Rest for the Weary

(I am on vacation this weekend. Thanks to the Rev. John Lewis of The Presbyterian Church of Hamilton, Ohio for preaching for me at St. Luke’s Church!

This is a sermon from 2008 on the Lectionary passage from Matthew 11:28-30.)

“Rest for the Weary” – July 6, 2008

Matt 11-28 rest, bench

Matthew 11:28-30

I was born here in the city. My parents were born here, too, in Chicago. I have only a vague idea of what goes on in the country, on a farm. My information about farming activity comes chiefly from material I have read, and a bit from stories I have been told. By my father-in-law, for example, who grew up on a small farm in southeastern Iowa during the 1930’s.

So, when I read a scripture passage like the one we have before us today, I have to take a really close look at it, and work hard at fully understanding it, because I am not that familiar with oxen, or yokes. But burdens—I am familiar with burdens. And our Lord Jesus talks about burdens here in this reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

Burdens come in all assorted shapes and sizes. Burdens can be solitary things, with each of us, on our own, struggling with our separate burdens. It is difficult indeed for me to carry a burden on my own. And I am heavily laden. Let’s face it. We are all burdened with something. Perhaps several things. A few of us carry a lot of heavy difficulties, whether psychological, emotional, or physical. These all can be heavy burdens, to be sure.

If I thought I was having problems before, I did not even consider this next complication: I am naturally separated from other people here in this world. Just as much, if not more, I am also separated from God above. I not only have a wall of isolation separating me from other people, I also have that same isolating wall separating me from God.

The Bible has a name for this horrible wall of isolation, and this name is sin. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The verse is not that a few have sinned. It does not say that some have sinned. The letter to the Romans says that all have sinned. So that wall of isolation has been erected between me and God, and me and other individuals. And that wall is there for you, too.

Think of different kinds of loads: burdens of pain and suffering, burdens of loneliness and isolation, burdens of other kinds of losses. If we think about it, on top of the other burdens that each of us is carrying is the burden of sin.

So, not only is each one of us separated from God and from our fellow human beings, but each of us is heavily burdened by countless other things. And I could imagine lots of people getting virtual hernias, because they are carrying their burdens all by themselves.

The truly good news is that we do not have to bear these burdens all alone, any more. Our Lord Jesus has reconciled us to God. Each of us is no longer separated, isolated. But Jesus brings us back into a proper, friendly relationship with God. Each of us has the opportunity to be called a child of God.

And Jesus not only reconciles each of us back to God, this is where He mentions the yoke. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

What is a yoke, anyway? How does it work? What does it do?

You all remember that I am a city girl. From my reading, I have found out that a yoke is used by a farmer to harness two animals—often oxen—to a piece of farm equipment, usually a plow. Yokes were made of wood. When the yoke was made, it was adjusted, so that it would not chafe. And the significant thing about this is that a yoke was custom-fitted to the particular ox that pulled with it.

Jesus mentions a yoke here. Remember, all of these people Jesus was talking to understood about farm life, and oxen, and especially about a good fit on a yoke. So when or Lord Jesus mentions “My yoke is easy,” He means that His yoke for each one of us fits us very well—it’s tailor-made, in other words. And even more important, one ox alone does not pull in a yoke. The load would be unbalanced if there were only one ox. Instead, each of us is in a team . . . in a yoked team with Jesus. If our Lord is right with us, pulling at our burden—whatever it is—at our side, then each of us is on a winning team.

Just imagine. I no longer need to pull at my burdens all by myself, isolated and alone. Jesus is right there next to me, helping me, pulling by my side. Praise God! Jesus comes alongside each one of us. Jesus is there to encourage us. And He will bring rest for our souls. Is there any better news than this best of all Good News?

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Cup of Cold Water

“Cup of Cold Water”

Matt 10-42 water, words

Matthew 10:40-42 (10:42) – June 28, 2020

I have several friends who are wonderful hosts and hostesses. They love to have friends and relatives come to their homes, and provide such excellent hospitality. In fact, I had the great good fortune to be the recipient of such fine hospitality a few months ago, at the home of my niece Josie’s uncles (on her mom’s side), in Washington state. Jeff was a marvelous host!

What does hospitality have to do with this bible reading from Matthew 10? At first glance, this reading talks about prophets, or God’s messengers. Jesus tells us how it’s important to accept, or to welcome the messengers of God.

Hospitality was huge in the Middle East. It still is, today. If someone comes to your home, you go all out for them, making them comfortable, feeding them, and otherwise supplying their needs. That hospitality has been a hallmark and a highlight of visiting this region of the world, for centuries.

When the Rabbi Jesus made this statement about receiving the prophets, God’s messengers, what do you immediately think of? What is the first thing that comes to mind? The first thing I thought of was an old-fashioned Sunday dinner after church, where one of the prominent families at the church invites the minister over for a fine meal following the morning services. Well, that cannot happen now, because of COVID-19. Not the socializing at each other’s houses, and not the in-person worship services.

But – can this reading mean more than that?

Somehow, I don’t think the Rabbi Jesus was thinking about the chief rabbi from the most prosperous synagogue in town. I don’t think Jesus had the hot-shot leading elders of the largest congregation in mind, either.

I suspect you can immediately think of someone—maybe a couple of someones—who is absolutely marvelous at hospitality. Putting on parties and get-togethers, gathering friends, relatives, acquaintances. I know, I have been at a few of these gatherings. They are almost always wonderful times to connect. Wonderful times for eating and drinking, too.

What about you? Are you grateful to friends or relatives who have the spiritual gift of hospitality? This absolutely is a spiritual gift, listed among the other more acknowledged or appreciated biblical gifts. Some have that gift of hospitality in abundance.

Except, the words of Jesus do not excuse some of us who are not so hospitality-gifted. No, Jesus’s words are intended for all of us. That means every believer has the responsibility to extend hospitality, whether they have that spiritual gift or not.

I could expound upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to each believer when they come to believe in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul has written several lists where he runs down a good number of these gifts: in chapters Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, among others. Gifts like teaching, discernment, helps, and administration.

I can hear some people say, “Oh, I just don’t have a hospitable bone in my body. I can’t welcome people into my tiny apartment. I’m all thumbs when it comes to spreading a wonderful table, and I don’t know the first thing about throwing a big party.” Well, guess what? Jesus did not say, “This command is just for the people among you who really like Martha Stewart.” Or, “This command only applies to the people who can throw the best parties.”

Jesus wants ALL of us to be hospitable. He wants ALL of us to extend a welcome. But, to whom? Who is it Jesus wants us to welcome in such a way? It’s just our friends and relatives, right? It’s just the people from my church, or from my side of town. It’s just the people who look like me. Isn’t that who You mean, Jesus?

Let’s read verse 10:42 again. ”And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” Acts of mercy and deeds of compassion, no matter how small. My goodness. Is Jesus talking about being kind to – anyone? Everyone? No matter what? No matter who? No matter what they look like? Or, where they were born?

Yes, mercy and compassion are two of those spiritual gifts the apostle Paul talks about. Except, Jesus commands all of us to show compassion and mercy, right here. By doing these compassionate things for anyone and to everyone, we give witness to the unconditional love of our Lord Jesus. Jesus does not make this expression of compassion and mercy something exclusive to “only our kind.” No, He specifically says that we are commanded to show mercy and compassion to “the least of these.” Some translations use the words “these little ones.”

Okay, Jesus. I guess I get the idea. You want me to show mercy and compassion to just about everyone who needs help. But, I need some ideas.

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, gives us some excellent suggestions. He says: “at other times, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car. Or volunteering at the local foodbank. Or making a donation to an agency like Luther World Relief. Or…you get the idea.” [1]

Jesus does not simply make a suggestion. This cup of cold water, this mercy and compassion is something He is really serious about. Let us take our Lord’s words to heart, and put them into action. Now. Go, do, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3265

“No Small Gestures,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Live a New Life

“Live a New Life”

Rom 6-4 nwness of life

Romans 6:1-5 (6:4) – June 21, 2020

I have a friend who should have been on the debate team in high school. On occasion, he loves to discuss and debate points of history, or whether this or that point of politics has merit. He is quite good at expressing himself, and often enjoys a good, rousing discussion.

My friend reminds me of the apostle Paul. Paul talks at great length in his letters about such wonderful doctrines like sin, death, grace, baptism and salvation. He discussed several of them in chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans.

Paul argued and debated a lot with his fellow Christians. We are familiar with that, today, too. Theologians, church leaders and ministers debating back and forth, this way and that.

Different denominations have different “rules and regulations” about living the Christian life. One group tells believers that all true Christian people have to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Another group tells all believing women that they have to wear skirts and are never permitted to wear pants. A third group says that musical instruments in worship services are evil, and only the human voice is fit to be used to praise the Lord.

Some of these rules and regulations might seem petty, or over the top, but they make sense to the people who follow them. The apostle Paul had to deal with some of these well-meaning but legalistic followers of Christ, too.

Paul used to be one of these super-legalistic followers of the Lord. He says it himself: he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee. A strict follower of God, blameless and righteous according to his observance of the Mosaic Law Code. (according to Philippians 3)

I am sure many believers are familiar with Romans 3:23, and can quote it word for word: “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes, that is in the middle of Paul’s discussion about sin. Then, Paul brings the theological concept of grace into the continuing argument, and adds additional layers to the ideas of sin, grace and forgiveness.

But, what does he say here in Romans, in the follow-up to his discussion of sin and grace in Chapter 5? I love the translation of Eugene Peterson, from the Message. This is his version of what Paul said: “So what do we do now? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving us? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good?”

Oh, Pastor Peterson, you make these complex ideas of sin and grace from the apostle Paul so clear and plain.

Our old house on Transgression Avenue, in the Country of Sin, was a rattletrap of a building. Sin lurked in every part of that house—under the stairs, in the closets, and especially in the bedroom, basement and attic. That was before we met Jesus, and before He became the general contractor on that old sinful house. Jesus didn’t do just a cosmetic paint job. No, He started major work, inside and out. The work on some houses—some people—went more slowly, some more quickly, but sooner or later we moved out of the old neighborhood. That old, sin-filled neighborhood on Transgression Avenue.

Can you see how this analogy of an old house fits in to our new life in Jesus Christ? Sure, our old life—when we were still filled with sin—is like that old sin-filled house. But, after we met Jesus, He became the general contractor. Jesus started to tear down sagging walls, replace the plumbing and electrical systems. Jesus came alongside each of us. Jesus wants us to see that He can help us out with all kinds of components in our spiritual houses—in our lives.

How does Jesus go to work on our sinful selves? With His righteousness, that He freely gives us when we believe in Him. Jesus’ “righteousness, his faithfulness is ours as a gift of divine grace through faith, and this apart from obedience to the law. There is nothing that we can add to what Christ has done for us.[1]

Did you hear? Nothing. We add nothing. It’s all a gift, that Jesus freely gives to us. Some people still think they need to earn brownie-points with God for being good, before they can reach God’s heaven. Some people argued with Paul, saying they opposed his teaching about grace—God’s free gift of grace, because they still wanted to earn brownie-points.

Paul’s comeback? Yes, we have died to sin. Yes, we are buried with Jesus Christ in baptism. And, yes, we have been resurrected with Jesus to new life! Eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Plus, it’s all from Jesus, and nothing from us!

I repeat the wonderful translation of Eugene Peterson, of our Scripture today: If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!”

Praise God, we have a new life. We—each one of us—is a new creation in Christ Jesus. We no longer live in that tumbledown, sin-filled house on Transgression Avenue, in Sin Country. Even though we get pulled back sometimes, and turned around by temptation, we have moved into a new house for good. Jesus laid the sure foundation! A new life in a new, forgiven, redeemed country: Grace Country!

Remember who you are. Remember who you belong to; we have died to sin and now we live a new life in Jesus Christ. Remember! Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday13ae.html   “Buried and Raised with Christ,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Lost Sheep

“Lost Sheep”

Matt 9-36 sheep, shepherd people

Matthew 9:35-10:1 (9:36) – June 14, 2020

In college, I can remember times when I heard fiery sermons about missionaries, and about how God provided the world as a harvest field for the followers of Jesus. I can remember how the preacher would thunder “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few! Pray that the Lord will send out many into God’s harvest fields!”

I attended a Christian college, and I did hear a number of sermons like that. Yes, that Bible reading is from Matthew 9:37. Perfectly appropriate for preachers to take this verse and highlight it in a sermon meant to urge people to go out to the mission field. The very next verse is where our Lord Jesus chooses the 12 disciples, and commissions them to go out into the villages and towns and heal, preach and do just what Jesus had been doing.

However, when I read these verses from Matthew to prepare a sermon for today, I was drawn to the previous verse, verse 36. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I am NOT going to focus on the harvest being plentiful, and the workers being few – in that case, this would be a very mission-oriented sermon. I do preach mission-oriented sermons when I feel God leading me that way, but for this Scripture reading at this particular time, I see a different picture. Instead of God sending followers out into the world, I see Jesus full of compassion and caring. I see Jesus as a loving Shepherd, caring for His lost sheep who don’t even know they are without a shepherd.

Many, many people around the country have not been in physical contact with anyone else for a long, long time. In some cases, for months. People are still suffering from social isolation, from limited and limiting conversation from behind a mask, at a socially-acceptable distance of six feet—or more. Have you felt isolated and alone? Have any of your extended family, or loved ones, or friends been in that situation? Jesus would be able to give you a hug, for sure. As a Shepherd, Jesus would certainly lift up and carry little lambs in His arms.

Can you imagine how comforting that would feel, to be held in the arms of our Lord Jesus? What a wonderful feeling, to be protected and made secure by our Heavenly Shepherd.

For those who did not know, I am in the middle of a 4-part community video series involving the recent months, the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order in Illinois. This series is in collaboration with the Morton Grove Chamber of Commerce. I am the host and narrator for the project, and we are very grateful to the Village of Morton Grove and associated departments for all their help in making this series a reality.

As I think back a month, to the beginnings of this idea for a video series, it all started with a conversation. Or rather, two conversations, with Father Dennis and with Mark, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. In both, we talked about how disconnected and discouraged many people felt. All three of us – Father Dennis, Mark, and I – had many people sharing with us how disheartened they were, for a number of reasons, all stemming from the pandemic, the shelter-in-place, and the social isolation that gripped so many across our nation.

Which leads me back again to this verse from Matthew 9:36, where the Rabbi Jesus spoke of compassion, and nurture, and how Jesus cares for each of us as His sheep. Jesus did not just preach from a pulpit, or up front on a raised platform, separated from all the other sheep—I mean, people. No, Jesus had compassion on these lost sheep.

Jesus felt such love and compassion towards these members of the house of Israel, He felt it deep down to his “splachna,” down to His guts, or bowels. According to the original Greek, in the first century, to be moved right down to one’s bowels was to be moved with compassion, or to have compassion inside. The bowels – or guts – were thought to be the seat of love and pity at that time. This expression denotes the very heart of Jesus’ understanding and personhood.

With Jesus, His compassion was not impersonal or disembodied. He did not simply see abstract problems that could be explained away. Instead, Jesus had compassion on real people. He saw each individual, the real self inside, and considered each one worthy of compassion and care. To know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath and still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Can we do less when we seek to engage the community around us?” [1]

What an earth-shattering thing, for Jesus to see us, to know us deeply, down to our hearts. We can praise God for this wonderful certainty, even as we are in the midst of such anxiety and fear. As a community, we can gather together to name our stresses and losses, and to grieve and mourn. Yet, Jesus shows us how to have compassion on ourselves and on others.

Morton Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods are finding resilience, togetherness, hope and even joy. Praise God for the example of our Lord Jesus. We can join (virtual) hands in community. Is there any better, more holy calling than to make friends with everyone we meet?

Remember, God loves everyone, no matter who. And, we might be surprised at who becomes our new friend in the Lord as we show compassion, too.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/open-our-eyes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-preaching-notes

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Live in Peace

“Live in Peace”

 

2 Cor 13-11 God of love peace words

2 Corinthians 13:11-14 (13:11) – June 7, 2020

Did you ever try to grab the fog? I did, when I was a youngster. I’m sure all of us remember foggy mornings, when the fog was so thick you couldn’t even see fifty feet ahead of you. But—did you ever try to grab hold of that fog in your hands? Well, it can’t be done. For regular human beings trying to lay hold of that fog is almost the same as us trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. People may try. Yes, it is a difficult concept for Christians to grasp.

However, God’s comforting, welcoming presence is not difficult to hold on to, especially in complicated, troubled times like these. We turn to our Scripture passage for this morning. 2 Corinthians 13:11-14 is the close of a letter Paul wrote to a church very much conflicted, very much in pain. Yet, these final words are words of encouragement, comfort and blessing.

Did the multi-layered situation in First Church Corinth have any similarity to the tumultuous situation in the United States today? In a way and on a smaller scale, yes. The two situations do not have a one-to-one correspondence, true. But, can we find some insight, encouragement and comfort for today in Paul’s final words to his fellow believers in Corinth?

I have two sisters. Before they retired, both worked as managers for a number of years in two different corporations. Over the years, I heard from them both about difficult situations both had to deal with. I am sure everyone here knows of a complex situation that blew up in your face, or your friend’s face, or at your workplace. This kind of uproar can raise tensions, too.

Does this sound familiar? This complex group of situations was the uproar in First Church Corinth. Paul needed to address these situations in this second letter to the church.

I felt God nudging me to speak to this current great racial divide in our nation. It is bubbling over, even while many sit in our homes, sleep in our beds, and go about our daily business. Yes, this inequity has been present for a long, long time. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are simply the most visible among those horrific deaths that have been sad, desperate realities for countless numbers of families, for centuries.

We are not going to look through a magnifying glass at the complex situation in Corinth. It is enough to say that there was considerable strife among church members, including factions inside the church. I suspect this strife had spilled over into relations with others in the city. Perhaps, even, into relationships in the area of greater Corinth.

Paul did end up speaking sharply to the whole congregation, as well as to several specific people. Yet, in this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul also gives us tremendous understanding about the reconciliation we receive from Christ that we are also commanded to go out and share with others. What a command, after quite a rebuke and commentary!

Referring to factions in the church, Paul stated in verse 1:10 of his first letter, “that you be united (katertismenoi) in the same mind and the same purpose.” And Paul comes back to this concept in his closing words in 2 Corinthians 13:11: “’mend (katartizesthe) your ways,’ ‘agree with one another,’ and ‘live in peace.’” [1]

Paul expresses the wish, the desire that his fellow believers might live in unity, mending their ways, finding agreement even in disagreement, and above all living in peace.

This earnest desire of the apostle Paul’s heart seems more and more evasive ad elusive in this turbulent time, indeed. Like the fog I referred to, a few minutes ago, so difficult to grasp hold of. I see the demonstrations, the rallies, the protests and yes, the looting of these past days, the bubbling over of widespread racial inequities that have existed for a long, long time.

My friend, Presbyterian pastor Russell Smith wrote, “by our society’s actions, it’s clear that we as a culture treat Black lives as mattering less. This devaluing of life is a devaluing of the image of God that every human being carries. It is sinful and wrong.” [2] Friends, I agree with Russell. Every person created on earth is an image-bearer. All deserve to be lifted up. All deserve to live in peace. No matter who. Period.

How, then, can we as followers of Jesus live in peace? As Professor Works reminds us, “the appeal to peace is also a marker of the Spirit’s work. In short, the presence of joy and peace are the indicators of the Spirit’s transformative work to reveal God’s kingdom: Paul’s closing in 2 Corinthians is not simply an appeal for the church to get along, it is an exhortation for the Corinthians to be the new creation that the Spirit is equipping them to be.” [3]

What a wonderful follow-up to our Pentecost celebration last Sunday. Paul is indeed calling every believer to be all that God through the Holy Spirit is helping us to be. No matter what, no matter who. No matter whether we live in city, suburb, rural, or any other community. No matter what our skin color happens to be.

God willing, we can all strive to become more and more like Jesus. Who would Jesus love? Every one. Every single person in all creation. No matter who.

Paul ends this letter with a benediction. It is called a “Trinitarian benediction,” because it refers to God the Creator, Forgiver and Comforter. Receive these words of the apostle Paul:

May Jesus Christ who forgives us,

God who created us and loves us always,

and the Holy Spirit who is with us helping us and caring for the world through us

be with you all today and every day. [4]

[1] Commentary, 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13 (Trinity A), Carla Works, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2081

[2] https://russellbsmith.com/2020/06/05/black-lives-matter/

[3] Commentary, 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13 (Trinity A), Carla Works, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2081

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/05/year-trinity-sunday-first-sunday-after.html

Worshiping with Children, Trinity Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Come, Holy Spirit!

“Come, Holy Spirit!”

Acts 2-3 pentecost

Acts 2:1-4 (2:4) – May 31, 2020

My parents grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That was the golden age of radio. When I was young, my mother used to tell me about radio serials she used to follow. Serials like the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, and the Cinnamon Bear. I know many people all across the country followed these programs closely every week, and listened to even more.

I think of our friends, the followers of Jesus on that hilltop. Like in the radio serials, when last we left our intrepid heroes, we saw them with heads toward the sky. They watched the risen Lord Jesus ascend into heaven. Fast forward to this week. Thank you, Levi, for reading our Scripture from chapter 2 of Acts.

Only a few days have passed since that miraculous happening. Jesus disappeared into heaven. Yes, Jesus gave His followers their orders. Marching orders! But—where are the disciples now? What are they doing? Are they fearlessly marching out into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world? Come on, guys! What gives? What’s the matter? The followers of Jesus—both men and women—are waiting for something; something that Jesus foretold, something big that had not happened yet. Everyone was together in one place—waiting.

At least they all were in Jerusalem. After all, another religious festival was right around the corner. Fifty days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (or Passover) the Festival of First Fruits, or First Harvest was celebrated. This festive day was also a glad ceremony in the Temple, and many Jews from hundreds of miles around were in Jerusalem to celebrate.

At least the Jews did not have a pandemic to worry about. No, Jerusalem and the surrounding area were packed with visitors ready to celebrate at the special worship services at the Temple, ex-pat Jews from all across the known world at that time.

And, where were the followers of Jesus? Up in that upper room, presumedly the same room where Jesus and the disciples had celebrated that Passover dinner the night before Jesus was crucified. They were there, but yes, they were shut away. Presumedly behind locked doors, for fear of what the authorities might do to them, even weeks after the crucifixion of their leader, the Rabbi Jesus. Or, is that the Messiah Jesus? Or, the risen, ascended Jesus?

The disciples of Jesus were all gathered together in one place. When, on that Harvest Festival morning, a noise like the rush of a mighty wind blew through that upper room. Apparently, it was loud enough—surprising enough—so that people on the street heard it, too!

The Holy Spirit came with full sound effects, with heavenly flames over each head and I suspect with some kind of noise, music or something that caught everyone’s attention for some distance. After the energizing of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus couldn’t help themselves. They spilled out into the street, and started speaking other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them knowledge and utterance. Surprising? Amazing? Miraculous? Yes to all three!

I think the Holy Spirit moved mightily upon the disciples, and the very breath of the risen Jesus was felt by many—on that day of Pentecost, through the centuries, and to the present day.

The disciples of Jesus were all gathered together in one place. I envy them.

Because of the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order I have not been able to gather together with a number of other believers for almost three months. And, neither have you.

Sure, we have had online worship, Zoom bible studies and prayer meetings, and telephone conversations. Perhaps individual Christians have met each other in the neighborhood, taking their dogs for a walk or running into each other at the grocery store. We remain socially-distant, to be safe and caring for others who are elderly or in fragile health—but it is not the same as in-person worship, IRL. Not the same, at all.

However—do we depend on a structure, a building, a tall steeple to witness to the Resurrection? Or, is the Church something more, something much bigger than this building?

The COVID-19 pandemic did not surprise God. I am not here to tell you this is a judgement of God upon the earth, or upon one group of people or another. I do not believe a good, gracious, loving God works that way. But—I want to suggest something else. Is it possible that we, as followers of Jesus, can also serve God by being separate, socially-distant, apart and still caring for one another? Can we follow the final instructions of our Lord that He gave just before He ascended, to go to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth?

The newly-energized disciples spread the Good News of Jesus and His Resurrection, and of God’s reconciliation. Boy, did the Good News travel! The authorities in and around Jerusalem got seriously worried, so upset that they eventually started to crack down on anyone who called themselves a follower of the risen Jesus. The disciples needed to move out from Jerusalem, and started taking the message of the Good News out to the ends of the earth.

God did a new thing at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came with power! I wonder if God is doing a new thing now, today? It’s possible that “God will use such a time as this to blow new life through and among and into and upon us. For our own sakes, yes. But even more so for the sake of those to whom we are sent.” [1]

We, the Church, are on assignment—out among the people God wants us to minister to. Feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the least of these. We can all tell people about the Good News—the wonderful news of God’s reconciliation and healing. Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-together-in-one-place/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Coming Attractions

“Coming Attractions”

Acts 1 ascension_of_jesus

Acts 1:6-11 (1:11) – May 24, 2020

When I used to go to the movie theater, I would be excited about the feature film. Of course! That is why many of us buy tickets and go to a theater, to see the big feature! What’s more, the feature film is usually billed as something special, indeed! Except – what about what happens before the feature film is shown? My children used to call them “commercials,” short teasers of movies coming soon. Another word for these? Coming attractions.

As we turn to the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we find our resurrected Lord Jesus with a group of His disciples. He rose from the dead some weeks before, and I suspect this special time has been a time of intense learning. Similar to a condensed intensive course of study, if you will.

To be sure, the weeks after the Resurrection have been a time of training for the disciples. I am sure our Lord went over passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, pointing out how He fulfilled the promises given so long ago. I also suspect Jesus went over some practical things, too. What seminarians and professors refer to as practical theology – the every-day life and practice of being a follower of Jesus.

Now, Jesus is about to say good-bye. But, before He does, the disciples can’t wait to ask one more burning question. I get the feeling that this question just bursts out of them! “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

I imagine our Lord stifling a big sign, and almost saying to His followers, “You’re asking Me this again? Haven’t I explained it thoroughly to you guys and girls before? I mean, many times before?” I can just see a meme of Jesus doing a facepalm, on social media. The disciples still haven’t gotten it. They still just don’t get the full picture.

Before we come down too hard on the disciples, we need to remember that they did understand a great deal of what was said in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yes, after the Resurrection, everyone certainly expects God to do something.

