Tag: relationships

Wisdom is Known by Her Deeds

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

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

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

… and here I am, not saying it…

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

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

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

Giving someone a meal is going to make some difference.

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

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

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

He recalls to us John.

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

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

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

Wisdom is known by her deeds.

Not her appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is wisdom.

Amen.

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

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.

Humble Pie

humble-pie-final-dribbbleHebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always heading towards food, eating, or just having left food. Ever noticed that? Luke centers his retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all around food!

You think it’s kind of weird, but we do the same thing. Birthdays have – birthday cake. Weddings? Usually a wedding feast and wedding cake. 4th of July cookouts, and halloween candy. Christmas cookies. Someone dies? We want to send their family flowers and… food. You know what starts this week? The Millersport Sweetcorn Festival celebrating… food!

Sabbath dinners are like Sunday dinners – a bigger affair than the normal meals during the week. And, who a person ate with and where they sat and their table manners all meant a lot.

Again, we do this today. There are Donor Dinners. Special big dinners with overpriced chicken to raise money. Being present there is the important part. You’re being seen (and sometimes entertained) for giving the money. And if you get an invite from a someone famous for a supper? Don’t people say: “Wow, what an honor!”

Weddings are some of my favorite places to watch people jostle over their food. There is a head table with a bride and a groom – and to their left and right the rest of the Bridal party. They usually have nicer glasses than everyone else, and get served food first. Sometimes their own cake separate from everyone else’s. Sitting near this head table are the “Guests of Honor.” Parents, siblings, friends who are special but not quite special enough to sit at the head table… From there, aunts and uncles, and so forth. In the very back of the room – the awkward people who had to be invited but the bride and groom don’t really want to see. And every couple who has noisy kids. By the time the table way in the back gets served, the meal is cold, the dessert mostly gone, and the bridal party on the dance floor.

So picture a well known man like a senator is hosting a special dinner for THE Jesus – the man of the hour. And like at a wedding, everyone who comes jostles and bumps around for the best seat near the front. And there are people tsking and shaking their heads if someone takes a seat near the front who isn’t important enough. Did you see he just took the last seat? Now the senator’s wife has to sit in the back! Scandalous! Does he think he’s more important than the senator or his wife?!

Jesus watches all of this, and decides even though he’s the special guest, the man everyone is here to listen to and speak with, he’s going to go sit in the dark corner with the awkward people.

Now, everyone at the head table can’t see or hear him as well, and the people who just barely got an invite are sitting with him themselves! All the honor in the room has been reversed.

Back there at the rickety table with mismatched utensils, Jesus tells the people, “When you get invited to dinner, don’t go fighting and scrambling for the best seat. Not only is it embarrassing when the host has to tell you to give up your seat for someone else, but you get honor when the host asks you to come up closer. Also, remember… the first will be last and the last will be first. True honor, true glory, doesn’t come from other humans. It comes from God. And God doesn’t care how many fancy meals you’ve been invited to. God cares how you treated others.”

Then Jesus turned to the host – who had to be so red in the face. And he tells the host, “When you host a dinner, don’t go inviting your family and friends and people of power.” In other words, everyone this host had invited. “These people might repay you the kindness. Instead, invite people who’ve never had the opportunity to eat this kind of a meal. Invite those who can’t repay you. Invite the outcasts and you’ll be blessed. Remember: the first will be last and the last will be first.”

When I think about this, I think about the Catholic social worker Dorothy Day who wrote, “I firmly believe our salvation depends on the poor.”

Think on that a moment.

Our salvation… depends on the poor.

She argues that Christ said whatever we do, or don’t do, to the least of others is what we do, or don’t do, to Christ Christ’s self. The last will be first because how we have treated the last, how they have encountered us, is how Christ will judge us.

If the poor have never seen us, never been invited into our homes, never came to our celebration dinners and received welcoming arms and radical hospitality… will Christ say then, too, on the day we stand before God face to face: “I’ve never seen you before.”

