Monday, August 27, 2018

The Peace of Christ Be with You

The Peace of Christ Be with You  
Psalm 40: 1 - 5; Luke 11:1 10

The LORD put a new song in my mouth. “But I like the OLD SONGS,” I told the LORD. “Ah yes, the OLD SONGS suit you,” God said.  “And I did not throw out the Old Songs. But, I have put a NEW SONG in your mouth.”  

Why does God need a new song? You see, when we think we have heard it all before, and have made ourselves content with the good, old, days; then the sun rises. The baby cries. The teens are ready to spread their wings and fashion their own way to be faithful in this very complicated and difficult world. They NEED a New Song to inspire their own kind of faithfulness in this hi tech, spin-cycle news, and increasingly violent world. They need words and tunes that represent the authentic connection - they feel - with a God who is alive today, and ready for tomorrow. 

Where can the people of today look for the key to faithfulness? Look to the God who ‘is.’ God can never be a ‘was.’ God is not somewhere out there in the future. God ‘is.’ God told Moses, “Tell them ‘I AM’ or in another translation, ‘I Will Be Whatever is Needed,’ sent you.” God, the Great I AM, God the ever present and ever in the present, is ready to put a New Song in your mouth. It is a song that suits today, and leads you to tomorrow. 

It is such a temptation to fix our minds on the God who touched our hearts when we lived through the hard times that came before. And God also loves the memory of those times that you shared. Still. God is doing whatever is needed, to lead this people into a new time, and provide you with a NEW SONG, to celebrate the continuing march of faithfulness. 

There is more than one gospel lesson. Matthew was the favorite of the early church. It is the closest to the Jewish roots. Matthew goes to great lengths to picture Jesus as the new Moses, leading faithful people to an entirely new and different way of seeing God. 

Matthew is also very interested in authority, who has it, and how is it expressed. That coupled with the fact that Matthew is the only gospel writer to even use the word “church,” well, it is easy to see why Matthew was the early favorite. 

Mark’s gospel is the shortest, and the most raw. It is very uncommon for Mark to be used in a class on biblical Greek. His Greek is limited, and often ungrammatical. Mark paints the disciples as never understanding what Jesus is saying or doing. My shorthand for this is that Mark sees all of us as “duh-ciples.” Mark does not tie a nice bow around the end of the story. There is a very artificial ending added to the gospel, but it is completely unsatisfying. 

The gospel of John bounces to the beat of another drummer. John’s gospel does not try to create heavy tension leading up to the betrayal of Jesus. Instead, John writes long passages with descriptions and interpretations folded in, like a baker folds in egg whites to create airiness and suspension. 

When we say Our Savior’s prayer, we very much follow the way it is recorded in Matthew. I often lean towards Luke. I think of Luke as the “Potluck Gospel.” Every time you turn the page reading the gospel of Luke, Jesus is eating with another group. He always seems to be having a meal with someone, often those who are not well respected at all. 

At the top of the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple Mount on the west, sits the Church of the Pater Noster, which is Latin for Our Father. There are large tiles throughout the building and garden grounds that display the prayer in different languages and dialects. 

The church itself is built over an ancient cave, that tradition claims was a favorite place for Jesus to sit and teach his disciples when in the area. While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tell their story in such a way that Jesus only goes to Jerusalem one time in his public ministry, it is a literary device to add to the tension and a sense of drama. The gospel of John appears to show the disciples attending the Passover three times with Jesus, and this is the source of the tradition of Jesus having a three year public ministry. 

The Mount of Olives is a hill that separates Jerusalem from the small town of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We might expect that Jesus and the disciples would have known all of the foot paths over, around, and through the Mount of Olives. The Palm Sunday processional is recreated over the Mount of Olives, and winds down the western side of the hill, in full view of the Temple Mount across the Kidron Valley. 

You see, our faith has practical roots, in the story of an ancient child of God and his friends, who sought to build an authentic relationship with the one true God. This relationship shares the roots of the experience of God with the Jewish people, but draws different conclusions, and sings a new song, about who that God is, and how welcoming God is to the creation. 

