Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God Is Nor Fair, God Is Good

  • God Is Not Fair, God Is Good

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11; Matthew 20: 1 -16 

Jonah does not get out of the kids’ Sunday School lessons and enter the “Big Church” very often. And really, when is the last time we considered Jonah without his fish? Even our favorite Bible stories suffer from categorization and “the way we have always done it.” 

So today we let down our guard and we consider the close of the  Jonah story. Jonah is selfish. He wants God to do it his way. When God proves to be more generous than Jonah, Jonah does not claim the opportunity for spiritual growth. Nope. Jonah pouts. 

I would like to think that in the world we live in today we are more mature. I would like to say that, but it would be hard to justify. You already know how sensitive I am to uncensored emotional reactivity. It must be a reaction to the price I have paid learning to control my own behavior. 

Jonah makes a good children’s story because God speaks directly to Jonah. You and I, we have a hard time hearing the voice of God. Many is the time I have asked God to just - spell it out for me. Most of the time I am getting frustrated is because it is already clear that what God wants, its just not what I want. “Don’t send me to Nineveh - send me to Tarshish, why can’t I hear you say what I want to hear?” is a favorite prayer of mine. 

One of my favorite illustrations is a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is true and complete in and by itself, but a single piece of a 1,000 piece puzzle does not give you the whole picture. You may even put together an entire corner of a puzzle. That may give you a hint of what the puzzle is about, but it is usually not even the most important part of the puzzle. 

In the mind of God, you and I are active pieces of a multi-dimensional puzzle, moving around and relating to each other, and preparing today for what will come tomorrow. Not only does God see us today, but plans for how our yesterdays will impact the tomorrows of people we have yet to meet. But the puzzle is about God and God’s love, it is not all about us. 

I worry about the folks whose faith makes them believe that God is in control of everything, and that they should play detective, and understand what God is trying to accomplish as they weather the storms of life. Their faith becomes even more of a head game. I do not think it is helpful to go there, though it should help a lot - to know that God is present with us as we respond to the twists and turns of life.  

So if God is not in control of everything, then it really does matter what we think, what we say, and what we do. It makes a difference when God works through our prayers to change our hearts and influence our choices. It matters to God, and all of the creation, that we act to make the world a better place. And we cannot always see how we impact others. 

I often play golf with my best friend and regular golf partner, Pat. But sometimes, Pat cannot play when I am available. A year or two ago, I went to the course and was invited to play with a couple of men about my age, who regularly played together. We did not play for money. My game is not made better by increasing the importance of any single shot. 

We were playing a good course, in good shape. I noticed immediately that my two partners routinely moved their golf balls on the fairway, to get it in a better position on the grass, before making their next stroke. I often did that in the past. It is especially useful when the course is in rough shape, damaged, or does not have good grass. Today I play the ball as it lies. 

After a few holes, the two asked me at the tee why I did not improve my lie. I explained that it was part of the game to play the ball as you find it. Over the years I came to believe that on a good course, it did not make much difference to my score, and I was more satisfied on the days when I did well - to know that I had not cheated myself. They said that sounded silly to them. 

A year later I met the same two guys on the same course. They remembered me, and claimed that beginning the week after we played together, they stopped rolling the ball in the fairway. It made them feel better about themselves and their game. You never know what influence you will have on others. If you routinely do good, when it does not seem to matter, it is so much easier to do good, when it really matters. 

The gospel lesson gives us a perfect example of God being good and generous, and how easy it is for God’s generosity to tick us off. You see, we are more like Jonah than we care to admit! 

This week the news has been full of disasters, again. Some of them were unavoidable: fatal earthquakes in Mexico, still another super-sized hurricane roaring through the Caribbean. Others appear to be less involuntary; the Congress making still another proposal to make health care a privilege of the rich, and the President of the country we love - making an incendiary speech to the United Nations. 

That is enough to make our hearts heavy. In St. Louis, which is now center stage in naming and framing the extent of institutional racial bias, the racism embedded in the justice system, shows us again that it is easier to get disgusted at protests that are vulnerable to violence than even consider the tragedy of a legal system that is blind to prejudice. We ache for something to be simple.  

