Tag: Worship

Expected Justice, but instead, Bloodshed

Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46


Isaiah writes:

For the garden of God is God’s people.
We are God’s pleasant planting of produce.
God expected us to produce justice fruits, but instead, we hurt one another.
God expected us to follow God’s ways, but instead, we made others victims.

And Jesus continues, “The kindom of God will be given to the people who produce the fruits of the kindom.”

When the religious people heard these words, they were so angry they wanted to arrest Jesus. But they were also scared.

When we hear these words, do we picture ourselves as the good vines who produce good fruit and inherit the kindom? Or do we picture ourselves as the wild vines that have forgotten God?

This week has made me think many of us have forgotten our cornerstone. We have forgotten what we are to measure our life by. And in its place is an idol called the gun.

I’m not going to advocate either extreme on this hot button issue. I’m not interested in banning all guns, or permitting all guns. I’m not interested in debating home-grown or international terrorism nor nitpicking the whys someone chooses to go on a murder rampage.

Instead, I want to talk about what is going on here, and what this means to a faithful Christian congregation. You see, I think we can produce the good fruit or the bad with guns… and it depends on our cornerstone. Depends on what we are using to guide and measure our live by.

First: What is going on here? Gun Law Scorecard ranks the states on their gun laws, deaths by guns, and the accessibility of weapons and ammunition. We get a “D” grade.

12 people die out of every 100,000 Ohioans a year due to gun shots. ((cdc.gov)) Some of these people are intentional. Having access to a gun means one is more likely to commit suicide by a gun. Some of these are intentional against other people – gun homicides. And many are accidental.

See, we permit concealed carry into daycares, airports, school buses, colleges, churches, and elementary class rooms. And you can open carry just about anywhere. But nowhere is there a requirement that you have to be TRAINED in how to use a gun. Yes, you have to be trained to have a concealed carry license. This is a good thing. But there is no training required for open carry or for gun ownership.

Common sense? Gun safety? Keeping toddlers away from guns? None of these are prerequisites for gun ownership. All you have to be is over 18, and not convicted of a violent felony or a drug felony.

This means that we hear of terrible situations where a little girl went for candy in nana’s purse, and accidentally shot herself with nana’s gun. A little boy found a gun in his parents’ room, thought it was a toy, and killed his brother. In both of these cases, no rules or laws were broke… but yet, every 63 minutes a bullet hits a child here in the USA.

A plethora of guns means a plethora, many, accidents.

Owning a gun doesn’t mean you own gun sense. But we don’t require all gun owners to go through education courses.

I know I sure never was allowed to fire the .22 growing up without an adult educating me. I was taught. But many are not.

And we as a society are not requiring gun courses of people who purchase firearms.

Also here in Ohio, we don’t require a background check on private sales. So, I – with a clean background – can buy a gun from any store, and then sell it to anyone I please. It doesn’t matter if that person I sell to has a long history of gun crimes. He or she can still legally buy the gun from me.

We also don’t permit local governments from passing gun laws… such as if Fairfield and Licking Counties decided that to sell guns in our counties, you must have a gun selling permit from the state, so that the state knows who you are selling guns to in case one of those is used in a crime. Nor would we limit how many guns are sold at once — if someone wanted to buy 50 assault rifles, (that is, rifles designed to fire rapidly, hold many bullets, designed for infantry use, and accurate at 300 yards) she could do so. And also buy all the ammunition to go with those rifles at the same time. There is no waiting period here to get guns. Just walk in — no matter how furious you are — and walk out with a gun. Will shooting the person you’re angry with seem like a good idea in three days? In Ohio, that option to cool off and think is not automatic. ((gunlawsscorecard.org)) Ohio is among the top 7 suppliers of crime guns because it is so easy to get a gun here and give it to another. In both West Virginia and Michigan, we are the number 1 supplier.

Nutshell – want to do a crime? Come to Ohio and buy your semi-automatic mass-murder assault rifle guns from flea markets. There will be no record. And if you kill everyone at the scene of the crime, no witnesses, right?

I support gun ownership. I think we need guns, especially in rural areas, for hunting and for defense. However, I do not support private ownership of military guns – guns that leave such wounds and trauma that there’s nothing left of a deer to eat. Or that shoot 500 rounds a minute, thereby killing your entire family with an accidental pull of the trigger. I support guns for fun – .22s and bbs and airsofts.

Armor piercing ammunition is not for fun and does not belong in the hands of the general public.

Bullets designed to “take down a man,” as one advertisement lauds, shouldn’t be what we’re packing. Even in self defense situations, it is not the default that we have to kill someone to be safe.