Some of Jesus’s disciples must have expected to be clothed with power, and deputized as Jesus’s right-hand men and women. They understood that their leader was in fact the Messiah! In large part, “their question to Jesus about the restoration of Israel is perfectly reasonable. The Messiah is expected to purify the land and rule over the nations. Is this finally the time?” [1]

“Listen, Rabbi, we know a huge miracle happened, and God raised You from the dead. But now, aren’t You going to become the greatest King of the whole world? That’s what we remember from our Torah study as kids, and from the preaching and teaching You did, too. So, when is that going to happen? Soon? Right now? When, Lord?

Jesus doesn’t go into a long discourse the way He did in the Gospels, to explain His position more thoroughly. No, instead, He gives the disciples an outline of what they are to do. A short how-to statement, after the weeks of intensive learning.

Isn’t that what practical theology is all about? I loved my practical theology classes in seminary. In those classes, I learned how to put the theological learning I got in my other studies to work. Classes like preaching, or what I’m doing right now; like pastoral care—what I use in talking with church members or as a chaplain in the hospital. And, I learned more practical things, picking up great tools for my pastoral tool belt in those practical classes. I learned the every-day life and practice of being a follower of Jesus—in the classroom.

The disciples must have learned things about the every-day life and practice of following their Lord Jesus, too. Except, there is a big difference between the classroom and real life.

As Jesus responds, “He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is the real thing, Jesus! No being just an apprentice. Not practice, not any more.

After these words come out of Jesus’s mouth, He ascends to heaven. Another miracle, accompanied by angels, even!

This to-do list from Jesus Himself ought to be a highlight for all of His followers. First, look at where we start. Jerusalem, or home. Where we stand, right here and now. Next, Judea—or our neighborhood. Is there anyone next door or down the block who needs to hear the Good News about Jesus? Maybe it’s kinda difficult. Maybe we hesitate. Really, Lord? Invite my neighbors to worship with me? Why not? Remember, Jesus said so. And then, to Samaria. What, Lord? That’s where those different people live—different from me, I mean. Sure, I know it’s nearby, but I’m just not comfortable!

Now, wait a second. The ends of the earth? Seriously? Some days I have enough problems getting out of bed in the morning, much less going to the ends of the earth. Yet, this is what our Lord Jesus commands all of us to do.

There is no “end of the earth.” “The world is my parish” John Wesley said.

The work of proclaiming that Good News, that salvation to all people is still going on today. The exciting thing to realize is that the ascension of our Lord meant that the promised Holy Spirit would come to the disciples, soon.

Coming attractions, indeed! Stay tuned for the next installment: Pentecost! The coming of the Holy Spirit. Get ready!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884

Commentary, Acts 1:6-14 (Easter 7A), Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011. 

No Longer Orphans

“No Longer Orphans”

John 14-18 not leave you

John 14:15-21 (14:18) – May 17, 2020

When I used to read lots of fiction novels, especially when I was young, a favorite theme was making the protagonist an orphan. Sometimes abandoned, sometimes ignored, sometimes desolate, this setting provided a rich background for the author’s writing.

Today’s Gospel reading from John 14 seems especially pertinent in these uncertain times of pandemic. Here Jesus promises the Holy Spirit’s coming to be with us. The Holy Spirit now is present with believers, both with them and in them. Jesus says He will not leave us all alone, the way orphans are left all alone.

When some people think of orphans, they think of children, huddled in orphanages, housed in drafty attics, or in poky little rooms. Imagine Orphan Annie at the beginning of the musical “Annie,” or Harry Potter in the first few chapters of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Just thinking about orphans in that way feels desolate.

Except—most of us are orphans, too. We lose parents to many things: to cancer, strokes, diabetes, or accidents, among others. Most people are at least half-orphans. I was—my dad died when I was in college. In July, it will have been forty years since I lost my dad, and became a half-orphan. At least I had my mom until the early 2000’s. But, that loss of my father to cancer was a sad blow. I missed my dad very much, and now I miss both of my parents.

When Jesus said to His disciples “I will not leave you as orphans,” I would imagine that Jesus’s words were comforting to many if not all of His disciples.

Death and sickness were everyday facts of life 2000 years ago. I don’t read very much about the individual disciples in commentaries and other reference books, for the main reason we are not told very much in the Biblical record. But, I do know the human condition, for people in the present day, and other common situations many people are familiar with.

Thinking again about the human condition, and people we encounter every day—whether in person, on social media, or in the news—what is their situation? What are they dealing with?

We are all sadly familiar with people dealing with financial trauma, job loss, physical illness, spiritual desperation, emotional isolation, instability, want, disrupted relationships, abandonment, violence … the list goes on and on. These elements of the human condition are bad enough. But, when we add our current emotional and psychological climate, especially in this unprecedented time of pandemic, individuals can feel overwhelmed. Whole communities can be disheartened and desolated, particularly in hot spots affected by the coronavirus. Interesting that Jesus uses the word “orphaned” in this week’s text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples and go and die. [1]

Jesus just got finished promising the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many people love this promise, and grab onto it with both hands. Yes, it is a marvelous reality in believers’ lives.

But—sometimes—especially in uncertain times like right now—individuals can feel like orphans! Isolated, alone, disheartened, even desolated. I am particularly thinking of seniors I know who are in fragile health, confined to their homes or apartments. I shop for two households of seniors right now, in this time of shelter-in-place in Illinois. A senior couple, and a widower. Two of my relatives are both seniors, both living alone in Chicago. I’ve heard expressions like squirrelly, stir-crazy, isolated, even though we live in a time of computer access and social media connections.

Is this what Jesus was thinking of?

Jesus, I want to be able to communicate to people some hope, some feeling of togetherness, some kind of kindness, compassion and coming-alongside.

I know, the promise of the Holy Spirit may sound like an empty promise if you’re locked down and in quarantine. But, perhaps one way the coming of the Holy Spirit can be expressed is when we look at the words and actions of Jesus’s followers. Maybe another way to look at the work of the Holy Spirit is a way that animates and encourages people to reach out to one another.

Before I came to St. Luke’ Church, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was a listening ear to patients or loved ones or staff. I came alongside of these people in difficult situations – like a Paraclete, in a similar way to the Holy Spirit coming alongside each of us in difficult times.

In a practical sense, the way the Holy Spirit sometimes works may be the kindness we extend to each other. Yes, the Holy Spirit is with us and in us. And, yes, in these times when many people find themselves desperately alone or lonely, the Holy Spirit moves or sends others to be God’s hands and feet, God’s listening ear, the person who shows up at your door delivering groceries, or the volunteers who drop off baked goods or canned goods at a food pantry.

I am blessed with a pleasant smile – it just happens. I was told a number of times by patients and loved ones that my smile lit up a hospital room. Could your smile, your kind words, your compassion and helpfulness be the Holy Spirit’s working in all of our lives?

Listen to Jesus—God will give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever— the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit indwelling each believer. The Holy Spirit works through each of us, through all of us, sometimes at the most unexpected times.

Are we called to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Is God pleased when we spread kindness and help others? As we show love to each other, we show love to Jesus. And, the Holy Spirit bears witness within. What a wonderful promise from Jesus. What a wonderful opportunity to do God’s work. Go, and do likewise.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/orphaned-anna-hosemann-butler-05-20-2014.html

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Together with Christ

“Together with Christ”

John 14-3 prepare a place, words

John 14:1-7 (14:3-4) – May 10, 2020

When I was in middle school and high school, I attended a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin for several years. I vividly remember the girls who got so homesick while they were there. Several really missed home, and needed lots of TLC, tender loving care, for a few days. Have you ever been homesick? Can you relate to the frightened, heartsore feelings of these girls?

I don’t remember being homesick, but I can remember feeling scared at camp. I can remember being really scared on other occasions, too. I wonder if the disciples got scared while they traveled with the Rabbi Jesus from place to place? From what we know about Him, Jesus was an itinerant Rabbi, with no real home, no place to call home base.

What must that have been like, not having anywhere to call home? The Rabbi Jesus and His followers, His disciples kept moving from place to place. Different people react to being on the road a lot in different ways. It can be stressful and cause people considerable anxiety.

Added to that, all of the disciples knew very well that their Rabbi was not viewed positively by many Jewish leaders. Repeatedly, prominent Jewish teachers and lawyers had argued with Jesus. A group of leaders actively opposed this upstart Rabbi with the radical ideas and preaching, even if Jesus was a miracle worker.

The situation when the band of disciples entered Jerusalem must have been tense, to be sure. That Passover dinner on that Thursday night was not the most comfortable, I imagine. Yet, what does our Lord Jesus say to His disciples at that meal? How does He deal with this tense situation? Jesus says, “Don’t be worried! Have faith in Me!”

Have faith? Don’t worry? Listen, Jesus, Your friends have been on the road with You for many months. They are tired, they are tense, they have no home base to go back to. What do You mean, saying to them, Have faith and don’t worry!? Isn’t that expecting a lot from these guys? Isn’t that expecting a lot from us, Your followers today?

The next words are nothing but reassurance, comfort. He says, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I wouldn’t tell you this unless it was true. I’m going to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back and take you with Me. And then, we will be together.” Total reassurance and comfort. Jesus encourages His disciples just as much as He encourages us.

However—Jesus’s disciples just don’t understand. They can’t get their minds around the metaphor Jesus is using. They mistake His reference to a heavenly house to a real, geographical space. Thomas—who likes concrete explanations, remember—asks for exact directions to plug into his GPS. [1]        How often are we like Thomas?

How often do we need (or want) exact directions, or latitude and longitude, or a detailed list of bullet-pointed things to do? And how often are we told by Jesus that we already know the way? We know Jesus, who is the Way. Precisely because Thomas knows Jesus—precisely because we know Jesus—we cannot become irrevocably lost.

Last week was Good Shepherd Sunday. We talked about the psalm for that week, Psalm 23. I can see definite tie-ins for that beloved psalm with this week’s Gospel reading, as well. Who does not relate to the idea of God shepherding us when we are lost? Who yearns for God to spread a feast in front of us, and to welcome us to the Good Shepherd’s heavenly home?

This week is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Today is also Mother’s Day, traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday of May. This heartwarming adaptation of Psalm 23 is not only a reminder of that beloved psalm, but also a celebration of mothers.

It was written by Laurie Hays Coffman, and is called A Child Learns to Trust. [2] It says:

“My Mom is my shepherd; I shall not want. She makes me lie down under cool, downy comforters. She watches me play beside still waters. She restores my soul. She leads me in paths of respect, responsibility, and goodness, for I am her namesake! Yea, even though I walk past monsters in the dark, I will not be scared, because my mom is always near me. Her hands and her voice, they comfort me. Mama sets the table and cheerfully calls me to dinner even in front of big, mean bullies. She anoints my skinned knees and broken heart with kisses. She smiles and throws me a towel when my cup runneth over. Surely God’s peace, power, and mercy shall uphold me all the days of my life, for my Mother taught me to dwell in the house of God forever.

Yes, this is an imaginative way to think of Psalm 23. And, this adaptation gets across several of the same ideas that Jesus communicated to His disciples at that Passover dinner, too.

Do we take Jesus’s word as true? Even though it’s an anxious time right now, do we trust Jesus to carry us and remain with us—walk with us, even through the dark valleys?

We are in uncharted territory right now, quarantined, apart from each other. Can we hold on to Jesus’s promise that between now and whenever we are all together again, Jesus is showing us the way? His way! Yes, we may walk through dark places and shadowy spaces now, but Jesus our Good Shepherd stays right by our side.

Jesus also said He’d prepare a place for us—a room for us in His Heavenly Father’s house. Jesus assured us we would be reunited with Him at that heavenly banquet. What a celebration that will be! Jesus said so. We can count on it. Praise the name of Jesus!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218

David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] https://www.desperatepreacher.com/mothersday.htm

Calling by Name

“Calling by Name”

John 10 parable-of-the-good-shepherd_lg

John 10:1-10 (10:3-4) – May 3, 2020

Have you ever felt lost? Lonely? Like everything was dark and stormy? I know I have, from time to time. Especially right now in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, that is the big difficulty with being separated from our friends and from one another: we run the risk of feeling lost and alone.

On a number of occasions, our Lord Jesus talked about being lost and alone—or rather, about being found, about living in community, in a group. Several times in the different Gospels, Jesus compares Himself to a Shepherd. Our Scripture reading today from John chapter 10 is one of those situations.

This is familiar territory, a common metaphor in the Bible. God is the Shepherd, and the nation of Israel is the flock of sheep. Though most of us today in suburban Chicago don’t know much about farm animals, this topic was an everyday subject to the people listening to Jesus. In villages and small towns, most families had a few sheep or goats. There were a few shepherds who would take all the animals from the different townspeople’s houses out of town to pasture.

As Jesus taught the people, He made sure to give a detailed account of the bad things that could threaten the sheep. Thieves and robbers sometimes waited to grab a lamb. They might even lie in wait to come over the wall of a sheepfold at night, and steal a couple of sheep away. That was one important reason for the shepherd to guard the sheep and sleep across the entrance to the sheep’s pen at night. In other words, to serve as the door for the sheep.

I know many today are fearful and anxious at such an uncertain time. Some people do not even want to hear another word about the topics of coronavirus and COVID-19. Radio, television and other social media have broadcast every variation of news about the pandemic for many weeks. Are coronavirus and COVID-19 robbers and thieves of our peace and security? Do these fearful and very real threats seek to heighten danger to all the people? All the sheep? These are things for all of us to think about and ponder in our hearts.

I attended a number of intensive summer seminars taught by the retired professor and Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey. Sadly, he died four years ago, but he greatly enriched the general understanding of Christianity and the Bible. He drew upon his many decades of familiarity with the culture and practices of the Middle East, and strongly encouraged his readers to view the Biblical texts through a Middle Eastern cultural lens.

In his book The Good Shepherd, John chapter 10 is one of the chapters in the Bible Ken Bailey tells us about. As he so often does, Dr. Bailey gives example after example of Middle Eastern accounts, described in the reading. A Syriac bishop from the 12th century discusses the thieves and robbers coming after his sheep—his parishioners—so realistically. [1] I almost was persuaded that he was describing evil and greedy fake ministers of today, out to “fleece” the unsuspecting sheep who were shepherded by the Syrian bishop Ibn-al-Salibi.

As this book describes the voice of the Shepherd, we come to see how the sheep quickly learn to recognize their own Shepherd’s voice. Even though there are other shepherds in the same area, the Good Shepherd’s sheep hear that distinctive voice and follow the one they know.

“But, wait!” you say. “Other voices might be just as loud,” or “Other noise can drown the Good Shepherd out.” Perhaps, even, the sheep get confused or anxious or downright lost, and wander away from their Shepherd. What then? What about a situation like right now, in a pandemic, where lots of fear, anxiety, emotional and economic uncertainty, worry, grieving and mourning distract us from the voice of our Good Shepherd? What about loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of loved ones, loss of all kinds of things people hold dear?

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows about every situation. Nothing surprises Him. Jesus will stay by our sides and walk with us through each scary situation, each grief-filled event, and each dark valley we cross.

I know—from experience—the malicious, nagging murmur in my ear that says, “Why should the Shepherd want to call me? I’m not important. He probably does not even have a name for me, let alone know who I am.” The Syriac bishop has an answer for that. Reaching across the centuries to reach us today, Bishop Ibn-al-Salibi tells us “The shepherd expresses his true knowledge of [the sheep] by calling their names. For the one who calls another by name makes clear that he knows him.” [2]

Just think. Our Lord Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus knows the name of each of His sheep. It isn’t just a “Hey, you!” or “What’s your name?” No! Jesus calls each of us, His sheep, by personal name. Jesus knows each of us so well, He knows everything about us. And, what’s more, He still loves us!

Praise God, just as the risen Christ called Mary by name in the garden that Easter morning, so Jesus calls each of us by name. I rejoice in the knowledge that I am a much beloved sheep of our Good Shepherd. We all have a beloved relationship with Jesus! Each one of us is His dear sheep—we can trust Jesus’s word on it. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (InterVarsity Academic: United States of America, 2014), 216-17.

[2] Bailey, Kenneth E., 218.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Recognizing Jesus

“Recognizing Jesus”

Luke 24 road-to-emmaus-rembrandt

Luke 24:13-35 (24:16, 26) – April 26, 2020

Have you ever run into a good friend you haven’t seen for a while, and not recognized him or her? That is, at first? Exactly that happened to my son earlier this week, at a store near our house as he picked up a few things. He wore a mask—as is appropriate. About six or eight feet down the aisle was another young man, wearing a mask, too. The other man bumped something off the shelf and said, “Oh, no!” My son recognized his friend’s voice! But, the masks they were wearing kept them from recognizing each other—at first.

Something similar happened after the Resurrection, to two disciples. The two even heard the witness brought to them by the women disciples, that their Rabbi Jesus’s body was gone from the tomb! But, these two disciples couldn’t quite accept the women’s witness. (Apparently, the other men disciples had a hard time believing the women, too.) We don’t know why they decided to leave Jerusalem a few days after the crucifixion, but they did.

Perhaps the two disciples were nervous, or anxious. Their leader had just been arrested by the authorities and condemned to death! What if the authorities started rounding up the friends and associates of this radical, rabble-rousing Rabbi? Why else might they have left? All of the disciples were grieving. The loss of such a wise, strong, loving person like the Rabbi Jesus must have been devastating! And, different people have different reactions to grief—reactions all over the board, from anger to depression to desperate tears.

I think everyone is grieving right now. Who is not missing things from their life before the lockdown? What about school? School children miss their classmates, teachers miss their students, and parents miss the structured, ordered classes. What about adults who cannot go to work? What about closed businesses, blocked services, rules against close proximity, and—most of all—the lost income? The economic impact? What about the desperate isolation and loneliness some people experience now, with the widespread lockdown? Not to mention the grief of having loved ones in hospital and care centers, much less dying from serious illness?

These are just some of the losses and griefs countless people are experiencing right now!

Wasting no time, the two disciples hit the road early in the day, and who did they happen to meet? We know, since our Gospel writer Dr. Luke tells us: the resurrected Jesus Christ. The risen Stranger begins to walk with them, and they fall into deep conversation on the way about all that had happened in the past week or so in Jerusalem.

What about us, today? How much would you give to have Jesus take a walk with you and tell you all about Himself? What would it be like to hear about the witness of Scripture from the author of all that is holy, the Living Word, Himself?

Dr. Luke tells us that the two disciples were kept from recognizing Jesus during that whole journey from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus, about nine miles down that dusty road. Their eyes may have been closed through fear and anxiety, which certainly can cause a great deal of upset and disturbance inside. Trauma, too, which we now see as a very serious thing, indeed. The disciples might have been confused and off kilter. Death of a dear friend or loved one can do that to you! I know. I’ve experienced it. I suspect you have, too.

What about us? Is there anything keeping us from recognizing Jesus? We have already talked about grief, which is a huge thing in some people’s lives—especially now in this time of pandemic. But, other strong emotions can keep us in a fog. Living in a constant state of fear can disturb our thoughts and even our brain function. People who study the effects of trauma tell us so. What about confusion and bewilderment? Anger and frustration? All very valid reactions, and all very human feelings, too.

Any one of these can keep us from recognizing Jesus, and if two or three are going on at once, our distress is that much greater. Our distancing grows, and some even start walking away from Jesus. Believe me, it happens much more often than we realize.

I see Jesus being gentle and straightforward as He walks and talks with these two disciples. He lays out all the truths from the Hebrew Scriptures for these two men. We don’t know for sure, but they might have been like Thomas; we looked at him last week. These two disciples may have needed to hear the Truth from the ultimate Source of Truth, Himself.

At the end of our narrative, Jesus is finally revealed to the two friends at dinner. When Jesus takes and breaks the bread, the disciples see, recognize, and realize that it is indeed their Rabbi come back from the dead, the risen Christ sitting with them at the table.

And then—Jesus disappears! The two friends look at one another, saying, “What just happened?” “Was that truly Him? Really and truly?” They finally recognize Jesus for what He was. The encounter changed their lives. I wonder—when we recognize Jesus, does that encounter change our lives, too?

When we recognize Jesus—I mean, truly realize what He means in our lives—it cannot be just a casual greeting, a mild how-do-you-do and then we merrily continue on our way, without a thought more about Jesus and His Resurrection. Jesus means much more! We need to recognize all that He is, all that He means, and all that He offers freely. Resurrection! Life everlasting! And, Himself as our brother and best friend.

Praise God, Jesus can walk by our sides even now, through trouble, grief, pain, fear and anger. He has promised never to leave us nor forsake us, wherever we may journey in life. And, that is a sure and faithful promise from our resurrected Lord and Savior. Amen! Alleluia.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Are We Fearful?

“Are We Fearful?”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 (20:19, 26) – April 19, 2020

Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really scared? I am talking about so scared that you wanted to hide away from the people in charge, permanently? Maybe it was you, maybe it was some acquaintance or friend, but some people have really been scared so much that they stay holed up in some hiding place, some attic or some upper room—just like the disciples, after they watched their Rabbi Jesus get arrested, beaten and then crucified.

Two thousand years later, we all know the rest of the story. Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, that first Easter morning. What was it like for the disciples? I mean, the men disciples? Sure, they had heard from the women disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and John had even checked things out at the tomb for themselves. It was true! The tomb was empty! I am sure that news caused a great deal of excitement, discussion, and wonder!

But, what about other feelings? What kinds of other emotions were happening to the disciples? How did they feel on the insides? Were their stomachs doing flips? Were their hearts in their mouths? Were they filled with amazement? Fear? Doubt? Or all of these emotions, all at once, or in stages? Could the disciples be hiding out behind locked doors because they were afraid, embarrassed and ashamed? What were they doing as Jesus died? They certainly were not with Jesus at the cross—except for John. Were they afraid of what Jesus would say to them about all their desertions if He really were alive again? [1]

John’s Gospel tells us, plainly, that the disciples were afraid. Fear is a legitimate emotion and reaction to a dangerous, scary experience.  Sure, the disciples knew that the tomb was empty, but that did not stop them from being afraid. I also suspect that they feared that the Roman authorities might come after them, as known associates of the Rabbi Jesus. The disciples did have good reason to be afraid and anxious of the people in charge.

And right into the middle of all this fear and anxiety—even though the disciples knew about the empty tomb—Jesus walked through a locked door into the upper room, greeted the disciples, and they were suddenly overjoyed! As if a modern switch were flipped, the disciples’ emotional expression flipped, too.

Except—for some reason, the disciple Thomas was not present in the upper room on that occasion. We don’t know why. The Gospel of John does not say. The other disciples told him, excitedly, “We have seen the Lord Jesus!”  But, Thomas was skeptical. He responded, “I need proof for myself. Unless I see the nail marks and put my hand in the wound in His side, I will not believe.” I can just see Thomas crossing his arms across his chest and turning his back to his friends. “Nope. No way. That is too big a whopper for me to swallow.”

Do you know someone who needs concrete proof in order to believe something? Different people’s minds work in different ways. Certain types of people need concrete evidence in order to convince them of the truth, or of the facts, or of someone’s honesty. Thomas was that sort of a person: a “show me” sort of guy. He needed that kind of proof in order to truly believe.

Whether we are talking about two thousand years ago, or about today, people have not changed. One type—one size does not fit all. Some people hear about the Gospel and believe right away. Other people hear about heavenly coincidences, or “God-incidences,” and then come to believe. We can compare Thomas’s skepticism before belief to Paul’s Road to Damascus experience, where the apostle Paul had a sudden “come to Jesus” moment. (Literally.) The New Testament holds up both of these very different experiences as valid.

I have heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.” As if there is something shameful or wrong with being skeptical! I suspect Thomas didn’t know whether to believe or not to believe; there is no shame in being skeptical! We can see that different people come to their own sense of belief in their own individual way, because God has created each of us as unique individuals. Is it any wonder that each of us comes to God in our own personal way?

When you and I think about this Gospel narrative in light of today’s events, there is indeed a great deal of fear and anxiety. Just as there was with the disciples, so it is right now. All over the nation, all over the world the virus COVID-19 makes all of us afraid and anxious. This virus is even more dangerous than the Roman authorities, forcing vast groups of people all over the world to curtail their travel, their interaction, even to the point of quarantine.

Yet, just as our risen Lord Jesus spoke to the disciples and declared, “Peace be with you!” He says the same thing to us. “Peace be with you!” Jesus has declared His peace to fearful people and to dreadful situations over and over again, throughout history. In times of serious illness, in times of conflict and war, in times of natural disaster—Jesus has these hopeful, heartening words for us: “Peace be with you!”

Jesus can come alongside of each of us, through fear, through anger, through desperation, and through grief. And if Jesus is at our sides, walking next to us even though we walk through dark valleys, that is peace, indeed. Jesus gives us His peace, no matter what.

Amen, alleluia!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-second-sunday-of-easter-april_13.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 2A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

Who Are We Looking For?

“Who Are We Looking For?”

Jesus and empty tomb

Matthew 28:1-10 (28:5-7) – April 12, 2020

Are you living in the midst of uncertainty? Not sure of what is happening from day to day? Sometimes, not even sure of which day it is? I talked with my sister yesterday, and she admitted she lost track of the days of the week a few days ago. I know for many, the “right-now-time” throws many people into a tailspin, and knocks them down. The “right-now-time” of quarantine is an uncertain, uncomfortable time. A time of not-knowing!

That is what it was like for the followers for the Rabbi Jesus, immediately after the crucifixion. They were in a tailspin, knocked down and uncertain what was coming next.

Their Rabbi, their leader and guide had just been killed in a particularly gruesome fashion on Friday afternoon. Joseph of Arimathea had gotten the body of Jesus released to him late Friday, and they quickly put Him in the tomb before night fell. It was the Sabbath night, too, so they had great reason for the big hurry. Friday night and Saturday day were—and are—the Jewish day of rest, especially made holy because of the Passover observance.

At such an uncertain, uncomfortable time, what do you think the disciples did on that Saturday, on that Sabbath day? Some may have cowered in fear, afraid that the Roman soldiers would come after Jesus’s close associates, too. Some may have been too grief-stricken even to move, to eat. Some may have gotten angry—angry at the Roman overlords, and angry at the Jewish authorities, but felt impotent to do anything about their anger.

What about us? What are we doing in the midst of this quarantine period, this “right-now-time” of the pandemic? Some today may also be afraid, fearful, anxious about ourselves and our loved ones. Some—whose lives have already been intimately touched by this virus—are grieving and mourning because of loved ones who are very sick or have already died. And then, there are those who are downright angry! Angry with an invisible virus, angry at the various responses to the pandemic, but feel personally impotent to do much about their anger.

