Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Anticipation Beats Anxiety

Anticipation Beats Anxiety 

Old Testament: Isaiah 2:1-5 
Epistle: Romans 13:11-14   
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44  

How do you feel about the end of the world coming soon? Luke warned us in the reading from last week that at some point, Jesus would return, and there would be a new world order. That world order would not be a democracy, but would be a world of peace with the shared love of God evident in every aspect of our awareness. 

We begin Advent preparing for the invisible God being apparent in a physical way; both in the birth of the infant Jesus, and especially in these early weeks, the return of Jesus at the end of the age. 

This week my son-in-law released a recording of one of his most recent compositions for symphonic band. The piece is a nocturne, evoking the middle of the night feelings. He has two infant sons who provide him many opportunities to be awake for the middle of the night experience. In the quiet of the dark night, the wonder of new life in his arms he senses the endless possibilities both evoke: some fear - for all that is unable to be controlled; and some excitement - for all the joy that is just beginning to unfold. 

As the child begins to crawl, everything within a foot of the floor suddenly becomes a potential danger. Even the hot oven presents a potential threat. But we do not want the child to stop progressing. And we still have to eat. 

As the child develops verbal skills, there are cranky days as teeth begin to break through the gum line. There can seem to be so little we can do to provide real relief. And the poor child has no idea what is driving him crazy. But we cannot develop without passing through this time as well. 

All of life contains these steps of progression. We confront pain and discomfort moving through the stages of change that define real life. It does not come to an end when we are infants. Even mature adults confront a series of challenges. In the church, pastoral change evokes uncertainty. Choosing a pastor to walk into the rapidly changing future, is hard when you cannot guess what skills might be the most useful. 

In a personal sense, our more mature days are better characterized by a series of losses. Our hair thins, our hearing weakens, our balance cannot be trusted to be the same day after day. Change is by itself unnerving. 

Our spiritual awareness is a part of our living. As our minds and emotions are stirred by the events of the world, we are distracted from the promises of God. There is anxiety over the proposed radical changes with a new president-elect. We can easily spend more energy on worry and anxiety than we ought to. Into our spiritual awareness breaks the season of Advent. 

In the last twenty years or so, this text from Matthew has been promoted as a foundational piece of the “Left Behind” series. In that series of novels, the apocalyptic texts of the Bible are interpreted as a prediction of “The Rapture” where select individuals are taken up into paradise, while the those left behind endure a dramatic series of hardships. 

This kind of elitism is a recurring problem for all religions. There is a powerful human hunger to lord it over others, define holiness in such a way as to exclude others, and make the insiders feel special. The final words we heard from Luke last week, encouraged us to keep our own sinfulness in mind, seeking the salvation of forgiveness that Jesus so readily dispenses to the humble and repentant.  

So what could Matthew be talking about if not “The Rapture?” Advent is the beginning of a new church year. As we follow along in the Revised Common Lectionary, we follow a three year cycle of readings with a year devoted to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We are entering into the year of Matthew. 

The focus of this passage is to emphasize that there are no markings that the end is near, so it is not wise to try to time our repentance with the grand finale. With that thought in mind, we should turn to God right now, because anytime, any day, could bring the end of the world as we know it. 

We opened with a reading from First Isaiah, preaching before the defeat and Exile imposed by the Babylonians. Much of Old Isaiah is a call to give up your love of sin, make room for God within, and learn to believe God is good. Here, Isiah offers a sense of the ideal; an understanding of God, not as a punishing God, but a God of wisdom. This image of God is the one who arbitrates peace, and brings out the best in all of the people from all over the world. Here we see Zion as the embodiment of the ideal relationship between God and all of humanity. Embodiment is another word for incarnation. 

In Romans, Paul tells us that this is the hour to become aware and attentive to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We are closer now to the kingdom than we have been at any time in our lives. 

These words, now almost 2,000 years old, seem to lack the sense of immediacy that characterized Paul’s frantic ministry. Paul was driven by the sense that Jesus would return within his lifetime. Paul was compelled by the need to turn all nations to Christ, so that everyone would enjoy the coming salvation. 

You and I arrive at Advent, and our enthusiasm is quieted by the intervening years. Yes, the end might be near, but based on the experience of 2,000 years of waiting, it seems like we ought to pay the premium on our health insurance. 

