifts today for both hungers – the hunger of the belly and the hunger of the soul. Bless all with the feeling of fullness. Amen.

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Do Not Fear

DSC_237012 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid.

This is a strange greeting, isn’t it? Yet this is how Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, says hello to Mary and Zechariah both.

Do not be afraid – this is the greeting the Angels give the shepherds.

“Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel.” ((Shivey Smith))

Jesus will tell Simon – do not be afraid, from now on, you wish fish for people. To Jarius – do not be afraid! Just believe, and your daughter will be healed. And to the disciples, and to us, Jesus will say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”

Do not be afraid.

It’s a strange greeting, but maybe one we should use.

Do not be afraid, it is Christmas Eve and the very God who crafted your bones from atoms, and the cosmos from chaos, who has numbered your head hair and set breath in the lungs of dinosaurs and humans alike – has come to us as a helpless baby who can’t even find his fingers to put in his mouth let alone walk, talk, or rule as our prince of peace.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this.

Do not be afraid – Mary – you are favored with a child conceived out of wedlock, to be born in a barn, raised as a refugee, condemned as a criminal, and murdered before your eyes.

But God’s got this.

Do not be afraid, Saint Michael’s – we have God’s favor, too. And it isn’t good times, and wealth. God’s favor isn’t an easy life and endless happiness. God’s favor is messier.

Like – new born diaper messy.

Like – 3-days dead Lazarus messy.

Like – empty tombs and locked doors and miracles and crucifixions and martyrs and loving that person you’d love to hate messy.

God’s favor is an invite to be part of the very re-creation of the world.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and God wants you to be a part of it.

Do not be afraid “functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God”” ((shivey smith))

Do not be afraid is our invitation to step out and do the unusual and the bold too – because the house and kin-dom of God are now forever sure.

The unusual – that which isn’t to be mentioned in polite company – we’re to bring up those topics and causes, and live out that unusual way of reaching out to the outcasts, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the hated. Do not be afraid – you’re going to get filthy on the outside, but inside, you’ll be whiter than snow. Do not be afraid – God is with you.

We’re invited to be bold. To speak the words people do not want to hear. To preach love when everyone is throwing stones. To be God’s advocate when that is anything but popular. But do not be afraid – God is with you.

Anything is possible for God… God does miracles in the Bible, and is doing miracles now. So why does God bother with the messiness of involving us? Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God.

However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation [between Mary and Gabriel] tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008).”

Think about it – if you’re not invested into the world, will you care for it?

If you don’t have ownership, will you protect it?

I hear this time of year many people complain that kids have too many belongings, that everything is handed to them, and they don’t appreciate what they have then.

I hear all the time that said about my own generation.

There’s some truth to this, and it has nothing to do with age or generation. It has to do with investment.

I care more about those things I have spent time on, loved, prayed over, hoped for, and fought for. I care more about what I have tangibly put my hands on than what I have only a dim understanding of.

I care more about people I know, then those I don’t know.

You’re likely the same.

Maybe, God comes with this strange greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ and then leaps into humanity on humanity’s terms as a messy baby to get us more invested, more involved, with the cares of God – with the cares of re-creating the world into a place of love, hope, peace and joy.

Maybe we have a hard time loving the hard to fathom God of the universe… but we know how to love a baby, a child, a person. And so, God in the flesh, invites us to start loving others here.

And, maybe you can’t really care about a billion people you’ve never met… but you can care very dearly for your neighbor. And God says – yes! Do it. Love them deeply. Do not be afraid – I got this – But I want you to be a part of it, doing your own small part.
Here we are – our last Sunday of Advent, on Christmas Eve it’sself – what charity am I going to speak about?

Our own. Where we are doing our small part.

I’m talking about the moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles and friends and cousins in Baltimore and around the city who are sitting down today to eat a meal you donated.

I’m talking about the kids who don’t have to worry about if there will be breakfast tomorrow on Christmas morning because of you.

The Baltimore Thurston Food Pantry is our charity for today. It is messy. It is chaotic. It is God’s work in our community. It is an unusual and bold way God invites us to work alongside God.

Yes, there are food stamps. These takes weeks to apply and receive. People tend to like to eat every day and not once every few weeks.

Yes, there is emergency assistance. What if your emergency lasts a month – or two – before you’re able to find another job?