I believe, however, no gun laws will change. Time and time again, we have a mass shooting… which once was six people dead, and then 10 Amish school kids and then a whole elementary school, then a movie theatre, then a dance club, now a country music show with hundreds injured and 58 or 60 dead… and there is an outcry for change for a month or so… then we forget. Worse, we let already existing gun laws to slip or be repealed. In three months, gun lobbyists — who make their money by swaying politicians to make it easier to buy guns — will be back in local, state, and national offices donating money and promising votes if more guns are sold. In a month, there will be signs combining gun ownership with a patriotic duty, advertisements for Black Friday steep discounts so you can give the gift of “protection,” by rebranding the ability to murder hundreds in a minute as something you and I need to feel safe in our homes. Already, there are advertisements promoting gun sales.

This is the Columbus Dispatch last Thursday. Here are all the articles talking about the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, and here – published beside them – a full page advertisement for guns. ((Columbus dispatch 10-5-17)) 

dispatchgun

Second: what does all of this mean for us, a congregation of Christians? Rev. Susan Thistlewaite accurately states – for many of us, we worship the God Gun.

See, worship is when we give our time and attention to something. When we are devoted to it. Sacrifice and change our lives for it. Wear its images and symbols. Promotes it beliefs. Live and preach its teachings and ethics. Live and die for it.

Many people worship guns.

Time and attention. The advertisement of the Dispatch alone shows how gun sellers clamor for our time and attention, our money. The more time and attention we invest into a hobby, the harder it is to step away from the hobby and take a honest look at it. Once you are several hundred dollars – several thousand dollars – invested into guns and gun accessories, clothes, and ammunition… it gets very hard to step away and think straight about guns. All this time and attention lead to devotion.

Devotion. Am I ever willing to step back and question my loyalty to guns? If we are never willing to question gun ownership or laws, even in light of scripture calling for justice and an end of bloodshed, then the gun is more our god than the God of the world.

Sacrifice. We are paying the lives of children, elderly, men and women, sacrificing them time and time again for our Gun Idolatry. Whenever someone dies by a gun, their death is considered ‘justified’ for the ‘right to bear arms.’ Maybe our Gun God is demanding too many innocent lives. Maybe we have replaced the Commandments of God with the 2nd Amendment.

Change our lives. The Idol the Gun preaches “They Are Coming For Your Guns.” They are not and cannot. Private citizens own 79 guns for every 1 gun the government owns — this includes all cops and the military. There is no way “the government” can “come” for the USA’s guns. They may start a buy back program to have less guns on streets- but there won’t be a military vs. civilian wild west showdown. The Idol is lying. But we are changing out lives to live ready to go to war with our own country, our own neighbors and family.

Wear its images and proselytize. Do I wear signs of my god? Logos, caps, t-shirts, bumper stickers, public displays of loyalty. What facebook things are you posting? What phrases are we repeating? Do we say ‘GOD GUNS AND GUTS’ or ‘MY OTHER AUTO IS A 9MM’ or ‘I PLEAD THE 2nD’? What we publicly support, publicly advertise, we are proselytizing – attempting to make disciples out of others.

Teachings and ethics. Do the ethics of the Bible match up to the ethics we are living and preaching? “Keep honking I’m still loading” does not seem Biblical. I seem to remember the Bible says something about forgiveness and compassion. “Trespassers will be shot, survivors shot again” does not seem like the same teaching as “welcome in the stranger, for in doing so, you may unknowingly welcome in an angel.”  Helping strangers and loving one another is a different set of ethics and teachings than the ones advocated by Gun Worshipers.

The Gun Idol tells us that it is the source of our peace. An armed society is a polite society. Yet, those with guns in their cars are 44% more likely than those without guns in their cars to instigate road rage incidents… and states like our own with Stand Your Ground laws, like our own, have a 10% increase in homicides than states without such laws. Guns make people feel bolder, and more aggressive. Guns are not where our peace comes from.

Live and die for it.

The Gun God preaches “Guns Don’t Kill People – People Kill People.” Yet people with easy access to guns are much more likely to kill other people with guns. States with the highest number of gun ownership see the highest number of gun murders. In fact, it is so tied that for every 1% increase in private ownership, there is a 1% increase in firearm homicides. The Idol attempts to make itself exempt from all blame.

The Idol says keeping a gun at home keeps you safer. For every home defended by a gun – and I am in one such home – there are 7 assaults, 11 suicides, and 4 accidental shootings by guns. Half of all homes with guns and kids keep one of those guns unlocked. The gun tricks us, lies to us, and says I will only hurt others and not you and your loved ones. Having a gun about does not make us safer just by default – just because there is a gun. Guns are not our shepherd and do not guide us to green pastures.

Guns are a tool. Tools can be turned against their owners. Tools can hurt their owners. Tools are items. Objects.

Impersonal. Nameless.

Tools are not our identity.

We are the disciples of the Good Shepherd, the God of Peace, Hope, Joy and Love. We following a living God, a person, who has a relationship with us.