The landowner in Matthew offered a fair days’ wage for useful work. The first folks readily agreed to do the assigned task. Simple. In subsequent hours, more workers were added to the force. When the end of the day came, all the workers were paid a days’ wage. But some had only worked for a couple of hours. Clearly it is not fair, and a cause for protest.   

Except that to be clear, the landowner paid folks at least what he promised them. Some of the workers got paid more than they deserved. God, you see, is generous. Others got only what they were promised. That is actually fair. 

When I tell you that I do not believe that God is in control of every little thing, then it is not really an act of God when the hurricane blows in. It is an act of nature. In 2004 there were a number of tornadoes that touched down around my home in Ottawa. 

In Utica, just west of Ottawa, a number of folks left their trailer homes and went to stay in the basement of a large brick building that housed a tavern owned by friends of theirs. The tavern took a direct hit, and the building collapsed and killed all 8 of the people who sought protection. What are the chances of that? 

The point I am making is that life is hard, and often unfair. The presence of God, in good times and bad, is consistent. Our sense of God depends more on our own awareness and the quality of our prayer life, than on our church membership, our intelligence, or even our good choices. 

Last week we emphasized our need to accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves. Today we make clear that God is good, even when we do not deserve God’s goodness. God’s goodness does not come with a “Get Out of Jail - Free” card, but an even more generous offer to go with us. 

The execution of Jesus by the cooperation between the legal system and faith community, demonstrates God understands that human justice is not like God’s generosity. And the presence of God is not limited or restricted to nice places and good times. There is no place so dark, no bad choice we can make, that will cause God to turn her head and look the other way. When God promised Moses at the Burning Bush - long ago and far away, God made a promise that is still valid to all of God’s children. God is with us. 

Salvation is about the love of God for you, and you learning to respond in kind. The good news is, you do not - and cannot - deserve that love. Instead, we learn to trust that love, and share that love. When we walk through the dark places of despair with loved ones, when the diagnosis turns fatal before our time, when the world charges our hearts more than feel we can bear, God is with us. God is not fair, God is good. 

What does that mean for us? If we would accept that Jesus is not just a divine image to be worshipped, but a moral teacher, then we would look at the world with new eyes. We would see the needs of those who are hurting due to the unavoidable catastrophes of nature. And while we rally to help, we may ask - if in fact, human activity has disturbed nature. 

We would consider critically - the political climate that spends billions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction, and warlike posturing - in places that are intended to create a venues for cooperation. We would ask what are the priorities that we support in our lives together, if we cannot seek peace even in the forums built to foster understanding. 

We might ask the hard questions of how we might reclaim the sense of democracy from the current culture, where unethical use of ill gained wealth by multi-national corporations, disconnected from the relationships of local communities, buy the allegiance of our representative government. I fear that the future of our experiment in democracy is threatened in lethal ways. 

Today, the influence of the church, locally and nationally, is at a very low point. But I do not fear for the church. The God of love will not be destroyed by the culture. The church we love may need to be reconfigured, but the love of God can survive any storm. 

Where then is the heart of our lesson today? Our God sees the world with eyes that see both the large and the small. God’s love for Nineveh compels action, even when evil rules the day in Nineveh, or even North Korea. Even when the reluctant church, played today by Jonah, tried to run the other way, God acts for love and reconciliation. 

When the greedy landlords of the economy call for a disproportionate share of the public piggy bank, we hear the call to be generous. But generosity is not simply restricted to control of our own wallets and checkbooks. We are also responsible for the content and quality of our common life together as citizens. 

Do we really need to spend billions and billions of dollars on weapons? Can we really afford to crush Medicare without a replacement? Is it really the best policy to threaten the world with nuclear war? 

We are called to do good, even when it does not seem to be important. We are called to be generous, both in our personal lives and in our political lives. We are called to praise God, and look for God’s presence, especially when the weight of the world presses in on us. 

In a world where the limitations of human justice systems are so blatant, we are called to be more than fair, we are called to be generous. Even when it feels like our sphere of influence is unnoticeable, we choose to do what is good and generous. 