In the Lukan version of Our Savior’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our sins, to the extent to which we forgive those who OWE us. Ouch. The words of Matthew say about the same thing, but as we reduce it to formula, we use authority type words like debts or trespasses, we can keep our own stuff at a distance. It is hard to give up power over others, even if it is long held resentments. The culture has made power into a golden idol. 

In Luke, who is always thinking about eating, Jesus explains that we are expected to get out of our comfort zone, to put others at ease. Get out of the warm, comfy bed and share your bread. Recognize that the God who loves you, is way, way more generous than we are. Recognize that the God we seek to please, is worthy of love and adoration. 

But the clincher is; trust in God. If we would trust in God, we would recognize it is ok to ask God for what we need, and it is ok for us to supply our neighbor with what they need. We are in this together, seeking the love of a good and generous God. 

So we look around the sanctuary, and see the face of God in each person. We see God in those who have faithfully held down their favorite pew for decades. We see the face of God in these new people, who we do not know very well yet, but have been here in worship with us this summer. We see God in the face of the visitors here, to help us mark the passing of this interlude in the song of this congregation. We see in the face of the Associate Conference Ministers, that we belong to a larger church, with whom we are in covenant. When this congregation has pain or need, the larger church reaches out with the best of the bread that is in the cupboard at the time.  

And we continue to sing. We sing Party Clothes, knowing that in the end - our angelic tones will be sung in the presence of God. We sing, It Is All About the Relationship, because our being together is more important than the task, or doing it the way we have always done it. We try to resist the temptation to always have our own way. 

And we are ready to learn that NEW SONG that is the way forward from here. That new song about the stress of this time of high anxiety. That New SONG, that reminds us that God is here, in this time and place with us. Those memories of meeting God on the mountaintop, are valuable memories. Those memories of being touched by God in surgery and the 
Recovery Room, have helped to shape the faith we have today. 

We are able to accept a new song, as long as it puts the person we are today, in touch with the God who is here to lead us into faithfulness tomorrow. I would never want to face tomorrow, without the Peace of Christ in my heart, and in my song. 

And so we welcome this transition. We accept the memory of laughter. We are glad to have had this time to see ourselves through new eyes. We rejoice because we know: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. And because God is good, we live today with a song in our hearts, and trust that God will provide a New Song, suitable for tomorrow, Amen. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Maturity Is the Path to Wisdom

Maturity Is the Path to Wisdom  
Psalm 111; 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Throughout the Bible God tries to upend the persistent intent of the people to make God out to be mean, and visiting punishment on children, in particular punishment for the sins of the father. King Solomon is a classic example. Solomon is the second child of David and Bathsheba. The traditionalists might have expected the progeny of this couple to be flawed and an embarrassment. Instead, Solomon established the high water mark for the culture. 

As Solomon survives the battles between his older brothers to move into the throne, he demonstrates the wisdom to show humility before God. The early days of his reign are marked by dramatic success, and great respect for his wisdom. 

The truth of the matter is, in time Solomon believed too much of the adulation of the crowds and began to feel like he had earned all that he amassed. It is a long known challenge for those who have money and success to keep in touch with their own humanity and limitations. 

Today though, let us focus on the text at hand. The book we know of as First Kings is treated by Christian scholars as a history book, part of the Deuteronomistic Historians story of Israel and Judah. The Jews consider these texts as a part of the “Former Prophets.” However it is approached, it should be read as a theological reflection on the events of the time. 

God appears before Solomon in a dream, the God for whom he will construct the Temple, that will forever be remembered as the ultimate celebration of the faith and the partnership between God and the King of Israel. 

Solomon is a young man. He has emerged as the favored son of the legendary King David. It would be expected that he would be full of himself. That is what makes this such an unexpected prayer. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this - your great people?” 