And although Day speaks of the poor, Jesus speaks of those who are outcast – people decent church folk would never be seen around. It’s they, Jesus says, who don’t need to jostle for a position closer to God. God is WITH the outcasts. It’s us, we, who need to get closer to the outcasts to be closer to the blessings of God.

This reminds me of my mother saying to me, “Love the unlovable, Whitney, they’re the ones who need love the most.”

Welcome the inhospitable, children of God, they need the hospitality the most.

Feed the hungry, children of God, they need the food more than the sated.

Give alms, money, to the poor, children of God, they need money the most.

And do random acts of kindness to strangers, for by doing so, you may just help an angel.

Advocate!

John 14:8-17 [25-27]pentecost
Acts 2:1-21

I never met my great grandpa Lawrence “Bae.” He died before I was born. But I can tell you about him: he was a hobby photographer long before cell phone cameras or even Polaroids. He captured some of the only photos of the Delaware City Hall fire.

He fell in love with a girl too young to leave her mother. He promised her he was going on a CCC, a Civilian Conservation Corps trip– and then he’d be back to marry her. So Bae ended up in the Grand Canyon building the park we enjoy today. And after a few years, he went back to the girl — who now was a junior in high school — and this time, she was old enough to fall in love back. So Selma and Bae were married, and he signed her report cards while she finished school.

I know that it was actually she who worked – a restaurant, as a highly successful HER realtor – while Bae stayed home with the kids. This was pretty much unheard of in the 1940’s, and is still not common today.

I never met my great-grandpa, but I know him through stories, through his kids and grandkids, who have always tried to model what he taught: to value relationships. To go against the ‘norm’ in favor of doing what is best for those you love. To not be scared to forge new ways.

Have any of you literally met Jesus in the flesh – face to face? Then how can you say you know Jesus?

What about God?

Phillip stands before Jesus and says – Jesus, you know God face to face. Show us God, too. Let us know God as you know God.

And Jesus answers — Phillip? Do you still not know me? Anyone who knows me knows God. But I will die, and will no longer be here. Then how will you know me and know God? Through the Spirit which will abide with you. Then the Spirit will remind you of me, and I will remind you of God. Then you will live in the Spirit, live in me, live in God. Then the works you do will be more complete than those you’ve even seen now because you will be passing on the whole story of God’s love — which is only complete after I am gone.

The promised Spirit arrives fifty days after Passover: it’s been about fifty days since Easter. During this time, the disciples, the women, the little band of people who love Jesus have been keeping his commandments. They are in a locked room – perhaps the same room where the last supper happened – when there is a roar from heaven that sounds like the rush of a violent wind. Glowing threads, like tongues of fire, reached everyone person – and they caught fire with prophecy, with visions, with the ability to speak about Jesus with intense clarity in all languages.

And they passed on the story of God’s love, God’s power and works, as they had known them in Jesus. At Babel, humanity was fractured- each speaking a different tongue and therefore, spread out. But here, at this common house, Babel is reversed: all the different languages bring people together.

What does this mean? What is going on?

Some sneer – even when faced with miracles, some people choose not to believe. Those who sneered said, “These backwards, uneducated Galileans are drunk on new wine.”

Those who sneered didn’t know the truth of their statement. Remember: Jesus said he was bringing new wine for new skins. These people have new bodies – reborn in the Spirit – and now are full of new wine: the wine of Christ which is the Spirit of Truth.

Those who didn’t sneer listened to Peter who quoted the prophet Joel: In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

In Christ, there is no male or female, slave or free, child or adult, Greek or Jew, citizen or illegal citizen, Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, liberal or conservative, sinner or saint – in Christ – EVERYONE receives God’s Spirit. Everyone receives God’s love.

When the church began, that Pentecost two thousand years ago, we began with all tongues, and all view points, and all ages, and all genders, because God poured God’s spirit on EVERYONE who called on the name of the Lord.