Our Gospel writer, Matthew, tells us of the two women disciples who come to the tomb early Sunday morning. They come where they laid Jesus’s body on that desperate Friday afternoon. They grieve and mourn, and have spices to anoint the body properly, since on Friday there hadn’t been enough time for a proper burial. Except—Jesus is not in the tomb!

Can you see the two women, thunderstruck, as they stand in front of the empty tomb? The stone has been rolled away, showing the hole in the rock. Plus, on top of the stone sits a miraculous sight in its own right. An angel, dressed in bright, shining white, waits to speak with the women. Can you imagine their surprise, shock, even fear at the angel’s appearance? The angel says, “Don’t be afraid!” I can just see the shining figure, hand outstretched, comforting words calming their fears and anxiety.

Here we are in 2020, in the midst of the “right-now-time” of the pandemic, and we need an angel to come and reassure us! Some today have even forgotten what the presence of God feels like. We badly need comforting words to calm our fears, anxiety, anger and confusion.

The angel did exactly that. The angel tells the women disciples not to be afraid, and repeats the words of Jesus—“He is not here, just as He said!” And then, “Quickly, go tell the other disciples Jesus is risen!”

Those women had their fear, grieving and uncertainty disappear in a moment! Alas, it won’t be quite that miraculous or quite that sudden for a recovery from this pandemic.

My journalist husband makes memes from time to time, and they sometimes have biting social commentary. He recently made a meme with a grandfatherly-type man reading to two young children, with a snarky comment about “the before-time.” But, what about the “right-now-time?” That tense time between the diagnosis and the treatment? Or that worried time when others have lost the job that provides income for their household? Or, that anxious time when we fear for loved ones who are essential workers? Or, that waiting time when some cannot even sit next to an ICU bed in the hospital because of COVID-19?

We are living through tumultuous times, indeed. I suspect, when people look back on the year 2020, there will be a clear line of demarcation between the “before-time,” the “right-now-time” in the midst of the pandemic, and whatever comes after. We hope, we pray that this next time may be known as the “recovery-time.”

As the angel told the women and men disciples, Jesus is no longer in the tomb! Jesus is risen! Yes, those were desperate, anxious times for the disciples, and yet Jesus said He would be with them. There have been fearful, anxious times throughout history, yet Jesus has conquered death. Disasters, famines, floods, and yes, pandemics have come upon great numbers of people at times—yet Jesus tells us, urges us “Don’t be afraid!”

Yes, the women were afraid, yet full of joy! We can take heart that Jesus gives us the assurance that He is alive!

“God is not finished yet. We might recall that, indeed, God’s favorite thing to do is to show up where we least expect God to be and to surprise those who have given up on God.” [1] Jesus has promised; He will be with us! And, His peace can never be taken away from us, no matter what. That is Good News, indeed. Amen, alleluia!

 

(I would like to thank Rev. Dr. David Lose. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas from his commentary on Holy Saturday, from his online article http://www.davidlose.net/2020/04/the-forgotten-day/ )

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2020/04/the-forgotten-day/

Remember Through Generations

“Remember Through Generations”

 

Exodus 12:1-14, I Corinthians 11:23-26  – April 9, 2020

Jesus Last Supper, 2

Do you look at social media much? Maybe, Facebook? Instagram? Or perhaps, Twitter? In case you are not as familiar with these social media sites, there is a popular Internet trend that has been circulating for about ten years. It’s called (Hashtag) Throwback Thursday, or #TBT.“ This hashtag is used by people all over the world to share and relive their past experiences with anyone they want—both positive and negative experiences.

As I considered the Bible readings for this solemn evening, I could not help but think of #ThrowbackThursday. Perhaps the main reason is because when our Lord Jesus was at dinner with His disciples on that Thursday night 2000 years ago, it was Passover they commemorated with that special dinner.

That event was when Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, out of slavery, into freedom. But before Pharaoh was convinced to let the Jews leave, the Lord sent plagues upon Egypt. It is at this point we take up the narrative. The Lord is going to send a horrible last plague; the firstborn son in each household across Egypt would die. In order to escape that plague, Jews were instructed to smear blood from a lamb on the lintel of each house. Then, the angel of death would know not to kill any in that household. The angel would pass over that house.

Have you had Bible experiences duplicated in your life? Like, right here, here and now? Not necessarily a Passover dinner with a roast lamb—although some modern-day Jews are kind enough to invite non-Jews to their homes for a Passover dinner, or seder. But, have Bible experiences happened to you?

We are going to remember the dinner that Jesus shared with His disciples that Thursday night, 2000 years ago. Why? Because Jesus told us to remember Him.

Morgan read about the details of the Passover lamb from Exodus as our Scripture reading tonight. Holy Week and Easter as two springtime festivals, but they do not always coincide. This year, as sometimes happens, they do. As Christians mark some of the holiest days of their religious year, so do Jews. Remember #ThrowbackThursday? #TBT has special significance this year. Not only for our Lord Jesus as He remembered the Passover with His disciples, along with Jews in that time and place, but Jews today still remember, still look back to that Exodus event.

This spring is also a very different season because of the coronavirus pandemic. This health emergency has made everything more difficult for everyone. With these shelter-in-place orders for everyone’s safety and well-being, people are more anxious and fearful than usual. For some people, of whatever faith, even their faith wears thin sometimes.

How are you holding up, with Easter on hold this year? Doing things differently? Perhaps some of your friends or acquaintances are celebrating Passover in a very different way this year, too. How are they doing? People snap at each other, especially when they are forced into close quarters together. What is more, with so many restrictions on our movement—at least, here in suburban Chicago, as well as other major cities—life feels closed-in, and claustrophobic. Have you or your family felt that way? This is a great concern during this quarantine, especially for people who track spousal abuse, child and elder abuse, and violence in households. Help is available. If you or someone you love can use the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the toll-free number is 1-800-799-7233. In such tense times, I am glad caring, helpful people are at the other end of the phone.

Where else can we turn, but to God? As the Bible describes to us time and again, God has been there for others, in Bible times, throughout history, throughout similar crises of war and strife, of deadly illness and pandemic, of natural disaster, and of famine and starvation. Yes, all these things have happened, and yes, Jesus has been here through it all, right by our sides.

We come to this night. We come to the table, this table. Jesus gathered with His friends around another table, in that Upper Room. He said the words that Paul gave to us in a letter to the Corinthian church, those words we know today as the Words of Institution. Yes, Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread. He took the cup. He blessed them, and passed the bread and cup to His disciples. He said about that event, “Remember Me.”

There is such a deep connection. The command in Exodus tells the Jews to remember. The words of Jesus tell His followers to remember. And each time we gather around a table like this, we repeat the Words of Institution, urging us to remember. We remember the gracious promises of God, throughout the generations. We remember the mighty power of God, the comforting presence of God, and the saving grace of God, throughout the generations.

I know that my faith falters, at such a difficult time as this. Some of my friends and acquaintances shyly admit the same. That is why it is so important to come together—virtually, if need be. We can perform the centuries-old practice of Communion on Maundy Thursday, where we remember those words Jesus spoke to a room of friends around a table. We can be strengthened spiritually by the Body and Blood of our Lord. Even though separated physically, we can pray for God’s holy presence to be with each of us in a special way tonight.

As we come to the table, let us also come to God with our hearts open wide. Let us come to the feast with Him who died for us, giving praise and thanksgiving for this great gift, as we all remember. Amen.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Who Is This Jesus?

“Who Is This Jesus?”

Jesus Palm Sunday, Armenian manuscript

Matthew 21:1-11 (21:10) – April 5, 2020

Do you remember watching a parade? Some might think of a small, neighborhood parade, or a large, elaborate one. I remember watching old newsreels, the kind that used to be shown in old-time movie theaters, with a cartoon before the feature film. Some of the tickertape parades I saw on the newsreels were huge spectacles, with massive crowds waving as the guest of honor came by, usually in an open convertible.

You understand the picture? That is the scene from the Gospel we are talking about today. Except, instead of confetti and tickertape, the crowds in Jerusalem waved palms. Some even threw their coats or cloaks in front of the guest of honor. Both the long-ago crowd and the modern crowd yelled and hollered and made all kinds of noise.

The Rabbi Jesus had been in circulation in the area for three years. He had been preaching with power and healing people for all that time. I suspect that great crowds wanted to welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, for a number of reasons. And, a great number of people used a word from the Hebrew Scriptures to welcome Jesus. Hosanna!

Hosanna! Let’s say it again. Hosanna! Today, that word is familiar to many from church. From Palm Sunday. It’s something that people say—what children say when they wave their palms. Isn’t it? Isn’t that what it means?

The word “Hosanna!” comes from Psalm 118, meaning “Save us!” It was used when the crowds welcomed the Jewish hero Judas Maccabeus to Jerusalem, more than a century before Jesus lived in Palestine. “Isn’t the Rabbi Jesus a prophet? A healer? Didn’t He have all kinds of power? I haven’t seen it, personally, but I’ve heard about Him from all kinds of people! He’s a wonderful Rabbi, too. Don’t you think He might be the Messiah? He’s come to save us!”

I can just hear the crowd: “Save us!” “Please, bless us! Make us prosper!” “Hosanna!” In this single word, “Hosanna!” the crowd communicates a whole lot of things!

What did the crowd think of Jesus, two thousand years ago? Who did they think He was?

Today, people have lots of opinions about Jesus. Can you hear some of these ideas when people cry out to Him? Some consider Jesus to be a prophet, even a miracle worker. They certainly honor Jesus. Others think of Jesus as a very good man, one whose words, deeds and teaching were a cut above the rest of humanity. Some think the man Jesus exemplified the best of God as Jesus understood God. Or, is Jesus God incarnate, God come to earth in human flesh?

What did the crowd think of Jesus, two thousand years ago? Who did they think He was? Remember, Israel was under Roman domination. The Jews were a conquered people, under tight control by the Roman army. There had been rumors and whispers of a coming Messiah among the Jews for decades, even for centuries.

“Isn’t the Rabbi Jesus a prophet? A healer? Didn’t He have all kinds of power? I haven’t seen it, personally, but I’ve heard about Him from all kinds of people! He’s a wonderful Rabbi, too. Don’t you think He might be the Messiah? He’s come to save us!” With such urgency, such expectations, it’s no wonder the crowds cried “Hosanna!” “Save us, please!”

In the last number of weeks, not only in this country, but worldwide, vast numbers of people look calamity stark in the face. We have the loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of freedom of movement. What have we got in exchange? More fear and anxiety, more anger and confusion, more mourning. What about first responders, medical workers, janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, and people who pack and ship everything from A to Z? Front line workers all. I cannot begin to tell you about fear, worry, sorrow and anticipatory grief in operation here.

We need someone to come and be our Savior, the Rock of our salvation.

The corona virus is not quite like a physical enemy, one we are able to fight through the force of arms. Not like the Roman army, or the armies the United States fought in the wars over the past two hundred years. Would we, today, have reacted much differently than the crowds that greeted and shouted at the Rabbi Jesus? Or, would we be blinded by our fear, anxiety, confusion and profound grief at this current, horrible pandemic? Are we hearing “Hosanna!” differently this Palm Sunday? How can we walk with our Lord Jesus through this Holy Week?

Let me suggest things to do to help each other, at this desperate, anxious time. Can we show each other more kindness, help each other, be more selfless? Perhaps, even be more like Christ in our daily lives and daily activities? We can all do small, caring actions, each day. Call or text a loved one or friend. Offer to take out the garbage for a neighbor, for those who are able. Check on a senior who lives down the street—using appropriate social distance, of course.

As we call on God in our great need, can we see how God in the flesh comes to us? Humble, gentle and riding on a donkey, not charging in on a white stallion, or riding in a late model tank. Our Lord Jesus comes in vulnerability, and weakness, to join with each of us and be with us through our trials and tribulations. God comes to love us and redeem us, no matter what our situation may be. No matter what.

Praise God! Hosanna! Thank You, Jesus.

 

I would like to thank Rev. Dr. David Lose. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas from his commentary on Matthew 21:1-11 from his article Palm Sunday A – The Greater Irony

Posted: 31 Mar 2020 11:12 AM PDT http://www.davidlose.net/2020/03/palm-sunday-a-the-greater-irony/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Godly Weeping

“Godly Weeping”

John 11-35 Jesus wept, rain

John 11:1-45 (11:35-36) – March 29, 2020

Who has ever grieved for a loved one when that loved one has died? All of us can remember times when we grieved a close relative or a close friend. Such a common response. Whether outwardly or inwardly expressed, it is difficult to deal with mourning and grief.

When Lent started this February, not many people expected the corona virus to become so serious, so quickly. So many people becoming sick, hospitalized, and even dying. Imagine the helplessness of relatives, friends and other loved ones when someone so abruptly falls ill. Added to that, what do friends and loved ones do when they are not allowed to see patients in the hospital, in intensive care, even on a deathbed? It’s a difficult complication to grief.

For our Scripture reading today, we have the raising of Lazarus from John 11. The apostle takes us through a series of scenes. Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany after several days, and Lazarus has already died. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus, along with Lazarus’s sisters Martha and Mary. Several days before, the sisters urgently sent to Jesus, begging Him to come and heal their brother, Jesus’ friend. Then, Lazarus was dead, in the tomb. Mary and Martha were devastated, and their community gathered around them, to grieve with them.

What about dying, mourning and grief today? “When someone dies it is generally publicly acknowledged. Friends and family gather, life is celebrated, love is celebrated, the bereaved feel supported while their community gathers. Healing begins in time, and the lives of the ones that are living go forward still carrying the grief. Grief out of loss is validating, our society tells us that it is right and acceptable to experience anger, sadness, depression when a loved one dies.” [1]

We note specific mourning and grieving practices in the first century. The Gospels mention funerals and grieving several times when Jesus performs miracles. Like, for example, right here. Mary and Martha’s friends, acquaintances and community gather around, even four days after the burial of Lazarus. They come together to mourn with the sisters, and weep.

As I have been meditating on John 11 this week, I see that Jesus wept. He wept in company with Mary and Martha, He wept because He mourned Lazarus’ passing, and He was surrounded by people who were grieving. Added to that deep emotion was the anger from some who thought (or openly said), “This Jesus could have come back a couple of days ago, before Lazarus died! Jesus healed others…why couldn’t He heal His good friend?”

Anger, yes. Sadness, depression, hopelessness, even paralysis. All of these are expressions of grief. But, grief can come from many different things, many different losses.

Today, vast numbers of people are grieving. “Disenfranchised grief comes when we experience loss that is not associated with a death. Many in our community are grieving the distance between family and friends and sometimes that distance is as much as a house or a few blocks away. Disenfranchised loss comes when our loss we are experiencing is not validated by our community, when it is not publicly acknowledged. Grief many are experiencing in light of COVID 19 can easily be dismissed because we have all had to give up the running of our daily lives, in whatever capacity that involves.” [2]

Jesus truly, deeply grieved with Martha and Mary. Reading along, we see that He wept. Those around Him said, “See, how much the Rabbi Jesus loved Lazarus!”

When I was a hospital chaplain for almost ten years, I worked nights and weekends. I would be called to emergencies in intensive care, cardiac care, end-of-life care, and thrust into heartrending situations where I scrambled to be present with grieving people. I needed to come alongside of traumatized loved ones at the absolute worst times of their lives. It is a humbling, devastating experience. But, I never had to be a hospital chaplain in the face of a pandemic.

Do we remember that Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” before He wept with Martha?

He goes on to say, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Martha makes that great statement of belief, “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Even at the grave of her newly dead brother, Martha makes that ringing statement of trust. Even in the face of desperate losses from loss of a job, or loss of a spouse, loss from a disaster, or loss of a sense of home and of place—can we echo her words today?

But, this is not the end of the story. After Jesus weeps with the sisters, sharing their grief, He performs another mighty miracle. Jesus tells Lazarus to come forth, out of the tomb, and Lazarus does exactly that. Alive!

Jesus conquered grief, mourning and loss. Both here in John 11, with the raising of Lazarus, and in the Resurrection, when Jesus triumphed over death once and for all. Praise God, we can believe Jesus. Praise God, we can trust in Jesus, and although we may weep and grieve for the present time, our weeping will ultimately turn to joy. Amen.

[1] Jess Swance, meditation on “Disenfranchised Grief in Our Communities” (personal article)

[2] Ibid.

(I would like to thank Jess Swance. For this sermon, I have used several quotes and ideas from a personal, unpublished meditation she wrote. I appreciate you, Jess!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Godly Seeing

“Godly Seeing”

 

1 Sam 16-7 The Lord Looks at the Heart

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – March 22, 2020

What does a hero look like? Can we describe them? Are they good-looking? Strong or attractive? How much does their image and appearance affect us? How much does what someone looks like cause us to judge that person—positively or negatively? These are all great questions, and questions I’d like us to explore today.

Let’s get right to our Scripture reading. We look at King Saul. Saul had done some really unwise things.  We see the prophet Samuel directed by God to anoint a new king of Israel. Samuel is hesitant…because Saul is still king! However, Samuel is instructed to go to the town of Bethlehem under cover of deception, to the house of Jesse, supposedly to make an animal sacrifice to God.  That is the background of the story thus far.

But what about the deeper meaning of this narrative from the Hebrew Scriptures? For that, we need to go back a few chapters in 1 Samuel. At first, Samuel and the people of Israel were very glad that Saul was their king. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and pleasing in appearance. Saul looked like a king! He was the very image of what people thought a king ought to be. Everyone said so!

But, after some time, Saul’s true nature—on the inside—became evident. He was not all he appeared to be on the outside. He made some very unwise choices, acted foolishly, and God finally rejected him as the king of Israel.

When Samuel met with Jesse and his sons, Samuel looked them up and down. He thought he knew which one God had chosen. The one who appeared big, and tall, broad-shouldered and good-looking. That was the one the Lord wanted, wasn’t it? Or—was it? Did Samuel have discerning eyes? Could he see what God sees?

The writer of 1 Samuel particularly highlights the words “see” and “appearance.” “In the Hebrew, the verb ‘to see’ occurs three times in v. 7 while the noun ‘appearance’ is related to the verb ‘see’. The focus is on how one sees when choosing leaders, and especially on how the Lord ‘sees’ as compared to how humans see. The Lord ‘sees the heart.’[1]

It was just as true when King Saul was chosen as it is today. Just think of the superhero movies—and television shows, and comic books—that are so popular in recent years. We just do not see any skinny, scrawny runts as superheroes. No, it’s all about the outward appearance. That is the all-important factor for human beings today. Plus, add some handsome or beautiful attributes, and we have a definite winner.

What is important to God? What kinds of attitudes and ways of thinking are pleasing to the Lord? Are we “looking” but not really “seeing” as God sees?

All of Jesse’s older sons were presented to the prophet Samuel, but God was silent. Samuel needed to ask whether Jesse had any more sons. “Yes, I do. But, he’s the youngest. He’s out watching the sheep,” said Jesse. Sure enough, God chose David, the youngest of eight brothers. God sees differently from human beings.

We settle for the outward appearance, for what we think the “image” of a king ought to be. However, the Lord looks on the heart. The heart has to do with our will, our attributes, and our internal character. God chose David because David had shown he was a person after God’s own heart. God chose David because David had bright possibilities even when others could not see them.

This bible reading from 1 Samuel is a great source of encouragement for children and young people, who feel left out and left behind by the big and powerful. We see that God finds possibilities in the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely persons. We see the Lord lift up Jesse’s youngest son David to be the anointed king of Israel. In a similar way, God can lift up the marginalized, the downtrodden and the rejected ones today to a place of prominence. God can, and God does just that.

Many people are still fooled by appearances. What kinds of possibilities are there in your life and heart today? Are you a person after God’s own heart? Be comforted and encouraged that God does not see us as the world sees, but God sees past all that. God sees our very hearts.  

It’s amazing to know that the Lord sees inside each of us, down to the “real person” inside. Let us pray that our hearts become like God’s heart, more and more, each day.

 

(I would like to thank Dr. Bruce Birch. For this sermon, I have borrowed several extended ideas from his commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13 from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol 2. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/LentA/Lent4A1Sam16.html

The Old Testament Readings: Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.

Living Water

“Living Water”

John 4-14 word cloud

John 4:5-42, Exodus 17:1-7 – March 15, 2020

In any group of people, you will certainly see several at least with disposable water bottles or the more expensive refillable kind. So many people today understand the importance of drinking enough water. My daughters remind me: “Hydrate! Hydrate!”

If we know the importance of drinking water today, in this temperate climate where water is readily available, just think of what it was—and is—like for people living in a semi-arid region like Samaria. Sources of water were not plentiful, at all. Having a deep well near a town, especially a well dug by one of the patriarchs of old, would be considered a great community asset. That well would be a valuable material resource, too.

John tells us it’s the middle of the day, nearing the hottest part of the day. The rest of the band of disciples goes into the Samaritan town of Sychar to find food, but their Rabbi Jesus stays behind at the well. We don’t even know the name of the woman who comes to the well, but Jesus engages her in conversation.

Hold on, here. Fetching water was and is a task that women have done, for ages. For thousands of years. There is a togetherness, a community feel to fetching water; I suspect it was similar for the women of Sychar. All go with their water jars, fetching their loads in the morning, before the heat of the day. But—what about this straggler, coming in the middle of the day? This particular woman’s lifestyle sets her apart from the others!

The Rabbi Jesus starts to talk with her. Imagine, a respected Jewish rabbi, talking to some outcast woman? That shouldn’t be! And moreover, this woman is a hated half-breed Samaritan! Worse and worse! Jesus, what are You thinking of? This activity is really culturally and socially disgraceful. That would be what any respectable, observant Jew would think about Jesus’s words and actions. Shaking their heads, saying, “Shame, shame! There is SO much wrong here!” However, Jesus does not allow social or cultural conventions of His day to dictate to Him.

Jesus had something important to communicate. He talked to the woman at the well about Living Water. Water from heaven, Godly water that gives eternal life! What is more, he treated this outsider, this “loser” of a woman with kindness and respect. What an example for us to follow, too. Imagine, treating all people with kindness and respect, because each one is made in the image of God. Jesus gives us another challenge, to treat each person we meet with respect and kindness, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well.

What are you thirsty for, these days? Sure, we might have one of those fancy refillable water bottles, and try to keep it full most days. As my daughters tell me, “Hydrate, Mom! Hydrate!” We might satisfy our physical thirst, true. But, what about our spiritual thirst? Are we even aware of this deep-down thirsting, yearning for something to fill us up from the inside out?

In Jesus’s case, He told this woman some significant things about her life, things that rocked her to the core. In fact, when she ran to tell the people in town about this marvelous Rabbi, she said 29 “’Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.”

Different people have different reactions. Some people scoff when they hear about the Rabbi Jesus—“He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah! You’re pulling my leg!” Others are just not sure. They might like to believe, but they might be fearful, or anxious, or have their minds on too many other things. And, then, there are those who hear about this Jesus, this promised Messiah, and come running to see Him. That is the woman at the well. She brought a whole bunch of people with her, to check Jesus out. To have the possibility of drinking from this Living Water.

Remember, Jesus says “13 “Everyone who drinks this water [from Jacob’s well] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” How are you reacting to your spiritual thirst? Are you anxious or fearful, angry, distracted or discouraged?

Jesus promises to give this Living Water to anyone who asks. What would it be like to enjoy Living Water from Jesus in each of our lives, on the inside? Let’s get even bigger. Imagine what it would be like to have Jesus supply each of our congregations with this Living Water, providing a supply for all our spiritual thirst? Filling us up on the inside, so we aren’t anxious or fearful, angry, distracted or discouraged?

We have the opportunity to supply others with Living Water, in the same way that Jesus can. With God’s help, we can fill others with this wonderful spiritual water from the well that never goes dry. I ask again: What are you thirsty for?

Jesus has an amazing spiritual well. God willing, Jesus can fill us, from the inside up.  Amen.

 

(Thanks to Dr. Hongsuk Um of the Church of Scotland for several ideas I used in this sermon.)

https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/62984/15-March-3-Sunday-of-Lent.pdf

Third Sunday in Lent – 15 March 2020 The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Dr Hongsuk Um, Faith Nurture Forum Development Worker, for his thoughts on the third Sunday in Lent.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Stepping Out (in Faith)

“Stepping Out (in Faith)”

Gen 12-5 God-calls-abram

John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4 – March 8, 2020

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

Faith is complicated, for many reasons. Sometimes, people can have a lot of faith in someone or something. Other times, those same people can choke up, or get scared or anxious. And, sometimes, those same people can step out in faith, taking big chances—or opportunities.

We have two stories of faith this morning. Miss Eileen read them to us. The first is the calling of Abram by the Lord, and the second is the nighttime visit of Nicodemus to the Rabbi Jesus. In both of these we see faith, and the need for faith.

I ask again: is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

We look first at Abram, in Genesis chapter 12. He was living in a big city called Ur, and at this point he probably did not know very much about the Lord, the God who made heaven and earth. Abram was fairly well off, with flocks and herds and other resources. In other words, a man of substance. Similar to someone in the upper middle class here in the Chicago area. Can’t you see a well-off executive, or business owner, or entrepreneur, getting acquainted with the Lord for the first time? That is the situation for Abram here.

We have a different type of man in Nicodemus, presented to us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was a renowned teacher in Israel and a member of the religious council in Jerusalem. (Probably what we would call a full professor of bible and theology at one of the leading universities today.) He was curious and intrigued enough to visit this new upstart Rabbi Jesus, to have a one-on-one conversation with Him.

Abram had a one-on-one with the Lord, too. The Lord of heaven and earth had a command for Abram: “Go.” Go out from your comfortable house and stable place of living, Abram. Go into the wilderness, and I won’t even tell you where your destination is. Just, go, Abram. Go because I tell you to go.

In Nicodemus’s one-on-one conversation with Jesus, the set-up was a little different. We see Nicodemus—the well-respected, senior teacher of Israel—coming to the young upstart Rabbi by night. Sneaking away to see Jesus, because it probably would not be good for his reputation. Imagine, a highly-placed, scholarly professor, actually having a conversation with this young guy with the wild and crazy ideas? Sure, this Jesus is a Rabbi, and He is knowledgeable about the Bible, but, some of His ideas are way out there. Yet, as we see from reading John chapter 3, Jesus has just as much authority as the Lord of heaven and earth.

We see Abram and his reaction to the Lord. When the Lord says, “Go!” Abram packs up his bags and tents and flocks and herds, and his wife Sarai and nephew Lot, and does just that.