We are not yet ready to write the legend of what comes next to Community UCC in Morton. But we may be visited in our dreams by God. We know that like the Psalmist, we can praise the Lord. We can give thanks for the blessings that are in our hands, and the blessings that are yet to be discovered, like surprises along the various Exits of the Interstate. We thank God because we trust God. We trust God. 

In the heart of Solomon’s prayer, he asks God for wisdom and the ability to sort between good and evil. Solomon trusts God. When we think about Adam and Eve; they were tempted by the lure of the knowledge between good and evil. The difference is, Adam and Eve tried to steal it in disrespect of God’s wishes, and Solomon asked boldly. 

Let me level with you. God already knows what is in your heart. God already knows what you need. God wants to hear you say that you love God and trust God. It is a relationship thing. More than numb obedience, we should model Solomon and ask God to give us the wisdom to make choices that result in what is good for this congregation, and the people the congregation is called to serve. 

Being a church is not first and foremost about making yourself happy and satisfied. That is what God expected Solomon to ask for. “Make me happy and satisfied.” Being a church is being called to service. It is service shared with the community. The sense of community sustains us and gives us courage. But the community is first a presence in worship before God, and then a force for the good God desires to be done in this community. As Solomon asked for wisdom to protect and guide the people of God, we pray for God to give this congregation the wisdom and tools to serve those who would be discounted, or left hurting, or without voice, in the busyness and bustle of Morton and the surrounding area. 

The Search Committee had a wonderful batch of candidates apply to join you here as your new pastor. There are many UCC churches that receive very few interested candidates. There is keen competition for ministry positions in and near the city of Chicago and major suburbs. There is often little attention directed downstate. 

The beauty of having a variety of candidates, is that the committee has the hard work of sorting through multiple people who have the right credentials and desire to be here. Then a higher level of discernment takes place. Is there a candidate with a vision and a skill set that suits this congregation in this time and place, and is ready to walk into the future? 

There are candidates who presented experience in being successful in the past. However, the past is unlikely to come around again. Even if there is a resurgence of respect for church and community life, it will not resemble the faith of the 50s and early 60s. That faith existed with a certain naivety and trained blindness to prejudice and bias that cannot be claimed with integrity in the world of today. 

So your committee settled on a candidate that has been prepared through life experience to live and breathe in the world of today, and has hope for the future of a healthy UCC congregation in this conservative area, attached to the city of Peoria. This is a church with a future and is calling a pastor with a vision and the energy needed to move the vision forward. 

We read about Solomon’s opening prayer to God at the start of his time in office. What he asked pleased God. What does God like to hear from us? What could we ask of God, that would make God happy? I have an idea for you, and I expect you have several of your own. I suppose if I name yours, you will decide that I am a wise man, too. 

The first of my ideas begins and ends with gratitude. Solomon approaches God with words of thanks for blessings already received. It is impossible to be thankful without acknowledging that God is the source of what is good, and the logistics manager extraordinaire. We get what we need right on time. 

We might not immediately recognize the value of the gifts we are given. I have seen many occasions when what was first considered a weakness, put me in position to accept a great blessing. 

We might think we know better than God, and complain that what was sent does not meet our expectations. It is not what we wanted. I suggest that you be careful. God has a much better idea of what you need than you can imagine. In fact, God is way ahead of you, and is providing gifts for your present situation, as well as the stuff you need for what is right around the corner. Funny thing about corners, you can be very near to what is coming, and not even know it. You have not seen around the corner! 

The key then to petitioning God in a way that makes God happy, is to let yourself acknowledge that God is God, and you are not. Reflect first on the ways God has responded to your needs in the past, and express your trust in God’s ongoing grace and intentions.  

The other thing that Solomon demonstrated is that he asked for the ability to serve those that God provided to him. We already touched on that briefly. If a congregation shifts its focus to being pleased and squabbling with each other over the building and appointments, and not about its ministry, they are on a path that leads them away from God.  

So then we pray for the wisdom and maturity to serve the community in ways that give glory to God, and please the God of infinite creativity. 