And to this day, all who love Jesus, who follow Jesus’ commandments, are infused with the Spirit from God.

This spirit, the Greek word is Paraclete, is an Advocate. Paraclete means the “one who exhorts and encourages,” the one “who comforts and helps,” the one “responds to calls of help,” and the one “who makes appeals on your behalf.” This Holy Spirit, indwelling in us, encourages us to be Christ-like. Comforts and helps us comfort and help others. When we cry for help, the Holy Spirit intercedes, translating our tears and sighs into prayers.

Jesus said he was the first Paraclete, the first to comfort and help, plead our case, and sit with us.

The Spirit is the second.

And both are within and in God. Our God is God, our parent and creator. God our Jesus and savior. and God, the Spirit and Sustainer.

And how do we come to know this God-in-three-persons? This God who’s love is so radical it makes the world think we are drunk on wine?

Though relationships. Jesus tells his disciples he will die, he will be gone from the Earth, but the revelation of God through the Incarnation will not die, and not be gone from the Earth. It will continue in Jesus’ disciples’ community, and continue to be revealed by the Paraclete. The relationship the disciples have known with Jesus doesn’t depend on Jesus’ physical presence: it depends on the community of Christians coming together to love as Jesus loved, to model Jesus for the next generation, and to live into the new reign of God through the power and remembrances of Jesus through the Spirit.

I never physically met my Grandpa Bae. But I know him. I never have physically met Jesus, but I know him. My daughter won’t ever — likely– physically meet them either, but her communities: her family and church — will make sure she knows them.

We will pass on, we will advocate, with inspired tongues, the great deeds of power and love we know God has done in the past and in our own lives. We will pass on a peace that makes no sense. Peace – not as the world gives us in small doses. Peace from war, peace from insecurity, peace from disease – but we will pass on the Peace of Christ. The reassurance that God is with you, God has the final word, God knows what it is like to be human, and God forgives us of our sins. The Peace of knowing God loves us – no matter who we are, or where we are on our walk with God: God loves us.

Amen.

Go with God

anaiasJohn 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

 

When we’re children we sometimes play games that can be pretty morbid that we probably wouldn’t suggest as adults. One that I remember like that was called ‘Who’s in Hell?’ it goes like this: you name someone who HAS to be in hell because they did just horrible, horrible things they couldn’t be anywhere else. Then I name someone else who did even worse things and so must be in hell. We try to one-up each other, terrifying one another, and simultaneously reassure ourselves that we’re not going to hell because we aren’t as evil as these people. It’s a really bad, childish game.

And never once did Saul’s name come up – even though he arrested, drove out, split up the families of the first generation of Christians after Jesus died. He helped murder Stephen with stones. Saul was the one even the adults whispered in fear about. Saul had the legal authority to do whatever he wanted if he suspected you were a follower of the Way of Jesus. The city, the temple, the priests — he had documents proving their support for him to get rid of any of the heretics.

Religious-based violence is what Saul was carrying out. Violence, murder, and destruction, in the name of God.

In our reading today, Saul is leaving the cleansed Jerusalem and is on his way to the next city to pass judgment on the Jews he meets there and on the way. Anyone found suspicious is to be bound like cattle and hauled back for a trial that may end in crucifixion, stoning, being shoved off a cliff, testifying against family, betraying family, or denying ever knowing Jesus or his Way.

Why Saul never made it into my harmful elementary school game is beyond me. Probably because I only ever remembered him as who he was AFTER he met Jesus: Paul. The author of so many of our foundational letters and scripture.

The Bible didn’t hide the details about Saul – Saul was a radical religious extremists bent on enforcing his understanding of God with violence. He was accounted as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women,”

Yet, as Stephen dies, he prays to God to forgive Saul and the other murderers — saying the words just as Jesus did: “Father, forgive them.”