We hear much more of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. We hear the marvelous words of John 3:16-17, which is part of Jesus’s response to Nicodemus. We do not find out much about the response of Nicodemus—at least, not yet.

In the children’s time today, I talked about Abram and how much faith he had. Abram went when the Lord told him to go. And, Abram did not even know where he was going to end up. He had faith in God. Isn’t this another way of explaining faith? Faith is more than what Abram thought. Faith is what Abram did and where he went. Faith is believing God.

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life? Is faith more than just what you think? Is faith what you do and where you go? Just like Abram?

Nicodemus is a little bit different from Abram. Abram actually stepped out in faith. The Lord told him to go, and he went. But, Nicodemus was more cautious. Isn’t it difficult to jump in with both feet? Or, step out, the way Abram did? Nicodemus didn’t want other people knowing about him going to see this young Rabbi Jesus.

Sure, we might know lots of things about Jesus. We might think Jesus was right about a lot of stuff He said, too. Jesus even did a whole lot of miracles! At least, people said He did. Or, do we sneak around and visit Jesus by night, under cover of darkness, just like Nicodemus? Are we willing to stick our necks out and tell everyone we are Christians, in broad daylight? Or, are we afraid people might make fun of us for believing some of that stuff about Jesus, including that part about the resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven?

Sure, Abram shows us what it means to believe the Lord, and to act on that belief. Faith is having our Godly sandals on, and stepping out. Faith is what we do and where we go.

But, before we criticize Nicodemus for not having “enough faith,” this is not the end of his story in the Gospel of John. No, we see him again, twice. In John chapter 7, Nicodemus came to Jesus’s defense when the religious authorities tried to defame Jesus. And again, in John chapter 19 after the crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with burying Jesus.

We see Nicodemus as he steps out in faith, listens to Jesus’s words, and watches Jesus’s actions. In his everyday life, faith becomes what Nicodemus does and where he goes.

It’s true that having faith can be a challenge to you and to me. We are not necessarily people of great faith. As commentator Karoline Lewis states, “Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human.” [1]

Did you hear? Yes, it is only human to be unsure. And, yes, believing—even in God—is something that is a journey. A stepping-out-in-faith journey like that of Abram, in Genesis 12, even a hesitant, journey-by-night, like that of Nicodemus, starting in John 3 and continuing throughout the Gospel of John.

For over 100 years, starting in 1859, the Sunday School Times was published. This was a Christian family magazine. Features, articles and vignettes were all included in this publication, including the following:

“There was once a good woman who was well-known among her circle [of friends] for her simple faith and her great calmness in the midst of many trials. Another woman, living at a distance, hearing of her, said, “I must go and see that woman, and learn the secret of her calm, happy life.” She went, and, accosting the woman, said, “Are you the woman with the great faith?” “No,” was the answer, “I am not the woman with the great faith, but I am the woman with the little faith in the great God.” [2]

We believe that God can love us and forgive us, even when we mess up. How can such things be? Because we believe in a great God.

Is faith an important part of your everyday life? We may not be giants of faith, like Abram. We can still step out, in our uncertainty and our hesitancy. We might just be stepping out at night, under cover of darkness, as we strive to have more faith, like Nicodemus.

We might have little faith, but we believe in our great God. And, that’s enough. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43

Commentary, John 3:1-17 (Lent 2A), Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.moreillustrations.com/Illustrations/faith%208.html (Sunday School Times)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Temptations

“Temptations”

Jesus The-Temptation-of-Christ-Botticelli

Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 3:1-7 – March 1, 2020

Different people are tempted by different kinds of things. I suppose most everyone here has been tempted at one time or another. Not necessarily with big stuff, or important things, but somewhere, sometime, there has been some kind of thing that has tempted you sorely. Maybe it was something as simple as a plate of freshly baked cookies on the kitchen counter. You knew that dinnertime was in only half an hour, but that plate of cookies looked so tempting. Or, perhaps cutting corners at work in order to save time, not quite following procedure. Or, maybe telling a little fib. You know, something that nobody else would know about. Except for you.

Of course, these are small kinds of temptations. Not quite the big, huge temptations we just heard about in our two Scripture readings this morning: the original temptation, with the special fruit and the snake from Genesis 3, and our Lord Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, tempted by Satan from Matthew 4.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, and we begin our journey with Jesus through these next weeks, until Holy Week, that time we remember the Passion of Christ. In these weeks of Lent we will look at different Scripture readings that hold the “Stories that Shape Us:” our Lenten series for this season. Today, we take a closer look at Temptations.

Are you and I tempted by the things we do, say, and think that really aren’t “too bad?” You know, all that stuff that the world tells us is okay? What about telling little fibs? Or, actions that seem like little speed bumps, or that we explain away by saying “everybody’s doing it—it’s okay! Isn’t it?” Aren’t those temptations, too?

Today we are going to zero in on our Lord Jesus, just after His baptism, as He withdraws into the wilderness to fast, pray and prepare for His years of ministry.

While Jesus is there, He’s tempted by Satan. That part is important, too. Just like the original temptation, of Eve and Adam at that special tree in the garden, so long ago.

Let’s look at Matthew’s take on the temptation. He doesn’t waste any time, but plunges right into the meat of the narrative. Verse 1: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Here is the ultimate faceoff, between the Son of God and Satan, the tempter, trying to make Jesus fall or trip up.

Again, in our second reading from Genesis, we find ourselves at the tree, with Eve and the serpent. This is Genesis explaining the origin of sin, true. But, isn’t it also a way of showing each of us how human we are? Sure, God showers many blessings upon each of us, every day. But, the serpent questions that blessing, that trustworthiness of God, even quoting God’s own words back to Eve with a sly smirk in its beady eyes.

Aren’t both Bible readings communicating similar narratives? There is a lack, a hole, a need for something in our lives. And, Satan—the devil—the serpent can give it to us. Or, show us where to get it.

Think about Madison Avenue, and advertising on television, in print media, and now, on the computer. More and more, advertising plays upon our emotions, showing us our supposed “needs” or “lacks,” and then quickly following up with just what we need to fill that hole!

Jesus must have been the most self-assured, self-possessed human being, ever. He wasn’t like the typical human, feeling alone, incomplete, having a hole inside our heart and spirit. Isn’t that what each of us typical humans feel like, at least some of the time? Maybe, even, a lot of the time? Yet, our Gospel reading today tells us that Jesus was, indeed, tempted by the devil.

The first temptation was hunger. Or rather, for Jesus to use His power to take care of His own needs, His own hunger. I can just hear Satan say: “Come on, Jesus! You’re miles from anywhere. No one will see You do it! C’mon, turn these stones into bread. After all, You’re human. You’re hungry. Feel those hunger pangs in Your stomach? You know You want to.”

Yet, as commentator Carolyn Brown said, Jesus had been led out into the wilderness to learn something important. He wanted to be obedient to God and do as God asked, even if it meant being hungry in the wilderness. [1] And what was Jesus’ response? ““It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The second temptation was Satan encouraging Jesus to use His power in stunts, almost like a circus performer, to get attention and show everyone how important He was. Satan even added the heavenly icing on top of this temptation: saying that angels would come catch Jesus if He threw Himself off the top of the temple. What was Jesus’s response? “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, Carolyn Brown tells us that God did not want the human Jesus to show off in such a flashy way, or prove how powerful and mighty God is. Instead, Jesus was sent to love and forgive people, have caring relationships, and be a visual example of what God was all about. [2]

Satan’s last temptation must have been tempting, indeed. Sure, lots of kings and rulers had tried to rule large parts of the world, but they were all fallible humans, with sins and shortcomings and all kinds of flaws all over the place. When Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to be King over the whole world, it must have been some temptation. Since Jesus was the perfect human, He would have been the absolute best King of the world. Oh, yeah. Plus, Jesus needed to bow down and worship Satan in order to become an instant King.

But, this wasn’t in God’s timetable. And, Jesus knew that.

What was Jesus’ response?  Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

We can see how Eve and Adam were persuaded by the serpent to give in to temptation, and eat the apple. We can see how Jesus defeated Satan, the tempter. Jesus trusted and obeyed God His heavenly Father. This struggle, this faceoff with Satan was the important thing. He showed that to Satan by responding directly and clearly, quoting Scripture passages with which all believers in Israel were familiar. [3] And after the tempter left Him, Matthew lets us know that Jesus was ministered to by angels. Like a boxer, after a hard-won fight in the ring.

For us, today, temptation is a regular part of our lives. “I’m only human!” some say. Our lives as Christians do not eliminate doubt, lacks, needs, or a sense of incompleteness. Satan will zero in on those so often! However, we can embrace our relationship with God as that place where our needs are indeed met, where our lives and very selves are made complete.

Sure, we are descendants of Adam and Eve, and as such we can be needy and lacking, searching for that God-shaped filler for the hole inside each of us. Thanks be to God that Jesus has come into our lives. We can trust Him to pick us up when we fall short from temptations’ snares. We can confess our failings and sins, and trust through the crucified and risen Jesus we indeed have the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Amen!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

(I would like to thank the Rev. Dr. David Lose. For this sermon, I have borrowed several extended ideas from his article http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1488  “Into Temptation,” David Lose, Working Preacher, 2011.  Thanks so much!)

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-first-sunday-in-lent-march-13-2011.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-03-01

“Jesus Put to the Test,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2007.

Cleanse Me, Wash Me

“Cleanse Me, Wash Me”

Psa 51-2 wash me, cleanse me

Psalm 51:7 – February 26, 2020

Some people do not care for washing clothes. I don’t mind it. In fact, I rather enjoy the whole process. I remember both of my parents—who grew up in Chicago during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, told me about their moms who had wringer washers. Their moms would wash the families’ clothes, and wring them out down in the basements of the buildings where they lived. My mom had a wringer washer, too, until she died in 2002. I used to run clothes through the wringer sometimes, when I went to her house to help out.

As we read the Psalm for this evening, I wonder—did King David think of the times he watched his mother and other women washing the clothes in the village where he grew up? The words David uses are so vivid and descriptive, I can’t help but wonder!

But more than just washing clothes, King David was dealing with some pretty serious sins. He had lusted after a married woman, summoned her to his palace, slept with her and gotten her pregnant, and then killed her husband. All with little or no apparent guilt—at first.

When the prophet Nathan called out King David for all of these compounded sins, David finally gets it. He finally is overcome with the audacity and hugeness of his sins. It is then he comes to God and begs God to forgive him of his sin.

As I just said, I do not think any of us has committed sins of the magnitude of King David. However—that does not change the fact that all of us, each of us, sins. Each of us does things, says things, even thinks things that displease God.

I suspect when King David was a boy, he would watch the women of his village washing their clothes in a stream, or perhaps in a vat of water. Perhaps if the clothes soaked in a vat of soap suds, the village boys might be asked to lend a hand and stir the wet clothes awhile, to agitate them and loosen up the dirt. When we consider ourselves and the sins we commit against the Lord, is this similar? Are our sins agitated by a heavenly agitator? Is all that dirt and sinfulness loosened up in the soapy suds of our lives?

What about the things we do, say, and think that really aren’t “too bad?” You know, all that stuff that the world tells us is okay? All of the sins or transgressions that are just little fibs, or seem like little speed bumps, or that we explain away by saying “everybody’s doing it—it’s okay! Isn’t it?”

Here in Psalm 51, David is filled with remorse at the gravity of his sin. True, fornication, adultery and murder are pretty big whoppers in anyone’s book. But, if we read the words of this psalm, they are hauntingly familiar to us and our broken hearts. “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;”

I don’t know about you, but when I read these words, I feel the sin and yuckiness of my iniquities all over me. I need to have the forgiveness of God wash me clean and make me whiter than snow. That’s what King David asks for, too.

David goes even further, and asks “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” The plant hyssop was used in David’s day as an aromatic purifier, in a similar way that people used mint, marjoram and similar scented herbs. When Martin Luther translated this psalm, he used the phrase “un-sin me with hyssop.” Take my sin away, Lord! Make me smell minty fresh and clean again!

I know for a fact that Martin Luther had many, continuing struggles in his life with his personal sin. He regularly confessed his sins to God and to his spiritual director, his father confessor. Translating Psalm 51 was probably a very intense, personal experience for him. We can say with Martin, “un-sin each of us with hyssop, Lord. Cleanse us, loosen the dirt of sin with Your heavenly agitator, and make us whiter than snow.”

Please turn to hymn number 436. Let us read together the first verse of that hymn, “Whiter Than Snow.”

“Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole; I want Thee forever to live in my soul. Break down every idol, cast out every foe. Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow—Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

The best part is that our God welcomes everyone who comes with a contrite heart and spirit. Come to God now, confessing those dark places and spaces in our lives and hearts, those times we have said unkind words, and done thoughtless actions, even thought evil thoughts. Bring them to our Lord, knowing that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen, and amen!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!

“Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!”

imandoa001p4

Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – February 23, 2020

Have you ever been really scared? I know I have. Most of us can relate when we hear about people being terrified. I mean, shocked, totally frightened out of your shoes!

What is it that terrifies you? Is it gunfire? Perhaps a gang shootout, on the street? Thankfully, most of us are fortunate to live in safer neighborhoods. What else could scare you to death? A huge fire in your house or work building? Or, what about a natural disaster here in Illinois, like a tornado, or in the Philippines, like a volcanic eruption?

Any of those events could terrify people. We heard about an event today that terrified the onlookers, too: the Transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, James and John were scared out of their sandals! Our Gospel reading from Matthew 17 tells us so.

Let us step back from this reading, and take a long view on the situation in Matthew 17. Jesus is not too far from the end of His ministry, His final trip to Judea and to Jerusalem. It’s only a matter of months before the culmination of Jesus’s time on earth. For the past three years, the itinerant Rabbi Jesus has been preaching, healing, performing miracles, telling parables, and generally doing the things we are used to Jesus doing.

I know Jesus’s typical daily schedule might seem different to us, today, but Jesus had been doing the same thing for quite a number of months.

Yes, He might be an itinerant Rabbi, traveling from place to place, but Jesus had a number of back-up people, ready to take care of His itinerary and check out possible places to stay and eat, not to mention travel. Did you ever think about that? There must have been at least a few people in Jesus’s traveling group of disciples who must have had some expertise in travel arrangements, and setting up food and lodgings.

And, that isn’t all. We understand from references in the Gospels that Jesus regularly took time out for prayer and meditation. At the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning, we see Jesus taking His inner circle of disciples away with Him to the top of a mountain. Did the three disciples have any idea of what would happen later that day? Do we? Do we really know what happened, there on that mountain?

Whatever the event in Matthew 17 was, it was absolutely amazing to see. Our other reading this morning from Exodus 24 also took place on a mountain. Try to see this scene in your imagination. If you will, picture it on the video screen in your head.

In Exodus, the Lord invited Moses up to the mountaintop, to get the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. Also, Moses was supposed to be on the Mountain with God for some time. Both events took place on top of a mountain, in the presence of the glory of God. As the face of Moses shone with that glorious light, so also shone the face of Jesus. Matthew tells us so!

But, it isn’t only the face of Jesus that gets all lit up. No, His clothing becomes brighter than bright, too! A Transfiguration is how the Gospel writer translates the word. In Greek, this word is actually “metamorphed.” We might recognize that word from metamorphosis, the changing of a caterpillar into a butterfly, from an earth-bound creature into something totally and radically different. That is how much Jesus transformed.

For us, today, this sort of transforming effect is not too uncommon. With modern stage lighting, and special effects in the movies, and fancy costuming, we here in the United States in the 21st century might be surprised, but not scared. Certainly not terrified. But, Peter, James and John knew nothing of elaborate lighting or fancy costumes, or even electricity. Imagine, if you can, what an absolutely unbelievable – preposterous – sight Jesus showed to His three disciples. Plus, Moses and Elijah showed up next to the transfigured Jesus, on top of that mountain. Far, far beyond the disciples’ experience. No wonder they were terrified!

If you remember, we had a wonderful Summer Sermon Series in 2018 where we focused on many times in the Bible where people were told, “Be not afraid!” Here is another instance of those powerful words. Powerful, because they almost always come as a result of people seeing the glory of God or the presence of an angel. Memorable, because our Lord Jesus said them to His friends, to Peter, James and John.

We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?

The answer? Jesus transformed back into regular, human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.

The Rev. Janet Hunt tells us that, as she understands it, “when Jesus tells them to ‘get up’ he is using the same words he also used in raising the dead.  No, Jesus does not leave them there ‘dead’ in their terror and their confusion.  For while they may find themselves in the midst of something unlike anything they have ever seen before.  They may be so afraid that they are as paralyzed as though they were in fact, dead. And yet, Jesus does not leave them there.  He tells them to get up and to leave their fear behind.” [1]

Fear of what, I wonder?

  •   Fear of the unknown?
  •   Fear of the incomprehensible power of God?
  •   Fear of their own inadequacy in the glare of that overpowering bright light?

How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

Sure, we, today, can be dazzled and awestruck as we see the marvelous, miraculous event unfold on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.

How much more do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from our Lord Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us, too.      

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/get-up-and-dont-be-afraid-revisited/

(janet@dancingwiththeword.com)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus Says Relationships Matter!

“Jesus Says Relationships Matter!”

Matt 5-22 angry, bird

Matthew 5:21-26 – February 16, 2020

The Psalm reading for today tells us all about the Bible, and how wonderful it is. Every single verse of Psalm 119 – and it is the longest psalm in our Bible – mentions the Word of God. We get just a taste of this with our reading today. The first eight verses, talk about the law, the statutes, the decrees and the commandments of God, using different names in each verse for the marvelous book, the Bible.

These words from Psalms are all describing God’s Word. I want us all to get this concept in our heads: this psalm praising the Bible is describing God’s Word as God’s rules for living life.

Some might already know one or two verses from Psalm 119. These two verses are extremely meaningful to me, and I have memorized both of them. The first, Psalm 119:11 – “I have hidden Your Word in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” The second, Psalm 119:105 – “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In other words, it’s all about the Bible, the Word of God.

The same with our Gospel reading today. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Rabbi Jesus is giving an extended talk on the Law of Moses, part of the Word of God, the Bible. But, what do we do when the words of Jesus are difficult to swallow?

What gives, Jesus? I can understand a murderer getting sent to hell. That’s what Jesus said in verse 21: 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Okay. Depending on people’s views on capital punishment today, they may not exactly agree with the Law of Moses and its rules and punishment on murder, but few people would have serious discussion with the Rabbi Jesus for stating this rule from the Law of Moses.

Here is the part that is hard to swallow. Listen to the next verse, the next thing Jesus says: “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Idiot!’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Seriously, Jesus? Really? Look here, Jesus, You have got to be kidding. Aren’t You? I mean, Getting sent to hell for losing my temper and calling someone an idiot? That’s only human. We are all fallible. We all lose our tempers and get angry, once in a while. Don’t we?

Let’s go back to the idea of the Bible described as the rulebook God gave us for our lives. We all know about rules. Good, clear rules make a great deal of sense and make lots of things easier. If it wasn’t for traffic rules, the rules of the road, there would be lots more accidents and lots more people getting hurt on the road.

What about rules for playing games, and rules for different sports? I bet we all know lots of rules. For baseball, a basic rule is “three strikes and you’re out!” In football the ball proceeds down the field ten yards at a time: “First down!” And, in basketball, the object of the game is to get the ball through the opposing net. If players did not follow these basic rules, they would end up in the penalty box – like in hockey! And, if we do not follow God’s rules for life, what happens? Is there a heavenly penalty box that we can end up in? Or, something even worse?

“That isn’t fair!” How many times have we heard that, either on a playing field or over a board game? Following the rules can be a tricky business. Some people take rule-following to an extreme. But, isn’t there a way to follow the spirit of the rules – or the spirit of God’s laws?

That is what I think Jesus is getting at here in Matthew 5:22. My goodness, if God decided to throw everyone into hell for name-calling, getting angry and calling each other “idiot” and “stupid,” would anyone end up in heaven? I seriously doubt it. I don’t think Jesus means this literally – He is exaggerating to make a point, like He did a few verses further on, in verses 5:27-28. Jesus talks about cutting off hands or plucking out eyes to keep from sinning. Plus, many other commentators believe this, too. Jesus is using hyperbole here, exaggerating to make an important point: Jesus cares about relationships between people. He cares, and cares very deeply!

One of my favorite commentators, Dr. David Lose, said exactly this: “our God cares about our relationships—cares deeply and passionately, that is, about how we treat each other because God loves each and all of us so much.” [1]

If we acknowledge that our relationships with one another matter deeply to God, we are being faithful to the spirit of this reading. We agree with the nature and the purpose of God’s commands and God’s rule-book. Jesus doesn’t just heighten the force of the Law of Moses, He broadens it. Jesus makes this relational command all-encompassing. “It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.” [2]

What a profound concept. Jesus gives each of us a basic lesson on how to get along with each other in the next verses—how to reconcile with each other.

Jesus knows people get angry. What is a common saying? “I’m only human!” A shrug of the shoulders, and people try to sweep their anger and bitterness under the rug. Not deal with it, and avoid it. (This is not psychologically healthy.) However, Jesus gives us an excellent suggestion on how each of us can cope with anger. Everyone does get angry, sometimes. As commentator Carolyn Brown says, it just happens. “Good people get angry as often as bad people do. Adults, teenagers, and children all get angry. So the question is, ‘what do you do when you get angry?’” [3]

Jesus says not to wait too long to do this. (We all know that anger and bad feelings can fester if left alone for too long.) Name the problem that makes us angry, and figure out something each of us can do about it. Jesus wants us to be reconciled with the person who made us angry. That means for each of us to work it out together, to figure out how to solve the problem between us. That is not easy, and it may help to get advice or help from other, trusted friends. [4]

Commentator and preacher David Lose has a suggestion. He would like each of us to call to mind one of the relationships in our lives that is most important to us. One that is healthy, whole, and good, and sustains each of us regularly. What makes that relationship good? Why is it important? We are invited to give God thanks for that person and the relationship we share.

Second, think of a relationship that is also important, but has suffered some damage. Please don’t concentrate on the blame for that hurt. Let us hold that person and relationship in prayer, right now. Let us offer that broken relationship to God as an offering, and ask God to help us and heal that relationship. What might each of us do to move that relationship to great health and wholeness?

Each of us, let us pray that God would continue to use both God’s commands and God’s Good News of the Gospel to heal and restore ALL our relationships. [5]

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank the commentator David Lose for his article on “The Relational God,” and Matthew 5 from Dear Working Preacher in February 2014. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. I also thank Carolyn Brown and her excellent blog Worshiping with Children, for the week of Epiphany 6. I used some material from her blog, too. Thanks so much!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3071

“The Relational God,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-sixth-sunday-after-epiphany-sixth.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 6, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3071

“The Relational God,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Shine the Light

“Shine the Light”

Matt 5-16 light so shine

Matthew 5:13-16 (5:16) – February 9, 2020

My family lives in Evanston, not too far from Lighthouse Beach. Yes, there is still a working lighthouse standing on the lakefront. In fact, a number of working lighthouses still are shining their lights over Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes. Less so today, with all the electronic and computer-assisted help, but in years past, lighthouses had an essential purpose in helping navigators stay safe on stormy water.

I suspect Jesus knew about lighthouses and navigation lights, living near the sea of Galilee as He did. Navigation lights help sailors a great deal, giving them direct knowledge and understanding about how to stay safe on the water. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about light. He’s talking directly to the people listening to Him, who I suspect are mostly His followers. And—Jesus makes this remarkable statement: “You are the light of the world.”

Some might think that our Lord Jesus is just expressing a pious platitude, or perhaps a devout wish. Oh, I wish people could be the light of the world! Wouldn’t it be nice?

However, Jesus not only is saying that about the people listening to Him at the time, 2000 years ago, but He is also saying that to everyone who reads these words in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says those words to us, here, today. We are the light of the world.

Now, if we are light, that implies certain things. Jesus means that the world is in a state of darkness. What is it like to be in darkness, with no light? Let me tell you, when I was younger, I used to go to rural Wisconsin and do tent camping a long way away from any electric lights or settled places. It got really dark at night, and I sure was glad I had a flashlight! I suspect some of you have had similar experiences in the dark. It gets really dark at night, far from the safety of electricity and steady sources of light. It can be scary and dangerous, too.

I’ve never been out on a stormy night on the water, but I suspect people can be very scared of dangerous conditions on the ocean or on a big lake, too. That is one reason why people have depended on lighthouses and navigation lights for safety, security and direction, for many centuries.

As we have mentioned before in weeks past, light and darkness both have their places in God’s world. Darkness can be gentle and needed at times. During Advent and Epiphany, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

Except, we do not want there to be no light at all in the world, ever, and only perpetual darkness. Perpetual darkness can be a downright scary idea. Jesus told us clearly that we are the light of the world, bringing light into dark places. Can you think of times and places where light is much needed?

As I read the words of one of my favorite commentators this past week, Rev. Janet Hunt, this concept struck home to me. See whether her words strike you as true, too.

“Light helps us to distinguish difference and to celebrate diversity.

Light can deepen understanding.

Light works on cellular structures to promote growth.

Light heals.

Light helps us find our way.

Light. And today Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but I suspect Pastor Janet Hunt would absolutely agree with us when we also add lighthouses and navigation lights to the list of things that help each of us to find our way in the dark. Yes, darkness can be gentle and welcoming, but darkness is also scary, producing anxiety. Darkness can cause fear of the unknown, and even make people shrink to engage and interact. And, on dark and stormy nights on the water, we all sure are glad to see lighthouses and navigation lights that show us the way to go.   

When Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world, that means that Jesus is describing our inside nature as followers of Him. After all, He also said He is the light of the world in John chapter 8. Just as Jesus came into the world to bring light to people who walk in darkness, just so Jesus has given each of us that light. Jesus gives us power to display that light of His like a lighthouse brings light to a dark, dangerous coastline, providing hope and direction.

Now, wait, some people might say. I know that professional Christians are supposed to bring people the light of God. Professional Christians have learned how to do that in school, haven’t they? Well, yes. But, Jesus is not just talking to professionals here. Jesus means this description of our inside nature to be for all of us—for every believer in Him.

How are each of us supposed to shine the light of Jesus? That’s hard. That’s scary.

I remember a friend of mine—Miss Rose, who I’ve mentioned before. I came to know and love Miss Rose over thirty years ago at another Chicago-area church. She was a church member all of her life, and her special ministry was working with the children. She loved being a Sunday school teacher, and she would eagerly and willingly tell children and young people about the Lord. She never shied away from letting people know that she shined the light of Jesus as much as she possibly could.