I would like that to be a point of emphasis. God is the creator of all. It was God who developed the forces of nature that resulted in the Big Bang, that might be the best explanation we have of the origins of our solar system. I am no expert in these discussions. 

What I want to emphasize is that God is continually being creative. God inspires the great and small, with words of hope - the voice of wisdom, and as we draw near to God, when we recognize that at every junction there may be only two manmade roads forward, but an infinite number of ways to turn as seen through the eyes of God. God is all about diversity, and choices, and rainbows, and love for one another. 

You have a new pastor on the way. You have a congregational history of ups and downs. Your committee was diligent and prayerful, and God will be with you. Thank God for the blessings you have received. Thank God for the opportunity you have to share God’s love of diversity in this time and place. Ask God for the wisdom to appreciate the gifted new pastor, and the future ministry you will begin together, that is already near but hidden from sight. 
Close with Psalm 111 

Psalm 111
111:1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

111:2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.

111:3 Full of honor and majesty is (God’s) his work, and (God’s) his righteousness endures forever.

111:4 (God) He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.

111:5 (God) He provides food for those who fear (God) him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

111:6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

111:7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

111:8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

111:9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.

111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Resist the Siren Call to a Passive Faith

Resist the Siren Call to a Passive Faith  
Psalm 34:1-8; John 6:35, 41-51 

In a self-centered kind of faith, we celebrate the God who has selected us from out of all of the people of the world to be the “Chosen People.” This sense of being selected for particular honor, runs deep in the sense of identity in many of the established religions. It is the easiest target of those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” 

In this kind of faith, the emphasis is on right belief. Believe the right thing in the right way, and you are all good. You might then be well served to sit quietly with your books, and read and pray your “chosen” self into the heavenly kingdom. This would keep us from the messiness of dealing with those in the messy world who are not ‘saved.’ 

This is a powerful temptation. When the Tuesday morning Bible Study group considered the epistles of First, Second and Third John, we recognized several opportunities for folks to latch on to key phrases, and fashion a kind of faith that defines the world of those loved by God to exclude any who do not meet a narrow definition of worthiness or orthodox belief. Those same hooks are visible in the gospel of John. 

With these core definitions, it becomes so much easier to ‘love your neighbor’ because you get to decide who is your neighbor. And quite literally, they figure, the hell with everybody else. This exclusive sense of entitlement is what parades around as Christianity in the US and much of Western Europe, and is at the core of why mature and thinking people are walking away from the church. 

In the gospel passage, those who are resisting Jesus try to avoid all of the teachings of Jesus that make them uncomfortable. Rather than deal wth the message, they attack the integrity of the messenger. 

This is a common defense humans use to resist what is new, attempt to discredit the one who is bringing the news. “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter? Who does he think he is?” “That person has been accused of being inaccurate before, don’t trust anything he says.” And all the way from Greek mythology to today there is the story of the messenger literally being killed for bringing an uncomfortable truth.  

So here is an Uncomfortable Truth for you. If we would truly follow Jesus the Christ, our willingness to accept people the way they are, will anger more than a few people. Our willingness to treat the gospel as an invitation for all to trust that God loves them, and wants them to trust in God’s love and forgiveness, will mark us as sinners. I had a Morton pastor accuse me of preaching false doctrines in our common prayer time at the Ministerial Association lunch in the Spring, I presume over the LGBTQI issues. I had to smile. I was hoping that his congregation and ours might find some mission projects to share. 

Instead I returned to this sanctuary on the next Sunday, to reaffirm the critically important role you have in this community. Your clear voice of “Welcome” is much more important than you could possibly know. When you and I are willing to smile in the face of charges of being “too welcoming” we help every person who feels ostracized at least hold out hope, “that God gives a damn about injustice.” 

Last week I read to you from correspondence I received from a recent visitor. As I survey the level of hostility being openly expressed in public these days; hateful rhetoric, insulting to God’s children, I am more persuaded than ever just how urgently our voice of welcome needs to be broadcast. When violent words parade around under the label of Christianity and patriotism, I shudder. “God and country,” were never intended to be so abused. 