And the Resurrected Jesus comes upon Saul in a blinding light. Saul KNOWS this is divine, he has read his scripture – he knows through and through that blinding light is likely a messenger or angel of God – but it is none other than Jesus himself. Jesus tells Saul ‘listen up!’ Pay attention to what is to occur to you in the city ahead and know who I am!

Meanwhile, in town, there is a man named Ananias who receives a call, a message and mission, from Jesus. Jesus tells him the specific house to find Saul… and then tells Ananias he is to lay his hands on Saul and bless him, cure him even, with a miracle from God invoked in the name of Jesus.

Ananias even questions Jesus – Jesus! Don’t you know what you’re asking? If I say ‘I’m here to bless you in the name of Jesus,’ I may get hurt, be arrested, or even stoned to death. Who knows what will happen to my family. This Saul, if he even THINKS you are Christian, can do whatever he pleases to torture, maim, and kill you. You want me to go announce I am Christian to him?!

Yes. Says God. Go.

And this faithful man complies with God’s vision and seeks out Saul. There, he touches the man who’s touch has murdered, and Ananias says, “Brother Saul, Jesus heals you; Jesus blessed you with the Holy Spirit.”

… What kind of faith does it take to pray for your enemies? Pray goodness upon them?

… What kind of faith does it take to bless those who persecute you? Bless them, and aid them?

… What kind of faith does it take to forgive and believe God forgives?

… My childish game forgot the basic message of our Risen Christ. It forgot the Good News: the Good News is that God Forgives. God Loves. God Gives New Life. The Good News is that Saul wasn’t sent to hell even though he murdered so many Christians… he was offered forgiveness, offered love, offered a new life in Christ. The Good News is that Peter — who denied even knowing Jesus three times — if offered three chances to say yes to Jesus, and he receives forgiveness, love, and a new calling, a new mission, a new life with deep purpose in Christ. These two men were offered such radical new lives they even took new names: Simon we know as Peter; and Saul we know as Paul.

The Good News is that we have received mercy beyond measure; offered forgiveness that is endless; we can never be beyond the love and redemption of God. Every time we come to the table Jesus invites us to, we come like Simon and like Saul — broken, having purposefully done wrong and unintentionally done wrong. We come carrying sins — sins we inherit from our society; and sins we make ourselves. We come with nets empty of nourishing fish, we come with our hands out stretched, our eyes clouded, and the taste of curses and threats lingering on our tongues.

We come like this… and here, in the name of Jesus, God offers to renew us. To refresh us.

God offers to be our partner in restoring the relationships we have with each other, with our own selves, and with God.

Our partner — who loved us first, so we can love others. Who forgave us first, so we can forgive us. Who blessed us first, so we can bless others. Who first showed us how to feed and attend to each other, so that we too know how to feed and tend to each other.

No one — no one — not Simon Peter, not Saul Paul — not a single person I naively named in my silly kids’ game — no one at all is beyond the mercy and forgiveness of God.

The Good News is for all people.

Amen.

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

Do you know the old country music song “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson or Martina McBride? The woman singer tells her husband, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…” She says she promised many other things… but a marriage made of only roses and good times wasn’t it. There’s going to be hard times, rain, too.

We are the bride of Christ, and our bridegroom Christ has never promised us perfect sunny weather and roses. God never promised us, “You shall not be tempted; you shall not be troubled; you shall not be distressed.” God promised us many other things, but an easy life has never been one of those promises.

To be human is to be tempted, troubled, and distressed.

Jesus was fully human, and so felt and knew these things.

Our scripture today happens right after Jesus has been baptized. He has just given his life over publicly to God. He has confessed his faith in God’s coming age. The Holy Spirit has anointed him. It’s like we spoke of last week – Jesus is having a mountaintop experience, an everything-going-great experience. And then he is driven to the desert by the Spirit. Deserts are the Bible’s way of saying a person has entered the time for fasting, for prayer, for study, and for identity. Jesus may be wondering: what does it mean to be God’s child?

