Tag: wealth

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20 armor.jpg
John 6:56-69

I have an issue. I have a fatal disease called life. Someday, it will kill me. Every day, it takes its toll on me and ages me more. Breaks my body down more. And leads me closer to my grave. Whether from TMB, too many birthdays, or another cause, some day, I’m going to die to this fatal disease.

And that issue, my mortality, weighs heavily on me. I do a lot of things to try to ignore it, cheat it, or prevent it.

I prevent it by wearing my seat belt, brushing my teeth, eating healthily.

I cheat my death by ‘fake’ dying… riding rollarcoasters, or watching scary movies, or getting into other situations where I can consider death… but I don’t actually die.

And I ignore my mortality. I get on with my life, enjoy the moment, and don’t think about if I’m wisely spending every tiny little second.

But this fatal condition influences most aspects of my life. It makes me eat, makes me drink, makes me sleep, makes me look both ways when crossing the road… it also makes me fear, and hate and be depressed.

Consider, the EPA is rolling back regulations on coal power plants. This means that about 1000 extra people will die a year due to the carbon particulates in the area. Just 1000, but a whole lot of financial savings. It sounds measly, right?

But that fatal condition tells me that those 1000 people could be, and statistically will be, me. Ohio produces a lot of coal power. We usually have pretty poor breathing air. And an asthmatic like me is really sensitive to what I’m breathing. Is my life worth those dollars saved? It is for most of the USA. But, personally, I’d rather be living. I’m kinda invested in my life and living… more than I am invested in two cents or so cheaper electric.

This makes me depressed. Sad. It makes me anxious because I feel there is little I can do. It makes me fearful of tomorrow, of the very air I breathe. It makes me hate policy makers and cooperations and even my fellow Americans who think this is okay.

My fatal condition leads me to view the world as threatening and scary, and I get full of negative emotions.

The same process of mortality leading to fear and hate and depression is occurring to the Ephesians that Paul writes. They are very mortal. In fact, I am 100% sure every single Ephesian Paul was addressing (and even Paul himself) are now dead. They saw their faith siblings being put on trial, and killed, for being Christian.

And the same is occurring to the disciples Jesus addresses in our reading. They see war and starvation and oppression from Rome and the local powers, everywhere they turn.

All of us are facing our own mortality. Each of us are going to die.

This disease called life has only been put in remission three or four times, and only beaten once, that I’m aware of.

Jesus tells his disciples that if they eat his flesh and drink his blood, this mortality is cured. They are given life eternal. As we spoke about over the last few weeks, Jesus is saying something completely scandalous. First the educated complained about this teaching. And today, we hear Jesus’ own disciples complaining.

“This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?” It is offensive that Jesus is telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It sounds sacrilegious. It sounds scandalous. It clearly is not the words of a military king. Now not just the people, or the educated, but Jesus’ own disciples are beginning to second-doubt following this rabbi.

And how can anyone cure mortality? Besides a few, like Elijah, everyone else has died, is buried, and their bones eventually turn to dust. After a few thousand years, that person not only is wholly physically gone… but even the memory of them is gone. How can eating flesh and blood cure death?

Jesus tells them, “You think this is offensive – what if you see me taken up to Heaven? How offended will you be then? What kind of a challenge to your faith will happen then? Think about this: The Spirit gives life. Not flesh.”

In other words, our bodies may be alive, but they don’t have the divine spark of a soul. That soul, that Spirit, is from God. So literally eating Jesus will not give you life. Literally drinking Jesus’ blood won’t give you life. The Holy Spirit gives you life. That Holy Spirit is in the words and teachings of Jesus. There is life and Spirit in the words he speaks.

Without the Spirit, our bread and our grape juice are just that — bread and grape juice. They become a sign of God, a remembrance of Christ, and a uniting sacrament because of the Spirit. In that Spirit, we gather. In that Spirit, we pray. In that Spirit, we respond to God’s invite to the table. In that Spirit, we receive eternal life.

So is communion, the literal bread and drink, necessary and essential for eternal life?