Not an item made by mortal hands.

Not an idol.

Who’s Country is this?

Isaiah today talks about how God planted a vineyard called Israel and loved it very much. But the vineyard refused to yield good fruits. Instead, even with all the tender care of God, it was wild and unruly and forgot God. God expected justice and righteousness from the vineyard, but got instead bloodshed and heard crying.

Jesus continues the story. He says God sent people to the vineyard to collect those good fruits – prophets with messages – but the people murdered those sent by the owner of the vineyard. One after another – murdered them. God sent God’s own child, and the people chose to murder the child – saying – if we kill the child, we will be able to do just as we please. We will inherit the earth when we get rid of God and God’s messengers.

Jesus then reminds us that someday, God will return to the vineyard. The Messiah comes again. And the kindom of God belongs to those who produce the good fruits of the spirit. The fruits of righteousness, justice, forgiveness, and love.

This isn’t NRA country, as they advertise. This is God’s country. This is God’s world.

So here we are. If we do not change a single gun law, there will be another mass shooting in a few months. The time between them is reducing. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We want a different result – an end of this violence – but we do the same thing – decry the act, and forget, and change nothing.

How are we going to respond? By continuing to worship and promote the God of Guns, or by serving the God of Peace and Unity?

 

What we do to the least we do to Christ. And what are we doing doing to the least, our own children, and ourselves, and our God by teaching guns and violence are the answer? What are we doing by holding up guns as what it means to be American? To be Christian? What are we doing by ignoring the plight of our  nation’s violent, abusive relationship with guns?

I will own a gun. I will not worship the Gun.

I will not live and die by my gun. I will live and die by my God.

I hope, whether you own a gun or not, you do not pray to a gun for your salvation.

Amen.

 

Additional Sources consulted…

 

https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/10/03/las-vegas-gunman-stephen-paddock-used-a-perfectly-legal-device-allowing-him-to-fire-400-rounds-per-minute/23230992/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/10/03/america-is-exceptional-for-its-unique-deadly-gun-culture/?utm_term=.e0ee61116f6d

https://twitter.com/Calebkeeter/status/914872808110510080/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2017%2F10%2F02%2Fus%2Fjason-aldean-vegas-shooting.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/opinion/rosanne-cash-country-musicians-nra.html

http://www.theonion.com/article/americans-hopeful-will-be-last-mass-shooting-they–57093?utm_content=Main&utm_campaign=SF&utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=SocialMarketing

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/when-we-worship-the-god-of-fear-the-idolatry-of-gun-culture/

https://churchplants.com/articles/6455-the-top-7-gods-americans-worship.html

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/01/pro-gun-myths-fact-check/

Advertisements

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.

Amen.

Why Are You Standing There?

Acts 1:6-14 Angels-Talking-To-Disciples-After-The-Ascension-Of-Jesus
John 17:1-11

 

Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.

The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.

I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.

But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

DUH!

This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”

DUH!

Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

… say it with me…

Duh.

Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.

We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.

And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”

Duh. Of course not.

She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.

Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?

That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”

Duh.

But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.

Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.

So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.

As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.

What does this look like in action today?

The first example I can think of is our offering today.

A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.

Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.

Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.

Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.

But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.

The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.

The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.

And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.

We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.

You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.

Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.

What does?

Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.

Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.

Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.

This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.

But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.

So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…

Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?

Amen.

What Child is This?

Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Our Lectionary gives us today the story of two women, both seeking their sons. Hannah goes to see Samuel and finds him in the temple. Of course, she expected to find him there. She presented him to the temple to be raised as a priest in gratitude for God hearing her prayers to grant her a child. We’re told that each year Hannah goes to the temple and brings with her a ephod, an outer garment that priests wear sort of like a sleeveless shirt. She’s sewn and made this for her growing little boy and she gives it to him to wear until the following year when he’s outgrown and worn it out.

What child is Samuel? He’s a child of God. Gifted by God, regifted back to God, and being raised by priests of God. He’ll grow up to be a great prophet.

But he didn’t start off being raised by priests. He started off being at home, until he was between the ages of 3 to 12. So all those formative early years he was raised by Hannah… and Hannah must have raised him right, for he comes to the temple already knowing of God and prepared to be a servant of the divine.

We’re told that the work God begins, Hannah continues, and the work Hannah begins, God continues – everyone wants this little boy to grow up in wisdom and with the love of God.

Mary is the other woman. She, too, has visited the temple as she does so yearly for the Passover Festival. Like Hannah, she came to the temple with gifts to leave there – and like Hannah she goes back home after visiting. However, Hannah purposefully left her son with the priests. Mary did not. Hannah knows her son is being well cared for and loved by Eli. Mary does not know where her son is, or who he is with, or if he is in danger. Hannah has peace and praises God. Mary has fear and pleads with God.