Having said all of that, we should take it a step further. We are not likely to achieve perfection in our lives. It then becomes important for us to maintain a position of humility and repentance in prayer before our God. 

The ideal of nations traveling to the holy mountain in Jerusalem in order to have differences arbitrated in peace, seems counter intuitive, knowing how the sacred mount of Jerusalem is so hotly contested by the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. The physical reality of today mocks the wisdom of these ancient scriptures.   

But we know that nothing on earth lasts forever. There is no turn of politics or economies that is not subject to radical change. Issues that seem insurmountable and divisive, may not even seem important ten years from now. The reality of the life of a creature is lived within the context of short-term awareness. 

Let us turn our attention to the divine and the infinite. The God who is, was, and ever will be, is likely amused by all of those things that make us so anxious. God may be amused that we cannot understand the temporary nature of this existence, while offering us the grace to be faithful. 

I believe that grace is the power to put a cap or limit on our anxiety, trusting that God’s love is sufficient to promote a spiritual awareness that includes this eternal God, and anticipates our own personal and communal relationship with that God. 

Just as life with infants reveals both danger and hope, we contemplate the end of the age, that both seems uncontrolled and terrifying and the embodiment of the promises made for thousands of years to the faithful. 

Our own lives are lived within a sea of anxiety promoting realities. My own response is to intentionally focus my heart and mind on the spiritual ideal. Rather than spend all of my attention on the divisions that complicate the physical reality of Jerusalem, I focus some healthy part of my prayer attention, on the glory of Jesus returning to bring that sense of peace and joy. 

Faith is the antidote to the sin of anxiety. Confidence that God will clothe us in Glory Robes, and be pleased as we approach the throne, puts a joyful note in our songs and prayers. Our season of preparing for the coming of the presence of God in an embodied human form, should call us to remember to trust in God, and rejoice in the peace that the Christ brings, today, and every day in the future, world without end, Amen. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Jesus As the Life Force

Jesus As the Life Force  

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 
Psalm 100 
Philippians 4:4-9 
John 6:25-35 

It is only appropriate to begin with a word of thanks, to Pastor Anne, for generously pulling all of this together. And thanks to the good folks at United Presbyterian for inviting us over for Thanksgiving. We appreciate your welcome and hospitality. At least half of us here understand what it is like to clean the house for company in the middle of the week, no less. 

We live in anxious times. We are fed by the perpetual noise of the for-profit media. The advertising machine did not sputter out of gas - after drowning us all in negative political ads, although by all that is good, holy, and just, it ought to have poisoned itself. The artificial pressure to create the perfect Christmas Season, highlighted by the perfect Christmas gifts, has already kicked into high gear. 

Jesus, who had left the crowds by the cover of night to find a quiet place to pray and get recharged, has been discovered by the hungry crowds and their spokespersons. “How did you get away from us?” they ask him. Jesus responds, “As usual, you are asking the wrong question, worried about the wrong things, and focused on the here and now from your own narrow perspective.” 

The conversation takes place in the gospel of John, Chapter 6. This entire Chapter reflects on the miracle story of the feeding of the 5,000, and the walking on water event for the benefit of the disciples. Now, I am not one that likes to dwell on the miraculous. As a modern person, enamored of reason and scientific inquiry, I occasionally get anxious about the places the miracle stories take me. 

But this feeding of the 5,000 is not a story I can dismiss. It is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels, and Mark and Matthew each tell it twice! There is no getting around it, this story is at the heart of the gospel understanding of the public ministry of Jesus. 

It helps to reflect on the feeding of the 5,000, the night before the family arrives for Thanksgiving. Did you notice, in all of the different tellings, no one complained about the menu. There were no snide remarks about who brought a purchased side dish and who made their own. And no one complained about the ‘easy’ pumpkin pie instead of Grandma’s famous spiced recipe. 

Most of us gathered tonight are church people. We are the dedicated core of our respective congregations who do not need to be reminded to go to church on Sunday. We volunteer for projects, and accept invitations to be responsible for “church stuff.” We all know that the heart of the congregation, like the heart of a family home, is located in the kitchen, surrounded by the smell of the oven and handy to the coffee pot. Community is built making and serving food, and doing dishes together. 