During Lent, we follow Jesus’ model. We fast, pray, study, and wonder: what does it mean to be God’s child?

And just as we are tempted to leave our following of God, so too was Jesus tempted. In those forty days, the thorns on the roses, the rain of the garden, the dust and ashes of the desert set in.

And, διάβολος diabolos, tempts Jesus. Diabolos is the Greek word we translate as devil. In Greek, it means the Slanderer, the Accuser, the Defamer, the Backbiter, the Harsh Critic, the Condemner, the One-Who-Destroys-Others-Realtionships.

In other words, the devil, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden, is the one who works to accuse us of sins. Sins destroy our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Sins make us isolated and alone. We get lost in our own lonely sin-deserts and can’t find our way back to the green valleys and still waters of the Lord’s.

Out here in the desert of 40 days, the devil begins to look for weak points in Jesus’ commitment to God and God’s promises.

Hunger is the first weakness the devil sees. People have bodies. We have needs. We need food and water, and shelter. Jesus is low on all of these basic needs. So the devil points out a single stone to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of manna, a loaf of bread.”

As Jesus and we all know, manna came from heaven from God. It was gifted to the Israelites in the desert. The heavenly, miraculous bread came every morning. What, tempts the devil, would be the harm in making a SINGLE loaf of heavenly bread to sustain yourself? You’re famished, Jesus! Use the power of God. Sustain yourself.

I think Jesus must have been sorely tempted. His body is weak. He has ate ‘nothing at all’ for forty days. No one is looking. No one would be harmed. It’s just a single loaf of bread. And God used to rain loaves upon loaves.

I think you’ve been in similar situations. I know I have. You find yourself there, looking at just a little sin, and you know no one will ever know, and no one will get hurt, and it’s just a little sin to meet a real need… Who is going to miss a few dollars here and there? Who is going to miss these office supplies, this cookie, these seeds, this gas, when so much is available? What will this little lie, or omission, hurt? No one will ever know.

Little sins, little theft, little misuses of power and trust is a really, really big temptation. It’s one I think we face more often than others. I think it’s one we succumb, we give in to, more often than other temptations too.

Jesus, ever our role model, our guide, our shepherd – gives us the response to say when these temptations hit: “One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

We need basic things like food, shelter, water… but these things alone don’t keep us living. They may sustain the body, but the soul needs more. The soul needs God. The soul needs love. The soul needs relationships. Sins server these relationships. They make us isolated, alone, lonely, and our souls don’t get fed by others and by God. So although we may be well fed with bread, and in a nice house, with clean water to drink… we may still be dead inside. We cannot thrive without relationships. We cannot thrive mired, burdened, with sins. Like dirt on a window, speck by speck, little sins build up until no light shines in and we cannot see out.

Jesus tells us to refuse the little sins and remember the big damage they do over time.

So the devil, that tempter, tries another tactic Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The Celts ruling in Europe, the Han of China, the great Roman Empire stretching over most of the known world. The Pharaohs, the queens, the kings, the Mayans and chieftains and village elders. Everyone who has power. Jesus could have it all. All he has to do is worship the backbiter, and it is Jesus’.

You see, we reflect who we worship. If Jesus would begin to worship the devil, and use the devil’s tactics — backbiting, accusing, slander — Jesus could control all these kingdoms. And then, well – he could do with the world as he pleased.

Think about the temptation! With a few lies, a few well placed rumors, some gossip, some blackmail.. Jesus could end war and bring about world peace. Jesus could end world hunger. Jesus could make the nations work together to solve all our problems. Jesus could rule over the world here and now.

What would you do if you controlled the world? I think very few people would say ‘let it continue as it currently is.’ Most of us have great wishes for a better world. The end of poverty. The end of slavery. The end of environmental destruction. The end of terrorist rulers and violent occupiers.