Yes, there are people ‘cheating the system.’ What does Tabitha do to earn a resurrection? What does Lazarus do? What have you done to earn God’s love?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

God just loves you. And we’re called to just love others.

No qualifications asked.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and wants us to get involved too.

Needing a gift for that hard-to-buy-for-person who has everything? Now? In the final hours? Consider donating in their name.

From manger to temple, and from senate and house to our local food pantry – from the lowly to high and high to lowly – God is working, and inviting us, to make the vertical world horizontal, to be bold, to be unusual, to love justice and walk humbly and let our lives be our message of God’s radical love.

Amen.

Testify to the Light

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

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

You see, returning is not restoration.

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

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

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

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

And the two groups bicker.

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

Indeed – returning is not restoration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joy of God.

The joy that loves justice and builds up others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Sheep and Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24ararat-sheep-20

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the day we proclaim Christ is King over all the world, the lord over all lords, the highest politician, highest ruler, over all rulers. Everyone and everything belongs under Christ’s rule and we anticipate the day this reign is fully actualized.

This sounds fantastic.

Until you consider there are 1.3 billion Muslims; 1.1 billion atheists, 900 million Hindus, not to mention a billion some more Buddhist, Pagans, Jews, Sikhs and hundreds of more religions. These people are not Christian.

If Jesus were to return right now, this very moment, would 70% of the world’s population be instantly damned – just because they were born in non-Christian areas, or to non-Christian families, or found a connection to God in a non-Christian religion?

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to early Christians living among all the non-Christians. And Matthew recounts Jesus talking about sheep and goats among the nations.

Nations. Peoples.

Not just the Jews Jesus was speaking with, but the nations – the gentiles – the non-Jewish, non-Christian, Romans or Grecians or Egyptians or Babylonians — people who did not confess Jesus as Christ. People like all the neighbors and communities, indeed, families, of the early Christians.

The neighbors and communities and families of ourselves.

Jesus says when he returns, the whole world will be judged.

Are all non-Christians going to hell and all Christians going to heaven?

Jesus’ parable says that to the shock of the nations – to the shock of Christians and non-Christians everywhere – there are blessed people among all nations. There are heaven-bound men and women and children who are Muslim, and who are spiritual but not religious. There are faithful Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in heaven.

And each and every one say, “Jesus – when did I serve you? I didn’t.”

And Jesus, in his parable, replies, “Whatever you did to the most vulnerable in your community, you did to me.”

And Jesus takes the sheep, the people who followed the Good Shepherd without even realizing it, and takes them into his heavenly flock.

And what of the goats? When Jesus talks about the nations — all peoples and all religions – this includes all religions, including Christianity. We’re the largest religion on the face of the Earth.

Jesus tells his disciples that the goats are just as shocked as the sheep to be NOT included. They thought they were sheep, thought they were following the Good Shepherd, but instead, they were following other lords and kings and gods while giving lip-service to Jesus. They ran with the flock of sheep here on earth, but their hearts and deeds didn’t reflect the heart and deeds of Jesus.

These Christians say, “Jesus, when did we not aid you?”

And Jesus replies to them, too, “Whatever you denied the most vulnerable in your communities, you denied to me.”

Jesus here is referencing but also advancing the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel, the Israelites are scattered in exile across many lands. Why has this happened? Ezekiel says because the people have been exploited. The exploitation of the vulnerable, the weakest, the people have ruined communities and destroyed the nation. The shepherds of the people, their leaders, have failed them. The shepherds have gotten rich and changed rules to benefit themselves while the people have gotten poor and suffered injustices. As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3).

Ezekiel spoke about how God would go out and gather in God’s people from all the nations… and then God would separate the sheep from the sheep. They all look the same, but God sees a difference. A difference in who these sheep truly belong to. Remember – sheep follow the voice of the one who leads them – not a stranger.

Ezekiel says when God comes, God comes with justice. God reverses each wrong dealt to the people. Wounds are healed, bellies are filled, rest is given. God, God’s self, takes over and is in charge. And God separates the fat sheep from the lean. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will judge between sheep and sheep.” And the fat and strong sheep are destroyed, while the hurting ones are fed justice. Injustice has made them lost, injured and weak. Justice will make them strong, united, and healthy again.