Consider this… as the fatal disease of life progresses, it makes some of us unable to eat and drink. What happens to someone if they cannot take communion any more? If they have a feeding tube, or are allergic to wheat and wheat bread if offered, or are a recovery alcoholic and only wine is offered? What happens if you’re in a service where communion is denied to you?

In all of these cases… are you cut from the vine that is Christ? Are you now denied eternal life?

Absolutely not!

Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

In our denomination, we understand that a person can partake of communion without physically drinking or eating. Sometimes, for any of the reasons mentioned or another, people cannot physically eat the bread and take the cup. But, Spiritually, they partake. Spiritually, they take inside themselves the life, the eternal words, the life-giving bread and ever renewing drink. This is because the flesh, the physical food and physical drink, isn’t what is important about communion. What is important is the Spirit of God uniting everyone, the Holy One of God, our Christ, remembered and presiding over the Table, and our Creating God recreating the world anew through the unity we find in the sacrament.

Jesus is saying that eternal life is not living in heaven in the future… but it is also living fully now. It isn’t waiting for the world to be destroyed, or hastening that destruction so that Christ will come again and save us… eternal life is living the words of God through Christ. It is making Earth the place in which God’s kindom is fully experienced, and the rule of God wholly known – that rule of love and grace and mercy – just like it is in heaven.

Every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and pray that Earth becomes like Heaven. That the eternal life of Heaven, the rich and fulfilled, the loving and peaceful, the understanding and merciful, the harmonious and whole life of heaven is also lived here. “Let thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”

Here, Jesus offers the balm of Gilead, the solution to our fatal disease: a well lived life. A Spiritual life. A life that doesn’t end when we die – die to greed, die to fear, die to hate, die from TMB or any other cause – but a life that continues on abundantly now and into heaven. And that complete, healthy, whole life is available for those who eat and drink Christ.

For we are what we eat! When we eat and drink Christ, we become like Christ, we do his words, and we live our lives in the eternal manner.

But death still happens. Fear still happens. Our bodies still break down, and still die. Bread still molds, drink still sours, and the physical passes away. So what are we to do when the fatal dis-ease, fatal – not- at – ease comes and makes us fear the future, hate our siblings, get depressed over the present, or defensive of our self, wealth, and lives?

That is what Paul is writing about.

When we feel threatened, war will not defend us. Swords will not be a comfort. Armor will always have weak spots and gaps. Walls will be circumvented. Every security measure misses something. Home-grown terrorism is a thing that banning people from nations with terrorist active will not prevent. Random acts of violence, random deaths by freak accidents, and even meaningless cruelty happen no matter who you are, where you are, or how Godly and Christian you are.

Evil is real.

Evil happens.

Evil always slips in, somehow.

So Paul reminds us that we’re not fighting enemies of flesh and blood. He reminds us that immigrants and refugees, transients and transsexuals, Muslims, Jews, skin-heads and Anti-fa, Republicans or Democrats and Capitalists or Socialists are not the enemies of Christians. These are people. Humans. Children made in the image of God. Somebody’s little daughter; someone’s beloved son. People with souls.

And people are mixed bags with good qualities and bad qualities all tossed into one body.

No; pointing out a group and labeling every member “My enemy” or “God’s enemy” is not Biblical. We’re not fighting physical people!

Instead, we are fighting systems. Fighting the status quo. Fighting the way things are. Our enemy is the world system that has policies which turn a beloved child into a terrorist. Our enemy is every government order this is cruel and inhumane. Our enemy is poverty. Power inequality. Greed.

Our enemy is the cosmic powers of this present darkness – the spiritual forces of evil. You don’t have to believe in Satan or the devil for there to be evil. Evil – intentional harm – is a cosmic power. A power outside of ourselves that is infused into our current world. A spiritual darkness bred out of our fatal disease of mortality makes us fear, and hate, and do harm to one another. Why are we greedy? Because the more we have, the more secure we are, and the further death feels from us. Why are we cruel? For the same reason. It makes us feel powerful. Like we can cause death on others but no one can cause death on us.