In a sense tonight is like preaching to the choir. Tex Sample, the renowned teacher of preachers, says clergy should not be afraid to preach to the choir once in a while. I think of Jesus walking on water for the benefit of the disciples in the same way, preaching to the choir. This event takes place in John’s gospel, right after the “Big Meal.”  It honors the extra effort the insiders make to their relationship with Jesus, and it feeds their own hunger to know more. 
Tex Sample likes say, “Go ahead and preach to the choir, because the choir is where a lot of the trouble starts anyway.” Tex might advise a little caution in this situation, where the choir could get to me so easily. 

In the gospel the crowd senses that Jesus is a little put off by their question, so they try to ask a “better” question and get his approval. “What must we do - to do the works God requires?” In this moment, the level of sincerity jumps up. 

We all know these moments, when the tone gets serious. You call your brother - to tell him that your parent’s health has taken a turn for the worse. The chairperson of the congregation shares with the Sunday morning crowd that the Bank is losing patience with late loan payments. A multi-generation family in congregational leadership, announces that they are all moving to the Carolina’s. We all know that change in voice that calls us to take a giant step up to another level of attention. 

Jesus thrives in those teaching moments. The teaching moment is when the crowd turns to Jesus and asks a serious question - that has a direct impact on who they are and what they are to be doing. This is a question asked when they NEED an answer, AND they are ready to hear it. 

Jesus says, “You all need to believe in me and the word from God that I bring.” And they ask, “Do you have a sign from heaven to prove this is really from God? Moses gave the Hebrews manna in the desert.” You know what manna means right? It is Hebrew for, “what is this yucky stuff?” If you recall the story, the Hebrews did not especially like that manna in the desert, until it was a memory - and they were out of the desert. 

One of my favorite characteristics of the gospel of John is how he continually reveals that spirituality is related to the life force in the world and associates it with the God revealed by Jesus. Hunger, compassion, and faithfulness, all reflect the force of life in the world.  

In October we talked about faith like a mustard seed. Tiny though it is, it contains all of the stuff needed, to both sprout, and to develop into a mustard tree. All of the special code is written within the seed. Once the seed sprouts, the seed casing decomposes, and the life force is now in the plant. It grows leaves, collects sunshine and water, and grows and bears fruit - or mustard seeds. 

This is the same life force that causes dandelions to grow and bloom, right in the cracks of the sidewalk. It is a perfect dandelion. It has dandelion leaves, and dandelion roots, and the distinctive yellow dandelion blossom, that soon enough turns to floating wisps that carry the seeds of new weeds - to grow right where you had hoped to grow something more beautiful, or useful. 

Jesus lays claim to being the very life force, sent down from God, to give a rich spiritual life to those who would be willing to claim it. What is a rich spiritual life? 

I am one who believes that God created the world, in ways that are beyond my imagination. I believe the unique code of the life force that every living creature carries, reflects the life of our Creator. I believe, in some way, every created thing reveals the Creator, in some advanced mysterious way, just as the concept of the Trinity tries to put a bow on the complexity of a multifaceted understanding of God. 

As a human and a Christian, I am well versed in the scriptures that lay claim to the spiritual heritage of the Christians, and the Jewish people of faith - whose awareness of their relationship with God has shaped my understanding of creation, the life force in the world, and the Creator. 

The life force in each of us, might even be imagined as not only an image of the Creator, but we might consider our spiritual souls as a bit of that divine stuff. And divine stuff is eternal. And divine stuff, flows from God, and returns to God. While we live and breathe - and do our good and evil - in these lovely, biodegradable bodies, the real stuff of our eternal natures, does not die and cannot be anything but loved by God and reflect the love of our Creator. 

So tonight, we look at each other and look for the spark of the divine - that is always more accessible when people of faith are joined together. We recognize the presence of God - the real stuff of a rich spiritual life - in the love we have for each other. We recognize our divine nature in our normal human desire to feed each other good things - and see the pleasure in each other’s face. We give thanks to God. 

I give thanks to God for the life force that inhabits our biodegradable bodies, though I wish it would wait to degrade until after I am finished using it. I give thanks for the life force that draws us near to Jesus, wanting to get his approval. I give thanks for the spiritual hunger that causes us to ask the questions that go deeper, or raise our attention to a higher level. 