When the world appears to be consumed with what is shallow and anxious and short-sighted, we look for the goodness of God. We seek God in prayer. We seek God among those who are wise. We ask God to give us strength to be faithful. When others who claim to be faithful want to argue about what kind of fish swallowed Jonah, we recognize an attempt to avoid thinking about where God is calling us to go and speak out. God, strengthen our faith in your good love. Amen. 

Feeding the Multitude

Feeding the Multitude 

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Luke 9:10-17 
Installation of Rev. Ted Englesdorfer at Union Congregational UCC in Somonauk 

The pastor teaches and advises the folks of the congregation. The Latin roots of the word suggest that a pastor is a person who feeds. This interpretation has been exaggerated to the point of absurdity in many situations. 

Each of the four gospels uses the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, so it is clearly an important part of the story of Jesus; preacher, teacher and wonder worker. We read the story from early in Luke’s gospel. I want to highlight several things here this afternoon. 

The disciples recognize that there is a problem. It is dinner time and they are not prepared to feed this crowd. They tell Jesus to make an announcement, (people always want to have the pastor make their announcement) “tell them to go away and find their own dinner.”  

What does Jesus tell the disciples? You good church folks, you who are disciples of Jesus, what does Jesus tell us to do? Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” The natural reaction is, that’s foolishness. We do not have enough to feed this big crowd. We cannot do it by ourselves. 

I get more than a little saddened when some good church member who has decided to either leave a congregation, or raise up a committee to remove the pastor, complains that, “They are just not being fed.”  It is times like these when I wish that preachers like me had done a better job of helping folks see the big picture. 

I visited a church not long ago, where the youth ministry program was growing. They also had a nice outreach ministry that was especially helpful to young and often single mothers. One of the women complained that their pastor did not “provide for her” the way she felt was appropriate for the pastor of a church on the main square of town. 

I asked her if the church was doing useful ministry. She agreed that it was. I asked if the pastor was providing useful leadership to those ministry teams. She supposed that “those people” doing “that stuff” seemed satisfied. 

I asked her where her own ministry field was at this point in her life. She said that she had done her fair share when she was younger. So I pushed the issue a little bit. So you don’t actively participate in the mission of the church? “No,” she said, “I told you, that is for younger people.” 

I asked if the pastor was giving time to the local retirement and nursing homes. And she replied, “I have no idea, I am not ready for a nursing home.” 

I tried to suggest that perhaps God was giving her a nudge to become more active. It is true that as we age, we cannot do what we used to do. The leaves on the tree are a rich green color in the summer. As the air turns to Autumn, they may be an even more glorious color. And often, there are even more useful roles that we can apply our gifts to as we age. She was not impressed with my colorful analogy. She had no interest in doing any kind of ministry for others. Sometimes when we do not feel as if we are being fed - it is a suggestion that it is time to take off the bib, and put on an apron.  

The pastor is here to equip the ministry of the church. Because of his gifts, and training, and the useful experience Pastor Ted has acquired on his way to this place and time, he has a backpack full of ideas to challenge you and build your spiritual approach to life. 

Be clear to yourself though, the pastor is not here to do ministry for you. The pastor’s primary role is to equip you for the good that you do. The greatest way you can respect his leadership is to involve him as you wrestle over the projects and needs in the community around you. 

Talk with him over the troubles and difficulties you face at home. Here you have an available resource, a sounding board, a confidant in an age where confidentiality is hard to come by. 

Pray for your pastor and his family. Pray over the wisdom he shares. If some part of his sermon troubles you, ask him to explain. Let yourself grow in awareness of the power of the gospel and the room you have to grow in your own relationship with God. 

We are living in the most difficult of times. In the past week alone dozens of people died in a tragic earthquake in Mexico, another in a long procession of massive hurricanes swept through the Caribbean, protests in St. Louis highlighted how even our own justice system has been structured to preserve a racial bias, and the President of our beloved country, used the United Nations as a stage to threaten nuclear war. The wisdom of the ages, the God of love and reconciliation, is having a hard time being heard today. 

Your pastor becomes wise when you look to him for wisdom. Your ministry grows in power and in reach, when you accept the opportunities that arise, even when those opportunities are clearly more than you can do by yourself. We grow in faith and ministry when we seek to express our faith in both our lives as public citizens and in the privacy of our prayer life and our checkbooks. 