When I think about this verse from Matthew 5, I often think of Miss Rose, shining the light of Jesus, and bringing hope and direction to many young people.

Imagine my delight at meeting Miss Rose again, when I was a chaplain intern at the Presbyterian Homes, a senior retirement community in Evanston. While I was in seminary, one of my field education positions was as a chaplain intern in the large healthcare unit there.

Miss Rose was a resident living there. And lo and behold, Miss Rose shared her love of the Lord with everyone in the healthcare unit. She was the light of the world in her little corner of the world. Even though she was in constant pain, Miss Rose never let that stop her shining the light of Jesus. When I grow up, I want to be like Miss Rose.  

I want to provide a challenge for all of us. As Pastor Janet Hunt says, we are all called to go into dark places with the light of Jesus. Sometimes, we are even called to shine the light of God onto an unfair or sad situation, and bring comfort, direction and friendship.

  • Where have you seen such ‘light’ bringing hope, direction, and promise to a world that is too often dark?
  • Where will you seek to bring such ‘light,’ to be such ‘light’ in the days to come? And, how might you do this together with others who are called to ‘be the light of the world’ with you?

All great questions. I pray that we might go forth from this place, all of us shining the light of Jesus in our particular corner of the world, each and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/you-are-the-light-of-the-world-2/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[I would like to thank the Rev. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his superb book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 1971). For this sermon, I have borrowed several extended ideas from Chapter Fifteen, “The Light of the World.” Thanks so much!]

 

 

 

Blessed Are We

“Blessed Are We”

Matt 5 beatitudes, word cloud

Matthew 5:1-12 – February 2, 2020

This Thursday afternoon, my husband and I are taking a short trip to St. Louis to see our daughter. Before we leave the house, we are going to print out some maps on our computer. Lots of journeys begin with a road map. There are signs to follow and road maps we can consult, just in case. We have landmarks we know along the way. I wonder, when you are on a journey, do you have a road map to follow?

In the previous Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 4, our Lord Jesus gives a summary statement of the message He wants to get across to everyone. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That message is—in brief—a headline for the whole of the next three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters tell the world what God wants them to do, how to act, even what to say.

Today, Eileen read to us the first twelve verses of Matthew 5. These verses have a particular name: the Beatitudes. In these statements, our Lord Jesus tells us about His followers’ road through life. In other words, Jesus gives us a road map which will guide us to the kingdom of heaven. (In other parts of the Gospels, this is identified as the kingdom, or the reign, of God.)

This is great! Isn’t it? We have a road map to heaven! If we follow the signs and landmarks that Jesus describes for us here in the Beatitudes, we will make it to heaven, for sure! Won’t we? Or, will we? How easy is it to follow the signs and landmarks that Jesus tells us about?

Hold on just a minute. Following Jesus is more than just a pleasant walk in the park. Let’s take a look at who benefits from being selfish, who gets the lion’s share of attention, and how the faulty, selfish world wants people to act.

In case you and I haven’t noticed, there is a huge difference between what God wants and what the selfish, self-centered world wants. This is the first detour we are going to take from the road God means for all Christians to take.

Let’s look at a topsy-turvy, cynical, worldly view of the Beatitudes. In today’s faulty, selfish world, things are good for the rich, they can buy whatever they want. It’s good for the strong, they can take whatever they want. They will also make the team. Things are good for the winners, they get all the prizes. It’s good for the smart, and the smart-alecks. They get straight A’s, go to the best colleges, and get great jobs. It’s good for the beautiful. They will get their pictures in magazines, on social media, and get to be in movies. Things are good for the important people. They get to make all the plans and all the decisions. [1]

But, is that the way God wants people to live? Is that what Jesus tells us here, in the Beatitudes? Is that how God wants us to live? If you and I live in that selfish, self-centered kind of a way I just described, will we be traveling on the road to the kingdom of heaven?

We know the selfish, self-centered world rewards the powerful, the wealthy, the attractive, the ones who push others out of the way and trample the weak and poor and sick ones.

Now that we have figured out the topsy-turvy, twisted detour way of looking at the Beatitudes, let’s look at a second detour some might take when they consider the Beatitudes.

Sometimes, certain people think that only super-holy people can possibly follow God’s way to heaven. You know, only real saints of God. People like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Augustine, or Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The rest of us cannot possibly measure up to such a high standard. I am sorry, but you and I are only going through the motions. Some say we are much too weak and sinful to ever be able to follow God’s high and lofty recommendations in the Beatitudes.

Now, this detour around the Beatitudes is a bit closer to the true road map that God marks out for us, but still not quite on target. God wants all of us—each one of us—to have an opportunity to walk more closely with the Lord, and to follow God in each of our individual journeys through life in this selfish, self-centered world

But, wait! Does that mean that you and I need to follow each of these items on the road map of the Beatitudes, to the letter? We have already seen how selfish, self-centered people often live, disregarding all of God’s recommendations. How instead would Jesus want us to fit into His world and His kingdom?

Jesus says that in His kingdom, it’s good for those who know they do not know everything. They belong in God’s world. It’s good for those who are terribly sad. They will be comforted. It’s good for those who obey God. They will be in charge, according to God’s way. It’s good for those who don’t get justice now. Sooner or later, they WILL get it—God says so. It’s good for those who forgive and care about others. God forgives and cares about them. It’s good for those who are pure in heart. They will see God. It’s good for the peacemakers. They will be praised as God’s own children. It’s good for those who are hurt because they stand up for God’s ways. They will be called heroes and heroines. It’s even good for you and me when people come after us in anger because we follow Jesus. We will be rewarded by God in heaven. [2]

Some people will scoff. How do any of Jesus’s suggestions work properly? If I do any of that stuff, I’ll be laughed out of my workplace! People will taunt me and ignore me, or even worse. Well, I think that is just the point. Our Lord Jesus said these things might happen. In fact, Jesus tells His followers, point blank, that these kinds of things will undoubtably happen. And, Jesus also tells His followers which people are His precious ones, His dear sisters and brothers.

There is a kicker—a high point in this section of Jesus’s sermon. When you and I follow the road map Jesus shows to us, He calls us blessed. This is our Lord’s description of every single Christian. In each Beatitude, everyone who follows God is declared blessed.

Are you mourning for a loved one right now? Jesus said you are truly His sister, His brother. Are you poor, and especially poor in spirit? Jesus says you are really on the road to heaven. Are you meek and humble? Then, the world will be in your hands—in this world or the next. And what about those who work for peace in our neighborhoods, our cities, our country? What a wonderful thing to be called God’s children—God’s daughters and sons. And, God promises to abundantly bless us as we journey with Jesus.

This road map of blessing, this road map to the Christian life, shows us a God who delights to create, bless and redeem. May we always remember that we—all of us—have been abundantly blessed with the Beatitudes, for now, and for always.

 

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Light and Salvation

“Light and Salvation”

Psa 27-1 fear, afraid, words

Psalm 27:1, 4-8 – January 26, 2020

How many times have you been somewhere when the lights flickered off? When the electricity stopped working at night, and everything went dark? I have vivid memories of times like that. When I was a little girl in Chicago, sometimes the wind and the rainstorm were raging outside, and the lights suddenly went away. I wasn’t too afraid, even though I was small, but some of my friends and classmates at school were. Light is so needed in our homes and our lives. You could even say light is a foundation, a fundamental to our existence.

Our psalm today shines a light on that very thing: light. King David wrote this psalm, and the very first statement he writes down is “The Lord is my light, and my salvation.” A commentator says “The opening verse describes the Lord with language that suggests God’s presence is life-giving and protective. The Lord is called ‘light’ because light drives darkness away. Light is a basic category of order and stability that recalls the first act of creation (see Gen 1:3; and Exodus 10:21).” [1]

This summary statement echoes so many other verses in other parts of the Bible, but I wanted to focus next on the Gospel of John, chapter one. The Word—the Messiah—is called the Light. Referring to God as Light makes this psalm particularly appropriate for the season of Epiphany. This is the time we especially celebrate God’s presence, and the Light of the world coming to earth.

Our Gospel reading from Matthew 4 has much the same idea. Matthew even quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; those living in the land of the shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Again, the divine Light breaks into the world and allows us, for all time, to come to be close friends, even sisters and brothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When you or I come home at night during a storm and the lights suddenly flicker off, what is the first thing we do? Almost always, we light a flashlight, or a candle. We restore some light to that dark room we are standing in. With light comes safety and salvation.

When I was a young child, I knew I was safe in my house at night with our big dog, even if the lights could not go on. But, what about children who are afraid of the dark, and a big storm shuts off all their lights? Shuts down all the electricity. And, the nightlights can’t go on for those frightened girls and boys. There might be dangerous monsters creeping around the bedroom, or in the attic or basement. What happens then? Wouldn’t the children need the reassurance of a loving parent in the scary darkness of night?

What about King David? What does he say about the dark spaces and dangerous places? He comes right out and tells it to us like it is. Verse 2: “When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.” Sure, David had a lot of enemies, and sure, the bad guys were actively pursuing David, for years.

Reading about parts of the life of David is like being on a roller coaster—so many ups and downs, and terribly exciting, most of the time. David was on the run from King Saul in the wilderness, for years. I bet you anything that as David wrote this psalm, he was thinking about those times, those years that he was pursued by the finest soldiers in Israel, the best in the business of being a soldier.

Even though we are not pursued by a whole bunch of military personnel, I suspect from time to time you and I feel pursued by a bunch of other evil circumstances, or horrible people. Perhaps it is someone at work who makes your life miserable? Or, maybe it is a continuing health situation for yourself or a loved one that just won’t go away? Or, like several of my friends, underemployment, where they just cannot make ends meet, no matter what? When we are in predicaments like these, God can seem really far away. God might never even hear us when we call! At least, that is what we might feel in our hearts—sometimes.

I suspect King David had his moments of fear and trembling, moments when he doubted that God would come through for him. Such moments are only human. Throughout the centuries, countless people have cried out to God in distress and despair. We today have a lot of those moments, too. I don’t think anyone could manage to live life in this world and not have those kinds of doubts.

Thank God that David thought of this, too. David not only called the Lord his “light,” but he named the Lord his “salvation,” too. Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the various writers refer to and remember that part of God’s identity as they remember the Exodus from Egypt. God delivered Israel numerous times with a mighty hand. And, David knows very well that God has delivered him, personally, from King Saul’s soldiers—again and again.

As David celebrates the presence of the Lord with the words of this psalm, he asks to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” What a joy, what a privilege to be able to come to the house of the Lord on a regular basis.

We have the assurance—as David tells us—that we will be in God’s presence, hidden in the sacred shelter of God’s tabernacle. What a promise! What a God. How can we help but praise the Lord? Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4358

Jerome Creach |

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

In Whom I Delight

“In Whom I Delight”

Matt 3-16 baptism word cloud

Isaiah 42:1-8, Matthew 3:13-17 – January 12, 2020

Most people are familiar with job descriptions. A job description for a bus driver would highlight their ability to be able to transport people safely and efficiently from one place to another. A job description for a magazine editor would feature their skill at editing and synthesizing copy for publication. But, what would the job description be for the Messiah, the Chosen One of the Lord?

We turn to our Gospel reading for this morning, from Matthew chapter 3. We meet Jesus at the very beginning of His public ministry at the River Jordan. He presents Himself to John the Baptist, along with a whole crowd of other people. They all want to be baptized, yes. But, what will Jesus do after baptism? What is His ministry going to look like? Do we know the requirements of His position as Servant of the Lord?

If we step back from this close-up view of Jesus and His cousin John the Baptist, we might be surprised at what we see. John had made a big splash in Jewish society, and in fact that whole geographical region. There were many, many people coming to where he was stationed at the River Jordan. Sure, many of them had heard the fire-and-brimstone way he preached. Many others wanted the first-hand experience with a true prophet of God. He called for serious repentance! Not a simple, breezy “I’m sorry” sort of thing. No, John preached a genuine, heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching repentance.

Isn’t that what you and I are supposed to do, before we come to the waters of baptism? Repent? Follow God? Or, if we are bringing babies or small children to be baptized, aren’t the parents and godparents supposed to answer for the children and affirm that these little ones are going to strive to follow God all the days of their lives? Serious matters. Serious vows.

But, Jesus was sinless! He did not need to be baptized! Why on earth did Jesus do this? Two of the reasons I believe Jesus went through the waters of baptism: He publicly inaugurated His public ministry, and He closely identified with the penitent people of God. How better to let people know that He was one of them than to experience all things in the same way that they did, go through all of life’s ups and downs, striving to live life as God would have Him live it.

Yet, John also prophesied the coming of the Lord’s Messiah—or as translated into Greek, the Christ. The Servant of the Lord, as mentioned by several prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. There has got to be a job description in one of those Servant-of-the-Lord sections. Isn’t there?

Many organizations and businesses have detailed job descriptions for each of their positions. In want-ads on line, you can see details of each job, listing required qualifications, desired expectations, practically everything an applicant would need to know in order to apply for the featured position.

In our Hebrew Scripture reading from Isaiah 42, we see a clear description of the prophesied Servant of the Lord. In other words, a job description for the Messiah. We can also think of this as a checklist for the several years of the Rabbi Jesus’s public ministry.

The first qualification the prophet talks about? “I have called you in righteousness.” This is answered directly by Jesus, in Matthew 3. Why was one of the reasons for Jesus’s baptism? As Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.” I suspect Jesus may have had this very section in Isaiah 42 in mind when he responded to John the Baptist.

We hear this job description repeated again and again, by various prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as prophecy fulfilled in the Gospels. Sort of like a first-century job board. Is it any wonder that many people already knew what was ahead of the Rabbi Jesus as He begins His ministry among the people of Israel?

The prophet Isaiah writes God “will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,” We go back to that jam-packed chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. After the angels and the shepherds went away, Mary and Joseph took the eight-day old baby Jesus to be presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. When he saw this Baby, the devout man Simeon also made a prophesy about this Gift from God. It is almost word-for-word out of Isaiah 42. Simeon said “For my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” As Luke said, Simeon had been told by the Lord that he would live to see the Messiah. Lo and behold, when Mary and Joseph brought the Baby into the Temple, Simeon was there, to be a witness.

Another phrase from Isaiah 42: “to open eyes that are blind.” A number of times in the Gospels, we see Jesus healing people who are blind, restoring their sight. One of these healings is recorded in John 9, where Jesus publicly heals a man born blind, and argues with the religious leaders while He was doing the healing. (Plus, an editorial comment: I cannot believe Jesus would heal anyone’s sight to less than 20/20. Perfect sight.)
The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Servant of the Lord would “free captives from prison and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” When Jesus proclaimed in His hometown synagogue that He was the Servant of the Lord, He read from another section of Isaiah. Jesus said these same words: He would free the captives and set the oppressed free.
Last but certainly not least, Isaiah 42 begins with a summary statement: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” Could this be any more clearly the voice of the Lord, echoing across the waters of the River Jordan? “A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” What love. What affirmation. What blessing.

If only we all could have that approval from our earthly parents and families. As one of my favorite commentators David Lose said, “Baptism is nothing less than the promise that we are God’s beloved children. That no matter where we go, God will be with us.” [1]

Certain job descriptions designate people with specific titles or names. I suspect you are familiar with a number of them, too. “Nurse,” “doctor,” “judge,” “teacher,” and even “pastor.” Jesus had the job titles “rabbi,” “teacher” and even “Messiah” or “Christ.” Names or titles are important; some lifting up, and others tearing down.

Think of the various titles or names you have had in your life, as will I. Were all those names or titles positive, good, or helpful? Or, were some of these hurtful, hateful, or demeaning? Some of these names or titles can stay in the memory for years, or even longer, when said in a mean or nasty way. Think of names or titles like “Stupid” or “Egghead,” “Fatso” or “Ugly.” Names like “Loser” or “Prissy,” “Know-it-all” or “Victim”.

As I remind all of us about these negative, hateful names or titles, and we sit with them for a moment, it is just for a moment. Each of us has a God-inspired job description, too. Each of us has the title or name of beloved child. Think about it. We may hold this title, this name, to our hearts—Christian. What an affirmation. What a blessing!

Just as Jesus had the title God’s beloved in His job description, so do we. We have God’s word on it.  

(I would like to thank the commentator David Lose for his article on the Baptism of Jesus and Matthew 3 from Dear Working Preacher. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1580

“The Power of a Good Name,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

 

 

Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

Matt 2-11 Epiphany star, Magi, angel, 12th century carving, Autun Cathedral

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:9) – January 5, 2020

When I was little, we always kept our Christmas tree up in our living room until Epiphany, January 6th. We did not always have this particular decoration, but sometimes, there would be a small star ornament my mother would place at the top of the tree. And, I can remember sitting in a darkened living room with my mom, filled with wonder. The only lights lit in the room would be the colored lights on the Christmas tree. What wondrous lights!

I wonder, were Christmas lights a big part of your Christmas celebration? They certainly were, where I grew up, on the northwest side of the Chicago. Christmas lights in the front yards of houses, and in the windows, as well as on the Christmas tree inside. And, I can remember hearing from a very young age that these bright, shiny Christmas lights all over were shining to remind everyone about the Christmas star, the Star of Bethlehem.

But, what about the original Star? Somehow, I suspect only a few people at the time of the birth of Jesus really understood the reason for the bright shining Star. That is, until it was shining over Bethlehem for a number of weeks.

Let’s look at what Matthew tells us, again: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” What do we know about these Magi, these scholars from the east?

Biblical commentators and historians tell us that these scholars were astronomers who spent their lives studying the stars and planetary movements, among other natural events. They were probably well-to-do, if not members of royal houses themselves. They most probably came from the general area of Persia—that is, in the area of modern-day Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran.  In their studies, consulting contemporary books and writings, these Magi had discovered that the appearance of a wondrous star meant that an important king—or ruler—had just been born. That Star—that Light—beckoned to these scholars. So, what did they decide to do? Go and visit that newborn king, of course!

While on their way, they needed directions. What to do? It only made sense for some well-born VIPs from another country to ask directions at the local palace.

We do know what happened when the Magi got to Jerusalem after following this Star for some weeks; Matthew tells us so. “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.”

Do we see what a traumatic reaction these scholars had on many people in the area of Jerusalem? Lots of people were upset, especially King Herod! However, I do not know whether these scholars understood that Herod was a particularly nasty guy. At least, not at first.

Today, when you and I talk about Advent or Christmas services at our church, I wonder how people react to us when we talk about the Baby in Bethlehem? Have you recently invited people to our church for the holidays? Perhaps our acquaintances are just as cautious or bothered by our invitation as these people were, so long ago?

And, all this was happening because the Magi followed a Star. They had deciphered passages from books and manuscripts about something (or Someone) promised, whose birth was foretold in the skies. The Star was inviting them to follow, to journey into the unknown. These Magi must have been really excited at the prospect of seeing a prophecy come true.

After Herod directed the scholars to Bethlehem, down the road from Jerusalem, the Star moved again. As Matthew mentioned, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The Star—the Light from on high led them directly to the young King, where they bowed and worshiped. Can it lead us to draw near to our Lord Jesus? Is this Star, this Light a beacon of hope and joy for us, too?

All that was two thousand years ago, but Epiphany is still with us today. The word Epiphany means manifestation, or appearance. Epiphany is when Christ appears among us, offering hope and joy to all who might need it.

This brilliant Star encourages us to leave the darkness and despair behind and to come into the Light. God does, indeed put directional signals where we can see them. Sure, the sign of the Star of Bethlehem pointed the way to the Holy Child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But, doesn’t God use directional signals or signs to point to Jesus now, today? We can count on God’s love and presence with us, in Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Yes, Jesus appears when you or I need Him most. May He appear to each of us during this season of Epiphany, in spirit and in truth.

Alleluia, amen.

 

“During these weeks of Epiphany, dare to ask that Star some questions.

  • Where are we being led in this New Year?  Is the Star offering some course correction? Should we be like the magi and experiment with a “different road” that will lead us to new experiences?
  • What might we need to leave behind in order to start on this journey? What burdens or expectations can you and I set aside to lighten the load?
  • As the Light shines into our lives, what might we discover about ourselves? What do you and I value? What new parts of myself do I want to explore?
  • What does the Star—the Light reveal in our world? What needs or injustices are calling out for compassion and kindness?” [1]

(I would like to thank the Rev. Sue Foster for her Epiphany post “Into the Light!” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Fleeing to Egypt

“Fleeing to Egypt”

Matthew 2:13-21 – December 29, 2019

Matt 2-12 Flucht_nach_Aegypten_Meuhlhausener_Altar_Bamberger_Dom

I have been puzzled by the week between Christmas and New Year for some years. Yes, it’s still the holiday season, and yes, lots of people are on reduced schedules, or even taking the whole week as a holiday. But, I realize some people need to keep working regular shifts, to do necessary things that keep the wheels of society rolling and things continuing to happen. As we all know, holidays do not last forever…or sometimes even for a few days.

Remember back to last Sunday? The fourth Sunday of Advent? I talked about the shepherds, and how they got ready to visit the Baby the Angel told them about. Only thing—the shepherds couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off to see the Baby. I doubt whether they could even take more than a few hours, at most a day, to go and see the Baby in Bethlehem. And, the angels in the angel chorus? The angels had gone back to heaven in an instant. They had already left before the shepherds even decided to check out this fantastic story.

Between last Sunday and today, Christmas happened. We sang “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and lit our candles around the Advent wreath. But, what does our Scripture reading say happened? How on earth did we get from shepherds adoring the Baby at the manger to the horrible reading we had just now, from Matthew chapter 2?

Thank goodness for the Angel, again! Thank God the Angel came to Joseph—again—in a dream, and told him to flee to a different country, with Mary and the Baby. The Holy Family was fleeing for their lives; or, at least, for their Baby’s life.

Today, when young couples here in the United States have a new baby, even a toddler, usually the extended family, good friends, and often the church family members gather around in a fond shower of gifts, sometimes bringing dinner or other good things to eat. Somehow, I doubt whether Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus had much of a baby shower before Mary went into labor. Our reading from Matthew 2 tells us a whole lot more serious than just not having a baby shower. Matthew describes an evil, manipulative king who was extremely jealous and anxious. He worried about attacks against his power structure.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from a few verses before our lectionary passage today, from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well.

I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus from what follows. What is even worse is King Herod has demanded that his soldiers go and slaughter all infant and toddler boys in and around Bethlehem. This reading of the slaughter of the innocents? Why this massive horror and carnage to happen? Why now? Isn’t it still the holidays? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas? We just sang “O Little Child of Bethlehem” just a few days ago.

Sure, those soldiers were military men. I know those in the military have to do some really unpleasant things. But, ordered to kill babies and toddlers? Well. Just look who was giving that horrible order: the cruel, bloodthirsty King Herod.

We can see why the Holy Family left Judea. They fled. They became refugees.

As I have been thinking about this Scripture reading from Matthew 2 this past week, I wondered about the term “refugee.” I know many people use this term, not only in this country, but also internationally, and some of these people are misusing the term. What is the actual definition of the term “refugee?”

For this definition, I went to the United Nations website, where the UN describes and defines a great many words and terms that concern millions of people, worldwide. According to the migrant and refugee section of the official website, “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” [1] From everything described in Matthew chapter 2, that definition of refugees describes the Holy Family all too well. Sadly, too well.

As one of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown said, “It would be nice if everyone had gone happily home and watched Jesus grow up safe and secure with angels watching over him and no problems for anyone.  But it didn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work out that way for any of us.  We all have all sorts of problems to worry about and work on.” [2]

Here in the United States, people are sometimes forced to relocate or are made homeless because of natural disasters or floods or fires – which certainly are on the UN’s list in their definition of the term “refugee.” We know about these refugees, or migrants.

A young man was shot on the Howard St. El platform just a few weeks ago. He had moved from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to Rogers Park, because he did not want to be actively recruited by gangs. And—he was shot in the back, execution-style, by a rival gang member. He tried to migrate. He tried to get away from feared persecution, conflict and violence by moving to the relatively safer area of Rogers Park.

This is not the sweet story of Christmas we heard on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t the gentle story of a young woman giving birth to a Baby, and angels giving a birth announcement to shepherds, including the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all!” Where—we heard about God breaking into the world, coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The narrative from Matthew 2, though jarring and heart-breaking, helps us know that God is truly with us. Just look at the state of the world, and the sad—even violent situations people encounter all over. Day in and day out, the days are dark more often than not. People like this young man from Englewood get shot, and stabbed. So many feeling separations of race and class and religion and so many other dividing lines.

Yet—nothing surprises God. Yes, the Holy Family did need to run away to escape from Herod the King. “So God understands when we and our families have scary problems.  God is with us and loves us not just when things are Christmas Eve wonderful but also when nothing is going right.  Right now, on the Sunday after Christmas, that is really good to know.  Christmas is over for this year.  But, soon it’s back to school [and work] and all the old problems and people we will struggle with.  It’s a good time to remember that God was with Jesus and His family in the peaceful stable AND on the scary road to Egypt.” [3]
            He is able to not only help us through our times of trouble, but also to be God with us. Jesus is there with us, even though homes are destroyed and children are slaughtered. Jesus is there with us through all the pain and suffering, through all the wailing and lamentation. We have His word on it. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What a precious promise! What a wonderful Christmas gift! Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/definitions

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-first-sunday-after-christmas.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Moved into the Neighborhood!

“Moved into the Neighborhood!”

John 1-14 word made flesh, circle

John 1:1-14 – December 24, 2019

A long time ago, in a galaxy close by—even, in this galaxy right here, the Word was first. The Word was present before anything else. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.

All right, I have a confession to make. I saw the new Star Wars movie on Saturday. I love the original Star Wars trilogy. I did not love the prequel trilogy, however I really liked the last trilogy of movies. And, the last of the current trilogy, “The Rise of Skywalker,” was a satisfying end to the story—thus far.

What does Star Wars have to do with Christmas? Especially during the past week, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of Light and Dark in the Star Wars universe; the two flip sides of the Force, that ultimate dyad of positive and negative energy, where Light is Good and Dark is Evil.  I saw a few differences to what we have highlighted this Advent season here at St. Luke’s Church—the Light and the Dark.