Most of all, let us give thanks to God for a spiritual awareness, that permits us to resist the artificial pressure - to create a perfect Christmas in the model of the ideal Hallmark Moment; but see it in the Christmas season, the light of the eternal. We name and address our hunger for the spiritual food that is preserved within the faith of our parents and grandparents, that we dutifully try to share with our kids and grandkids. 

Jesus fed the 5,000, walked on water to inspire the disciples, and talked with the confused followers. They are trying to comprehend who this Jesus is and what he is about. And those of us who know these stories, still want to be reminded, “What do I need to do to please God?” 

Jesus says. “I am the bread of life.” And we proclaim in all sincerity, “Give us this bread always.” Let this be the bread - in the boxes of food we will deliver to the pantry. Let this be the bread - in the stuffing of our Thanksgiving turkey, or better yet, let this be the bread and butter - of our earnest intentions to love our neighbor, near and far. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Vulnerable, Humble, Forgiving

Vulnerable, Humble, Forgiving 

Epistle: Colossians 1:11-20   
Gospel: Luke 1:68-79  

This is the final Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, and kicks off the year of Matthew. So today we hear some closing remarks from Luke.  

The lectionary gives us a pair of final words from Luke. The first reading does not have words coming from the mouth of Jesus. I would have expected a portion of the Sermon on the Plain, the one great speech of Jesus in Luke, while most of Luke is devoted to smaller, more specific settings. 

The other famous speech in Luke comes from his mother Mary, when she arrives to see Elizabeth. The hymn the Magnificat - “My soul magnifies the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” are the words attributed to Mary as she enters the house of Elizabeth. 

The public ministry of Jesus followed closely on the heels of, and initially was modeled on, the public ministry of John the Baptist. It is Luke who tells us that John and Jesus are cousins. It is Luke, who has Mary run to Elizabeth to reflect on her pregnancy and what it might mean, only to find that Elizabeth is also pregnant. 

When Mary arrives, if she was hoping to consult with Zechariah the priest and husband of Elizabeth, she found he had been silenced early in the unexpected, late-life pregnancy of his wife. He was left to ponder in silence all that was going on. It is really hard for a clergy person to loose their voice. Though it changes the prayer time if prayer does not need to produce a sermon on schedule. His voice returned when family and friends took the miracle baby at 8-days old, to be circumcised. It is the speech of Zechariah that comprise these words from Luke today. 

Mr. Z praises God for raising up a savior, to deliver God’s people from their enemies and out of the hand of those who hate us. But he recognizes that his son John, is not the savior. “You, child, will be called the prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Only two weeks ago we reflected on the temptation to be envious of sinners who are offered instant forgiveness of sins - while as good people we try to be good all of the time. We thought it might be unfair to us, if people like Zacchaeus were blessed instantly. Upon further review, as they say on televised football, we see in the wider scope of reality, we are all sinners and every day we depend on forgiveness for our salvation. 

The second reading from Luke is taken from the scene of the crucifixion. The stripped and beaten, Jesus is hanging from the cross, with a criminal on either side of him. And wouldn’t you know, Jesus promises one of the criminals that he too is saved on the spot. 

This crucifixion setting is a scene of extreme vulnerability and apparent defeat. It does not look at all like a victory parade after winning the World Series, or even winning the Presidential election. 

So what does this picture tell us about the God of Creation? The Temple of Jerusalem celebrated a holy God, who was worshipped by following countless laws and rites of purification. In the Temple, God was seen as powerful and moody, for lack of a better word. (It often appears that we choose an image for God that matches our own disposition.) 

In the letter to the Colossians we hear Christ defined as the very image of an invisible God. This vulnerable Christ, focused on forgiveness of sins, is a very distinct and different side of God Almighty. Jesus is the living proof that the powers of religion and politics are tempted to flatter themselves, and miss the truth about God and what pleases God. 

So on the last Sunday of the year we name and celebrate the wonder of salvation offered through forgiveness of sins. We claim allegiance to Jesus the Christ, who is the very image of God invested in the Creation, and we align ourselves with works of generosity and compassion, because that is the way we know Jesus behaved. 