We need our faith communities to nurture and give birth to ministries that reach the hurts of the world. We need to hear first the need, before we decide that we do not have enough to feed others. God provides what is needed. We respond in faith. Trust your pastor to encourage and support your important ministry. 

May Union Congregational UCC move into the future that God is calling you to have. It will not always be easy. You will sometimes bump heads with each other, and even more often, feel like God is stretching you more than you have the resources for. 

Know that God loves you. Know that God is with you. Know that calling a pastor is an act of commitment to do ministry. You are blessed, in order to be a blessing to others. Amen. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

What Does Forgiveness Even Mean?

  • What Does Forgiveness Even Mean? 

  • Genesis 50: 15 - 21; Matthew 18: 21- 35  

Forgiveness is not a popular concept in the culture today. There appears to be a deep seated fear that others are getting something for nothing, and worse, others are getting a benefit that I am paying for. When this is your mindset, “Law and Order” seems like a return to justice, where you get what you deserve, and nobody gets a free ride. 

The brothers of Joseph and his technicolor coat are worried. They believe that Joseph, who they sold into slavery - only for him to become rich and powerful in Egypt, is likely to pay them back ‘evil for evil’ now that their father has died. 

It is probably a fair assumption. There can be little more humiliating than to be beaten, stripped, and sold into slavery by your own brothers. At some point, there ought to be a payback, it is only fair. 

Peter asks Jesus how many times does he have to forgive his brother. Peter even suggests seven times, as though that were the limits of his imagination. Here Jesus blows his mind by saying seventy times seven, which of course, is a number not worth counting. (At some point we will talk about the use of numbers in the Bible, and why arithmetic is the least useful way to deal with them.) For today, lets just agree, seventy times seven is too many to count. 

Forgiveness shows up a lot of times in the Bible, so I think we can agree that this is important to the God we love. I would suggest, that God forgiving us, is what makes it possible to love and trust Jesus. If God were truly a righteous and demanding judge, not a one of us could bear the inspection of God. 

Let us say that God is so good, that God will not keep a count of all of our sins. Really, I do not believe God would accept the quality of life that is required to keep track of slights, insults and violations of the law of love. I mean think about it. It is miserable just to watch what is reported on the News each night, how overbearing must it be to be all-knowing? Why waste precious life energy over keeping track of insults? 

We know that God cares because, well, the best way to say it is - Jesus. Jesus was born in human form, walked among us. The love of God evident in Jesus gives us confidence that God is love and life, and not devoted to retributive justice. 

Joseph, who was wronged by his own brothers, is now in a position to “teach them a lesson.” He could make them pay for the wrong they had done. Clearly Joseph sets a model for us when he claims that the harm done to him was used by God to save God’s people. A good and generous God turned evil into a blessing. That is a lesson worth learning.  

You and I are never completely good or bad. On our best days we are both strong and weak and are responding to mixed motives. I have always believed that we are not truly mature until we can see and appreciate both sides of an argument, and hold both of them to be good - at the same time. 

I had lunch with a gentleman a couple of years ago now, and he embodied this kind of thinking in a new way for me. He explained that he was greatly pained by the anger and distrust between politicians today. 

I told him I remembered a time when a conservative and a liberal could have a beer, and emerge with a new appreciation of what the other had been trying to say. He countered, “I know that a conservative and liberal should be able to sit together and emerge with an idea that had never occurred to either of them before.” 

He then explained that he and his wife have traveled the world with their friends. His best friend is a very liberal and active person. He himself, is a local leader in the Republican Party. When his friend decided to run for the State legislature, he took a year off of work to organize and run his friend’s campaign. His Republican friends thought he had lost his mind. 

His explanation was very simple. “This is the best man I know. He loves this country as much as I do, and maybe more. I know him to be fair and hard working. He would be a much more reliable representative in the State House than any other person I know.” 

Do you see what he did here? He changed the discourse from ideology, and political gain, to integrity and concern. It is not about perfection and winning the day, it is about doing what is best for the community and the world and trusting the one with the greatest integrity.

