Tag: Romans

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.

These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.



Caretakers of Love & Knowledge

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28


I like reading websites full of weird facts, stories, and research. This week I fell down the internet rabbit hole of the Smithsonian Magazine online. I read about the Herero Genocide. Never heard of it? Me either until now. But it was where Germany perfected genocide, and tested out the methods used in the Holocaust.


The same arguments of social Darwinism and cleansing the world of inferior ethnicities appear in period debates about the Herero and the Jews, Rroma, and gays. The same methods of collecting into death camps and using the captives for labor, their bodies for experiments, and their bodies for profit occur. Indeed – when you look at the names of people involved in the Herero Genocide… those same names appear in the Holocaust.


So who are the Herero? They are a cattle herding people in West Africa. They joined with their neighbors in the early 1900s to try to expel the Imperial Germans who were raping their women and girls, stealing their cattle, and taking their land. The Germans debated what to do about the Herero problem, and their general decided the issue the decree,


“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”


Their neighbors the Nama and the Herero themselves had their wells poisoned. People were driven into deserts. People were fed to sharks. Those that were captured were turned into labor slaves, or “comfort” slaves, or used as human guinea pigs in the name of medicine and science.


Why were these articles coming across my screen this week? Because the grandchildren of the few Herero who survived approached the American Museum of Natural History in New York and asked for hundreds of bodies. The largest collection of bones the museum owns are the bodies of the Herero who were sold for science and curiosity after the victims were murdered. The bones had been cleaned of flesh and muscle a hundred years ago with glass shards given to the still-living captives in the camps. They had to cut apart, desiccate, and then sell their loved ones away. These grandchildren came to ask for the bodies so the Herero story could be told, and funerals finally held. The museum and the Herero are in talks now about how best to tell the story and honor the dead.


You and I, everyone, we like to say we’re an advanced society.


The Herero, and later the Jews and Rroma and others, were considered ‘lesser’ societies. Backwards. “Sh*thole” societies, if you listen to some American leaders.


But it is our advanced society that has perfected mass murder. And recently perfected it.


Rev. Fred Craddock uncomfortably writes that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”


Evil is real. Evil is happening. Genocide is STILL happening today. What I described? Change the dates and the names, and it is happening in Dafur this very moment and 250,000 have died. It is happening in Syria, and Ethiopia, in the Congo and in Burma. ((genocidewatch.org))


We don’t really believe in demons much. When we read Jesus expelled a demon from the man in the crowd, we think ‘well, they thought it was a demon. But it really was just mental illness.’ Or Epilepsy. Or some other thing. Demon possession isn’t real.


Demon possession doesn’t need to be real. Evil is real. Evil is happening. And evil doesn’t care if we believe in it or not.


In Jesus’ encounter, we see what evil does. “People who suffer the effects of being occupied or “possessed” by demons lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively” ((Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge))


The Herero were possessed by demons. Demons who were driving them into deserts, death camps, and slavery. Demons who stole their movements and their voices.


The soldiers who listened to their leaders were possessed by demons. They were immobilized, and thought they had no other choice than to follow orders. They were scared to speak up, scared to look weak, scared to lose their own lives.


The leaders were possessed by demons. They dreamed of money and cattle and land. They feared the natives. They were compelled to move destructively.


Evil has a way of being ‘the norm’ and that is when we get possessed – taken over – and lose our freedom and agency. Sometimes we give this up willingly. It is easier to say you did wrong because everyone else was doing it. Sometimes freedom and agency is stolen from us. And sometimes we don’t even realize we’re captives.


My voice is stolen when others speak at me, instead of listening. Who listens to you? Right now, plenty in my local and national government are speaking to the world for me, but it is not my message – a Christian message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and welcome. My voice is stolen and I am possessed.


Immobilized. Are we immobilized? We feel powerless, feel unable to really change things. Feel tired. Feel helpless. Feel as through there is too much pain in the world for us to actually do anything… we’re demon possessed.


The norm is evil. The norm is we’re compelled to be destructive. To ourselves – harming our health, our communities, our peace. Destructive. To others. Harming the balance of the world, and damaging the world whether we do nothing or we act. Compelled to destroy just by being.