Ezekiel is not speaking about Israelites and non-Israelites. He is speaking about all the Israelites. Among God’s own people – among the sheep and sheep – God is judging which of us have been bullies, and have led soft lives at the detriment of others. Which of us have gotten rich off the labor of the poor. Which of us use more resources than others. Which of us refuse to share and attack the starving, injured, or weak when they come to our areas.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on the throne to judge all nations… the surprise is there are many non-Christian sheep, and many Christian goats. The surprise is there are many holy and good people who are not Christian; and there are many sinful and evil people who ARE Christian.

The judgement is, who has, in the words of Micah, done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God?

In Matthew, being a Christian does not make you good or bad; does not mean you are Saved or Unsaved; does not mean you are pleasing or displeasing God. What you believe, and how you act upon that belief, determines your destiny. If you believe in the goodness of the world, and you believe we are meant to love one another, and you act in loving deeds – you are a sheep, whether or not you know it. And if you believe its a dog-eat-dog world, and no kind deed goes unpunished, and you act in selfish ways – you are a goat, whether or not you go to church.

Now, in our country, it is rare to find any politician who says they are a religion other than Christian. Being ‘Christian’ gets you votes. It means you’re mainstream, respectable, trustworthy. Being ‘Christian’ means you can claim God is on your side, and if people don’t vote for you, they are voting against God. Being ‘Christian’ means you are above any wrongs.

These ‘Christians’ are fat sheep and goats. These Christians are the ones who cry ‘Lord, lord,’ but who never actually know Christ. You know who these false Christians are because the way they vote in the House or Senate, or their executive orders, or the policies they advocate, harm the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable people in our country are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgendered, unwed single mothers, children, teachers, and those with criminal records. The most vulnerable people in this country are blacks, women, Native Americans, the elderly and millennials. The most vulnerable people in this country have mental health issues. Physical ailments. Addictions.

The fat sheep in our country are born here, are sexually ‘straight’ or pass as heterosexual, they are white, married, and male. The fat sheep in our country have never been in trouble with the law – or if they have, had had their record expunged. They are affluent, educated, and are able to shape the world about them through their financial, political, or social sway. Instead of using all the power they were born into to be a wise leader, a good shepherd, a guide to make the world a better place… instead, they use their power to make sure they have more power, more money, more sway.

The Internet Freedom movement is anything but freedom for you and I. It permits the rich to have freedom to choose what the poor must pay to access websites. Sites that speak truth to power, sites that challenge the way things are – sites that advocate for the most vulnerable – may not be accessible because you don’t pay enough… or may be blocked all together.

The tax bill the House passed gives steep discounts to owners of private businesses — but makes teachers pay for their own teaching supplies. It drastically reduces the taxes on the most affluent in the country and raises the taxes on the poorest. In other words, it rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

Those fleeing the lack of infrastructure, intense crime and poverty, and earth quake after tsunami after hurricane of Haiti are kicked out of the country. Along with all who try to escape Sudan. Although, we are now free to import all the oil we want from Sudan… but its people are denied sanctuary from the Sudanese wars where 6,000 some children fight in Darfur and crucifixion is still a legal way to kill political prisoners.

If what we do to the most vulnerable, we do to Christ…

We are deporting Jesus.

We are forcing Jesus to pick between paying his water bill or eating today.

We are telling Jesus he was born evil, thinks evil, and the world would be better off if he killed himself.

We are cramming Jesus into little prison cells and giving him 2 cents a day for his slave labor.

We are punishing Jesus for being born not-White, for being not-Married, for being Middle Eastern, for being a refugee, for being an advocate of the poor and destitute, for being a promoter of women’s rights, for thinking children matter, for challenging authority and government, and for being a lean sheep.

We are only as Christian as how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Now… being white is not a sin. But it is being born with power. Born as a shepherd. Are you a good shepherd? Or are you a shepherd who’d rather ignore or harm the other sheep?

Being rich is not a sin. It is owning power. But it means we have a responsibility to generously and lavioushly share that wealth with others – so none are fat and none are thin.

Being straight, and/or male is not a sin. It means, however, responsibility as the ‘norm’ to invite the other in and LISTEN to how life is different. It means you are responsible to help make the world a better place for ALL PEOPLE.

This is Christ the King Sunday. We are celebrating the current reign of Christ, and anticipating the full reign.

Think of what that day will be — when the low are lifted and the high are lowered so all are equals.

Think of what that day will be – when we all eat justice. Will justice be sweet or bitter to you?

Do you look forward or do you fear that glorious day?