You know, God forgives you. I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross to change God’s mind about humans. I believe that Jesus came to earth to change humanity’s understanding of God. The crucifixion is God’s way of standing with all of those who have never known justice. It is God’s way of saying that life in not fair, and there is no place too dark, too forlorn, for the presence of God to be with the ones God loves. 

So if God forgives you, when will you forgive yourself for being imperfect. Tom Hunsley and I laughed at how we looked over the Stewardship Campaign literature, and failed to recognize that there was no line for names to be included on the pledge card. Perfection is such a high standard. 

In fact, perfection is only a goal, a target. To live with the expectation of perfection is not helpful or healthy. When the LaSalle County Nuclear Power Plant was finally at the point of being licensed for power operation, the initial class of reactor operators and supervisors were required to take examinations administered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At that point, I was the lead instructor for licensed operators. 

The man who was the head of the Operations Department also needed to license. He was an Annapolis graduate, a retired Naval Officer with wide experience in the Nuclear Navy. He possessed an intense attitude, only surpassed by his vast engineering mind and experience. He could be hard to deal with, and expected great dedication from those who worked for him. 

Part of the exam was written, and part of the exam was an oral exam, administered while walking through the vast complex of the power plant. I found John in the hallway after the written portion of the exam. “How did it go, John?” I asked cheerfully. With a panicked look on his face he replied, “I don’t know. I did not answer everything correctly. I realize now, I made some mistakes.” “But over all it was good, right?” I said, trying to be encouraging. 
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can never tell what is good enough when it isn’t all right.” My heart went out to him that day. He suffered so because he was human. 

The poets, among them Leonard Cohen, have often commented that “There is a crack in everything, and that is where the light gets in.” If we were able to be perfect, we would never need to know God, God’s love, and trust God’s forgiveness. Joseph told his brothers that in spite of their terrible evil, God was able to make a blessing for them, and make them a blessing to the world. Part of the problem with being a billionaire is never needing to say you are sorry or face your imperfections, and the light has a hard time getting in. 

Until we forgive ourselves we will never be able to forgive others. Think of the times you have failed, come up short, behaved badly or let others down. Recognize that God was with you, and forgave you in that failure. God blessed you enough to learn from that moment, and do better.

As you think of the times that others have hurt you because they were careless, or even if you believe they were being cruel, know that God has forgiven them. God has forgiven them. Until you decide to let go of your hurt and anger or disappointment, some part of your soul will be withheld from God’s grace. 

When you find it in your heart to forgive your own humanity, you are in a position to model Joseph and forgive those who have sinned against you. You do not forget the pain. You do not accept further abuse. But you release that part of your soul where pain and anger are fed, and make yourself more fully able to love and be loved. 

This is not the last word to say about forgiveness, but it is enough for now. It is always tempting to try to put 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag, and a Sunday sermon can never be more than a 5 pound bag. 

So let us walk away with this part of God’s wisdom. God loves you and forgives you. God wants for you to love God back - as completely as you can, so you must forgive yourself. It is better to love and be loved than it is to be perfect. Trust me on this, It is better to love and be loved than it is to be perfect. Amen. 

Monday, September 11, 2017



  • Romans 13: 8 -14; Matthew 18:15-20  

I once was a part of a church that was very reluctant to have anyone other than members use its facilities. The kitchen was littered with signs saying, “Do Not Use This,” “You Must Replace That”. Everywhere you turned there was another imperative, usually written in large, block, capital letters. 

A new church start I advised for a short time, spent its first two years, worshipping in - first a private barn, and then a downtown community center. They were all very happy and very excited. When they purchased a building and began to repair and renovate the facility, a whole new set of conflicts presented themselves. The pastor felt like her job rapidly changed, and she needed to swap her preaching gown for a stripped shirt and a whistle. 

In contrast with that, I was told by a person newly joining a church I was part of, that at the church they left because they moved, new members were issued keys to the church property. Membership in that place, meant an immediate sharing in the joys and responsibilities of their common life.  