What was making people so uncomfortable in today’s gospel? Jesus dared to say, “I am - the bread of life.” The “I Am” statements in the gospel of John, are structured to recall the confrontation of Moses by God at the burning bush. Jesus uses words that recall what is recorded in the Exodus text, in order to make a point. The similarity in structure would not be lost on the Temple Jews of Jesus day. No doubt these words made some believe that this Jesus of Nazareth was equating himself to God. 

It was hundreds of years after the gospels were written that the church decided that the Trinity; Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier - aka the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; is a convenient way to conceptualize the personhood of God. The actual mystery that is God - is too much for the human mind, but we put a convenient handle on the complex, and call the divine reality, The Trinity. 

So let us pause and consider the bread of life. When we take communion, we bring an awareness of the presence of God into our very being. You and I not only accept that presence for ourselves, but in fact, we become the body of Christ - in the community - and for the community. We are then called to express God’s love through the use of every gift that God has given us. 

The community around us will push back, just as they pushed back on Jesus. There will be no small sense of folks wanting to “kill the messenger” before they would be able to hear a message of welcome and forgiveness. They would rather reject blessings for themselves, than share with those who fail to meet their criteria. 

The culture is so devoted to this sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, that we need to increase our own sensitivity and wariness. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror of truth, and listen for the voice of the prophet Nathan, exposing our own hidden sins of judgement. We might be labelled by shallow and thoughtless people, calling us “The Gay Church” in an attempt to do us harm. Frankly, that might actually be the best advertisement we can get for free. The best response might be, to smile and say, “Well that may be true, but we are far more committed to justice than only to welcoming the gays.”  

If the community loves to deride the gays, then let my face and name  be used to declare a sense of welcome. If the general public want to demonize the poor and the immigrants, then let me be the one who says, “I am the bread of life,” because the love of God is within me. 

Jesus realized that this “I Am” statement was making his opponents crazy. How did he respond? He used this same structure 6 more times in the gospel of John. It was most critical to Jesus for them to know just where he stood. In this gospel, Jesus makes it plain that what was comfortable and traditional, was not the best way to represent God’s love. 

So I have great news for you. Your salvation is already worked out. You do not need to sit and study and think all of the right thoughts. All that is needed for your salvation is complete. While we are vulnerable to temptation, we are also in touch with salvation. While knowing that we are sinners, our humility before God brings out the maturity of our faith, and the confidence that good works and kind words, build the kingdom of God in the here and now. 

Now, it is time for you to go out and live distributing the good news of your salvation, and extend that invitation to others. Like Jesus, pay no heed to those who want to kill the messenger. Do not be distracted by those who question your qualifications. Show God’s love and welcome to those at the margins. Speak directly to those in pain. Offer comfort to those who are in severe distress. And of course, take seriously your responsibility as a citizen, to participate in public life. 

We are in an age that is amplifying the voices of the cruel. We are in a time, where money buys influence in our own government, in ways that we used to criticize as ‘corruption’ in “Third World” countries. It is tempting to withdraw from the fray. It is tempting to consider ‘all politicians’ as crooks. It is tempting to believe the end of the world is coming so you are permitted to withdraw from the ruckus, and pray your way into heaven. 

Face temptation for what it is, a distraction. The body of Christ is full of compassion. The body of Christ is called to represent justice and mercy. The body of Christ, lives on the Bread of Life, and smiles in the face of those who would try to avoid an uncomfortable truth by discrediting the messenger. As you walk through the world this week, you are the body of Christ delivering the uncomfortable truth that the culture is straining to discredit. 

“We’re the proof of God’s good humor, we’re the twinkle in God’s eye. Made to shine, reflect the glory, given light and space to fly. Alleluia, all creation. Alleluia, everyone. Alleluia, all creation. Alleluia everyone. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Even the Powerful Are Accountable

Even the Powerful Are Accountable 
2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:13a; Psalm 51:1-12

The story of David and Bathsheba is a powerful reminder to us that we can easily become blind to abuse of power, when people are afraid to challenge us. It seems that everything is permissible to one who has enough money and power. It seems that the “natural” level of our insensitivity might be commensurate with our wealth and social power. 