Our enemy is death, and all of the negative and hurtful things we do out of fear of death.

So Paul reminds us that death is defeated. Death has no sting. Death has no victory. Christ has saved us, redeemed us, made us no longer prisoners to all that the fear of death inflicts on us.

When we feel we need more protection, we’re not to pick up more arms and weapons. We’re not to build stronger borders and stronger alarm systems. We’re not to point to specific people and say ‘He is the Anti-Christ!’ or ‘She is pure evil!’ We Christians are to focus on boosting our Spiritual armor… for we are in a spiritual war. A war over the negative, life-stealing emotions that the fear of death inflicts in us.

So Paul writes: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day,” when fear and hate and insecurity invoke the devils and temptations in you to sin. “And having done everything” to be spiritually strong, “to stand firm” in your commitment to love and peace. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

This is the armor and arms we’re to have – truth, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, righteousness, and the words of God. All of these to be living in peace rather than living in fear.

“ Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”

Pray for one another! Pray peace for yourselves. Pray peace for your enemies. Pray peace for the world. Pray peace and the only arms and armor we will ever need is the whole armor of God.

Amen.

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Something to Eat

2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Jesus-touched-woman-touching-Jesus-Divine-Healing
Mark 5:21-43

What lengths would you go for healing?

For yourself?

For your child?

For today’s unnamed woman, she was willing to risk everything. She’d already paid all her money. She’d lost all her dignity as doctor after doctor and healer after healer failed to help her. Twelve years ago – maybe from childbirth – she began to bleed from below the waist and for twelve years the life has leeched out of her. This has meant for 12 years she has been dead, cut off, unable to attend religious functions or be among the community because any woman who is bleeding is supposed to stay home until she stops. It was customary – a way to keep the community clean. Much like today day cares say you should you’re your kid home for 24 hours if they have a fever, or hospitals ask if you’ve traveled out of country recently, and if so, isolated. These are preventative measures to keep the community clean.

But imagine if that temporary cleansing time wasn’t a few hours or days… but lasted months… years… over a decade of isolation. Over a decade of people avoiding you so they wouldn’t be contaminated and need to be in isolation too.

And here this woman is. In the crowd. Contaminating all these people, per se. She doesn’t tell them. She sneaks. Who would let her through to embarrass the rabbi with lady problems? Who would let her make him ritually unclean?

If caught, what will happen? Will they stone her, kill her, for violating the social rules? Will they cast her out of the city and make her a beggar, or made to wander the desert until she died of thirst? Will they arrest her, take her from her family, and deport her?

She risks it all just for a chance at a better life.

Just for a chance of healing.

Chance of grace — unearned favor.

She touches just the hem, the barest edge, of Jesus’ clothes and feels — FEELS — the change in her. Just that smallest touch has brought her back to life and among the living!

Jesus FEELS the change, too.

“WHO HAS TOUCHED ME?”

“Everyone is touching you, what do you mean ‘who has touched you’? It’s a crowd! It’s crowded!”

And Jesus glared at the crowd.

So much for not embarrassing the rabbi. So much for keeping his honor intact. So much for sneaking in the crowd and not letting them know of the unclean, unwelcomed one among them. So much for getting away with her newly given life. What will the crowd do to this woman – now that she’s stolen from the rabbi AND contaminated him? Death will be merciful.

She so easily could have ran away then. Saved her life. But she chooses to give in, and in giving her life away, saves it.

She falls down before Jesus and tells him the whole truth – every gory detail – every failed doctor, every penny spent, every place she’s been not welcomed. She tells him way, way too much until the people around him are uncomfortable. She confesses her theft, and guilt, wholly to the one she offended, the one she is indebted to.

And he forgives her debts. Forgives her sins. Her trespasses. “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Faith – trust – confession – reconciliation –has cleansed her of her sins. It is well with her soul. “Go in peace and be healed.”

With a full confession, this woman is given more mercy than she ever dreamed was possible. She is not just physically healed, but spiritually, too. And directly forgiven by the one she did wrong to. She is wholly returned to life after 12 years of dying.