Except, different from the Star Wars universe, this galaxy’s kind of Light and Dark are both positive, both are needed. Both are made by the same ultimate Source, or Force, or heavenly Creator at the beginning of all things.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is modeled after the beginning of Genesis 1—except John goes much deeper, and gets theological right away. John chapter 1 tells us a lot about the Word—the Light—the Life—and then, brings those descriptions down to earth. The cosmic Light—the Word spoken before anything was created—that Word—or Light—or Life comes down to earth and gets up close and personal. How much more personal can you get than becoming flesh, becoming a tiny Baby?

I think everyone here is more familiar with the narrative of Luke 2, where we hear about Joseph, and Mary, and the census, and the awkward situation the young couple was in—being still fiancés, still pledged to each other, and not yet married. But wait, there’s more! We hear about the shepherds, angels and their heavenly birth announcement. The shepherds run to visit the newborn Baby, and afterwards go and tell everyone in that town of Bethlehem: “Alleluia! The Messiah is born!”

Somehow, the narrative told by Luke seems a lot more relatable than the first chapter of John. I mean, who can relate to the eternal Word spoken before anything was created? And, the cosmic Light that is also Life? Isn’t that a mixed metaphor, John? Couldn’t you get your metaphoric descriptions straightened out before you set it down as Gospel truth?

This Scripture reading from John 1 is the reading for Christmas Eve, where John tells us of the Eternal Word, part of the everlasting Trinity, becoming flesh. As Luke would say, Emmanuel, God with us, becoming a Baby born in Bethlehem.

Jesus was the name that Mary and Joseph gave to their Son, and John tells us He is “the Light of all people” coming into the world. After a month of Advent, of waiting and longing and talking about the miraculous birth, Jesus is now here! We have also been talking about how Light and Dark are both positive things, both created by God.

As we reflect on the two narratives, the familiar one in Luke 2 and our reading for tonight, John 1, both readings talk about the Light of the world come to earth. Yet, Jesus is both human and divine. “Those two things coexist in him, just like light and dark. John tells us darkness does not overcome the light. The darkness is there alongside the light as it shines. Darkness helps light stand out, just like the stars shining in the night sky.” [1]

We have already talked about how darkness can be warm and friendly. Just think of baby animals and their mothers. Puppies, kittens, calves, lambs, all kinds of animals resting with their mothers. And, think of human babies. They rest with their mothers in the warm, welcoming darkness of night. Not like the good versus evil, light/dark split of the Star Wars universe, but instead all creation created by God, and all is named good.

We can see how there is a natural bridge connecting John 1 (talking about the Eternal Word/Light/Life), and the narrative of Luke 2, telling about the common, every-day birth of a Baby—yet miraculous, too. Both are integral parts of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

“But note: when God decided to get personally involved, God came to tell us that we are loved, deeply, truly, and forever. God loves all of us, but especially wants those who don’t feel loved or lovable, those who regularly feel like they’re on the outside looking in, those who feel forgotten, and those who wonder what the point of life is, to hear the “good news of great joy” that God loves all of us.” [2]

Is it any wonder that our Scripture reading for this evening tells us, in the wonderful translation by Eugene Peterson, that this Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Prince of Peace, Word become flesh, “moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus became one of us, a human being.

That is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus has moved into our neighborhood, and become one of us. As the angel said, Jesus is born for you. For me. For each of us. That is the miracle, come to earth. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from the Christmas Day devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.”

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/christmas-eveday-c-keep-it-simple/

“Keep It Simple,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

 

While by My Sheep

“While by My Sheep”

 

Luke 2-10 angels, shepherds, Rembrandt 1635

Luke 2:15-20 – December 22, 2019

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, with all of its opportunities to acquaint ourselves with our Lord Jesus once more. Whether in church on an Advent Sunday, or experiencing the wonder of preparation with an Advent calendar, we have many opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christmas during the Advent season.

But, now is two thousand years after the first Christmas. We have developed a great many rituals and observances surrounding the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem. The liturgical year has been instituted, with the season of Advent celebrated for four weeks before Christmas even happens; Advent being the time of preparation and waiting before the birthday of the King.

The shepherds around the village of Bethlehem did not even know anything special was happening, that first Christmas night. They were simply going about their normal nightly activities with the sheep. When—suddenly, as Luke tells us, the whole night sky was lit up, as bright as noonday.

Do we remember what the social situation of the shepherds was, at the time Jesus was born? I mentioned it last week, in my sermon. I mentioned that shepherds were among the lowest of the low, as far as social class was concerned. Shepherds were on the outskirts of society, the same way they usually lived on the outskirts of a town or village. A shepherd was not highly regarded by common, decent Jews at that time, at all.

This narrative from Luke chapter 2 becomes all that much more valuable, that much more unusual, with the shepherds among the first to hear about the birthday of a newborn King.

We looked at the arrival of the angel of the Lord last week, delivering a heavenly birth announcement to these most unlikely recipients, the lowly shepherds. The shepherds were so astounded by the Good News of the angelic chorus that after the angels left they talked among themselves. After discussing the news, they determined to go check things out. Or, as Luke said, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

That is one thing our observance of Advent is supposed to heighten: just like small children, Christians are supposed to get more and more excited about the approach of Christmas. a whole month of Advent is supposed to make us look forward to the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem so much more.

Since we live in the northern hemisphere, the coming of Christmas means winter—cooler temperatures, shorter days and longer nights. This time of year is also known as the Winter Solstice; that is, the time of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Do you think people were (and are) looking forward to the approach of more sunlight, of longer days and shorter nights? This is also an integral part of the Christmas celebration, a celebration of the return of sunlight and warmth, a harbinger of growth and green and all the things that light and life bring back into the world.

And, here we have the shepherds, stuck in the middle of all of this celebration, all this foretelling and forth-telling of God’s Good News. Isn’t that the message the angels brought to the shepherds? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Good news, indeed!

Although the shepherds were not aware of the deeper meaning at the time, God’s angelic witness was first delivered to those of low station. These who were outcast, the lowest of the low by society’s standards formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love.

In the same way of His ancestor, the shepherd king David, our shepherd king Jesus would shepherd His people through the lineage of His earthly father Joseph and the Oneness with His heavenly Father. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the area surrounding Jerusalem, were thus caused to be the first to see and hear God’s great Good News. [1]

As the shepherds excitedly discussed this angelic birth announcement, they did decide to go into Bethlehem and see this newborn Baby. And, as Luke tells us, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Tell me, does anyone here want to get on a street corner and tell others about God’s Good News? That was exactly what the shepherds wanted to do! The people on the outside, on the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem, the outcasts of society were so very excited by the Good News and by the miraculous sights they had seen.

Does that make you want to go and tell? Getting so excited about the miraculous, and yet every-day?  At once, wanting to bow in worship at the manger, and at the same time wanting to jump up and go and tell the blessed truth about Jesus?

Yes, our dear Lord Jesus is creator of al that is dark and all that is light. He is the Light of the world and the Lord of the day, and all that is green and growing. He is the Lord of darkness, too. Lord of all that is scary and fear-filled, yet also Lord of the night and nocturnal creatures, and the warm, welcoming darkness of nurture and strength.

Let us go and tell others about the blessed truth of Christmas, about how Jesus is so much more than just a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. Our Lord Jesus is also Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Christ is born in Bethlehem. Our response? Go and tell!

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 4 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://beambiblebounty.blogspot.com/2015/12/shepherds-joy.html

“Shepherds Joy!” Thomas Beam, 2015.

Bringing Good News!

“Bringing Good News”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Luke 2:9-10 – December 15, 2019

Have you ever spent two hours in a dark movie theater, and come outside into the bright sunlight? When people are in the dark for some time, their eyes adjust and become used to the warm, friendly darkness. And, being in a movie theater can also transport people into a whole new world. Then, when the movie is over and they step into the real world, into sudden bright daylight, the stark difference in dark and light can be a shock to the system, can’t it?

That was a little what it was like for the shepherds, so long ago on the hills at night around Bethlehem. Not too far from Jerusalem, only eight or ten miles down the road. That was a much different time, and much different place. Electric light had never even been heard of! Sure, after night fell and the sun disappeared under the horizon, people had candles and oil lamps. Although, those were expensive. If people did not have much money to spare, they simply went to bed with the sun, and woke the next morning when the sun rose.

Our Gospel writer Luke tells us that “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  I am certain the shepherds had some kind of night vision, especially if there was some moon shining and a clear night. I suspect they had grown comfortable with the darkness, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  

I wonder whether anyone here can remember back to a time when they were outside at night, far, far away from the city lights and civilization? Perhaps, far north in Wisconsin or Michigan? Or, maybe in the mountains of Colorado? Then, you might be familiar with that kind of night vision, being aware of all kinds of things happening around you in the dark.

Except – these shepherds had no understanding whatsoever about bright lights! I mean, like spotlights, flood lights, lighting up the whole sky! Suddenly, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” What on earth – or, outside of the earth – was this sudden appearance of the angel?

Some people in the 21st century probably are so accustomed to the Christmas story that their idea of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is somehow associated with Christmas cards. But, it was life as usual for these working people. An everyday way of life in Palestine. What’s more, being a shepherd was not a particularly high class job. The lowly vocation of shepherd was on the outskirts of society. A possible comparison today is to think of a person selling “Streetwise,” the paper sold for $2.00 outside of grocery stores, drug stores and coffee shops here around the Chicago area.

And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came to these shepherds—came to people in homeless shelters, people selling “Streetwise,” people down on their luck, people on the edge, on the outs of society. The angel of the Lord came to them with good news. Good news. Lighting up the sky in a way the shepherds had never seen before. We can see God breaking through, in an unexpected way, to an unexpected group of people.

The message of God’s Good News certainly did not come to the people we might expect. Are they influential members of the community? Rich movers and shakers? Leaders of the local synagogues and teachers of the Law of Moses? Those would be the kinds of people who I might expect to have an angel sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. Again, God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered angelic message from the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings.

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, is a retired Children’s Ministry educator and writer. It is her confirmed opinion that children and families need “To hear the story read or told in an important way on the ‘night it happened’ – Children like hearing the story of their birth on their birthday and celebrating other big events on ‘the very day it happened.’  So, the story which may have been acted out in a pageant and discussed in church school and read at home, feels more ‘real’ when read [at Christmas time] in the sanctuary.” [1]

Last Friday, I was so pleased to be able to welcome the families of the preschoolers here for their holiday program. The highlight of the program was a visit from Santa. Since there are children from such a variety of faith traditions at the preschool, and since this is a preschool that gets help and funding from the state of Illinois, they need to be careful not to make it all about Jesus. It’s fun to think about Santa, but how do we here in the church deal with the tales and legends about Santa?

As Carolyn Brown reminds us, “If Santa is all there is to Christmas Eve once children learn ‘the truth’ [about Santa], Christmas is just a greedy gift grab.  But, if Christmas Eve has always circled around the story of Jesus told in the sanctuary, the truth about Santa can be fit into that context and the Christmas celebration gets richer.” [2]

We can tell our children, our grandchildren, about the bright light seen by the shepherds. We can tell how the angels came to bring the shepherds the Good News that the Baby born in Bethlehem is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the Light of the world, God born into this world as a Baby.

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-children-need-to-get-to-church-on.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas Eve/Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013. Why Children Need to Get To Church on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

Alleluia, amen.

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

The Light Will Shine!

“The Light Will Shine!”

John 1 1-14 word cloud

John 1:1-5 – December 1, 2019

Light versus dark. Good versus evil. The powers of the Light pitted against the powers of Darkness. And, think about the Good Witch, all shiny and light, in the Wizard of Oz, as opposed to her sister the Bad Witch, all black and dark. Think of movies, and television, and fairy tales, and folk tales. All of the stories we have ever heard tell us the same thing. Everyone knows the good guy wears a white hat, and the bad guy wears a black hat.

The Gospel Scripture reading this morning comes from the first chapter of John, John 1:5, where we are told “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But, what if we do not think of this contrast as a good versus evil set-up? What if we don’t think of this as a sharp duality, where light (or, white) is good, and dark (or, black) is bad? What then?

I know we have a number of people here in this congregation who are familiar with several languages. I suspect you are aware that sometimes it is a challenge to translate from one language to another with exactly the right words. Sometimes, the words and phrases of one language just do not quite fit the other language. So, you approximate. You give it your best effort, and try hard. But, translation is not an exact, word-for-word science. Sometimes, translation is more of an art.

That is the case with our verse from John 1, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Greek word translated “overcome” here in the New International Version of the Bible sometimes is translated as “did not comprehend.” As in the New American Standard Version of the Bible: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

Remember, in the beginning? Way back, at the beginning of creation? John hearkens back to that beginning right here. He starts his Gospel with verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

God made everything that was made. All things! Yes, God made the light. Yes, God made the dark. And – this concept may blow our minds, but at the end of Genesis chapter 1, God called everything in creation very good. Everything! That includes light and dark!

John uses a comparison, a metaphor, comparing “the Light of all people” to the darkness, which could not comprehend the Light. I have heard this comparison lifted up by preachers and commentators many times in the past. Yes, it’s a vivid concept, that of Light and Dark. In fact, Jesus Himself uses this metaphor when He says “I am the Light of the world.” But, that is a whole different conversation, in a different place.

I want us to reflect about creation, and how God made all things in the beginning. God created Light and also Dark. What is more, God called them both very good!

But, wait a minute! What about all that stuff from movies, and from television, and fairy tales? What about all we have ever learned about light being good, and darkness bad?

People often thought that meant Jesus banishes the darkness. But actually, the darkness is still present. Jesus works in the midst of them both. Dark and light coexist together.

Let’s think more deeply about the dark; it is good for a lot of things. How about nocturnal creatures? Bats, opossums, cats, and owls all like the night. There are many creatures who have a thriving life in the hours between dusk and dawn. And, God made all of these creatures.

What about many baby mammals? Puppies, kittens, horses, elephants, mice, and dolphins. All of them are mammals, and all of them gestate in darkness. So often, mama animals go to a dark, quiet place to give birth. Think of a dog or cat looking for an enclosed closet or a cupboard where they can give birth to their puppies or kittens.

Darkness is not always frightening! Sometimes, the dark can be friendly and warm. As humans, we gestate in darkness, too. Comforting, calming, friendly darkness.

But, some people might still be puzzled. What did the prophet say in our Scripture reading this morning? From Isaiah 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” That sure sounds like light versus dark, good versus bad.

I would like to suggest that the prophet is using a similar metaphor, using light to express hope. Hope and goodness given by God.

What if people twist such verses, and cause them to mean painful and twisted things? Like, for instance, believing that darkness is always bad and evil—and dark or black. And sometimes, some people have the false belief, the mistaken assumption that people with lighter skin are better or more loved by God than those with darker skin. This false belief is untrue, and so damaging to so many people!

When I was a child in Sunday School, we learned the chorus “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I wonder, do you know it, too? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Just reminding everyone: Jesus was Jewish, and a person of color, too.

I have a good friend, a fellow pastor. He does not live here in the Chicago area any more, but moved to Oregon about a year and a half ago. He was born with sight, but due to a progressive eye disease, he lost all of his sight shortly after he turned 30 years old. He’s now in his early 60’s. and has been completely blind for decades. Is my pastor friend somehow “bad” because he is blind? Or, because he is always in the dark? No, light is not necessary for my friend to live life to the full and to pastor a church and love his children and grandchildren.

God made all things. God made all people. Everything God created, both the bright light of day and the darkness of night, are called “very good.” We have God’s word on it, from Genesis 1:31. What is more, all people—each person—is equally beloved, equally created for good, and equally made in the image of God.

When we believe that black-and-white thinking that light is only good, and darkness is only evil, we miss so much in life. Nocturnal animals, gestating babies, seeds growing in the ground. All of these are living life in the warm, friendly, nurturing darkness. Think about the good gifts of God, giving us both bright, radiating light and comforting, friendly darkness.

John chapter 1 hearkens back to that first chapter of Genesis. Yes, in the beginning God did create everything, and every person, and God called it all very good. Including the light, and including the darkness.

We can look forward to the Light of the world, God coming to earth in the Baby Jesus. We can reflect on the growing Baby inside of Mary His mother, gestating in the warm, friendly darkness of her womb. And, we can praise God for the birth of that Baby in Bethlehem, God with us, Emmanuel.

Alleluia, amen!

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 1 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Gives Us Good Things

“God Gives Us Good Things!”

Deut 26-1-11 words

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (26:11) – November 24, 2019

This season we are in right now I call the thankful time of the year. We give thanks for the harvest just brought in to the barns across the country. We give thanks for fruits and vegetables harvested from our back gardens in cities and suburbs. And, we give thanks for God’s wonderful bounty of gifts poured out upon us all, regularly.

Our Scripture reading from the book of Deuteronomy lists a thanksgiving for the harvest for the Jewish people. It’s not only a thank-you to God, but chapter 26 lists a required offering of first fruits all Jews ought to bring to God. The first fruits—or harvest—of the season we bring to God, as an expression of gratitude and thankfulness.

What is more appropriate for our reading today than this Scripture reading, especially at this thankful, grateful time of the year?

Deuteronomy 26 begins with these words: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name.”

Talk about making an actual, physical offering of the first fruits you have gathered from your farm, or orchard, or dairy, or hen house. Whatever we have the opportunity to gather from our harvest, that is what we are to present to the Lord

Yes, showing our gratitude and thankfulness to our God is truly important. But—does this Scripture passage say more than just a duty-bound thank-you operation? Our biblical commentator certainly thinks so. “God gave the unexpected and free gift of a new life to a group of stateless persons, making of them a people with a special relationship to him and giving them a ‘land of milk and honey’ to live in.” [1]

I can understand how this presentation of first fruits was so important for the Jewish people—finally with a land of their own after centuries of having no place to call their own. Wandering and landless. Just as Moses gave one of the biblical patriarchs as an example: this reading even mentions a “wandering Aramean.”

Moreover, the manner in which the Jews are to say “thank you” to God for material and spiritual gifts is important. That is what I hear when I listen to this chapter read: it has not only the instructions for presenting the first fruits of our harvest to God, but also the underlying reason why, in the first place.

“The members of the nation are invited to respond to this divine initiative by showing their gratefulness, and to do so by returning to God part of what God has given them. But how can we give a present to the invisible God? Here is where the institution of organized worship comes in, to enable human beings to make a symbolic offering to God and in this way to express their relationship to him.” [2]

So, we are not only to give God thanks individually, but we are instructed to do so in organized worship services. This is a way to gather together and to jointly—as a worshiping body—lift our voices to the Lord in gratitude and thanksgiving.

This is not just for adults. Families can give thanks. We ought to look for opportunities to get our children and grandchildren involved, too. An excellent bible commentator I often reference, Carolyn Brown, mentions how we might possibly get our children involved in the giving of thanks. “Involving children in community services is a good way to draw a crowd and to introduce children to their community’s religious base.”  She also suggests that we “provide paper and crayons or markers for children (and older worshipers) to write poems or draw pictures of where they see God all around them.” [3] These are imaginative and creative ways to celebrate God and give God our thanks.

There are many ways we can celebrate at a joint Thanksgiving service to God. One way is to sing hymns of thanksgiving and celebration and thank God for the wonderful harvest, as we are in this service today.

Can we think of a better way to have everyone in our community gather together to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy? Just like on this coming Wednesday, when our wider Morton Grove community will gather here in this place to give thanks.

I know that several people here in this service have attended many of the past community Thanksgiving Eve services. I would like to remind everyone that the giving of thanks is a universal expression of gratitude. We have a tremendous opportunity for everyone to gather together and give thanks, despite our variety of backgrounds and despite our religious differences.

Just as we collect an offering at the close of each service on Sunday mornings, so we will gather an offering on Wednesday night. Not only are we making a symbolic gesture of our worship through the gathering of people from diverse faith traditions and various world cultures, but we all can lift thanksgiving and gratitude together as a community, no matter when each of us separately and regularly praise and worship God.

Is there a better and more praiseworthy way for us today to give thanks to God? What is more, is there a better way for us to show God how much we care for and love God? The Jewish people have gathered for millenia, in regular praise and worship of God, and especially in thanksgiving for all God has done for them in the past.

Deuteronomy 26 tells us that each individual citizen was told to rejoice with the priests (or, in this case, Levites) and foreigners. God wishes everyone to come before the Holy One with thanksgiving, including foreigners. Just saying, but God repeated informs Israel that they are to treat the foreigners who live with them exactly the same as any citizen of Israel. God makes no distinction, and tells the people of Israel those exact words.

How wonderful to have that continuity across the ages. From the Jews, wandering in the wilderness, through the time of the Temple and what formal worship happened there, up through the times of the foundation of the Church and more recent centuries—we have always had occasion to gather together to give praise and thanks to our God.

Everything, even life itself is a gift from God above, enabling us to give thanks to God in all things. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul told us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2014-10-01

“Giving back to God what God has given us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taizé, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3][3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-thanksgiving-day-october-14-2013.html

Worshiping with Children, Thanksgiving Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

We Know the Ending!

“We Know the Ending!”

Isa 65-17 new-heavens-new-earth

Isaiah 65:17-19 – November 17, 2019

Who likes to watch movies? I’m thinking in particular of scary movies. There’s the plucky heroine, the brave protagonist, the encouraging older character actor, the quirky supporting actor. I bet you recognize these typical parts of the horror movie formula. And, have you ever found yourself yelling at the screen, “Don’t go down in the creepy basement!” or “Don’t go up to the scary attic!” You and I could almost guess what was coming, couldn’t we? Many of them are so formulaic we already know the ending.

In the scripture reading from the end of Isaiah 65, we find out how things are going to end, at the end of all recorded time. It’s the end of the ultimate scary and suspenseful movie. Sure, there is a lot of scary stuff that happens in each of our lives, as well as really sad things and even some overwhelmingly traumatic happenings. But, there is no ultimate surprise ending to the overarching story. We already know the ending. God wins, and the whole world is re-created!

Let’s take a step back. What came before chapter 65 of Isaiah, in the original creation?

We all remember the blessed words of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That was the time of the first creation. God created everything in this world, and God made it all very good. We have God’s word on it – it says so at the end of Genesis 1:31. “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”

The sad—even traumatic—events of Genesis 3 happened so soon afterwards, where the spotless creation was marred by sin, and the whole world was changed, turned topsy-turvy.

Just think—creation, blessed and sanctified by God in the beginning, was indelibly altered, leaving a huge upheaval in the whole order of all created beings and created places. We are still in that in-between time, dealing with the aftermath of Adam, Eve and the apple.

All this fall, I have done a part-time chaplain internship in a busy downtown hospital. There is nothing quite so intense as a critical care unit of a busy hospital to get across the sorrow, agony and mourning of the human experience.

Here at this church last week, we prayed for a senior who was scheduled for a delicate procedure the next day, last Monday. I have not checked up to see how that dear senior is doing now, but there are several serious continuing health issues in this dear one’s life and body. I do not know whether or not there are additional concerns in this situation. All I know is that I promised we would pray for this prayer request for four weeks. That is what I could do for this dear senior, to encourage and come alongside of this dear one.

But, we all are still in the time of the first creation. We all know about that time; still in the time of imperfection, of fallenness, of crying and suffering and sorrow.

I have mentioned Rev. Janet Hunt before. She is a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She is dealing with a real-life experience right now, where one of the families in her congregation is reeling from the unexpected news of cancer. This heart-breaking diagnosis affects not only the young person medically affected, but the whole extended family as well.

Rev. Hunt is correct when she says that this loving family has resources, both material and spiritual. They have adequate health insurance, and live near wonderful medical care and excellent hospitals. This youth’s particular medical diagnosis is the most common, and the most treatable form of that hated disease, cancer. And still—and still, Rev. Hunt’s heart breaks “to be living in a world where mothers weep, and dads stand stoic so as to emit a sense of much needed calm, and [young people] try to hold back tears of confusion and fear.” [1]

While here in this flawed world, we groan, and we struggle; we cry and we mourn. Why me, Lord? Why us? Why are there many children and young people in horrible circumstances, both in and out of the hospital? For that matter, why is anyone suffering? Why do bad, negative, even traumatic things happen to good, loving and compassionate people?

Why, Lord? Why, oh why? Please let me know. Please, please, dear Lord, act in all their troubled lives, relational difficulties, and medical situations

As we consider today’s Scripture reading from Isaiah 65, Rev. Hunt says, “I want the world the prophet promises now:

  • Where the sounds of weeping and distress are simply no more.
  • Where little ones (and children) never die and where life is still short when we live to be 100.
  • Where hard work is rewarded with adequate shelter and enough to eat for everyone.
  • Where sworn enemies —- the wolf and the lamb — eat together.

Oh, what a world that would be, will be where not one is hurt or destroyed on God’s holy mountain.” [2] This whole reading incorporates God’s wish for the entire world. When God describes Jerusalem, God means the whole world.

Remember how I started this sermon, talking about scary movies? We wanted to warn the characters of the dangers.  But, what if we have already seen that movie for the second, third, even fifth time when we knew the ending?  Once we knew the ending we sometimes might want to tell the hero not to worry during the scary parts and sometimes want to warn the heroine to be careful when everything is going well.

In our Gospel reading from Luke 21, the disciples ask, “Teacher, when will these [dire, horrible] things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” The Hebrew Scripture readings for this week tell us God’s final ending.  The New Testament readings advise us on how to live until the ending comes. [3] Yes, we could concentrate on the disheartening Gospel reading, and look at all the bad, awful, and even worse things that are going to happen – and even happen right now. However, I wanted to look at God’s truly happily-ever-after ending. Let us all know and look forward to God’s ultimate, Good News ending.

Yes, creation is part of God’s continuing work today, and the continuing reality of the world today. Remember the prophet’s words in verse 65:19, that sorrow and crying will be taken away as God re-creates the world. Never fear – God will wipe away every tear from every eye. No more sorrow! In this reading, we see real celebration! Praise God, we will have joy in the morning on that day! In the words of that joyful gospel song, Soon and very soon!

Isn’t that God’s ultimate Good News? Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/10/year-c-proper-28-33rd-sunday-in.html

Worshiping with Children, Proper 28, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Our Redeemer Lives

“Our Redeemer Lives”

Job and his friends - Ilya Repin, 1869

Job 19:23-27 – November 10, 2019

Have you ever thought that God is just not fair? Look at the world today. With natural disasters, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, torrential downpours, and flooding, some insurance policies still today list “acts of God” as a factor in their settlements.

Many people throughout the world live with debilitating illness or long-term disabilities. We may know several of them, personally. We may even be some of them, with illnesses like multiple dystrophy, polio, lupus, fibromyalgia, ALS, and complications from AIDS; not to mention the disabilities we see Jesus healing on a regular basis—people who are blind, lame and mute, to mention just a few.