In the episode with David and Bathsheba, David did a fairly good job of breaking all of the 10 Commandments in just 2 Chapters of the book of Second Samuel. He was very efficient. In the passage we read, the prophet Nathan tells a story to David that incites his sense of justice. When David vows retribution for this misdeed he is confronted with the prophet crying out, “You are the man!” 

Psalm 51 is a bedrock of the Lenten season. Attributed to David in response and remorse for the shocking abandonment of his ethics and morals, David strives to make peace with his God. The child conceived in the rape of Bathsheba did not survive. Later, the couple was blessed with another son who became the renown King Solomon. 

So let us make a couple of observations quickly while we are in this story. Did you notice that the name of Bathsheba was not used in this entire passage? She was never identified as a person. The story and even David’s sense of guilt never included the violation of this woman as a point of interest. The need for the “#MeToo” movement is rooted in neglecting the personhood of women. It is a clear and persistent weakness in our faith heritage. God is still speaking, because the written record is not complete. The Bible was dependent on the collective wisdom of the age and understanding where the stories were rooted. And still today, men of wealth and power lack respect for the personhood of women. 

When I hear people demanding a return to what they call “biblical marriage” are they praising the dozens of wives and concubines of King David? I rather doubt that. I suspect that they are also neglecting the sanctity of his intense personal relationship with Jonathon. So often we are happy to settle for nice sounding phrases, without actually determining if they really capture what is meant. My guess is that most Bible Quoters, are not very insightful Bible readers. 

I believe it is very important for us to recognize that God does forgive, even outrageous moral failures. David was able to receive forgiveness, and live with blessings, even after this terrific failure. I think it is very hard - even for me - to believe the extent to which God will provide forgiveness. 

There is such an expectation in the culture that we christians are at our most comfortable when we are judging and screaming about the sins of others. We are so de-sensitized to our ordinary judgementalism, that we only react when it gets taken to the extreme. We turn our eyes away from our own daily failures. Like David, we need the prophet to step up to us and declare, “You are the man!” or should we say, “You are the human!” 

Knowing that I am blind to a great many of my own short comings, I have invited the staff here at Community UCC to let me know how I have been less respectful than I should have been to their ministry to this congregation. With the Sunday worship as the centerpiece, I have tried to work with the staff to share resources, and support each other in the most positive ways possible. 

As Pastor Leah Kabira arrives next month, you will have a chance to begin again. What she knows of you will be how you behave and treat her and the others in the congregation while she is present. So let me suggest that you have a little talk with Jesus, and open your heart to hear the truth. Invite God to increase your self-awareness to your own wealth and social power. Look for the ways you are able to dismiss the needs and feelings of some of the people around you, and accept this opportunity to do better. 

Many of you will find it necessary to learn new ways of responding to a new pastor, who has different gifts and different sensitivities than the pastors you have known before. You cannot ‘will’ Leah to fit your ideal image of a pastor. You are being called to recognize in her the potential for the ideal expression of her gifts for ministry among you. It requires a shift in your own mind. And trust that Leah’s presence is part of how God is faithful to you and your future. 

Who is Pastor Leah, and how has God gifted and prepared her for ministry, and how do God’s blessings in her - best address the needs of this congregation for today and tomorrow? You cannot look to the past for the key to being the best you can be, you must look forward. 

So David has sinned, and sinned grievously. Even his act of contrition falls short of the ideal. He cannot see beyond the cultural status of women, and dismisses her full personhood. In all of that mess of imperfection, God forgives and blesses David. 

If you read the whole story, David’s life does not suddenly turn into a bed of roses. Illicit sex and violence will plague his family for his remaining days. He will struggle within the family as an imperfect man. And still, God does not abandon David. 