But that’s not the whole story today.

Jesus in this crowd had been heading to Jarius’ house where his 12 year old daughter is deathly ill.

How far is Jarius willing to go for healing for his child? What will he risk?

Everything.

He comes to the folk healer Jesus, whom Jarius’ own peers are ridiculing, to save not his first son or any son — but a daughter, a child that is considered not to have much worth in society. And not any daughter who has given him grandsons… but his 12 year old daughter, who is just ready to begin her menses, not even a full woman. See the ties to the previous woman, here? Jarius will risk his job, his reputation, and therefore his livelihood and life to save the life of his little girl.

But it is too late.

Jesus paused, helped an outsider, a stranger, a thief… and now the little innocent girl is dead.

Can you feel the crowd’s anger? Don’t bother the rabbi.

Over at the house, the crowd is crying. Hope is lost. The miracle was stolen by that dirty woman.

Jesus, however, tells them there is no need to weep – the girl is only asleep. He tells Jarius “Do not fear, only believe!”

But the crowd laughs him out.

To the sound of their jeers, Jesus takes the little girls’ mom and dad, and his closest friends, into the house. Over the sound of the crowd mocking, maybe getting angry with that woman, or angry with Jesus for being too late, over all that chaos Jesus goes into the quiet room with the dead child. And he touches her — breaking the social taboo of not touching the dead. Making himself unclean. An outsider. And he whispers to her not in some strange language, but in their native tongue – their own dialect – little girl, get up!

And she does. Back from the dead. Healed. Alive.

Oh death, where is your sting?

Oh God, who truly has endless grace — no one can steal another’s place with you!

God is so generous, so full of life, so extravagant that there is healing enough for all. There is love enough for all. There is life enough for all.

Don’t fear. Only believe.

Don’t be stingy, don’t doubt, don’t jeer. Be generous. Be optimistic. Be encouraging.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is telling them that the reason they are so affluent, so well off, so that they can help others. Gifts are meant to be shared! Talents are meant to be shared! Miracles are meant to be shared! Food is meant to be shared.

Around this table Jesus sets for us, we share. We share our joys. We share our woes. We share our hopes. We share our shames. We share a body – that is old and young, healthy and unhealthy, saintly and fallen. We share extravagantly and proclaim it is open for one, and all, and everyone who wishes to begin anew their life with Christ and with one another in the name of Christ. We proclaim every sin confessed is wholly forgiven for God’s mercy’s are endless. God’s welcome is endless. God’s love is endless.

How far are you willing to go for healing?

For a clear conscious and a well soul?

Are you willing to apologize to the ones you have wronged?

It’s something to chew on, to eat.

Amen.

Known & Claimed – Earth Day

John 10:11-18 OceanWarming01a529px
1 John 3:16-24

I don’t really care about a tree that is lost in Kazakhstan , I must admit. I don’t know who planted it, or how long its been there. I don’t know why it was cut. I’ll never see it, and I haven’t seen it. On the other hand, I’ll be brought to tears if someone cuts my knee-high buckeye tree in my yard. My grandmother started it by seed, I’ve babied it, and I see it everyday. I bet in Kazakhstan they don’t care.

We really care about what we can name and claim. We’re just like that. When we’re personally invested into something, it becomes OURS and we want to care for it.

Jesus names and claims us, as we name and claim him. We’re invested — personally invested — in each other. He gives the example of a hired hand versus the owning shepherd. When the going gets rough, and there are wolves wanting dinner, the hired hand says ‘This is just a job! I need my life more than I need a job!’ and he takes off. But the shepherd says, ‘These are MY sheep. That is Billy Baa and that is Bonnie Baa. I’ll lay down my life to save their lives if its required.’ The hand is not personally invested in the sheep. The shepherd is.

That’s our John Gospel reading. We got it. Jesus loves us. We love Jesus.