We are called to a radical life. Radical. Outside the norm. We are envisioning a radical future. A time of reversals. That time and day are ever closer – and we are invited to live into it now.

Come – live as Christ’s own and give up the selfish idols!

Come be a lamb of God! For God is seeking you, welcoming you.

Come, repent, change your ways, and return to the fold of Christ.

Come, follow the good shepherd, born in a barn, yet king over kings, yet lord over lords.

In your own hearts, recommit yourselves to being Christian.

Amen.

Let Me Rest

Matthew 25:1-13 

jerusalem-israel-oil-lamps
Lamp, 100 CE, Israel – Palestine, Jerusalem dig

The disciples ask Jesus, What sign are we to watch for – what is the coming of the Kin-dom of Heaven like? And Jesus tells them several chapters about just that. Today, we hear the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, or 10 virgins, 10 young women.

It goes like this: The coming of the kin-dom of heaven is like ten women who have been asked to bring in the bridegroom. They are to guide him through the winding streets in a parade to the wedding banquet where the beautiful bride awaits. All of the women come with their lamps – these are the signs of the procession. Think of a lamp hung on a stick you carry up above your head for lighting the path. It makes quite the show. Five of those who came actually brought oil to light these showy parade items and make them functional – in case the groom comes over night. Five of these women brought the lamps to be part of the parade, but didn’t bother with the heavy lamp oil. Maybe they figured since they left in the daytime, the groom would be along shortly. Who wants a parade and wedding feast at an unexpected hour like 2 or 3 in the morning?

But, as we hear, the parade is delayed because the bridegroom is delayed. As night comes, all ten women fall asleep waiting. The wise and the foolish both sleep.

In the middle of the night, someone shouts, “Here comes the groom! Come on out to meet him!” Everyone got to their feet to ready for the celebratory parade. They got their lamps and hung them on their poles, trimmed up the wicks, and got ready to be the light to guide in the bridal parade to the party.

But only five of the women were actually ready to do this. They thought they had an easy and fun job only. They brought the lamps, the symbols of their roles, but not actually the heavy and messy oil to put IN the lamps. The other five women had brought the messy and heavy oil and are ready to do the job they were asked to do.

The foolish women who realize they actually needed to participate in this, and not just show up, ask for some of the oil. But the wise women reply, “There’s not enough to go around.” If all ten lamps are lit with the oil, the oil will run out before they guide the wedding party to the banquet hall. Better to have 5 lamps last the whole way than 10 lamps that die out half way there and leave everyone stumbling in the dark. So the wise say, “You best go prepare now.”

But while the foolish women were gone getting oil, the groom came close enough for the parade to start. And so it did. And the five guides lead the people along to the party.

Meanwhile, the foolish women get their lamps started and come running back to the party, late, saying, “We’re ready to help with the parade! Look! We have our guide lamps lit!”

But the groom said, “It’s too late. The time for that has already passed. I don’t need bridesmaids to guide people anymore for the party has already started.”

And the bridesmaids were very sad and cried.

Now, normally, I hear this preached with the punch line: therefore stay awake! Stay vigilant! Keep watch!

You never know when Christ will return!

NEVER REST! NEVER SLEEP! WATCH! KEEP ALERT!

But you know what, I’m tired.

Always being vigilant, always on edge – that means always stressing. People who are in war zones and who must always be alert suffer from all kinds of physical and mental harm from constantly being “on” and unable to turn off. Resting is one of the hard parts for our veterans coming home to adjust to, and do – because they’re so used to being “on.”

It works for a computer – turn it off, let it rest, plug it back in again – it works for us, too. We need rest. Does Jesus want us to wait with such expectation that we all start showing the Blue Screens of Death?

We need to sleep sometimes.

Always being in emergency mode means our minds begin to re-write themselves to thinking this over-load of adrenalin and cortisone – this load of stress hormones – is normal. So we freak out even more easily next time something stressful happens. Sometimes we even begin to crave chaos and stress.

Our bodies age rapidly from these strong chemicals and we get aches, pains, high blood pressure and low immune systems. We turn to self medication to help us get by – alcohol, cigarettes, another cup of coffee, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little.

We get to feeling isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, angry.

Since Jesus is our good shepherd, who wants the best for us, and offers us to lie down in green pastures, who invites us to dine with him, I cannot think he was advocating we live our entire life in fear of the rapture, the End, and the return of Christ. I cannot think he was telling us to suffer from constant stress because we’re Christians.