Time and again we see Jesus pouring out compassion and forgiveness on the poor and the repentant. We begin to recognize the pattern. If we can stop reaching for positions of respectability, and instead keep our own weaknesses in mind, we can move in line to Jesus. If we would follow the ways of Christ, caring for the hurting and the lost, we will know what it is to be loved by God. 

The scene of the crucifixion looks to all of the world like a terrible defeat. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned. The love Jesus invested in his disciples, was insufficient for them, to meet the challenge of the organized worlds of religion and political authority turning against him. How does Jesus respond in his hour of agony? “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

We have walked all year with Luke. We saw how Jesus was always eating with a different crowd, not judging them, but being with them and available to them. This congregation is good at putting a meal together, whether a Thanksgiving Dinner for the church family, such as we have today, or a quick fundraiser like the Spaghetti Dinner last Wednesday, or a funeral luncheon, planned and prepared over night.  

Today we celebrate Jesus as the King of Love. Today we recognize, every time we have been disappointed, is a measure of our vulnerability. Every time we have failed, gives us the opportunity to call upon the Lord. We have been called to be Vulnerable, Humble, and Forgiving, just like Jesus. I bless you in the name of Jesus the Christ, the Sovereign of love, and the ruler in glory, this day and forever, world without end. Amen. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

O, To Be Less Distracted in Good Times and Bad

O, To Be Less Distracted in
Good Times and Bad 

Old Testament: Isaiah 65:17-25 
Gospel: Luke 21:5-19 

The end of the world is coming! Jesus has predicted it, and I believe it! We are also warned, there will be tough times before it arrives. 

It does seem like we go through cycles, where things are relatively calm and we are generally comfortable, and then we pass through a cycle of anxiety. When the general population is anxious, we have an increasing number of preachers proclaiming the end is near, often even predicting a given date. 

I believe that one day, one of these characters is going to be right, and likely very surprised. I also believe, there is wisdom in living as if the end were near. Not that we should stop being prepared to live a long and useful life, but we should express our care for those we love on a regular basis. We should live as if our days are numbered, and go ahead and do those things that are important. 

This is part of the reason that I will be taking a tour of the Holy Land in January. The opportunity presented itself - to take a tour lead by a Mennonite pastor I respect. He has connections to several peace organizations on both the Palestinian and Israeli side of the current divide. I will be able to see the historic and revered places of the scriptures, and get real insight into the conflict of the present. 

I am a creature of habit, and a child of the culture. Through education and reading, I do my best to try to keep some wider perspective. The little bit of traveling I have done, helps me to see a bigger picture. I expect that my January trip will add a lot to my worldview. 

The scriptures also add to my worldview. Knowing the world will come to an end at some point, helps to move me to actually do things now, while I can, and while I am interested. Martha and I both went back to school in 1996, earning our bachelor degrees, and setting the stage for this entirely different life we live now 20 years later. Great things are possible, when we make a decision, set a course, and then begin. 

The scholars tell us that the book we know as Isaiah, is most likely a composition in three parts, with three different people in the title role, played out over several generations. First Isaiah called for repentance, as the warriors from Babylon drew a bead on Jerusalem. Second Isaiah, promised that God is faithful through the generations, during the 70 years of Exile. 

Third Isaiah, who we are reading today, offers words of encouragement for the returning Jews. They are in a mess. The city and social structure are in tatters. There is widespread poverty. The surrounding tribes are taking great joy in raiding the fledgling community and tearing down whatever small progress is being made. The prophet offers a view of the future, that is beyond what the people can even imagine from where they are. 

My experience is just like that. 8 years ago the economy was a disaster. The newspapers were filled with the headlines documenting wave upon wave of mortgage defaults and repossessions. Home values were a fraction of what the mortgages were written for. The predictions of the future were awful. Gasoline prices hovered around $4 per gallon. There was no way to see things turning around. 

When times are good, we need a voice to call us to repent of our sins and remember that God is good. When times are bad, we need a voice to lift us up, and give us hope for better days to come. We need to remember that God is faithful through not only economic cycles, but through generations. 

Herod the Great was a man with a huge ego and was quite the builder. He built magnificent palaces for himself around the countryside. As a way of coopting the cooperation of the Temple authorities, he rebuilt the Temple of Jerusalem on a grand scale, over a period of decades. The Temple they rebuilt after the Exile was a low budget affair. It was constructed for function and not prestige and glamour. It was Herod’s Temple that the disciples were praising to Jesus. 