Consider the lights here – we have clean electric energy, but it is only clean for us because down on the Ohio River are people living in the shadow of a coal plant, breathing its smoke, and taking the toxins for us.


We are captives to demons. Captive to evil systems.


When Jesus appears in the synagogue, it is a normal worship day like any other. People are there to hear the hope that their present world doesn’t have to be this way.


Jesus appears in as normal of a place as if he were to walk into Saint Michael’s right now. And those in the crowd were just like us here today – gathered in hope, in prayer, and carrying on the love and knowledge of God.


We’re caretakers. Safe guarding a treasure for generation to generation. We share with all our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim siblings the knowledge that God has revealed God’s self to us, and the way the world is — with present evil – with entrapping systems that bring us to violence after violence – this is not how things HAVE to be.


Today, just as that time 2000 years ago, we’re gathering in hope, while aware so much destruction has occurred and is occurring. But we have hope. We have love. We have knowledge God is working with us and will not let the divine dream die.


Whenever I think about hope, and Jesus, I like the image of a new sprout from the root of Jesse. The idea is that the tree, the lineage, of King David (Jesse’s son) has been cut down by the ancient Romans. But God will cause a new tree to grow out of the roots, out of a cousin or distant relative. It’s why the New Testament spends a lot of time tracing Jesus’ genealogy. Those are his roots back to Jesse to fulfill the prophecy.


You may picture a grand oak or maple.


I picture in my head a hybrid poplar. Okay, not any hybrid poplar but THE hybrid poplar named The 4th of July Tree. Picture a mulberry with poplar leaves and you’ve got the look of this tree. This little foot long stick was planted on year on the 4th of July, and by the 4th the following year, it was now two feet large. The third year it was up to my shoulders. The fifth year it now spread about nine feet high and wide. Year five it was a story large, and year six two stories large. In six short years it went from a foot to taller than the farm house. In six short years its roots went from its hole fifty feet away from the house to coming up through the house toilet. We cleared out the roots, but year seven… once again they appeared in the toilet bowl.


You know what we had to do. The 4th of July tree had to go.


So my family cut it down. We stacked the wood so it would season and chopped the base of the tree to the ground so we could mow over it.


One week later, there was a strange patch of grass. I went out to look and found that the stump had grown eight little six-inch trees. My dad said – don’t worry – when I mow, they’ll be cut down. Sometimes trees have a little bit of energy stored up in their roots, and they come back after the main trunk is cut.


So he mowed.


And mowed all summer.


And every week the tree came back from its roots.


This really befuddled all of us. How much energy did this tree store up in its roots? How long could it keep living without leaves and sunlight?


In fall, we went to split wood. But the woodpile was missing. In its place was a little woods of hybrid poplars. Each and every log had not just shot up on BOTH ends with new branches, but had also placed ROOTS. Long roots grew all over the seasoned wood and tall new trees shaded the green wood.


Dad decided it was time to gasoline burn all this hybrid poplar.


The pyre over the stump burned all day long as we split wood and tossed the bad into the blaze. Inside the hybrid poplar logs and stump roasted.


And the following week they all sprouted up from the ashes. The following spring, new hybrid poplars appeared in the grass everywhere a branch had fallen from mowing down the tree over and over and over again.


How much energy did this tree have?! It’s been twenty years and my mother is still finding bits of this tree growing.


When I think about the root of Jesse, I think about this tree. God’s has way more energy than we can even begin to fathom. Horrible things happen – genocides, murders, possessions of evil of all kinds big and small. We mess up. We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other. We hack and chop and burn and poison the life of the world… and yet… the tree comes back.


The ancient people in the synagogue were waiting for the tree to grow again. Jesus said — it is growing now!


We modern people in the church are waiting for the tree to grow again. And Jesus tells us – it is growing now!


It is always growing.


We are the caretakers of this knowledge. It’s our job to guard it, and pass it with love to the next generation. It’s our job to look evil in the face and say ‘not today! Not ever!’ We’re to speak with the authority gifted to us to “heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners” When is the year of the Lord’s favor? Now. Immediately.


Paul reminds us not to get puffed up with what we know, because there is always more we don’t know. Maybe demons are real. Maybe there are many gods and many lords. There is much we don’t know… what we do know is love. And love knows us.


And love — God– wants the world to know it is loved.