We heard in Luke’s Gospel how Mary and Joseph leave their traveling extended family and book it back to Jerusalem to search the streets and markets, homes and place of worship for Jesus. When, where, and how will they find Jesus?

Will they find him safe? Will he be with friends? With family? Is he crying at the gates? Is he stolen – kidnapped? Is he sold into slavery, left for dead in a gutter, after all of these years, have King Herod’s men identified the new born king and finished their job at making sure there is no king but Herod Jr.?

At last, after days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple sitting and talking, listening and asking questions of the rabbis. Mary exclaims, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” She’s so angry, so elated — her deep, deep love of Jesus makes her this furious because she was so, so worried about what had happened to him.

And Jesus is a typical kid, “Why were you searching for me? I’m not lost.” Then Jesus becomes an atypical kid by concluding, “Don’t you know I must be with my father?”

We’re told Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is saying. I picture them grabbing up their son roughly, covering him in kisses and wanting to beat his pre-teen bottom blue for giving them this fright and wandering off without permission. I think they must apologize to the rabbis and thank them for caring for their wayward son. And they must march Jesus out of Jerusalem with threats of being grounded until he can grow a proper beard.

After this passage, we’re told Jesus, like Samuel, grow in wisdom as he ages and grows with God’s love and human love. After this, when nearly thirty, Jesus begins his public ministry.

Jesus doesn’t start open rebellion with mom and dad. This scene isn’t the beginning of teenage years where he fights them tooth and nail for independence. He frequently tells people to follow the laws of the prophets, which include honoring your father and mother and not giving them trouble and woes.

And Mary treasures what has happened in her heart. She thinks on these things, ponders them, takes them out of her mental memory box and looks them over. I think, later, she begins to wonder, and put the pieces together, of just who this child she’s raising is.

She’s raising the boy devout. She takes him to the temple and observes the holidays. She teaches him his faith well. But here he is, taking the faith she’s given him and expanding it in new ways she never foresaw.

This happens still nowadays. We raise kids with faith – teach them about their loving heavenly parent, teach them to pray, teach them to follow the Bible… but they make the faith their own. Some are like Samuel, and never give their parents woes. They become more devout and are a source of pride for their parents. Some kids grow up to be like Jesus, and give their parents woes. They become more devout, too, but their devotion isn’t “main stream” and “traditional.” They try out new ways of worshiping God and they rock the religious boat.

Every generation has it’s boat rockers who explore where, when, and how to find Jesus. The Christian music we listen to on the radio – the Christian Rock – was once that far-out and distrusted way of worshiping God. Now these songs find their way into even more traditional services and churches. A couple of them are in our hymnal. Taze, another music style, is in our hymnal and once was suspect. I know several of us are suspect of large churches — “mega churches” — or churches that have gymnasiums, coffee centers, projectors, or lack pews.

At one time, organ music was very suspect and banned from churches. But… many of us hear God in the songs and hymns.

Generation after generation, people take the faith given to them by their parents, and make it their own. Generation after generation, people hear the angels sing and go looking for the good news, the messiah: go looking for Jesus.

You see, Jesus has a way of slipping out of sight. We all get traveling along the road we’re used to, like we do every year, and we assume Jesus is with us… but you know, he might not be. It may be that the Way of God has moved, the spirit has moved, and our old ways no longer travel with Christ.

Jesus says he doesn’t get lost. He is always about his father’s business, always doing God’s work and in God’s house.

We get lost. We lose sight of Jesus, and his beacon telling us the will of God.

Then we have to go seeking the Christ again. We know he’ll be with God, we know he’s always residing with us, but… at the same time… these wonderful assurances and these wonderful truths don’t tell us anything solid. They don’t tell us whether or not Christian Heavy Metal is acceptable, let alone do they tell us if we should suddenly have Christian Rock songs in our services. No, knowing Jesus is with God and not lost, and that we’re to discern when, where, and how to find Christ, is not the same as having solid answers at all.

Instead, we’re told our faith is a journey where hopefully we increase with years and wisdom. We’re told each generation finds Jesus is new ways, hears God in new forms, and understands our shared sacred text in different interpretations.

It’s really, really hard to not think those who are different than us surely have lost Christ. It’s tempting to think we need to find them and yank them back to where we found Jesus… but… our scripture challenges us to examine ourselves… and realize that God is ever new, ever speaking, ever moving, ever creating life, and generation after generation must make their own pilgrimage to find Christ in the temple of God.

We can give someone new to the faith our map, told them what works for us, and guide them for awhile… but that child of God is their own person. And when, where, and how they feel the presence of God may be totally different than when, where, and how we feel God’s presence.

So treasure the experiences of others in your heart. Ponder them. Wonder. When you meet someone who experiences God in a way totally alien than you, wonder: what child is this? And give God loving thanks for coming to us in so many different ways. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 12-27-2015