… The power to make those who do wrong hurt.

… The power to do justice.

Once again, I think Jesus had to have been sorely tempted. He wasn’t going to abuse God’s power for selfish means like he was tempted with the bread. No, he’d do a literal world of good. All it meant was replacing God with the devil. Replacing the giver of forgiveness, the giver of second chances, the giver of grace… for the giver of zero tolerance, final strikes, and preemptive attacks. It meant ruling as the world rules rather than as God rules.

Do the means matter if the end is good?

Does it matter what we do, if in the end, all things turn out okay?

Does it matter how we live our life if those who sin and those who don’t sin; those who worship God and those who don’t; seem to have the same luck and misfortune in life?

Jesus’ answer is yes.

Although it rains on the just and unjust alike, how we go about our lives matters. How we achieve our goals, whether noble or shameful, matters. Stealing a thousand dollars to give half of it to charity is still stealing a thousand dollars.

Jesus’ answer is that the purpose of our lives is to worship and serve God. Glory and power belong to God alone. When ever we have other idols before God — even if those idols are established with good intentions — we’re still making something else more important than God. So we’re sinning.

Once again, this temptation references the Exodus story. The Israelites were not able to keep from making idols.

The third temptation comes. Now the tempter ups the ante. Now Jesus stands on the temple in Jerusalem and way, way, way down below is the city. Anyone who looks up can see them, standing there, poised on the edge. And the devil cites scripture back at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from here. For scripture says ‘He will command his angels to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

It sounds like a silly test. We know people fall off buildings when they step off their roofs. But then again, we know Jesus walked on water. So gravity doesn’t really seem to be that big of an issue for him. No — the temptation here isn’t whether or not gravity has a hold on Jesus… but whether or not Jesus believes in God without miracles; whether Jesus believes in God after going through a desert, and hunger, and isolation, and temptations. This is about if Jesus’ faith is dependent on signs and evidence of God.

It sounds like the silliest test when we first read it; but this test is the biggest test, the climax, the finale.

Do you believe in God when things are bad?

Do you believe in God in trials and temptations?

Do you believe in God when prayers go unanswered?

Does your faith depend on seeing results, seeing benefits of being a moral person, of prayer, and following God. Do you threaten God with leaving your faith if God doesn’t do as you demand? Can your faith be broken by scripture that contradicts itself, devils that plague us, or the too-often silent response to our prayers?

David Blumenthal, a Jewish theologian, argues that protest is a form of worshiping God. God can handle our anger, our protest, our frustration. Protest is still talking with God. It’s shattering the relationship, leaving God, demanding a test and then giving up when God won’t play by our rules… that is the sin. For then, the relationship among us and God is severed, destroyed

And the devil here is trying to destroy that relationship.

Jesus’ answer is more scripture from Deuteronomy: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Which is just what the Israelites had been doing in the Exodus again and again and again. And each and every time God was looking out for them. They didn’t always see it, but God was there with them.

Jesus’ answer is don’t give up, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:11) Our hope, our faith, our trust in God’s presence and promises must be deeper and stronger temptation, trial, or evil of the earth.

Once Jesus has passed these temptations, and given you and I the hope and promise that with Jesus, we – too – will overcome our temptations — angels come and administer to Jesus… just as in the wild, God cared for Elijah, and the Israelites.

We’ve never been promised a rose garden. We’ve been promised that our great gardener, however, will never abandon us. We’ve been promised that in our temptations, God has empathy, sympathy, and mercy. Although we sin, God loves us and offers us forgiveness. Although we break every single law, and are rowdy disobedient sheep, the good shepherd seeks us out and gives us a second chance. All authority in heaven and on earth has not been given to the Record-Keeper, the Harsh Critic, the unforgiving… all authority has been given to Jesus – the merciful, the Good Shepherd, the doctor for the sin-sick, the one who wipes away our tears and washes us clean of sins.