And that God can raise up new beginnings even out of stones, cut down trees, and desolated people.



Forgive – don’t forget

Matthew 18:21-35

Margaret Adams Parker Reconciliation
“Reconciliation” by Margaret Adams Parker

Romans 14:1-12

“The Bible says you should forgive and forget.”

How often I have been told that!

I wonder, was Jesus ever told that? What about Paul? Or Moses? Or God? Because none of them preach forgive and forget! Actually, they taught the exact opposite… to forgive, and don’t forget.

I get told to forgive and forget when someone does me a wrong. As a teen, it was me saying “I’m so angry SoAndSo stole from my purse! I should confront them!”

And I was told, “Now, now, it’s better to forgive and forget. Let it be.”

As an adult, I’ve had people tell me of their spouse beating them, and then the victim says, “But if I hold my love’s violence against them, then I’m not forgiving them. So I choose to forgive and forget. I know in their heart they didn’t mean it.”

Good Christians – don’t forgive and forget. You are NOT floor mats, to be stomped on, ripped and torn, and hurt. You don’t have to be a victim to be Christian. You don’t have to forget who and how others hurt you. You are not called to abuse.

“However, if by “forgive and forget” one means, “I will act as if the sin had never occurred and live as if I don’t remember it,” then we can run into trouble. For example, a rape victim can choose to forgive the rapist, but that does not mean she should act as if that sin had never happened. To spend time alone with the rapist, especially if he is unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Forgiveness involves not holding a sin against a person any longer, but forgiveness is different from trust. It is wise to take precautions, and sometimes the dynamics of a relationship will have to change. “Being cautious doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven.” ((https://www.gotquestions.org/forgive-forget.html))

Listen to our scripture today:

Peter asks Jesus “how many times should I forgive a brother?” and offers the generous 7 times. Then, just as now, we say something like fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Or, 3 strikes you’re out. Seven times is an awful lot of “second” chances.

But Jesus says no – forgive your brother an unlimited amount… and then he tells a parable to explain what he means.

In this parable, a king has loaned an absurd amount of money to his servant. The king called this guy in and said it is time to pay back what you borrowed — but the man didn’t have an absurd amount of money to return. So the king said – well, then, we’ll sell you and your wife and kids and home and all you own into slavery.

The guy in insane debt fell on his knees and begged for forgiveness. He promised to make all things right if given time. He begged for mercy.

The king had pity. Instead of saying – okay, I’ll give you another year. Or, okay, I’ll sell only you and not your family into slavery. Instead, the king said — I forgive you of this 300 million dollars. You don’t have to pay me back. The indebted man got so much more than what he asked for.

Note – the king did this when the servant asked for forgiveness from his heart. Additionally, the king did it out of pity — you can only have pity on someone or something from a position of power. Otherwise, you commiserate. The king looks down on this guy, and out of his power over the man, chooses to forgive everything when the weak one asks.

This isn’t a situation of an abused person forgiving their abuser. That would be the weak forgiving the powerful. This is a case like your bank choosing to forgive your house mortgage entirely because you wrote to them about how you can’t pay the mortgage right now and you’d like more time before they foreclose.

So the deeply forgiven man heads out. He passes someone else who owes him some cash and he says – hey! Pay up!

Just like the forgiven man had done, this guy also falls on his knees and pleas – give me some more time! I’ll pay you everything back!

But the forgiven man doesn’t forgive this guy or give this guy more time. Instead, he throws the man in prison.

Sorta like your bank forgives your whole mortgage, but then you sue your cousin because he missed a payment on the car you cosigned for him.

So word gets back to the king about what the forgiven man has done. The king summons the man back, and says – hey! What’s the deal? You pleaded with me for more time, and I gave you way, way more than more time. Your coworker pleaded for more time from you, and you didn’t forgive his debt like I did yours, or even give him the time. Instead, you chose to throw him in jail. I guess that’s the way you want to be treated too. So, into jail with you until you pay the absurd amount you borrowed from me — just like you did to your brother.

Jesus then concludes his story by saying God treats us the same way – if we forgive, we are forgiven. If we demand payment, God will demand payment.

Now… did anyone FORGET in this story?