Our Letter of John however addresses the implications, the meanings, of John’s Gospel. “We know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us — and therefore, we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

There is the stickler… just as Jesus names and claims us, and is willing to die for us, so too we name and claim each other and ought to be willing to die for each other. It sounds like an exaggeration. And so the author of John gives a tangible, touchable, buckeye-in-your-yard example of what lying your life down for another means: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses help?”

You may not be called to give up your life for another.

But we Americans, who have most of the world’s goods, we see the people in Kazakhstan in need, and yet… refuse to help. How can we say God’s love abides in us?

On Earth Day, these writings remind me of our planet, and environmental justice. Roughly 80% of the world’s resources — energy, crops, shelter, minerals, animals, fresh water — are controlled and used by the richest 20% of the world. Just by being in America, you’re among this top 20%. There’s food and water and shelter abundantly here. We have so much electricity we light our roads at night even if nobody is on them, and we water our gardens with fresh drinkable water. Millions lack fresh drinking water — let alone enough fresh drinking water they could waste it by using it as toilet water. Millions lack electricity, or the electricity they have is spotty and back outs are common – so common insulin and other drugs that are sensitive to heat are stored in clay pots and buried under the ground in parts of Africa to try to preserve the life-saving drug.

We have the world’s goods.

And what are we doing with them? Largely destroying our environment and making life much, much harder for the world’s poor.

This is not intentional. I’m not saying a one of us here woke up and said, ‘What horrible evil thing can I do today? Ah! I’ll help kill children in India!’

No, but we are doing it.

Not a single snow flake says ‘I caused the avalanche,’ but together, the snow does.

Not a single person is set out to cause the world harm, but together, our little actions do.

And it’s because we don’t see the big picture. It is hard to think how flushing our toilet harms Africans, or how throwing away our plastic bags instead of reusing or recycling them starves Philippinoes. But taken together, all that energy used to clean our water, move it to our tanks, take it into the sewers, clean it again, makes an impact on the world. And all that trash goes somewhere, breaks down, becomes massive floating reefs of plastic in the ocean that kill fish and breed bacteria.

Little actions. Big impacts.

One snow flake in the avalanche.

So I start with where I am. With what I see. With a tree. I name it. Buckeye tree. I claim it. My buckeye tree. I know I am its shepherd. I start with what I see. Our watershed – the little creek right here by the church that grows and grows and meanders. I name it. This is the Upper Scioto watershed. I claim it. I live, and I work, and I love being in the Upper Scioto watershed. I am its shepherd. I think about how this little creek here flows and goes all the way to the Scioto River in Columbus. How that water is used on my tree. How the health of this creek is the health of my tree; and really, the health of me because this is the water I’m drinking.

Naming and claiming, I begin to see the bigger picture. Naming and claiming, I start to get how a little action here still has an affect way over there.

That’s how global climate change works. I know – many say global warming is false. When you name and claim your months, it does look false. We keep having snows over and over again this spring! The warming doesn’t speak to my backyard or your backyard. It speaks about the average over the entire world. And that average is up. Much like our little deeds work together to have a big impact around the world, a little bit warmer average has a big impact around the world.

It’s like wool blankets. We all need one to keep warm in winter. God gave us one called the atmosphere. As we did things, now, and in the industrial revolution, and put up more and more dust and particles and chemicals in the air, we got warmer. It’s like we were putting on more wool blankets. For awhile, nothing happened. But bit by bit, our core body temperature heated up. Now we’re realizing we need to kick some of these wool blankets off… but the only way we know how is to utterly give up our way of lives.

To lay down our way of lives.

Giving up electricity and plastic, chemicals and mass farming. And most of us really don’t want to do this. We’re comfortable. And most of the affects of the wool blankets is felt in other places — among the 80% of the world who doesn’t have easy AC units and fresh water on tap.

Because it looks so hard, most of us have done nothing. We continue about our normal lives. We say ‘I’m just a single snow flake, what affect do I have?’ and so we avoid doing even the littlest deeds that would help. Recycling. Turning off lights. Using rain barrels. Giving up a weed-free lawn.