God does not demand that you reach perfection before you are loved and blessed. God does not wait to work within the community until everything is ‘just right.’ God goes with us every step. 

In our move towards a mature faith and a personal connection with the holy, we are often blind to our own addiction to sin. We have more wealth and social power than we admit, and cast a long shadow where our thoughtless sins survive. 

If you would truly be contrite, you would be open to the love of God helping you to be aware of your shortcomings and weaknesses, and try to be better. You can begin to treat those ‘Nathan moments’, when the awareness of your sins hits home, to be counted among the blessings that God gives you. They are opportunities to let God’s love, and God’s eyes, permit you to see yourself and the world, as loaded with the potential for being more closely in tune with God’s justice and love for all. 

You and I live a charmed life. We share a perspective that has been nuanced by education and a faith that is not afraid of science and facts. We operate out of our own modest base of wealth and social power. We do not feel like our lives need a prophet to call attention to our short comings. 

When you open your heart to the Christ, you will learn to be sufficiently self-aware that those, “You are the human!” moments are true blessings. Those moments are invitations to grow in wisdom and maturity of faith. They are invitations to imagine your life in a better relationship with your neighbor, which is the key to a better relationship with God. “You are the human!” and loved by God. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Trying to Welcome and Serve All

Trying to Welcome and Serve All 
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56  

There is clear diversity within the wide reaches of humanity. We are distinctive in language, culture, and influenced by our respective geographic regions. There are remarkable differences between the races, and, if we are candid, there are remarkable differences within the individual races. I had a roommate from Taiwan who was nearly 6 feet tall, who encouraged me to accept that there are vast differences among the people of China, not all Chinese are short and thin. 

The letter to the church in Ephesus might have been written by Paul, but it is not like the letters we commonly identify as authentic letters of the apostle to the gentiles. In the passage we have today, “the church” is represented as the wider church, the vessel for holding and bringing souls into communion with God. Paul’s usual way of writing is to address specific local issues. 

The epistle writer’s words, and the message from Mark’s gospel, provide assurance that Jesus has made all of us one, and equally valued.  This is a useful reminder to both this local congregation, and the wider Christian community as well. In an age where the culture tries to define and protect borders, and justify inhumane treatment of others, we are well served to remember that in Christ we are all one.

It is also helpful to remind American Christians, in all of our various ethnic backgrounds, that not all of the apostles were convinced it was a good idea to offer the Good News of the Christ to just anybody, especially those suspicious gentiles. We were originally the fringe group. 

I often think about the difficulty of having any sort of a membership list for a congregation like ours, where the boundaries are so permeable. People come and go, usually based on their own wishes, and occasionally as inspired by God. At this point in our history, membership becomes important when we come to vote on issues of significant impact on the congregation’s future, and who is eligible to exercise formal leadership. 

In this sort of a congregation, it is more useful to expend the greater part of the energy we have in feeding the fire that calls hearts to the love of God, and provides a useful way to call others to enter into the community of the faithful. We carry folks into the presence of God on Sunday morning, and with participation in the choirs, the youth program, the fellowship on Sunday and Wednesday night. We are reminded to keep looking out for the ones who are not here, but God is calling to be here. 

In reading for today I encountered the reminder that communication is a fundamental mission of the church. We have received Good News, and are compelled to share that Good News with others. The God we know, love, and serve; is caring, forgiving, and compassionate. The gospel lessons underline the wide sense of welcome that Jesus embodies. The commandment to share the word might predict that we would be early adopters of communication technology. But even I do not begin to get Instagram, and I am not good at Twitter at all. 

The gospel passage reassures us that if we are becoming fatigued, we may not be doing it wrong. There is so much work to do. When we see with the eyes of the Christ, we see souls that are out of touch with the family of God and God’s great love for creation. It is a daunting task to be the voice that cries out a word of welcome and forgiveness to all. 