The kindom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids… who fell asleep. Christ, the groom, came while they were sleeping.

So the difference is not who took a rest and who didn’t. All ten slept. The difference is who prepared for waiting and who didn’t. Who came ready to work, and who didn’t.

Some of the women came not just with the symbols of their job – the lamps – but also came with the hard part of the job, too – the oil.

Some Christians have the symbols of their faith – Easter, Christmas, maybe a cross – but wise Christians do the hard part of the faith too – the whole loving others bit.

When Christ arrives, it is too late to suddenly go “be” Christian. The time for action is now. The bridesmaids who remembered they are to be guides – day and night – with their lanterns are able to respond to the call. They can rise and go. The women who were only committed for the good parts aren’t able to rise and go and participate. They have to go get oil. They have to go prepare, although the time for preparing has already passed.

The wise Christians come at the call, guide with their lamps, and enter the wedding party. Enter into Christ’s presence. The foolish Christians are delayed in responding to the call, and by the time they get their act together and come saying “I’m ready to walk with Christ now and do all that love-your-neighbor-stuff!” Christ tells them, “The time for that is passed. The party is already going on now.”

Often I hear this talked about in terms of the Last Days. I had a great-uncle who liked to sit us kids down and somewhat terrify us with images of The Apocalypse: The Day of Judgment: THE return. Picture that in the strongest Appalachian accent you can, now. And he liked to tell us about how death comes suddenly, unexpectantly, and you need to get right with Jesus NOW. Because you can’t get right with Jesus after you die. And he’d tell us that the Final Day will be essentially the cutting off line for everyone. No more chances to get it right. You either are in the party, or you’re not. Either Saved or Not.

Yes – one can understand this parable that way.

I understand it a bit differently. See, Christ was, and Christ will come again… but Christ also IS. Christ IS Risen. Christ told this parable. Christ will one day bring the full reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven. But Christ also is here, right now, as near as our shadows.

I think the clarion, the call to action, to rise up from our sleep and trim our lamps, is happening every day; because we encounter Christ every day.

Where? Lord? I did not see you?

What you do to the least of these you do to me.

Every day, we see some chance to step up and guide the kin-dom of God into the world. Every day, we see Christ. Some of us are prepared to act. Prepared to guide. Prepared to minister and amplify the voices of the silenced and be present for one another. And some of us… are not.

I’m not saying we’re doing this because we’re mean. Nor are we doing this out of blindness and not aware of the needs in our community and world.

No.

We’re tired.

I bet those five bridesmaids who didn’t lug the heavy oil were tired.

Had they known the wait was going to be that long, they would have brought the oil. But they judged the odds, compared how likely it was that the groom would come in the day or the night, and chose. They chose wrong. But I don’t think it was that they meant to be wrong.

They just… are mortals. Fallible. And tire.

When we’re in constant stress mode, our reserves are all drained out. Not just our physical reserves, but our emotional and spiritual too. If we know someone really truly needs us, we’re there for them! … But it’s the casual encounters, the strangers, the hard to notice people who society makes invisible… it’s they we forget. They we don’t prepare for. But it is they who are Christ, the groom, coming into our lives at unexpected times.

They are the sick. Colds never come on our schedules. Dementia is not wrote on our calendar “Oh, Dec 2017, time for a stroke!” Those with long-term illnesses are the most forgotten. Those suffering from depression, lack of mobility, and… that one we hate to admit the most… being old.

They are the imprisoned. Where are our prisoners? Who tells them of Christ’s love and forgiveness and mercy? Who welcomes in people with criminal records and says, ‘Yes, you can work here,’ ‘Yes, you may have a loan,’ ‘Yes, you are welcome.’ Incarceration may last five years inside a prison, but it is a life-long sentence.

They are the naked and hungry. Poverty is one of those things we try to hide. We as a society shame people in poverty and tell them it is their fault so we don’t have to see them. Seeing them makes us feel badly about our own wealth. We pass rules banning people from loitering and panhandling and yet don’t provide shelters that are open 24/7. Where are these people to go? Work. Get a job. Ever been unemployed and looking for a job? Try looking for a job without a phone, a mailing address, shower, warm meal, and reliable transportation. Then add maybe a criminal record or a illness you can’t afford the medication to treat.