If we look carefully at the scriptures, we see especially in Romans, a challenge to the expectation that religion done rightly is largely about being obedient to the rules. The apostle Paul is pretty clear that being an expert in applying the law to others made him a mean person and a threat to the Jesus movement. It was only after he got knocked off his high horse and lost his eyesight that he began to see correctly. 

While the people of the Texas coast try to get their lives back together, and there are huge wild fires raging in the West, and another major hurricane bearing down on Florida; the administration took aim at the Dreamers, folks voluntarily participating in a program that gives them limited status to live in the US where they have been raised. And conservative pastors released the “Nashville Statement.” 

The “Nashville Statement” is a fourteen point manifesto identifying homosexuality and the acceptance of homosexuals as a measure of Christians giving in to the pressures of a modern liberal society. The document is legalistic and mean spirited. 

You and I are becoming accustomed to recognizing a call to “Law and Order” as a code word for avoiding the trials of relationship and protecting the privilege of those in power. In the case of the Evangelical movement in America, their prominence is waning. Their alignment with the extreme political wing of the Republican Party, has exposed the costs of negotiating religious influence for political gains. Slowly, the evangelical establishment is recognizing their position of privilege is slipping. This motivates reactive attacks on others, as a rallying cry to hold the line in the sand.  

I feel like this unfiltered emotional reactivity is the hallmark of the worst of our social media culture, where the masses claim the “God given right” to express virulent and frequently uninformed opinions, and clutter the conversation with lies and half-truths. These are trying times for those of us who aspire to be close to God, and share God’s love with this tormented creation. 

You and I live in this culture. We recognize that our own tradition has a history of trading our moral authority for power and privilege. We get it. We have the same inclination to fight to win, even though in our heart of hearts we know we are called to love our enemies. It is just so hard to be loving in the face of direct and intentional attacks on our integrity. 

What ever can we do? How do we keep our minds stayed on Jesus? One human response to stress is to simplify our focus. We might carve the 10 commandments in stone and make them the law of the land. You know, simple; direct; applies equally to everyone. Unless, you were raised to know God in any other than the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unless you have come to believe that God is still speaking, and stone is unresponsive.  

So lets think about the 10 commandments. I take great comfort from the good King David, one of God’s very favorite of people, in the episode with Bathsheba, he managed to break nearly every one of those commandments. God did not desert him. Instead, God sent the prophet Nathan to tell David the hard truth, “you really messed up. You really, really messed up.” 

The commandments are not designed for you and I to assume control over the behavior of others. The commandments are to serve as a focus for our meditation. They provide a guide to understanding the holiness of God, and give us a structure for responding as faithful children of God, living in community with other children of God. 

Now I realize that any talk like this makes some folks feel that if we tamper with their understanding of laws and commandments, we are in fact saying that “anything goes.” It is the nature of emotional reactions; to extrapolate to the ridiculous as “logical proof” of the fallacy of the offending argument. 

I would very much enjoy attacking this kind of thinking from my snarky and sarcastic side. I am not proud of this, but I have a very well developed sarcastic side that still entertains me, though I do my best to only display it on rare and relatively safe conditions. 

The theological truth is that we learn best about God’s forgiveness when we mess up. Those times when our imperfections slap us in the face are the times when we best understand who God really is, and what forgiveness really means. But that is a sermon for another day. 

Today we are trying to shift our focus away from blind emotional reactivity, and focus instead on blessing. Several times in my ministry I have invited folks to offer a blessing or benediction over a meal or at the close of some church event. Often I get the reaction, “I am not ordained. I do not have a blessing for others.” 

So let us go after that thinking. You, the congregation, you are out in the world everyday. You go to work, and bring the presence of God there. You go to your exercise class, and represent God’s good love, care and attention on those you sweat with. 

This Community of faith is all dedicated to strengthening and encouraging your ministry. If you do not leave worship, and meeting, and choir practice, prepared to bless the world, we need to change how we do worship, and meeting, and choir practice. 

Tex Sample is an ordained minister, preacher and seminary professor. He famously told his preaching students that their first opportunities to preach will usually be the Sunday after Christmas, or some other low attendance Sunday where you will be “preaching to the choir.” “Never be afraid to preach to the choir,” he tells the students. “The choir is where a lot of the mischief starts, anyway.” 