And so we kept putting on blankets of smog and soot and Co2 in the air.

When all these blankets are on, and our core temperature rises, we tend to kick. We’re uncomfortable! The weather does the same. As the average temperature goes up, the front lines go from a nice wavy line around the world to an jagged heart-attack line. So instead of us getting a few days of cold, a few days of warm, and a nice transition in between, we go to having extreme cold in the morning, extreme heat in the evening, and a wild storm in between. The weather gets unpredictable in how wildly it is bucking about. This means what once was rare — a hundred year flood — now is common. Flooding all the time. Or drought all the time. Because the weather has gone haywire.

That’s why climate change is a more accurate term. Yes, it’s caused by warming… but not everyone experiences the warming. It’s an average world wide. EVERYONE, however, experiences the change in the climate. The mother-nature-has-gone-insane affect.

I think we, here in Ohio, just felt this, this spring.

And we’re going to feel it this summer as 100 degree days become the norm.

This insane weather is killing people here in America. With stronger hurricanes, as have hit Texas and Puerto Rico; with bigger floods that hit the bread basket every year; and with droughts that cause massive fires in the West.

And we’re the people with 80% of the resources to help us through.

The poor are those elderly in India suffering 110 degree weather with no AC or fans. And the people around Aral, as I spoke about in the children’s message. The poor are those who don’t have the resources to help themselves. Even in our own country, most of us would gladly have a hybrid car, have solar panels, and use rain water for our toilets… but changing to all of those takes more money than we have. In the world, 8 men — just 8 men — control 50% of the world’s wealth. And here in the US, no other country — not even the most corrupt one you can picture — has a greater disparity between the rich and the poor.

We are in the valley of death. Climate change is occurring, and is not stop-able, and the resources to adapt and prevent a greater change in the world’s climate are held by just a few.

Jesus had only one life to give.

But it was enough.

The early Christians had only their own bit of fish or bread to share, but it was enough.

Because… again… snow flakes. Individually they are quickly passing — here today and gone tomorrow. But together, they cause avalanches. Stop traffic. Change the shape of the world.

And Jesus knows this. Our Good Shepherd names and claims each of us individually, because as a flock we are the power to change the world. This is the commandment: to love one another. Who loves one another has Christ abiding in them. Who gives up their life for the flock retains their life.

Who gives up their one-time-use Styrofoam cups for the world retains their world.

Who gives up leaving the house heat on while gone for the world retains their world.

Who lives as a shepherd of the earth is welcomed by the shepherd of the earth.

Little changes have big, big impacts.

Little deeds pile up.

Let us love — not in words or speech — but in truth and action.

Let us commit to being shepherds to all the world – near and far.

Amen.

 

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?

Maybe…

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?

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.

Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.

Treasured Treasures

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Whatever happened to the magi’s gifts?

Walk and think with me on this.

Some magi — likely priests of Zoroasterism — came to Jesus with treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Two were prophesized by Isaiah — the wealth of kings and the scent of a deity used in temple worship. But the third gift, myrrh, is unique. It is the scent used to anoint the dead. All three gifts are expensive and rare.

I don’t know how and why they picked their gifts. Maybe the gold is for the king, the frankincense for the services praying for the new king, and the myrrh for the king who died — since there can only be one king at a time over a county.

However it is, they take some of their wealth and they begin to follow a star to see over which country it appeared. The county happens to be Judea, whose capital is Jerusalem. But, as we know, King Herod is still alive and none of his sons have taken the throne as a new king. Yet the magi are certain there is a new king in this land, this land of the Jews, somewhere. So they keep seeking and following the star.

We know eventually they find Mary and Jesus in a house – maybe this is Jesus’ childhood home and Joseph is off working for the day. Toddler Jesus is there and these foreign priests bow to the boy and present their treasures to him. Our Epiphany, our realization, is that Jesus is both God and mortal; both king and sacrifice; both judgment and forgiveness.

But then the magi head home, avoiding Herod (or Herod Jr. We’re not really sure what year the magi came to Jesus.)