You and I – we can’t respond – can’t reach out and help others – when our lamps are empty. When we’re running on fumes. We need time to fill ourselves with oil so we can be lamps to others.

We need time to rest, to sleep, to be able to serve.

We are getting ready to enter the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Does the thought make you tired?

Then it is time for change. Time for rest. Time to build up those oil reserves.

For every day we are supposed to listen for the call – but we’ll only be able to respond if we’re ready.

Take time to be holy.

Take time to be still.

Take time to rest in the peace of God.

Amen.

Astonished Beyond Measure

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

“I’ll pray for you.”

Have you ever said that? I have. Have you ever then congratulated yourself; you said the right thing! You have the right intentions! And then you walk away. Mission accomplished.

I’ll pray for you.

There is something a little… insulting… about this phrase. I mean, it’s said with the best of intentions and wishes… but… what would it mean if I said, “I’ll pray with you.”

Suddenly, we’re now partners. Suddenly, I’m no longer doing from a distance but in the middle of the issue. Now I’m with you.

… and what if I added, “Would you like me to pray with you now?” We’re taking some action together now. Working together now. Not putting off to tomorrow… to Tuesday… or most likely never… that good intention to pray together.

So often, far too often, “I’ll pray for you.” is a dismissal.

Sometimes, it even is intended as an insult.

I remember my mother telling a friend she was reading this fantasy book series aloud to my brother and I. The friend patted my mom’s hand, “I’ll pray for you.”

It was an insult – it was telling my mother her friend thought what she was doing was misguided and sinful.

This wasn’t about prayer at all.

How is the excellent name invoked over us blasphemed — how is Jesus— made a fool of? When we use religion in hurtful ways.

James sets up a scenario we see all the time. He says picture a church – and men and women, old and young, boys and girls, rich and poor, black and white, and all people come into it. Now, the town mayor is surrounded with people wanting to shake his hand. “Oh thank you for coming to our little church!” People gossip, “Did you see the newspaper is here? They’re taking photos of the mayor. We’re going to be in the news! Maybe the publicity will make us grow!”

Meanwhile, one of those “undesirables” comes in. This woman hasn’t bathed in days, she stinks big time. She’s missing some teeth, her clothing is all full of holes and doesn’t fit. Would it kill her to wear a bra? Is she drunk? She surely smells of cigarettes and BO. What other negative stereotypes can we throw on her?

Anyways, someone comes up to her and says, “Macy, the mayor’s here today, so we can’t have you scaring him off. Go help yourself to some food in the kitchen and then go home.”

Macy shuffles off and walks between the photographer and the mayor, who is bent down talking to the cutest two little kids. Everyone gets upset because she ruins the picture perfect shot. The adults all start getting angry, the kids think the adults are angry with them and so start crying. Now the shot will never happen.

Macy is told to go! Go away! Go sit over there in the corner, go disappear into the kitchen, go back into the parking lot, go somewhere where we can’t see you. Go home. Go away!

The first church goer says, “I’m so sorry about Macy. Don’t think we’re like her, Mr. Mayor. Do come back!”

The second says, “Ms. Photographer, here, over here, come take a photograph of the Sunday school…”

The mayor says, “Do you have to deal with women like Macy often? I’ll pray for you. Let’s see this Sunday school.”

In James’ story, he says our favoritism makes us become judges with evil thoughts. We honor the rich and shame the poor. He points out — the rich already have honor and the poor already shame, why are we adding to this problem?

It’s not Macy, it’s not the poor, who causes us problems, says James, it’s the rich. The mayor has the power to change the rules that keep Macy from doing better!

Poor people don’t make the country laws, they aren’t the ones who make housing market schemes and regressions set in; they aren’t the CEOs and company owners who bring home millions of dollars tax free while their employees earn minimum wage and pay heavy taxes. It’s not the poor taking jobs over seas, and not the poor who oppress others. It is the rich.

This holiday we have tomorrow, Labor Day, was started by unions, trade organizations, groups of working-class poor pulling together. A day to recognize it’s not the rich who make our country great, but the average worker.

James is arguing that we Christians, those who invoke the name of Jesus, are supposed to be equals. We’re to ignore who has money and who does not. We’re to treat all people equally. Treat them all with love.

Honoring the rich and powerful because we hope they might make us rich and powerful too is idolatry. Is worshipping, wanting, following something other than God. Banishing the poor and powerless because we’re scared they might make us poor and powerless is sin. It is dishonoring, not loving, cursing the children of God.