Absolutely not. Actually, remembering is a major part of the forgiveness. The forgiven guy is supposed to remember how much mercy — unwarranted gifts — he has been given. He is supposed to remember the kindness he has been shown. And then he is supposed to give that mercy and kindness to others when they are in the same situation he was in.

The king remembers too. He remembered the forgiven guy wronged him, but that the guy had asked for more time to make it right. The king remembers he gave the slave great generosity. And he remembers that the slave chose to respond to this generosity not with love and gratitude, but with greediness.

If someone you forgive uses your mercy as a blank check to do more and more wrong… don’t forget. Take that mercy back.

Forgiveness is never supposed to be power to do harm. It is supposed to be a balm to bring people back together into right relationships.

Forgiveness is not something to do and forget.

And the Bible says no where that it is easy.

We’re told about forgiveness in the Bible from the perspective of the person who forgives, the person who asks for mercy, and the people who witness it. Everywhere, scripture notes… forgiveness is hard.

The prodigal son must reach utter rock bottom before he is willing to admit he has done wrong. He is so stubborn! When he comes back, he comes back about crawling on his belly. He is deeply ashamed. He intends to beg his father to take him in as a slave – not as a son. This year, scientists looked at our brains and our bodies when we are proven wrong. They found that it PHYSICALLY hurts — hurts like being slapped — when we know we’re in the wrong. People avoid admitting their wrongs not just out of pride, but out of fear of the pain, and fear of rejection, and the dual punishment the wronged person and their own bodies will do. When someone actually admits their wrong to you, and asks for forgiveness, they have already suffered and are suffering.

Now you have the power. The upper hand. This person has admitted they are in the wrong. You are in the right. What will you do? The law and common sense says you can take all the revenge and should take all that you’re owed. Sue them for every penny. Burn the relationship to the ground. Tell everyone what a mess up they are. It is your right.

And the Bible says that we are permitted to loosen and bind what we will. You can choose punishment in this situation for the wronged person. You can also choose mercy. You can choose love. You can choose to walk away even without an answer.

The power and right is in your hands. What will you do with it?

Giving it away, forgive- forgo- to give away – means giving up your right to extract vengeance for the wrong committed to you. This is just as hard as asking for forgiveness. This is acting against our nature, and acting against our culture. It is purposefully stepping out of the patterns of the world around us and forging a new way.

Who wants to give up power? Who wants to lower themselves and say – we are equals? Who wants to admit someone did them a horrible wrong, and then say ‘but I am choosing not to get my pound of flesh from them.’

Forgiving, and asking forgiveness, is very hard.

So, too, is witnessing it. Remember that brother of the prodigal son is furious. And often people who watch Jesus forgive sins are incensed. How can he do this? It isn’t just! It is against the balance books! It isn’t fair.

Forgiving isn’t fair. It is mercy. It is unearned favor.

Forgiving is not how the world works.

Forgiving is choosing to live into God’s realm.

Remember, part two of Jesus’ story says rules we apply to others, God will apply to us. What we do on Earth is reflected in heaven. If we demand every penny be paid back to us, God will demand we pay back every penny we owe others – and owe God.

Jesus suggests our debt to others and God is so absurdly large, that we can never pay it back. Instead, we need forgiveness and mercy. Therefore, we should practice forgiveness and mercy.

Because forgiveness is not an easy task, not easily given.

Remembering is what makes forgiveness worth so much.

No where does Jesus say forget – just forgive.

A Living Sacrifice

Matthew 16:13-20 polyp_cartoon_rat_race
Romans 12:1-8

I am a consumer. I am told that every day. It’s my identity given to me. It means I am defined as one who consumes. Who uses. Who devours.

So I am defined as one who spends, who is not satisfied, who is always hungry for more.

I literally buy into this idea.

Therefore, I go into debt. I pretty much have to, to survive. I don’t have $100,000 lying around for a house, let alone the cash for a car. Some of us don’t have the cash lying around just for normal bills like electricity and water. On the cards it goes, and sign the dotted line.

I often feel we are defined as worth only what we can spend. Worthy people are those who have  steady income, some savings, and therefore also get prime rates, their checks cashed for free, and are offered more and more loan money. Unworthy are all of us under employed, unemployed, or living hand to mouth and are rewarded with high interest rates, are charged to cash checks, and get stuck in pawn and payday loan schemes.