So we honor God by singing our praises, and making our offerings, and hearing the scriptures and the scriptures expounded, the sum effect should be to prepare us to bless the world and be a blessing. 

I was thinking about this a lot this week. Thursday marked the 14th anniversary of my ordination. It is not a big number, but it celebrates a dramatic change that Martha and I made in our lives and our priorities. As we went back to school to begin this phase in our life, we received and shared countless blessings. We were helped in so many important ways. We were blessed, in order to be in a position to bless others. 

The common prayers we say in worship, are intended to provide you with thoughts and phrases you can use other places. 

To carry that a step further, I will invite you to sing my song “Benediction.” Again, it is a very simple melody. This time I will sing it through to you, giving you my blessing. Then you can sing it with me, singing it to each other. The clear intent here is to put the words of blessing in your mouth and on your lips, as you prepare to be a blessing. 

Benediction - by Pastor Chuck Maney 
May the peace of Christ be with you. May your spirit rest easy with his. 
Jesus always promised, when 2 or 3, are gathered in his name, there he is. 

I pray for you, one more blessing. May your heart be open to this. 

May you feel the presence, of his holy Spirit, every day and moment after this. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why Me?

Why Me? 

  • Exodus 3: 1 - 15; Matthew 16: 21 - 28
If you are anything like me, you try to set up a collection of simple routines, define a set of “normal activities’” and those routines help us to avoid the kinds of self-induced problems that can make our days difficult and lead to embarrassment. 

Martha laughs when before I go out the door I go through my routine, do I have my keys, my wallet, my phone, and my bifocals not just reading glasses. It just makes it easier if everything is in its place before I start. 

When the torrential rains fell on coastal Texas, no one was permitted the luxury of routines or “normal activities.” Reality broke through the routine and demanded a new response, and different way of being. 

I was teaching reactor operators at a nuclear power plant still under construction when the when the accident at Three Mile Island occurred. While the event was not very damaging in costs and radioactive release to the environment, we learned a great deal. We learned that operators can make a host of assumptions, and not see the reality. We can respond to the situation, we do what should help, and we expect it to work, and may be slow to recognize it is not working.

Several years after TMI, the terrible event happened at Chernobyl in Russia. As bad as that event was, it did not teach us so much because there were so many management and administrative failures that created the conditions for that event that it seems impossible for that to happen in our better constructed and managed plants. I am now too far removed to appreciate the impact of the Fukushima accident on power plant operations. My limited experience sees Fukushima as an event that challenges design assumptions in new ways. 

The Three Mile Island event, required sweeping changes to our Emergency Procedures, dramatic changes in operator training, and required an entirely different management style in off-normal operations than what the culture permitted and even expected before that. 

In today’s scriptures, Moses has one of those God experiences that change what he knows of God, and what he expects of himself, because of how God interacts with him. And Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for a new way of living with a new way of relating to him. 

The passage from Exodus is a defining moment in understanding the relationship between God and humanity. God reveals the divine identity and orientation of God towards the rest of us.  

In the bush that burns and is not consumed, no ashes to ashes for the eternal creator, we get a glimpse of the power and majesty that is God. God creates an invitation to get the attention of Moses. Moses, like anyone with a task that involves long hours alone, welcomes the diversion. 

God immediately raises the ante on this exchange. Moses is called by name. He is instructed to remove his sandals, God is not going to be dismissed as a casual tourist attraction. This is the first step of entering into a relationship, a relationship that has costs as well as benefits. 

Just as an aside, as a welcoming church, we would like folks to feel free to take a part in our worship and fellowship. But we also need to make clear to ourselves that to be in an enduring relationship with God and each other, there will be costs as well as benefits. And we can expect that it will get a little personal, and that, is why it matters. We do need to avoid pressing new people into responsibilities, until we first show them the joy we have in serving others. But I digress.  

Moses is no saint, mind you, when God calls out to him. Moses is a murderer in hiding. He killed an abusive Egyptian guard, and then escaped far away from the reaches of civilization into the wilderness of the Arabian peninsula. Here he was welcomed and married into the family of a pagan Holy Man, whose flock he was tending. Lest we get too concerned with ethnic and racial purity, note that Holy Moses, a criminal in hiding, was in a mixed marriage. 