James says if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of us says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat your fill,” … but we don’t give them clothing and food when we clearly see they need clothing and food to be able to be warm, filled, and peaceful — we have dead faith.

When we tell someone “I’ll pray for you,” after hearing about their situation, and don’t actually pray for them, pray with them, or assist in their situation… our faith is dead.

It is dead because it doesn’t do anything.

It is nice words.

But only words.

Words without power are just food for trees – carbon – and we’ve got enough of that already, thank you very much. No more empty words, no more CO, is needed.

Jesus, too, is bantering words in our scripture today. He’s tired of all the words and so seeking a quiet place away from the Jewish crowds who can’t stop talking about him and to him. But even way out here word about Jesus has spread.

A woman immediately hears about Jesus. It doesn’t matter Jesus is in a house resting. She barges in and throws herself at his feet and begs. She makes a total scene for the sake of her daughter.

Why does Jesus call her and her child a dog? This is such a disturbing encounter. Jesus doesn’t seem to act like the Jesus we know. He implies he is only there to help the Jews and no other religion. Indeed, other religions are dirty dogs. And this woman reverses Jesus’ words to argue even dogs get leftovers. Even more strangely, Jesus now implies she has won the argument of words. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

This woman never converts, never becomes Jewish. She still worships Baal or Zeus or another god. Jesus never sees the little girl. He heals her with a word from the distance.

Perhaps the woman pointed out Jesus’ hypocrisy and instead of arguing with her, he gracefully agreed. Gracefully lost his argument and granted her the win. Perhaps when someone points out we’re saying one thing but doing another, we don’t have to respond in anger but change our ways gracefully – like Christ.

Or perhaps this is an example of how to relate to others who are not like us within our midst. She says if she is a dog, she is a dog under the children’s table. In the household, in the protection, of the children’s family. She might not be Jewish, but she lives with Jews. And so since she guards them like a good dog, they should also assist her. Since non-Christians make up our community and help us, we should also help non-Christians.

Or perhaps, Jesus was responding sort of what we answer today sometime when we say ‘I’ll pray for you.’ He just was being more direct. Once my mission is done, once I have time, if I get a chance, I’ll help you. In other words, I have an opening on the 12th of Never. Should Never ever come, then 12 days after that I’ll help. Should I remember this week to pray for you, and nothing else comes up, I’ll pray.

And the woman calls Jesus on it.

And he agrees she’s right. And he takes action NOW.

Immediately.

In the next scene, Jesus has moved on and now some people bring Jesus their friend who cannot hear and speaks poorly. After all of these words — words that do nothing, words that cause Jesus to change, to invoke a miracle — this man has only poor words.

Away from the crowds, in a quiet spot, Jesus examines the deaf man and sighs a single word in Jesus’ native language “Ephphatha.” In English, “Be opened.”

Jesus’ one and single word prayer to God opens the man’s ears and lets him speak clearly. Jesus tells the man and his friends not to speak about this, but the more Jesus stresses their silence, the more they talk. They go around telling everyone of Jesus’ miracles. “He makes the mute speak and the deaf hear!” “The lame leap and the blind see!” The words they all wanted to spread about Jesus were about his healing, his miracles, what he could do for their physical needs.

And our physical needs surely need met.

But so do our spiritual. And few were speaking of what Jesus offered spiritually. Few were speaking of the cost of discipleship. Few were speaking of Jesus’ message of God’s love, forgiveness, and reminder of God’s commandments. They were only speaking of what they could get from Jesus — and Jesus wished if they would speak, they would speak of so much more.

Speak of being opened. Being opened spiritually. Being opened to the needs of others. Being opened to the love of God. Being opened to seeing their mistakes and changing their mistakes, as possible, with grace.

Speaking, as Jesus’ brother James would later write, and acting as those who have living faith. Faith that grows, faith that acts, faith that is ever blossoming, faith that looks at each situation and asks ‘what is really going on?’ ‘How can I truly assist?’

Sometimes that assistance is giving – giving money for a bill, giving a ride to the doctor – but more often than not, the assistance that is really needed is silence. Someone to listen. Someone to pray WITH you, not for you. Someone to HEAR you.

May we be astonished beyond measure with our Lord. May be take his example and speak what we truly mean, do what we say we will, and not speak empty words. And may we embrace times of silence. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio, September 6th 2015