Jesus did not take the bait. He does not condemn the marriage of convenience between the Temple and the local authorities. But Jesus does not celebrate the Temple either. Instead, he predicts that one day it will all be a pile of rubble, again. 

Tradition tells us to consider that Jesus was actually talking about a different Temple that would be destroyed. This passage is only one Chapter in Luke’s gospel away from his arrest, this passage is read as if it were a prediction of the passion and death of Jesus. 

This is at the heart of the complexity of being a Christian. We claim to be followers of one who was martyred because his focus on goodness and God exceeded the imagination of both the religious and local authorities. We claim to be devoted to accepting the values that focus on the eternal nature of our relationship with that faithful God, and be less enamored and distracted by the here and now. Less distracted in good times and in bad. 

As I watch with sharper interest the news items about violence in the area of the Holy Land, knowing that I will be there soon, I get increasingly concerned about, what little of a positive nature I can contribute to their unrest, as a pilgrim on a journey. 

As we make our peace with the presidential election of 2016, we might also feel like there is little constructive we can offer in the big scheme of things. So let me speak to that. 

The President is one person, and the complex relationships we call the federal government, comprises thousands of people. The power and control exerted by one person is limited, even if you are the President-elect. 

We are political and spiritual actors living in a finite time and space. We have our own sphere of influence. We listen to the word from scriptures, and know that: no matter how glorious the Temple of the present may seem, everything that is made by humans will eventually turn to dust; and our spirits - that are made out of the divine stuff of eternity - and our relationship with the God of Creation - who is without bounds of time or space - that relationship will be all that matters. 

So we live each day with all of the integrity we can manage. We continue to influence those within our sphere of influence to care for the poor, protect the alien, show compassion to our neighbors near and far. The days of sloganeering are behind us, and our common future lies ahead. 

You and I will make decisions about how to be our best selves. We will make choices today, about the life we intend to live tomorrow. We will turn to our God in prayer and in study, and seek the way forward. 

It is easy to become distraught when things do not go as we planned. It is easier still, to believe that a slim political victory is a mandate to restructure the entire social order in a dramatic new way. Let us pray for our selves and our families, that we may enjoy health. Let us pray that the voice of God calling us to love our neighbor and love our enemy, is heard and respected through the land. Let us thank God for the blessing of being alive in times of change, when the future is being made, and we have the power to influence that change. Amen. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Children of the Resurrection

Children of the Resurrection 

Epistle: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17  
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38 

This sermon has been a challenge to write during this emotional week. Like so many of your friends and neighbors, I am a lifelong Cub fan who had a delirious week - as my beloved Cubs came back from a 3 to 1 deficit, in extra innings, in the seventh game of the World Series, to win the world championship.

I believe that the family nature of the celebration of this championship in Chicago, in part took place, because of the multi generation feel - this entire Love of the Cubs has. While so many Championships are marked by violence and drunkenness, I feel like many of the celebrators, felt as though they were celebrating with their parents and grandparents, whether in body or in spirit. When we spend time with those we love, it often brings out the best us. 

In the year of 2016, the Cubs quest for championship, provided me with a layer of insulation - protecting me from the emotions of the dirtiest and nastiest political campaign I've ever seen in my lifetime. I hope never to see another one like it. That reality came crashing into my consciousness as the parade and celebration came to a close on Friday afternoon.

Among the distinctions of the United Church of Christ, is our long term commitment to welcoming all people to the table. The Rev. John Thomas, former president and general minister of United Church of Christ, has explained that we are not by nature radical - we simply arrive earlier than others - to seeing the barriers that keep people from sharing the Christ.

I came to the United Church of Christ after being raised in the Catholic Church, and having experienced frustration at the church's commitment to doctrine in clear preference to pastoral care of souls. In the United Church of Christ, I found away to embrace the God of love that I knew from the Gospels of Jesus Christ, and discovered the challenge of naming boundaries that kept people at a distance, for the purpose of defeating those boundaries with welcome. 