Can you spend a lot? Then you may eat healthy food, and wear clothes that fit, and sleep in secure neighborhoods. Can you spend a little? Then you may eat only highly processed food, wear ill-fitting clothes, and sleep in dangerous neighborhoods… maybe in a house, maybe just under a bridge. If you can spend a lot – you’re worth more – and preventative health care is available. If you can’t spend a lot… prepare for crowded ER visits.

My worth is so calculated, that I actually get a “credit score” to tell me what my value is. Low value? No company wants to deal with me. High value? Everyone wants to deal with me.

I am a consumer and I am told it is my patriotic duty to consume. If I save, I’m told I’m hurting the economy. After 9-11, there honestly were billboards telling people these very words. Eat Out – Support America.

But guilt over my “duty” to my country isn’t the only way I am trapped in my definition of an ever unhappy, insatiable, consumer.

My world also tells me the source of my problems are what I have chosen to consume. Consuming alone isn’t enough. I have to consume continuously to keep up with the Joneses and to prevent my life from being a catastrophe.

For instance, I know my husband and children are arguing with me because I am a bad cook. Luckily, I can order out. Advertisements promise me that if I just order out dinner, all my problems are solved.

Want a happy family? Easy. Throw money at them.

The world also tells me my friends secretly hate me and think I am fat. If I lose weight with name-brand shakes, I’ll be popular. Not only will I get friends – I’ll get my dream guy, dream job, dream house, and dream life – all because I shed 20 lbs in 2 weeks! Send in the cash.

What’s more, my world tells me if I don’t splurge for the highest cost cat food, I am a terrible pet owner. My cat is slowing down in her old age because once, when she was 2 year old, I bought the second most expensive cat food. If I just got the higher brand her whole life… she’d never age.

So says the world, if I really want a vacation in Hawaii where no one is around for miles and I get all the vistas to myself with perfect weather… all I need is a new car.

I also know: every man loves powertools, ties, and sports cars.
Every woman loves fashion, home goods, and bath supplies.
Every boy wears blue.
Every girl wears pink.

The best gifts are bought, new, from the store, never regifted, never handmade, never received from thriftstores or yardsales, and a gift or theme or purchase is needed for some holiday every month.

Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, President’s Day, Labor Day, Independence Day – all of them turned into a commercial masterpiece designed to cater to the consumer.

And we are those consumers. So the world, the culture of the United States of America, tells us. And we’re told to make fun of those who cannot, or will not, participate in the consumer culture. Just as in the story we read today in our kid’s chat, (My Princess Boy) we get trained to laugh and point at the different person.

I think we’d laugh and point at Jesus.

For who was Jesus? Who is Jesus?

A consumer?

Absolutely not.

When Jesus found sellers and consumers in the temple, he took a whip, ran them out, and tipped over the tables.

Jesus didn’t ask Tabitha’s parents how much their daughter was worth to them – were they willing to give their house to Jesus? He just went and healed her. Jesus didn’t ask to see cash before he healed anyone.

Instead, Jesus actively went and told people – you are precious. Beyond worth. You are a beloved child of God.

He also told us that “the heavens are witnesses of the people and things that we imprison and the people and things that we set free.” (Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith) When we reduce others to their pocketbooks, or credit scores, or purchasing power, or conformity to world norms… and when we fall into those traps… heaven knows and is also impacted.

Scripture tells us over and over again – when you throw a feast, invite those who can’t afford a feast. When you find you have time, knowledge, or money– share.

Jesus told his disciples not to tell others Jesus is the Messiah. Don’t preach with words. Preach with your lives. Tell people who Jesus is by the way you live your life. Fill the world and heaven with the love of Christ by living lives of love.

When the world pressures you to be a consumer, live your life as a child of God.

When the world promises products to make all your woes go away – whether in the form of lotto tickets, new vitamins, gadgets, or diets – know the world is lying. And live your life as a living sacrifice.

At one time, food and drink were burned on an altar for God as an act of worship. Paul is referencing this moment. He tells us – be a living sacrifice. Let your life, your daily life, be an act of worship.

A living sacrifice means being aware we are defined by who made us: God. Who is remaking us: God. Who redeems us: God.

It means being aware that in the beginning, God made our bodies and called them good.