Some people in our age have withdrawn from faith communities over sophisticated theological differences. Some withdraw over personality conflicts, initially thinking life is better without the hassle; but in time they feel disconnected. In ever increasing numbers, there are thousands who have never known a faith community that has been good to them, or good for them. Here is where the heart of Christ, that we share, compels us to keep on reaching out. 

The sense of being connected to the church, provides a useful and practical way to being connected to God and neighbor. We are here to rehearse and be reminded of our deeper connection to all that is right, holy and just. It is so hard to keep our focus on the God of love when we are distracted by the buzz of current events. 

We return on Sunday to hear the challenge of doing all we can to love one another. We return here to be encouraged, even as the public voices make their incessant pitch for us to descend into fear, and become reactionary. It is easy to allow the loudest voice to name the tune, before we apply the filters for accuracy, the concern for justice, and the need for compassion. We try to respect a call for ‘law and order’ and concurrently scan the law for the telltale signs of corruption and abuse to the advantage of the few. 

The events of the last two weeks in the international travels of the President have aggravated me in ways I have not been politically aggravated since I was a teenager. I was involved in protests against the war in Viet Nam. Even then I was able to distinguish between my friends and family members who served in uniform, and the military-industrial complex whose greed and lack of compassion fueled that violence. 

I am not so naive as to believe that use of the military is always wrong. I am not so naive as to think it is appropriate for the US to devote mammoth amounts of the annual budget to the defense department. If we would value diplomacy, and actually learn how to use diplomacy wisely, we could have greater influence than threats and smart bombs could ever achieve. Diplomacy rests on building and maintaining relationships with those where we share values and interests. 

We are bombarded with small minded thinking on every side. It is tempting to believe that the world is rightfully reduced to hundreds of ‘either/or’ choices. We can only have diplomacy OR defense. We have either no screening OR no refugees. The people of the US are not usually that narrow minded, unless they are hounded by fear and misrepresentation. 

I fight to keep my perspective. What really happened? Where did it take place? What was the situation? Has it been represented accurately and fairly? Then I choose what reaction and what preparations I should make to influence what comes next. 

Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples to carry the good news to crowds of hurting people. Some in the crowds are Jews, and some are strangers. The crowds of hurting people are still with us. The crying need to share the love of God is still with us. We can offer a sense of belonging, especially to those who do not feel like they belong. 

I have a friend who is now too sick to live alone. We will call him Martin. Marty has a last name that is not pronounced anything like the way it is spelled. As a boy I expected that people whose names had ‘Americanized’ spellings, would accept ‘Americanized’ pronunciations of their names. Marty does not. I am sure he was ‘corrected’ for mispronouncing his own name his whole life long. Can you imagine a lifetime of being denied your own identity? 

He managed to mingle in his small town because of the wit and charm of his wife, who was a darling. Together they were an odd couple, but very loving and generous in their own way. When she died, he was without the social support he needed to get along well with others. His memory of past hurts was amplified by the profound loss of his wife. 

Honestly though, Marty is great to talk with. He has an intensity in his eyes that comes from years of keeping his own counsel. He is especially generous to others who ‘could not fit in’ or were judged unfairly. He protects his personal bubble with liberal use of mild profanity. It makes him sound tough and thick-skinned. 

Marty makes me aware of all of the years I felt proud looking down on women who dressed too much like men for my satisfaction; or men who were too feminine; or people whose facial features were ‘distractingly’ different. I get a reminder all of the time when men wear their hats indoors, or young men’s jeans hang too low, or cell phones appear where I think they are out of place. I get reminded again and again that I need to give up judging, which is not my job, and focus on loving, which clearly is my job. 

And there it is. We are called to broadcast the Good News of Christ, to the real world. We are best when we really welcome folks, just as they are - and not how we prefer them to be. We do our best work when we can meaningfully proclaim; that we are all one people, who share the love of a loving creator, who is making all things new. This faith community, like that of the Ephesians, must recognize ourselves as adopted by Christ and compelled to reach out to others. We gather to be a people who are good to others, and good for them, too.