Through the UCC I continue to receive new information about the ongoing confrontation in the Dakotas over the crude oil pipeline being built through sacred Native American grounds. I could not help but reflect that if you and I were people of color or Native Americans, the Great Lakes Basin Railroad and the Rock Island Clean Line power line would already be tearing through the local cornfields, protected by armed police in combat gear. The colonialism and white privilege are alive and visible in the world today.

We profess a belief in Jesus the Christ, who was publicly executed, buried, and rose again in three days. The resurrected Christ, has left us aware of his spirit in the world. Wherever the material world and the spiritual world are apparent or visible at once, Christ is there. We are children of the Resurrection. We are the body of Christ, a gift to the world, and dedicated to making the material and spiritual worlds apparent wherever we are.

Last week was an emotional week, especially for those of us who's love of the Cubs span generations. Our hearts have been touched by the Saints of God in this moment of joy. For me and for my family, I believe this was a taste of what comes at the time this world passes and the New World begins. The next several weeks the Scriptures will give us a variety of reflections on what it means to be in the continual presence of God in the eternal portion of our lives.

The election next week promises to be very challenging. We have elected officials, who have long been respected, promising not to carry out their duties unless the population votes for their preferred candidate. Such declarations have encouraged the less mature voices in the Community, to threaten open violence in the population.

From the United States of America we have watched many governments in the world struggle when they reach times of governmental renewal. It was hard for us to understand or believe that a transfer of power would be so difficult. In this moment, it is certainly clear, that civilization requires the will of the people to respect each other. When we lose respect for the sanctity of life, when we cease to treat our neighbors as family and friends, all of the marks of civilization are in danger.

I had sat at lunch with a man about a year ago, and we had an unlikely conversation about the level of animosity in our political process. This fellow is likely 20 years older than I am. He explained that he is well known as a very conservative Republican. He has a best friend, and they and their wives, have had great experiences traveling to different places in the world as a foursome. His best friend, is a very liberal Democrat.

When his friend ran for a seat in the State House of Representatives, he took a leave of absence from his work, In order to run his campaign. His close political friends believed he had lost his mind. In saying the words he could not help but smile.

During the pause, I said I could remember a time when it was considered normal for a conservative and a liberal have a beer together and emerge with the new understanding of each others point of view. He said, “I can go you one better. I believe that a conservative and liberal can sit together, and get up and leave with an idea that never had occurred to either of them before.”

On Friday morning in Chicago's public park, the organization of the Chicago Cubs patted themselves on the back, and received the adulation of literally millions of fans. It is well-known and well documented that the success of the baseball team is due in large part to the planning and manipulations of the baseball operation teams led by Theo Epstein. Young Theo had accomplished the same miraculous turnaround for the Boston Red Sox only a few years ago. Now he is done it twice.

The most telling statement that Theo made to the crowd on Friday, was that they intentionally selected players who they believed would be able to work together. He stated this fact, “We will all do more for others, than we would be able to accomplish just for ourselves.”

You and I are called to have a mature faith in the God of creation. That maturity provides us with a view of God, that does not treat God as a genie in a bottle granting wishes. As mature Christians, we accept our faith has marked us as children of the Resurrection. We are committed to a relationship with the God of creation that will endure for all time.

I am committed to live my life in a way where I can hear the hearts of my brothers and sisters, even when we disagree. I hope to be blessed with a new understanding, and a new idea that had never occurred to me, and could not have happened, unless I had opened my heart to them.

I'm committed to live my life in a way that makes my community better. It is not all about me, but it includes me. It is not only about my immediate family, but it includes my immediate family. It is not only about this little church, but it includes the health of this little church.

God is good, All the time. All the time, God is good. God is good, for all time. For all time, God is good. May each of us see the Christ in each other, and to be the Christ for each other, in this difficult and emotional week ahead. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Are You Happy Now?

Are You Happy Now?  

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 
Luke 16:19-31  

There is a little something maddening about the easy way Jesus dispenses God’s love and forgiveness. While those who are dedicated to being faithful struggle against temptation day and night, using all of our resources to keep a civil tongue, care for the less fortunate, simply be good when it is so tempting to be selfish; we run into case after case where life-long sinners appeal to Jesus, and he gives them instant salvation. This is not always easy for us to handle. 

A part of me relishes the way Jesus tells us love and forgiveness is accessible to everyone. It is such a glorious bit of good news to share. It is wonderful to align myself with this vision of the Creator and the presumed judge of humanity, acting as gatekeeper to eternal life. 