Yes, there is a whole lot of bad and awful going on in the world. Many, many people think—and outright say—that God is just not fair. Do you ever feel that way? I know I have.

Job definitely felt that way; he expressed his feelings openly in the book named after him, in his discussions with his friends as well as his discussions with God. This book squarely brings up the question: is God fair? I ask again: is God fair? Job wanted to know. I think, so do we.

If people want comfort, they turn to the Psalms, or the Gospel of John, maybe parts of Isaiah, or the encouraging sections from the letters in the New Testament. Not the book of Job.

Perhaps you only know Job as a character in the Hebrew Scriptures who was very rich, and then through a horrific series of circumstances and through no fault of his own, had everything taken away. How many here know the basics about Job? And…that is about it? Oh, there is a sort of postscript to this book, where Job gets all of his wealth returned to him, plus additional children are born to him and his wife, but that does not come until the very ending of the story—a real happily-ever-after ending.

In the middle of Job’s disputing and arguing with his friends, the middle of his traumatic loss, paralyzing grief, and horrid debilitating physical condition, Job is really hard-pressed by his circumstances.

Plus, Job’s so-called friends are ostensibly there to try to comfort and help Job out. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down! Essentially, his friends wag their fingers in Job’s face and tell him to confess his secret sins. He is repeatedly, verbally beaten up by these three.

Poor Job slogs through his desperate life, one day at a time, one hour at a time. He goes through all manner of crap, from his circumstances, his health, and the people around him. Can we blame for saying, “God is not fair!”

Coming closer to home, we might consider the holiday tomorrow, Veteran’s Day. This day is set aside to remember veterans, and honor all veterans everywhere for their duty and sacrifice for our freedom. As we remember the horrors and deprivations of armed conflict throughout the world, what can you and I do about it? I feel powerless, puny and insignificant in the face of such things as conflicts and wars. Maybe you do, too. We also might say, “God is not fair!”

Seriously, I know I have thought God isn’t fair, sometimes. I suspect you have, too. Or, one of your loved ones has, or one of your close friends. If we assess the world today, it is enough to make even a sensible person throw up their hands and walk away, shaking their head.

Earlier in chapter 19, Job says that he repeatedly cries out to God, but God just doesn’t answer! The commentator James Limburg has the heartrending paragraph: “Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).” [1]

If we are looking for a poster child for miserable, suffering humanity, Job is definitely a finalist. But, wait. In the midst of all of Job’s cries for help and his complaints to his friends and to God, we have this shining jewel of verses in 19:25-26. What does Job say? I will read it again, so we can all savor the words: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;“ I’m amazed at Job, having the gumption and the perseverance to make this proclamation. What a statement! James Limburg says about these words that this is “Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess!” [2]

We all agree that Job complains! He kvetches and complains to his friends and to God. Yet—Job does not quit. Some people we know may very well feel like quitting, and Job certainly was a candidate for throwing in the towel, yet—Job makes this shining declaration of faith.

In this unexpected verse he talks about a Redeemer. In Jewish usage, this term might be used for buying back a field or a person sold into slavery. Perhaps in modern terms we might “redeem” a musical instrument or piece of jewelry from a pawnshop. This same Hebrew word (go’el) is used in Exodus for God redeeming God’s people from slavery in Egypt, or in Psalms for God delivering an individual from death. God is the Redeemer! God will save Job! [3]

We might feel captive to our debilitating illness, or our desperate continuing situation, or shattering emotional state. It might seem like no one could ever reach down and help us out of the deep, dark pit we are in. Just like Job. Yet—God can reach down. God can save us. God is our Redeemer, just as God was Job’s Go’el, Job’s Redeemer.  

I would like to quickly add: Job was a realist. Job came right out and said he might die first, because he said his skin—his body—could very well be destroyed first before he was redeemed. Nevertheless, Job had the confidence to say “yet in my flesh I will see God.“ As James Limburg says, “Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.” [4]

Does anyone doubt that this Redeemer can put our lives back together, too? In part three of the well-loved oratorio Messiah, the soprano soloist begins with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I fully agree that the other Scripture passages Handel used in this part of the Messiah explain Job’s words so well.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  
(I Corinthians 15: 20)  
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)  
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)  
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.  
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  
(I Corinthians 15: 57)  
If God be for us, who can be against us?  
(Romans 8: 31)  
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.  
(Romans 8: 33-34)  

Where part three of the Messiah began with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” is there any way more fitting and more glorious to close this meditation on Job’s shining declaration of faith than the way Handel finished his oratorio? The words of Revelation 5:12-14:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Amen.
 
(Revelation 5: 12-14)  

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=735

Commentary, Job 19:23-27a, James Limburg, Pentecost 24C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

(Many thanks to James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN, for the use of his excellent commentary article on this passage from Job 19.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Have Hope in God

“Have Hope in God”

1 John 3-2 like Him, stars

1 John 3:1-3 – November 3, 2019

Some days are everyday days. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill days, days where nothing particularly special happens. Some days are like that. We all are familiar with those kinds of days. But, today is a special day in the life of the Church. Not only in the life of this church on this corner, but in the lives of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

The day for the commemoration of All Saints started only a few hundred years after the beginning of the Church on Pentecost, to remember all the saints who were persecuted as well as the martyrs who had died for their faith. “All Saints Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.[1]

But, what does that have to do with you and me, right here and right now? What about people who are still mourning, and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died? What can this day of remembering and commemoration possibly do for those who mourn and love and long for their loved one who has died?

I lost a dear brother last December, my brother Mike. His photo is on the table with the others, near the altar. Yes, this All Saints Day remembrance is personal for me, today. I think there might be some others here who have a very personal connection, and might even be struggling with their memories. That is the whole reason why we have gathered her today—to remember together, and to lift up these loved ones, along with all of the other friends in Christ who have died. Not only recently, but all throughout the years, throughout the centuries.

Instead of going with one of the primary Bible readings for All Saints Sunday, I felt drawn to an alternate reading, the second reading that Eileen read today. It is just a little, short reading, but it means a great deal to me. I will zero in on one particular verse, 1 John 3:2, where the elderly apostle John says Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

The elderly John has been traveling around for years—as best as he could—and preaching the Good News of his Master, Jesus Christ. He knows life has been tough for these scattered believers in Christ. So, he encourages them again and again in this letter.

How many people here have gotten discouraged? Perhaps you have been all alone, working at some thankless task. Or, perhaps no one is noticing you, and you feel left out, out in the cold? Or maybe even someone has been bugging you, pestering you for your faith, for standing up for what you believe in? Whatever sad or awkward situation you find yourself in, believe me, the apostles were familiar with a similar situation.

The apostle John was writing to some friends who had been dealing with some very difficult things, including the loss of some of their own congregation, their loved ones and friends. John specifically wants to lighten the hearts of his friends with these words.

Have you ever been down, and had someone blithely give you a super-sweet saying and just walk away without even seeing how you reacted to it? Perhaps even a verse of Scripture? I have. I had someone—thirty years ago, now—just breeze up to me and blurt out a verse of Scripture, and toddle away, oblivious that I was really hurting. I was devastated, and he did not notice me at all. He did not notice the true me, standing right there in front of him.

But, the apostle John is not that way at all. John hears the emotions of his friends, and he encourages them. John is honest and up front. He freely admits what he does not know. John does not know how Jesus will appear or what Jesus will be like when He returns. However, what John does know is that when Jesus does return, “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I don’t know about you, but this verse gives me comfort. All of it. From John’s honesty in his not knowing, to his assurance that we shall see Jesus in that day, when Jesus returns. I do not know whether God will give us special insight, or whether our eyes will be changed to brand-new heavenly eyes. Regardless, John’s words reach down deep inside of me. John’s words comfort me in my mourning and grieving, and penetrate through my suffering and pain. John’s words encourage my heart, and give me heavenly assurance and hope.

As we remember all the saints, we might think of the “big” saints, like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John, St. Luke or St. Paul, the apostles. However, I want to remind everyone that Paul in several of his letters refers to all believers as saints. We all are saints, every one of us. Young, old, big, small, believers of every race and kind and way of being.

For the closing hymn today, we will sing a lovely hymn. “A children’s hymn, popular in Great Britain, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” suggests that ordinary people, going about their business, can be saints, that is, revealers of God’s grace whose faithfulness changes the world.” [2]  I suspect that the apostle John would wholeheartedly agree with these words.

I love the letters of John, written in the New Testament. Simple words, simply written, but oh, such profound thoughts! Listen again to verse 2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I close with some gentle words from the Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She writes for this special day:

May the promise and hope of this All Saints Sunday lift you.

May the music carry you.

May the familiar words hold you, filling you with comfort and confidence.

May the flickering candles remind you of the light Christ is and ever shall be: a light which we, in turn, hold and carry and pass along.

Oh, may the mystery of promise and hope and grace surround you and fill you.

And may you have at least a moment when you can simply stand still and receive all that God has for you. [3]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/christianyear/all-saints-day/

[2] https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/10/remembering-all-saints

Remembering All Saints, Bruce Epperly, Patheos, 2010.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-sunday-standing-still-in-the-mystery/ 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Suit Yourselves!

“Suit Yourselves!”

2 Tim 4-3 itching ears

2 Timothy 4:1-5 – October 20, 2019

Have you seen the comics lately? I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the comics section of the newspapers—the daily comics in black and white, and the Sunday comics in full color—even if you don’t read them regularly. Can you picture this scene from the comics? A single panel, showing two business men by an office water cooler. One looks like a boss, and he says to the other, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a yes-man. Isn’t that right, Baxter?”

We chuckle, because we all are familiar with that kind of attitude. I’m sure we can recognize that tendency in other forms. Getting some yes-man to tell us what we want to hear . . . not what’s good for us to hear, not what we need to hear, but instead what we want to hear.

With all the worry and anxiety, trouble and danger in this modern world, people are actively searching for good news. Many are searching in all the wrong places. Commercialism and consumerism are rampant, with many people accumulating more and more stuff and always needing to get something else, something more, something new.

Sometimes, some people search for thrills, for that adrenaline rush, for some kind of excitement in life. It doesn’t matter if thrills come from drag racing, gambling, or risky behavior, like a wild bender at the local bar. Oftentimes, these people are trying to fill a hole deep inside.

Other people turn inward, searching for spiritual fulfilment. There are many ways of experiencing some kind of spirituality, like through the martial arts, or through meditative practices. Fung shui, the Chinese method of arranging furniture is an attempt to try to find balance and proper order in this life. Sure, doing an inside job, concentrating on the inside of ourselves is a great place to start, but . . . searching for inward, spiritual fulfillment on our own just won’t work. Anyway, not without God.

We have the assurance, from our scripture passage today, that Timothy had the opportunity to know God. Timothy was instructed, from the time he was very young, in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. His mother and grandmother were both women of faith, and Timothy grew up in a believing household, a household that put God first.

As we read further in our passage today, we find there are people who will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not even want to listen to the truth! Even when the truth is as clear as day, and presented to them in a straight-forward manner, still, some will turn away.

You probably are all familiar with that modern phenomenon—tele-evangelists, some of whom are worthy people of God. However, there are those who are frauds. Charlatans. Fakes. Preachers not of sound doctrine or biblical teaching, but instead telling their listeners exactly what they—the listenerswant to hear.

Are you familiar with the health, wealth and happiness gospel, which focuses on only a few isolated passages from scripture? This false gospel tell the listeners that God wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! All the time! And even shows us the example of Job—why, didn’t God give back to Job everything that was taken away? But . . . we must have faith! And if anything is wrong in our lives, or if our house burns down, or if we get sick, or if someone we love loses a job, or if our child gets in trouble, or . . . or . . . or . . . you get the picture. Well, we just didn’t have enough faith. Oh, and we didn’t send enough money to the tele-evangelist. So, God apparently must be withholding His blessing because of our lack of faith and our stinginess.

Not so!! This is a perverse, yet skillful, twisting of the truth! I bet you can see parts of the true Gospel here in what I’ve just described, but the rest is so skillfully bent and twisted, It sounds so similar to the Good News of God we have come to know and to understand and to love. Like, and yet unlike. The true Gospel tells us that God does indeed want to bless us abundantly! And, it is an inside job! God wants to change us, to help us change ourselves, to make us new creations from the inside out, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, what about unsuspecting folks, who get turned away from the truth in God’s Word? What did our scripture passage today say about this sort of people? It mentions that they have “itching ears.” This is a Greek phrase that can be translated several ways—another way is “having their ears tickled.” In other words, having the preacher tell you exactly what you want to hear! These people with the itching ears, who wanted nice, warm, soft, fuzzy things said to them, nonthreatening, reassuring things preached to them from the pulpit, these people turned their backs on the truth of God’s Word and of sound doctrine.

These people with the itching ears had an agenda—and that was to hear only what they wanted to hear, at all times. None of the challenging words, none of the admonishing words, none of the emotional words of Scripture. This is another form of idolatry: putting themselves first, putting God aside as an afterthought. You know the attitude—me, me, me! I’m the most important person around here! Everything needs to go my way! Nobody else counts!

As I was thinking about this text over the past days, it came to me—what would Calvin say? John Calvin was one of the foremost theologians in the Reformed tradition, the tradition we in the UCC adhere to. What would Calvin say about these false teachers, preaching a “health, wealth and happiness” gospel, or any other sort of false gospel, for that matter?

How would he deal with these false teachers, leading people astray? Checking the Institutes, I find that Calvin spoke strong words against these false teachers, saying that they, in fact, pose the greatest danger to the church. They lead people away from true scripture and sound doctrine, and are responsible for bringing in destructive heresies. [1]

But . . . that’s not what we learned. That’s not what Timothy learned. We have the “sacred writings that are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We have the opportunity to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. How wonderful, how awesome, and how sobering that Jesus entrusted us with the message of His Good News.

Now what? The different New Testament letters do indeed tell us definite things about doctrine, about theology . . . but then . . . what do we do with all of this information? How do we put it into practice? How do we live the Christian life? Now what, in other words?

I consider the commands in this passage to be good advice to anyone wanting to follow Christ more nearly. We are to proclaim the message. Communicate the Good News!

This command may give some people pause. How can I preach the Good News? Am I supposed to go to some cable television station and get on the air as yet another tele-evangelist? Or how about standing out on a street corner, preaching with a megaphone? Both of these are valid ways of preaching God’s Good News, but I don’t think most of us here in this church could ever see ourselves doing either of these things. But there are other ways to proclaim the message.

Preach the Good News. Another way of thinking about it is . . . telling what God has done in your life. What has God done for you? How has God made a difference in your life? How has God made a difference in mine? What new things have you and I learned from the Lord lately? What an opportunity to share these things with others, with our friends, with those who might not know God in a personal way.

Do we need advanced degrees in divinity or theology to do this? To share what God has done for us? No! Oftentimes, we are excited to tell people about other things, like who won the latest ball game, or about the neighbor next door spraining her ankle, or what exciting story we just heard on the news. Why can’t I tell people about Jesus, and what He’s done for me? Why can’t you?     I can tell about God’s faithfulness in my busy, hectic life. I can praise God for helping me to walk the Christian walk, one day at a time.

Thank God we have been given this Good News! What a opportunity! What a thing to celebrate! Praise God, we have been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s truly something to celebrate. That’s truly Good News to share.             Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960), IV.9.4.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Were Not Ten Made Clean?

“Were Not Ten Made Clean?”

Luke 17-18 rembrandt

Luke 17:11-19 – October 13, 2019

Sometimes, I talk with people in recovery—alcoholics and addicts who are not drinking or using substances, one day at a time. I used to do this more often, when I was regularly facilitating a weekly spirituality group at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab unit at a nearby hospital. One of the suggestions for staying clean and sober one day at a time is to keep a gratitude journal. You know, a running list of things we are grateful for.

A writer for the Hazelden/Betty Ford Clinic, Michael G., tells us “The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said that our lives are what our thoughts make them. In other words, by simply changing the way we think and our focus, we can change our lives. Bearing this in mind, choosing gratitude can have a huge impact on your life.[1]

What on earth does a gratitude journal have to do with our Gospel reading today from Luke 17? To better understand that, we need to look at the background of the situation. Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. The time is growing nearer for Jesus to enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—very near, now. While on the road on the border between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus is met by ten lepers—ten people with various sorts of skin deformity.

Can you see this scene? On the road at the outskirts of a town, Jesus and His disciples are walking. Perhaps, entering the town, hungry, thirsty, wanting a place to rest. When all of a sudden, ten lepers interrupt Jesus while He is on His journey. They stand some distance away, but they still make themselves heard—“Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

Have you ever had the unexpected opportunity to meet someone special, someone important, perhaps interrupting them on their journey? That is exactly what happened.

These ten men, the men with serious skin conditions, were living a very lonely existence. They could not have any direct physical contact with any healthy or “clean” person, for fear of transmitting their skin condition or illness. Even touching a person who had leprosy or touching something they touched might be dangerous—might get someone infected.

Whenever someone developed a serious skin condition centuries ago, they had to be separated, and go live outside of their community. In the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus devotes a whole chapter (chapter 13) to that situation, and is quite specific. ““Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

How horrible! Imagine never being able to hug your children, spouse, parents, or brothers and sisters again. Imagine never being able to enter the market or the house of worship you regularly attended, much less being banished from your home. This was life, in an ongoing and sad reality for these ten lepers. How incredibly lonely!

Especially to an observant Jew, the religious and spiritual separation must have been awful. As Dr. David Lose tells us, “That disease made them ritually unclean, which meant that they couldn’t participate in the Temple services and rituals at the center of their faith. And not able to practice their faith, these men stood on the outside of their community as well, likely feeling alone, abandoned, and desperate.” [2]             But, there is unexpected hope. I don’t know which of these lepers hears that the Rabbi Jesus is in town, but Jesus had been healing people throughout Israel and Galilee for about three years by this time. Wouldn’t you ask for healing, if you unexpected met the Rabbi Jesus?

As I considered this reading during the week, I wondered how addicts and alcoholics felt. Are they considered “Unclean!” and ostracized? Shunted aside? Ignored? Does their disease of alcoholism or addiction cause them increasingly to live alone and isolated, in poorer and poorer health?  These two situations from Luke 17 and the condition of addicts today do not line up completely, but there are some close parallels between our Gospel reading and the sad, lonely, debilitating condition of countless people who are afflicted by the disease of addiction.

I want us to begin to understand the hopeless, helpless sense of these ten lepers, ostracized and isolated, suddenly and unexpectedly getting hope for the first time in a very long time. “The Rabbi Jesus! Coming to our town? I’ve heard about Him! Isn’t He the Rabbi who heals the blind and lame? And, didn’t He raise that widow’s son from the dead? And—and—that Rabbi has healed some lepers. I know, I heard the stories. Maybe—He might heal me!”

Hoping against hope, you know what happens. Jesus does stop, and He does talk to them. He says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That’s puzzling, at first hearing. But, not if you are someone living by the Law of Moses. When a person was healed from illness, they were routinely supposed to go to the Temple or to the priest and show themselves. In today’s terms, the priests were similar to physicians’ assistants in the role of certifying people’s return to good health. Jesus told the lepers to go even before they were healed. And as they were obedient and started on their way, a miracle happened. They were healed, cleansed, and their skin conditions were totally gone. Imagine how excited and delighted those former lepers were!

Here’s where the problem is: ten were healed, but how many came back with thanks to Jesus? How many were truly grateful? Yes, ten lepers left Jesus, and along the way to the priests became clean, healthy, and whole. Only one ex-leper truly recognized the incredible healing and gave thanks to the Rabbi Jesus. In giving thanks, he became what God had intended all along.

That is the answer. That is the secret to life: gratitude. “Noticing grace, seeing goodness, paying attention to healing, stopping to take in blessing, and then giving thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary graces of our life together. This is the secret to a good life and the heart of saving faith.” [3]

I started off this sermon quoting from an article on recovery. I’ll end it the same way. Michael G. says, “When I first came into recovery more than 30 years ago, my sponsor told me to buy a notebook and write down 10 things I was grateful for, and then add three things to that list every day. I stopped numbering my list when I got to 5,000 items.

Why did I write a gratitude list? Because I didn’t want to be miserable, and if being grateful was the solution, then that’s what I would do. And importantly, a grateful heart doesn’t drink. I learned very quickly that the struggle stops when gratitude begins.” [4]

I don’t often end with a challenge, but I am today. This is for me as well as for you. What practices ought we undertake, with what stories might we surround ourselves, with what rituals might we allow ourselves to be shaped, so that we might respond to God with gratitude and joy?

Dear Lord Jesus, help all of us to search for the answers to these sincere questions, and follow Your way in our daily lives, perhaps even writing a daily gratitude list.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2019/10/pentecost-18-c-the-secret/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/sober-dad/gratitude-early-recovery

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Great Faithfulness, Indeed!

“Great Faithfulness, Indeed!”

Lam 3-23 faithfulness, clouds

Lamentations 3:19-26 – October 6, 2019

About twenty years ago, I attended a church with a pastor who preached very powerful sermons. This pastor would occasionally mention that he prayed his preaching “would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That sounds very like the Bible book we read from this morning. The little book of Lamentations was written at a complicated time in the history of the nation of Israel, and the prophet who wrote it was conflicted at the time he wrote.

I wonder, can anyone here relate to being sad, troubled and conflicted, sometimes? Does anyone here have bad or sad or troubling things happening in their lives right now, either in their lives or the lives of their loved ones? I know many people do have all kinds of things raining down on their heads.

Perhaps it’s health concerns. At countless hospitals, chaplains or nurses or doctors can tell us about patients with very serious health concerns like heart attacks or strokes. Or, what about continuing health conditions like kidney disease, COPD, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease? I am certain that everyone here today knows at least one friend or family member who suffers from some difficulty, disease or condition like these.

Let’s look at some other concerns, like lack of finances. Loss of employment can certainly affect not only individuals, but whole families as well. What about floods or hurricanes? How many lives in the United States have been devastated by these horrible happenings, just in the past two or three months? The number is astronomical.

Add situations such as “your house has burned to the ground,” or “your family member is getting a divorce.” In these situations, what kinds of things would be going through your mind? What are the feelings of the people in these situations?  What are some of the things these conditions make you want to say to God? What are some of the questions you’d like to ask God about these situations?

That is exactly the problem our prophet and writer of Lamentations has. This little book is a series of laments, asking God about the serious situation the nation of Israel is in, asking—in a word—why? That is a question that so many people are asking!

We know the prophet Jeremiah, the probable author of this book, was no stranger to despair.  Consider how he opens in verse 1: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lam. 1:1). His city—Jerusalem—has been ransacked by the Babylonian army and left for dead. It seemed God’s very purpose and people had been abandoned. [1]

As commentator Carolyn Brown tells us, many places in the Hebrew Scriptures have “people talking back to God.  These are deeply hurt, terribly sad, and totally angry people, and they are willing to tell God so.  We talk to children often about telling God the happy things, confessing our sins to God, and asking God for help.  But, we also need to give them permission, even encourage them to tell God when they are angry, when life seems unfair, when it looks to them as if God isn’t doing God’s job the way it should be done.” [2]

I would like to stop right here, and let us consider this particularly important task of allowing, of permitting children to grieve. We all need to grieve and mourn, from time to time. Grieving is an important thing to do. We as adults do, indeed, need to model for children our way of dealing with difficulties, problems, even catastrophes. Otherwise, many more people would pull their heads into their shells, like turtles, to escape from these serious difficulties.

And yet—and yet—amid all of this sorrow, suffering and despair, the prophet writes of how blessed he finds the present difficult situation.

What a contrast! What a puzzle! How can this be? Great question!

Commentator Steve Godfrey goes further, “From the depths of his despair Jeremiah turns to something he has come to know well, the loyal love of God.  The Hebrew word used here, hesed, is a constant theme throughout the Old Testament.  It is sometimes translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘faithful lovingkindness.’”  [3]

What a marvelous thing to have faith in! After so many awful descriptions of horrible things during the past poems of distress, the prophet gives us a ringing endorsement of faith in God’s steadfast loving-kindness in chapter 3 of Lamentations.

Commentator Steve Godfrey has more than the usual difficulty with sad or disturbing things. He has low-grade depression, and he would like for us to know about his occasional mental condition. “As someone who has managed low-grade depression for 31 years of his adult life these are words that encourage profoundly. They don’t minimize or avoid the issue….

“These words don’t mean that Christians should never get depressed.  The Prophet Jeremiah got depressed and I’ll put his character up against depression deniers any day of the week!  The beauty of the gospel is that it embraces both anguish and hope.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh; low-grade depression is mine.  By God’s grace I manage it through diet, exercise, medication, and counseling.  It’s something I inherited through genetics, and that’s okay.” [4]

Praise God for such a constructive attitude. I doubt very much whether I would be able to maintain such a positive attitude and expression. Knowing that God is there with me, through it all, is so helpful to me when I am going through difficult, even traumatic times. I can share a testimony of God’s presence, of God’s chesed, “steadfast love” or “faithful lovingkindness,” with those who are also having difficulties in life.

But, let us shift our focus from our reading today to why we gather this morning.

We celebrate World Communion Sunday today. This sacrament has been celebrated in good times and in bad, during war and during peace, during times of turbulence and trial as well as times of great joy. Communion has also celebrated by many different people groups in many, many different places throughout the globe. Whether we call it the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist or Communion makes little difference. The unity between various, diverse ministers leading and coordinating observances of this meal our Lord Jesus commanded us to observe is a wonderful glimpse of what this world can be.

Whether we are glad, mad or sad, whether we have only a little or have a lot of goods in this world, whether we are in good health or not-so-good, our Lord Jesus bids us join together in this meal, to be unified and one body, celebrating our diversity. He welcomes each of us to His table, no matter what.

Praise God, what a welcome! Our Lord bids us, come! Thank You, Lord Jesus.

[1] https://churchintheworld.com/2013/09/30/navigating-depression-2/

“Navigating Depression,” Steve Godfrey, Church in the World, 2013.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2010/09/year-c-27th-sunday-of-ordinary.html

Worshiping with Children, Ordinary 27C (World Communion Sunday), Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2010.

[3] https://churchintheworld.com/2013/09/30/navigating-depression-2/

“Navigating Depression,” Steve Godfrey, Church in the World, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

How to Worship?

“How to Worship?”

1 Tim 2-2 pray, message

1 Timothy 2:1-4 – September 22, 2019

Have you ever been to a different kind of worship service? A service where people prayed differently, sang different kinds of songs, played different instruments, and even spoke in different languages? I have attended a number of different kinds. Worship of God can be diverse and different, depending on where we live, what each of us grows up with, and what kind of faith tradition we come from.