So have you, like me, ever wondered what happened to that treasure? I mean, does this treasure go towards buying carpenter equipment? Does it get stolen? Is it buried somewhere? Was it passed down in the family or help fund Jesus’ adult ministry?

As an adult, Jesus spoke about treasure. Our Lord tells us (Matt. 6:19) “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…” Was Jesus speaking out of personal experience? The precious oils and saps of frankincense and myrrh decayed and the boxes rusted and their cloth was moth ate and thieves took the gold. Maybe that’s what happened to the treasure.

There’s lots of stories outside of the Bible people have made up about what happened to these gifts from the wise men. Some said it helped them flee to Egypt, some say it started Jesus’ adult ministry, and one old story says it was stolen from Jesus by the very same thieves he was later crucified with.

In truth, we don’t know what happened.

But not knowing is kind of the definition of treasure…

Treasures are a pile of riches– usually ancient — and usually considered once lost and forgotten until discovered. I mean, we don’t say a bank is holding treasure… it has money. A set and counted amount of money. But we tell stories that a dragon has a treasure trove, and we mean a dragon has an unknown large amount of gold and gems, precious things we can’t even name, all which the world thought was forgot but now is found under said dragon.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is all about finding that unknown lost sum, the excitement, the mystery, and bringing the wealth back into the world.

Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights is all about learning the magic password – open sesame – and finding all the stolen treasures hidden in the secret cave – and how he takes these out and uses them.

Treasures are what we value, stored up, ferreted away, what was lost and is now found and returned to the world.

So since the magi brought Jesus treasure… and it was lost… doesn’t that mean we can find it again?

Like a treasure map with a big x to mark the spot, they had a big star to mark the spot they left their treasure. So maybe it’s just a matter of picking the right star and following it… but what if it was a star that wasn’t always there – it was just there a little while? Like a comet or an asteroid?

Or what if Matthew was trying to tell us a story with a deeper meaning rather than trying to give us a map to coins and perfumes?

I mean, later in Matthew, Jesus’ whole saying on treasure is: “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth no rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

Maybe the wise men are a foreshadow, a hint, at what later Matthew wanted us to remember about Jesus: Jesus didn’t value monetary wealth and the treasures of the earth. Jesus valued the treasures of heaven. Treasures like prayer, helping each other, being honest, loving each other and loving God.

Treasures that we can find, and give to the world, over and over again.

Or maybe, we’re to understand that the wise men went and put their treasure where their heart was. Jesus, their heart, is who they gave their treasures to. Herod, meanwhile, kept his treasures to himself and so kept his heart to himself. He only loved himself. The wise men were wise, and knew to love God.

See, I have heard before that we are the heart of Christ. And we are Jesus’ treasure. And since we are Jesus’ treasure, and his heart, Jesus stores us with himself in heaven. Safe and secure.

The reverse is this: When Jesus is our treasure, our hearts are with Jesus. So that we are encircled by Christ, surrounded by love, like treasure inside a protective chest.

When I think of my own heart, my heart is a treasure trove. A hoard of treasures. It is my wealth. In it is love and memories, loyalty and laughter, people, family, friends, pets, and places; and my God.

Sadly, however, even the treasure that normal moths and rust and thieves can’t take still can slip away like sand through my fingers. Time makes some memories fade, and like a thief in the night, some of my favorite places have been stolen for urban sprawl. Family, friends, pets… they all pass away.

So what do I do?

I think Jesus’ answer is still the best. Entrust him with this heart of treasure. Pray. Tell God our favorite memories, our favorite places. Tell God of our love for family and friends. Tell God our gratitude for loyal pets and good jokes. Trust God to take all of our treasures and store them in heaven where they cannot degrade, cannot fade, cannot be stolen or fall apart.

Treasures get lost… and found… lost and found. We might lose our treasured treasures on this earth, but those we entrust to God shall always be findable.

One day, what will you find waiting for you stored away in heaven? What stories, what memories, what loves, what joys, what prayers have you tucked away?

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC Baltimore, Ohio, 12-3-2016