Just last week we talked about the Pharisee and the Tax collector praying in the Temple. The Pharisee was all kinds of good, and it would seem, justifiably proud of being dedicated and intentional about the good that he is doing. But the Tax Collector is a public sinner. He does not change his behavior but only ask for mercy, and Jesus says the tax collector understands prayer - and by extension - understands the love of God, better than the good guy. 

But a part of me wants to know, “If it is all so easy, why do I feel like I have to do so much more? I could be retired, playing my guitar and playing with my grandchildren. Why write a sermon every week? Why do I prepare these Fun Faith Formation Experiences for other people’s kids?” 

In today’s scripture, Jesus is in Jericho. Jericho the last significant town on the River Jordan before it flows into the Dead Sea. This is where Joshua crossed into the Promised Land after the Hebrew people wandered in the dessert after their release from slavery in Egypt. This town is below sea level, and at the foot of the mountain where Jerusalem sits above. Jesus is on his way to meet the Temple authorities and draw his public ministry to a close, and he is anxious for his disciples to understand God. 

It would seem that God is all about saving sinners. The psalm says, “Happy are they whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Why are the sinners happy and the good people anxious? 

The roots of this problem do not lie with God and God’s generosity. God is good all the time, all the time, God is good. That is not the problem. 

The problem is not that those folks we label as sinners get all of the breaks. When we take the time to count our blessings, we learn the limitations of our ability to do math. Our blessings are so many, and they are compounded, multiplied and expanded in so many ways, expanded in every direction, and within every relationship. We are blessed beyond measure. 

So the problem does not appear that God has neglected us good folks, saving salvation and blessings for those who do not deserve God’s love. God is not stingy. God does not withhold God’s love or blessing. 

Zacchaeus was not able to see over the crowd. He was short of stature. The crowd was not going to let him in front, they judged him as a big sinner and unworthy to see the famous preacher. Mr. Z may be rich, but that does not mean that the good people of the community had to treat him nicely. So he had to climb a tree. 

This is a favorite story to tell kids. Kids are also not tall. Kids are all too willing to climb a tree. Kids would love to be praised and congratulated for climbing a tree to see Jesus. In many children’s stories and songs Zacchaeus is made out to be a hero. 

The good people following Jesus are out of sorts when Jesus treats Mr.Z as a friend. “There goes your famous preacher again, off to hang out with sinners. He has a weakness for being with people who are unworthy.” 

“This” might be the key to understanding that we are looking for. Does God love and bless us? Sure. Jesus Loves Me This I Know. So if God loves sinners, and God loves me, is it possible that God sees me as a sinner? 

I believe that the key to enjoying the peace that comes from having our sins forgiven - is to see ourselves as sinners - before a God who is perfection itself. In the terms of human justice, we prosecute and penalize those whose behavior marks them as a danger to the community. We begin to think of sin on the scale of Not Too Bad to Very, Very Bad. These are the ways of the world. 

Against the scale of perfection, there is none of us who are without sin. When judged by the Almighty, the one who knows the desires of our heart, each of us shows up marked by sin and short of the ability to show compassion and care for all people in all situations. 
This is the way of the Kingdom of God. 

When we let Jesus call us sinners, we can let Jesus call us saved. When accept our true selves as redeemed, we can be full of joy. We can face the anxiety in a world of insults and mud-slinging, and recognize that we too have been less than God created us for, and we have had our sins covered. The blessings in our lives, are intended to keep us close to our happiness, and draw others to share in this simple joy. This is how humility wins the day. 

We do not need to be jealous of sinners finding sudden forgiveness, since we live with it daily. We do not need to be anxious about lost souls that the love of God is seeking, because we are awash in God’s blessings. The wisdom to know ourselves as we really are, as sinners saved by the love of God, is the only thing we are lacking. 

So friends, realize today that the love of God is your key to deep peace and great joy. It is all yours to claim, every day. We can claim it and proclaim it. We are offered the opportunity to preach, some of us in the pulpit each week, some out of the pulpit every day, living lives that give glory to God. The opportunity to present our offering at the altar is a measure of the pleasure we have in living and working in the river of God’s blessing. 

Feels good to realize how happy we are. Are you happy now?