God then declares his relationship through the ages with people of faith. God declares that the voices of the suffering people have moved the heart of the Creator. Now committed to action, God selects human beings - namely the man Moses in this story - to act in the world for justice. God does care and God does act, but through people of faith, not in impersonal magic acts. 

For his part, Moses resists. “Why me? Who am I to confront Pharaoh? To which God responds, “I will be with you.” 

Bless his heart, Moses persists. “But if I go to the Israelites and say God has sent me, and they say, ‘Who is this God that sent you’ - what can I even tell them? 

Here God gives the divine name to Moses. The Jewish people avoid pronouncing the name “Yahweh” as a sign of respect. This is the root of songs and poems about “the Holy name.” They teach that in the act of breathing, the movement of air in and out of the body, breathes the sacred name of God. 

So then the name of God, often translated as “I Am,” or “I Am Who I Am,” or sometimes - “I Will Be What Is Needed;” is rightly identified with the totality of Being, of Existence, of Life itself. In fact the Hebrew name of God (audible breath) is the first and last word uttered from our lips. 

The call of Moses captures the beauty of the relationship between the all-knowing and empowering divine; and humanity, in our limitations and insecurity. It declares that for the divine to interact in matters of justice for the oppressed or hurting; flawed, impure, imperfect humans must act as accompanied by the divine presence. 

For all of his resistance, Moses understood his call. He was supported by the wisdom of his father-in-law Jethro, a man of God in his own right. Moses grew as a person - as his relationship with God became more involved and more trusting. 

12 to 15 hundred years later, the person Jesus of Nazareth, acted as teacher and guide confronting the institution that grew up out of this initial relationship. The Temple priests now served God, and also negotiated a peace with the local authorities including the occupying Roman Army. 

Jesus warns his closest disciples that this confrontation was about to get very violent. Peter, who could never figure out what he thought until it came out of his mouth, tries to refute what Jesus is telling him. Jesus shuts him down. 

Then Jesus tells Peter, and us, that the love of God is not free. Love by its very nature - makes us vulnerable. Love by its very nature, is personal. Love, by its very nature - draws us nearer to God. 

Does Jesus mean we are all going to be crucified? Not all of us will be martyred, at least not today. But he does mean that we should stay true to our principles and resist the temptation to negotiate away our beliefs simply to keep the peace, or share in the power of the establishment. 

I believe our identity in God is built on the “image of God” imprinted on us as a Creature. It does not depend on our good looks, witty conversation, or even our persuasive charm. While our mothers may love us down to our very souls, God’s love for us is latched to the soul. Our social presence is valuable only as an expression of our soul’s relationship with the divine. 

This spiritual sense, invites us to leave our ego needs aside when we take our sandals off and approach the fire of God. We are first a child of God. We recognize the eternal nature of God, which hints at the eternal portion of our relationship with God. 

We have been chosen, by name, by this eternal God, into a relationship that is never ending. You were chosen, because God loves you. You cannot earn that love. You do not deserve that love. I don’t think you can even refuse that love - only choose to pretend like it does not exist. 

Like Moses, we may be lead to confront injustice - and feel like it is too big, it is beyond what we can change. That only means we are so accustomed to doing it “on our own” we fail to anticipate the presence of God, who will empower us to confront and move beyond the next hurdle. 

Talk like this from - near the pulpit - does not sound the same as we used to think about God. Like Moses, and the disciples of Jesus, and even the power plant operators, we are being invited to claim a new understanding and responsibility in our relationship with God and with reality. 

Community UCC, do not be afraid. Trust the personal encounter you have with God. God is with us. We are called to represent the radical hospitality that is the love of God. It is more than we can do by ourselves, and it is only what we do together. It is beyond the understanding of many good folks around us. Once God reveals how generous God’s love is, we can no longer pretend that we are the same as we used to be. 

As we gather around the communion table this morning, let us deeply appreciate the presence of God in our lives, whispering our names - just as we breath the name of God. Let us sense in the sacrament of Jesus - how God is embodied within us - to carryout God’s love and justice mission in the world.