Made our minds and called them good.

Made our souls and called them good.

God calls us very good… each of us, as individuals, with different talents, each very good… and not a one better or worse than another.

Flesh and blood — our normal minds – won’t understand. But wisdom from God understands. The world won’t understand we belong to the Messiah. But we understand.

For Paul, worship is full-bodied. It happens in community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ. The quality of our worship is not measured by what happens on only Sunday mornings, but by what happens when we are together Monday through Saturday.

A living sacrifice is a living a Godly life that resists the world’s pressures to think in dollars and cents, stereotypes and static roles. Resists the world’s pressure to dehumanize and demean others. A living sacrifice accepts others just as they are, and welcomes each part of the body as a valued member of the community.

A living sacrifice means living a life of worship – one focused on God and others, rather than items and appearances. One that knows these good bodies God has gifted us with are meant to be used assisting and loving one another.

In no way will our world suddenly stop calling and considering you and I consumers. We are numbers, dollars and cents, to many others.

But we ought never to view each other as such.

Rather, may we strive to always see each other as the diverse children of God.


Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?


The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?


Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-19ahandful-of-dust
Romans 8:12-25

Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.

It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.

And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.

I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.

Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.

Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.

And as we read, he has a vivid dream.

In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”

And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.

The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.

There are no godless places.

I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.

I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.

It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?

Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.

Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.

God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.

It’s… just so hard to remember.

And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.

Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.

Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.

First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.

But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.

I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.

Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.

When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.

Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.


Dead to Sin, Alive to God

Genesis 21:8-21diseased-or-dead-tree-1
Romans 6:1b-11

In our first reading, Sarah sins and is cruel to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham weeps, but complies with his wife and sends Hagar and her baby into the wilderness desert with a bit of water. When their water runs out in the desert, Hagar places her baby under a bush and goes away – she can’t bear to watch her son die of thirst. A bow shot away, she cries out to God.

And God hears.

Ishmael, the name of the child, literally means: God Hears. God hears Ishmael’s weeping, and Hagar’s weeping, and gives them a whole well of water. The boy grows up to be a great bowman of the wilderness.

The sins inflicted on Hagar and Ishmael hurt, but God won’t abandon them. God gives them new life. Where the world gave them just a single skin, a thermos, of water – God gives them an entire well. The world hoped they would die, forsaken, in the desert. God made them the start of a great nation.

God brings us to waters in deserts. God brings us to peace where the world thought we’d know only woe. God grants us new life when death surrounds us.

Paul writes about this death and life in our second reading. I hear it sort of like… I have two apple trees at my house. I can cut a branch off of either. Now if I cut a branch off of the East one, the tree keeps a wound where the branch was, but it heals over. A year or two, and you’d never know. It will fill in the hole and produce lots of good fruit. The tree keeps flourishing and growing. It is full of life.

However, if I cut a branch off the West one, the tree not only keeps the wound… it never recovers. It cannot grow a new branch in the place of the old. A year or two, and that absent branch will still be apparent. And there will still be no fruit. This second tree is dead.

This is how I understand what Paul is writing about when he tells us that through baptism we die with Christ and are risen with Christ; we remain dead to sin and alive to God. You see, he is arguing about the worth of baptism. If baptism saves us from sin, or reunites us with God, and we can only be baptized once… what good is baptism? Should we save it until the very end of our lives hoping to reduce the amount of time we have to potentially sin? Or should we be baptized, and then keep on living a life of sin because we’re confident our sins don’t count? Neither, says Paul. Rather – live for Christ.

Whether or not we’re baptized, we’re going to sin. Both of my apple trees are going to lose a branch. Sin – things that separate us, do damage, to ourselves, those around us, or God – just happens whether we intend it or not.

The difference, argues Paul, is whether we are dead or alive.

The dead don’t recover from their sins. They spurn God’s assistance and sit in bitterness, not producing any good fruit. Each sin separates, destroys, more of themselves.

The living recover from their sins. God is there, encouraging new life, new growth, and good fruit. Each sin hurts, but they recover, regrow, and flourish with God.

The baptism we all share is our death to sins’ permanent effect and our birth into the eternal, rejuvenating, life God offers through Christ.

It is our sign and seal, our promise from God, that the strength of sin is broken.

We are always alive in God!