In today’s reading from the first letter to Timothy, we hear about instructions for prayer and worship. This letter to Timothy is one of the pastoral letters from the New Testament. In other words, this letter contains instructions for a church leader on how to be a better pastor and leader of a congregation. Including—recommendations for corporate worship and prayer.

This is not like the instructions from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the Sermon on the Plain from Luke, where our Lord Jesus gives specific instructions for personal, private prayer. No, this letter is from several decades later, when there were established groups of believers, and they needed structure and direction on corporate worship and prayer.

From 1 Timothy 2: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—” This sounds wonderful! I have experienced this aspect of prayer in practically every worship service I have ever attended. I suspect you have, too.

Whether prayer happens from the pulpit or lectern, or from the floor of the church, whether the prayer is offered by members of the congregation from the pews or seated in a circle, extemporaneously or written out, Paul’s recommendation of unified prayer is definitely one that has gone on as long as believers in Christ have gathered together.

However, the prayers we offer are not just generic prayers. I want to remind everyone (and I am reminding myself, too!), that we are encouraged to “offer prayers for all members of the human family during church services; prayer in the terms of: petitions (general requests to God), Intercessions (requests for those in need), supplications (requests for ourselves), and thanksgivings.” [1]  The apostle Paul is quite specific here! All of these different kinds of prayer!

I wonder: are your prayers—are my prayers—as far-ranging and thorough as these? Are these recommendations something we all can get on board with? Something we all follow?

Let’s continue with this reading from chapter 2. Who should we pray for? “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

We are not talking about good-tempered rulers. No, the kings, rulers and those in authority in the later half of the first century were not nice guys. What happens when we have mean rulers and cruel leaders, those in authority who do such wicked things as throw people out of their homes, put them in jail, even force them into exile, or even death?

Let’s take a look at the Roman emperors Tiberias, Caligula and Nero. None of them were particularly “good or nice,” several showed signs of mental instability, and these men were at the pinnacle of power in the Roman Empire for over 25 years. Yet, the apostle Paul recommended that his fellow believers pray for them, for other rulers, and “for those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

This was an instruction Timothy received for his regular worship services! What was the apostle thinking of? The Rev. Bryan Findlayson suggests “Such prayer seeks to restrain the powers of evil and so encourage peace and security. When society is in a state of peace, believers can freely serve both God and mankind.” [2]

Again, what about rulers and those in authority who persecute Christians? What about governments that destroy churches, jail church leaders and ministers, and make it impossible for Christians to live and raise families? What about those governments? Do we still need to pray for those wicked people? We are to pray for peace, but what kind of peace?

I would say, yes, especially for those wicked people in government who persecute Christians. “Most often our prayers for peace concern our own personal well-being. When society is at peace, life can go well for us and we can build that extra barn. Yet, the peace Paul has in mind is a positive environment for the proclamation and hearing of the gospel.” [3]

September 21st is the International Day of Peace. The website specifically for this day states: “Established in 1981 by unanimous United Nations resolution, Peace Day provides a globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.” [4] What a wonderful thing to contribute to building: peace.

Moreover, as the apostle Paul reminds us, peace in the world involves a positive environment for proclaiming and hearing the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is our government corrupt? We need to pray for the members of a wicked and corrupt administration, then. What matters even more is that we are safe to proclaim the Good News of the Lord, and to provide for a way to let everyone know the Good News of salvation through His name.

Division and divisiveness is not conducive to spreading the Good News. This current-day division and animosity between people who call themselves believers must make God very sad. Christians of all communities and all ethnicities ought to have their wonderful belief in Christ to unite them. But, no. Sadly, believers all over the world allow politics to divide them.

The Rev. J. Vernon McGee had this to say: “We need to pray for our country, and we need to pray for those who have authority over us. If you are a Republican and a Democrat is in office, pray for him. If you are a Democrat and a Republican is in office, pray for him.” [5]

We have been thinking about the unity of believers from all parts of the world for several weeks now. In our bible study, we are studying the book of Philippians, and talking about how the apostle Paul and his friends preached the Good News to a diverse and different population in the regional capital of Macedonia, Philippi. Diverse and different individuals came together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and God made it possible for them all to join in worship.

What a wonderful example to lift up! Can we do the same, here, now? We here at St. Luke’s Church can strive for the same unity and friendship, despite differences in our families, the languages we spoke as children, or the towns where we were born. We can also come together in worship, despite differences in worship styles, or singing, or prayer.

I pray at the beginning of most services here for God to bless our time in worship, and especially to aid us in lifting our vices in words, prayer and song. This is truly what God calls us all to do. Moreover, God looks upon every voice raised in prayer, praise, or song as legitimate worship, no matter what, no matter where, no matter how. We are all encouraged to do the same. We have God’s word on it!

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

 

[1] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday25ce.html    “Worship in the Church,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://internationaldayofpeace.org/

[5] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible: 1 Corinthians through Revelation, Vol 5, (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1983) 436.

Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

For God So Loved

“For God So Loved”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:16-17 – September 7, 2019

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

That verse is from the Gospel of John, verse 3:16. It is also one of the most familiar and beloved Scripture verses of all time, and that is no exaggeration.

When I asked Gladys what verse or Bible passage was one of her father’s favorites, she immediately spoke up and said: John 3:16. What is more, Bart had his three daughters memorize this verse when they were young. What a beautiful and precious Bible verse, and also a beautiful and precious memory of their father.

This verse has been called the Gospel in a nutshell, or a simple way to view the Good News of God come to earth to save sinners. A vast number of people throughout the world love John 3:16 and can quote it word for word. Yes, it is a valid way to be introduced of the God of the Bible, and to be introduced to the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But, don’t stop there. Bart and Rosevelita did not stop with just that verse. They taught their children not to stop there, either.

What kinds of problems do people discover if they just stop with that one verse and ignore the rest of the Bible? They might have an incomplete understanding of salvation.

After centuries of the Christian church and church history, humanity has ended up with hundreds of different denominations, and even more different ways of understanding how to worship God and to give God honor and glory. This kind of diversity in thinking about God is a reflection of the awesome and magnificent diversity and difference in God’s creation. But, there is still—or should I say, even more—of a sharp disagreement and discord between believers and denominations that say they follow Christ.

What about Jesus Himself? What do you think Jesus would do? Or, WWJD, as the trendy bracelets and bumper stickers of some years back might say? But, I am serious, asking a serious question. What do you think Jesus would do—or say—about all the division in His church?

I suspect our Lord Jesus would cry, grieve, and be very downhearted about all the division, dissention and disharmony among people who say that they follow Christ.

But what if some don’t follow Jesus Christ, or aren’t sure about belief in God? What if some people are not in the same place as others on their journey of faith? We forget that statements like John 3:16 can portray a kind of God I suspect, if pushed, many people would rather not have. “We forget that our certainties about salvation lead to or come from claims about God that might not even reflect the God we know, the God we want.” [1]

If we say that God loves the world, this is not just a pie-in-the-sky theory for salvation. John 3:16 is not like doing advanced mathematics on a chalkboard or a biology experiment in a lab. It is specific and real-life. Particular. As particular as the God coming to earth and becoming human, just as human as you and me. But, can we measure God’s particular, tangible love, in a concrete way?

Sure, we can say “God so loved the world.” But, that means God loves a hated Samaritan woman—from John chapter 4. Does God love people who look and act and worship in a different way than we do? Do we love them, too? God loves a man paralyzed his entire life—from Mark chapter 2. Does God love handicapped and disabled people today? Do we love them, too?  God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend Lazarus dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship and deny being a friend of Jesus. [2]

Great calamities and difficult situations had happened to each of these people. God still loves them. God still loves you and me, and every other person, too. We may not be able to love all people, every person in the world. But, God does. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world. That means everyone. Every. Single. One.

Sometimes we use a measuring cup to measure things. When I made cookies a few days ago, I used a measuring cup and spoons to measure out the ingredients for cookies. Can we use a measuring cup to measure God’s love? If you or I were building something, we might use a measuring tape to measure the length and width of the wood properly. I wonder—could we use a tape measure to measure God’s love? Finally, we use a clock to measure the passage of time. Could we measure God’s love and find out how long it would last? Psalm 103 tells us that God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, and that is pretty long, longer than we can humanly imagine. [3]

Do we have a better understanding of John 3:16 now?

We turn to another gracious promise from Scripture, from Romans 8, where the Apostle Paul tells us that he is convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Bart knows the blessed truth of this verse. He is in heaven with the risen Christ right now, looking down on us. I pray that we all might think of Bart Garcia with blessing, honor his memory, and celebrate his new life in Christ Jesus our Lord..

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4835

“John 3:16,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2017.

[2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/  “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2012.

[3] https://sermons4kids.com/measuring_gods_love.htm

“Measuring God’s Love,”  Charles Kirkpatrick, Sermons4kids.com.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Saved—By Prayer

“Saved—By Prayer”

Dan 6 Daniel with lions

Daniel 6:22-23 – August 25, 2019

Have you ever prayed hard? I have heard from friends about people in their lives who prayed, and sincerely felt heard. Usually, it’s been someone’s grandma, or great-aunt, or perhaps their father. Or, perhaps you remember some respected person from a church where you attended as a child or young person. There was someone in that church who seemed to have a special connection to God; so much so that others in the church would notice and remark about it.

I suspect the prophet Daniel was just such a person. Daniel had a special connection to God, and he regularly prayed. Each and every day, several times a day.

Yes, Daniel was a prophet, in exile. A large number of young people—most probably from the nobility and well-to-do class—were taken captive to Babylon when the Babylonian army conquered Israel. He and his three friends were especially chosen to work in the king’s palace as civil servants. Long story short, all four were filled with integrity, honesty and an excellent work ethic. The king noticed their hard work, and promoted them.

This story about Daniel in the Lions’ Den is well-known, probably the best known among the stories of the Hebrew prophets. At this point, Daniel continues to be in great favor with the king for years, since he is always hard-working, honest and filled with integrity. Except—the homegrown Babylonian civil servants become so jealous and resentful that they hardly can see straight. We can just see them plotting and planning in their nefarious way.

Sometimes, that is the way it happens, when other people in your department or in your neighborhood see your integrity or honesty or hard work. These other vindictive people not only can grumble and engage in backbiting or smear campaigns against these honest, upright people, they may retaliate or even go one step further. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people.

We can find accounts of bad things happening to good people all over the place. Not only in the Bible, but throughout history. We see people of faith, people filled with integrity, prayerful people who are persecuted, maligned, abandoned, exiled, and even martyred. The story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den does not end that way. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are told in Daniel 6 that the king was so pleased with Daniel that he was going to promote him to a position of great authority over the whole kingdom, like being vice-chancellor, second-in-command over all government affairs. Here is where the plotting and planning comes in. We read: “the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”

Yes, Daniel was a person of prayer, too. He had the daily habit of praying three times a day, in addition to being a man of integrity. It was this feature of prayer that the Babylonian administrators were going to attack. These bad guys from Babylon cook up a scheme to convince the king to pass a law that for thirty days would condemn anyone who had the audacity to pray and ask things of anyone except the king himself.

An aside here; an important aside. Kings in those days were absolute rulers, with the power of life and death over the people they ruled. Commentator John Walvoord thought “The probability is that Darius regarded this act as a pledge of loyalty to himself and a token of their desire to respect his authority to the utmost.” [1] This was a way of ensuring that the people of Babylon were completely subservient to the king and his authority. After the law was signed, Daniel continued to pray to the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, three times a day. He knew he would be liable to die for his actions. He not only was a man of prayer, he was also a man of deep convictions.

I suspect we all are in awe of Daniel and his strength of purpose. I do not think I would have the strength to go out on a limb, in the same way our favorite prophet did. It is a hard thing, to stand up for your faith, stand apart from the crowd, be honest, filled with integrity and prayer. The bad Babylonian administrators were delighted to find that Daniel was steadfastly praying, just as he had done before. Can you see them scurrying to tell King Darius about Daniel?

Reading from the Message:  “The conspirators came and found Daniel praying, asking God for help. They went straight to the king and reminded him of the royal decree that he had signed. “Did you not,” they said, “sign a decree forbidding anyone to pray to any god or man except you for the next thirty days? And anyone caught doing it would be thrown into the lions’ den?” “Absolutely,” said the king. “Written in stone, like all the laws of the Medes and Persians.”

13 Then they said, “Daniel, one of the Jewish exiles, ignores you, O king, and defies your decree. Three times a day he prays.” 14 At this, the king was very upset and tried his best to get Daniel out of the fix he’d put him in. He worked at it the whole day long. 15 But then the conspirators were back: “Remember, O king, it’s the law of the Medes and Persians that the king’s decree can never be changed.”

We know that Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den overnight. The king was worried to death, and went back in the morning, afraid to peep into the enclosure. However, Daniel was sitting there unharmed. God had shut the lions’ mouths and kept Daniel safe. And the prophet was a mighty witness to God in that place and in that time. Even the king acknowledged God.

We can name countless others who were not saved from the lions’ den, who were hurt, maligned, tortured, and even killed for the faith they so stubbornly held. Yet, we also hear of occasional people for whom God did do a miracle. We do not know why some were saved, and others were not. I think we can leave that question to God. Something more to ask when we all get to heaven.

I would like to lift up Daniel as an example of faithful prayer. Jesus reminds us several times in the Gospels that prayer is like children coming to their parents. We know that children come with all kinds of things. Crazy requests as well as expressions of love that make our hearts melt. It is the same way with us and God. Just as Daniel did, we are encouraged to have regular, intimate, ongoing interaction with our Heavenly Parent.

Yes, things can be difficult in this life. Yes, life can have twists and turns, yet we can be encouraged by the witness and example of Daniel. Even though our journey through life can go through valleys, up hills, and down winding roads, we have a faithful Friend and loving Companion. We have the opportunity to have regular, intimate, ongoing interaction with our God. Just like Daniel.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/6-daniel-lions-den

https://walvoord.com/article/247  John F. Walvoord, Theologian, Educator, Author

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

A Whale of a Tale

“A Whale of a Tale”

Jonah spitout, painting

Jonah 1:12, 2:1 – August 18, 2019

Jonah and the whale is a much beloved bible story often told to children. Many young ones listen with wide eyes and ears to the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. Every bible story book I have ever seen mentions that the great fish was sent by God, so children (and adults) will know God was with Jonah even in the belly of the whale—or, great fish.

That lesson is definitely one everyone can use! Children, young people, adults, seniors alike, how valuable it is to know that God is with all people—even in the metaphorical or actual belly of a whale.

But, with our adult-sized viewpoint, let’s go back to the beginning of this story, to the beginning of Jonah chapter 1. Jonah was an acknowledged prophet of God. Prophets of God were held to particularly high standards. Everything they said in the name of God had to come true: this was stated in Deuteronomy, in the Law Code of Moses. And, Jonah understood he needed to follow God’s commands. Except—he didn’t. He stubbornly decided to turn tail and run, run in the opposite direction.

What about you and me? What if there is a command Jesus plainly sets forth in the Gospels—like give away your money and you will have treasure in heaven, or love your neighbor as yourself, or especially, love your enemies? And, some Christians—maybe even you and me—do not follow those commands? What then?

We follow Jonah as he runs away in the opposite direction. He goes west, taking a ship for Tarshish, across the Mediterranean Sea. The Lord pursues Jonah with a great storm, the ship almost founders at sea, and the sailors ask Jonah why the storm has come upon them. Jonah is finally honest and says it is all his fault. He is the cause of the great storm. Throw him overboard, and the storm will stop. The sailors were unwilling at first, but finally they did throw Jonah overboard. And, lo and behold, the storm did indeed stop.

Have you ever wished that God could talk to you as clearly as God talked to people in the Hebrew Scriptures? I know I certainly have. Except—even if God talked clearly to us as a dear friend and close companion, are we sure we would listen to God’s spoken words? Or would we be disobedient sometimes, just like Jonah?

Finally, Jonah stops running. Finally, in the belly of the great fish, Jonah repents and asks God for forgiveness. What does God do? The Lord is gracious, forgiving and compassionate, of course! That is God, all over. Exactly the Lord’s gracious, compassionate heart.

As we follow Jonah in the fish’s stomach, and as he gets vomited up on land on the third day, we have a sudden glimpse of why Jonah did not want to go preach to Nineveh. For anyone who knows the history of the book of Jonah, the Assyrians controlled large parts of what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq, among other nearby regions. The Assyrian armies were particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to the nations they fought with and conquered—similar to other armies.

Is anyone surprised to learn that Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire?

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent, otherwise God will destroy Ninevah! What happens? The Assyrians and the King of Nineveh do repent. In fact, this is what the King says. “Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!” 10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. God did change his mind about them. What God said he would do to them God didn’t do.”

What is more, Jonah was furious with God for not destroying Nineveh! Here’s what he  said to God: “1-2 Jonah lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”

We can laugh at Jonah for getting furious with God and stalking off, essentially slamming an imaginary door and leaving an imaginary room. But—God forgave Jonah for Jonah’s sins and disobedience. God created the people of Nineveh. Can God not express divine love and compassion and forgiveness for all the people in the world God made?

When you and I allow hatred and fear to take residence in our hearts and blind us to the fact that God created each person on earth. Father Richard Rohr warns, “you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.” [1] That is not the way of God, the way of heavenly compassion and mercy, grace and truth.

Sure, God knows very well that we all are sinful. Sure, God knows that we all mess up. Even, stealing from the weak and old, killing with knives or guns or bare hands. What about the other ways of hurting people, like destroying someone’s reputation by spreading false rumors? Or destroying a marriage by sleeping with someone’s spouse? Or, destroying the well-being of a temple or church by embezzling a large sum of money?

Sure, you and I are very glad and grateful when God forgives us, when God has compassion and mercy and grace on us. But, if we slip into the fearful, dualistic thinking and judging of good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or, we are in danger of missing the path of God’s heavenly love and compassion, God’s love and mercy, God’s everlasting arms of forgiveness.

Yes, this is so challenging for all of us. I do not know how, but God was somehow in the midst of horror and violence and desperation, of victims and post-traumatic stress and even the horrendous death and torture that the Assyrian armies were responsible for. And, God forgave the Assyrian people of Nineveh. God has forgiven countless countries, because each country is made up of individuals created by God.

We can move that to the 20th century, and the 21st. God created each person in the American military, the German army, the Russian navy, the Japanese military, the French or Palestinian resistance, and all their families. God created each person in the Nigerian army, the Iraqi military, the British or Chinese navy, and all their families. People are wounded and many died. Yet, God loves all of those people—both the ones who did the awful things as well as those who were wounded or killed. I do not understand how, but God does love them.

Yes, this is a challenge for which we need God’s help. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, no matter what. Jesus did not give us a loophole, a way out. We can look at the original disciples, and Christians of the first few centuries. None of the original disciples died in their beds except John, and he was exiled to a tiny island. God is somehow in the midst of all of the horror and anxiety and despair. I don’t know how, but the Lord is with us, no matter what.

Just like King David said in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” God is faithful, merciful, and forgiving, and will remain at our sides through pain, suffering, fear, anger, desperation—no matter what. What a comforting thought. Each of us can say a heartfelt “Amen!”

Thanks be to God for God’s abundant mercy and grace—towards each one of us.

 

[1] Richard Rohr Meditation: The Perennial Tradition: Weekly Summary Aug. 11-Aug. 16, 2019   Center for Action and Contemplation (WeeklySummary@cac.org)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Where’s Your Treasure?

“Where’s Your Treasure?”

Luke 12-34 your treasure, words

Luke 12:29-34 – August 11, 2019

I greet you all in the name of our loving, gracious God and our Lord Jesus Christ. It is good to be back here with you at Epiphany United Church of Christ.

Is anyone here familiar with a particularly challenging time? Either in your life, or the life of someone close to you? I’ve been through a number of challenging, even difficult times, over the years. Periods of unemployment, strained and broken relationships, times of extended illness of loved ones, even death and periods of grieving and loss—of many kinds. Sadly familiar to many here, I suspect.

On the flip side, I have experienced times of great happiness and contentment in my life, periods of harmony and peace, times when I felt I was in a good place, in terms of relationships, employment, and my personal and family life. Those are times I suspect many people want to continue to experience, long-term. Even, your whole lives long.

What did Jesus have to say about both of these long-term situations? Both the up-side as well as the down-side?  Our Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke sheds some light on that question. Our Lord Jesus gives many instructions in Luke 12, and tells His listeners a number of important things. He talks about the positive times in life as well as the times of sadness and heartache. And—Jesus does not shy away from challenging His listeners. By no means! He talks straight, and lays things on the line, not pulling any punches.

Let’s pull back, and look at today’s short, power-packed reading from Luke chapter 12 in context. Luke 12 comes from what bible scholars call the Sermon on the Plain, a section from the Gospel of Luke that parallels the Sermon on the Mount closely, Matthew chapters 5 through 7. Many of these statements in Luke state or summarize statements we find in Matthew. (Both Sermons have versions of the Lord’s Prayer, for example.) But, these words of the Rabbi Jesus—from either sermon, Luke or Matthew—have both comforting as well as challenging moments. For example, the words from our Scripture reading today.

This reminds me of two years ago, when I preached a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5. Those were the lectionary readings for February 2017. Yes, the words of Jesus are familiar. We are the light of the world, the city on a hill. We need to take care of our tongues and not call each other names. And, especially, Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus meant all that. All of it. I found it particularly challenging to faithfully lift up the words of Jesus for those Sundays. I tried to do my best, but I know our Lord’s words can sometimes be difficult to hear, and even a rebuke for us.

So, it is with a similar feeling of anxiety that I come to this reading today. What is Jesus saying in this section of the Sermon on the Plain, anyway?

I included a part of last week’s reading from Luke to begin our reflection this morning. Words of a reassuring nature for people going through some difficult, challenging times. Concentrate on God. Keep our eyes focused on things that matter to God, and don’t worry about the peripheral but distracting stuff that happens in our lives. That sounds great! I could just stop right there, couldn’t I?

But, Jesus does not stop there. He continues: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Wait a second, Jesus! It’s all very well to tell us comforting stuff like “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and “your Father (or Parent) knows what you need.” Those things are great, and reassuring, and encouraging, especially when we are going through difficult times in our lives. But, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor?” and, “provide for yourselves a treasure in heaven?” What kind of stuff is that? Sounds pretty suspect to me. I can imagine two hecklers in the back of the room glancing at each other, and elbowing each other. Yeah, I always knew this Rabbi Jesus was running some sort of con game.

Except, it isn’t a con game. Jesus is really for real.

Sure, economic security is certainly a concern for almost everyone. And, appropriately so. Concern for ourselves and for our families is to be commended. But, I think we can better understand where Jesus is focused: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Commentator Matt Skinner notes that “we can train our wills and our ways of thinking (for that is what the heart symbolized in his culture) through the ways we use our money.” [1]

Jesus is really asking each one of us: where are your priorities? What do we put first in our lives? Are my priorities “me, me, me!” and “my house, my car, my 401 K!” Or—are my priorities something else? Something that would be pleasing to God? Something involving having an open heart and loving compassion?

These words of Jesus tell us a lot about God’s view on charity, on being open-hearted and open-handed. The parable of the rich fool is found just a few verses back in Luke 12, where Jesus talks about a foolish man who had big barns stuffed full of all his crops and other goods—all his wealth. And then, after doing a tour of all his barns stuffed chock full of stuff that he was hoarding for himself, he had a sudden, massive heart attack and died.

Jesus’s words for us today are closely connected to this mindset. Where is our treasure? Where are our priorities? If we spend all our money on ourselves, guess where our hearts will be. What is more, we can extrapolate further. Perhaps some do not have too much money, but are particularly focused on their house, or their car, or have some other focus for their life. What is their priority in life? What would Jesus say about that particular priority?

Are we leaving our relationship with Jesus in the dust, in a far distant second or even third place?

I am going to start a third chaplain internship next week, two days a week, and I will still be pastor at St. Luke’s Church in Morton Grove. (And, I would appreciate your prayers, both for my challenging internship and my faithful service to the lovely congregation at St. Luke’s.) When I considered this Scripture passage this past week, I couldn’t help but think of people in the hospital. The patients and their loved ones who I will meet.

I am familiar with that environment, since I was a hospital chaplain for some years, before I came to St. Luke’s Church. I remember many who had total reliance on God, who were spread thin, in trauma. Many of these folks had been pushed so far, and had very little left in the way of resilience. They had fears, anxieties, trials and tribulations. But, they also had faith in God, in whatever faith tradition they came from.

When they—when we—reach a traumatic situation, God is there. God is faithful. That was some of what Jesus was saying in the first part of our Scripture reading today. And, for those who have not faced such sadness and trauma in our lives—yet—this statement of Jesus applies, as well. Where are your priorities? Where are mine?

When we put God first and allow other things to take second place, it is amazing how things sort themselves out. God has a personal hand in sorting things out in each of our lives, and that is truly a wonderful thing. So, where is your treasure?

I’ll let Jesus have the last word: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4142  Matt Skinner

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

“Happy Birthday, Jesus!“

 

Shepherds adore the Christ child, Jan de Bisschop

Luke 2:4-15 – August 4, 2019

What events are particularly meaningful to children? Birthdays, of course. The birthday is not only a marking of the day the child was born, but is often (in this society, at least) a day for parties, presents and special things like ice cream and cake. And, children naturally love to go to birthday parties, too. No wonder many people celebrate birthdays as something really special.

Our two Scripture readings this morning both tell about the birthday of a really special Someone: the Baby born in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus. Except—I do not think it was common to celebrate birthdays with a birthday cake in those days.

When Isaiah wrote his prophecies six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, he was writing to a contemporary situation, it is true. But there is another situation, another prophetic announcement that people have marked from that point on. But, more about that birth announcement in a few minutes.

Yes, it is common for small children to concentrate on the baby Jesus and his birthday on Christmas Day. But, why did Jesus get born to a teenage girl in Bethlehem, anyhow? Why was this birth announcement made by the prophet six hundred years before the event?

For some of the answer to that question we need to go all the way back to the beginning, in the book of Genesis.

We know that God created the world, and God made plants and animals and humans. God created time and the seasons and great beauty and complexity in this marvelous world, and called it all good. In fact, very good. But, we know what happened. Sin happened, and entered into this world. Sin has caused tons of evil, heartache, misery, hatred, and disaster. We all know how much sadness and badness there are in this world.

Yesterday, in a shopping mall in the city of El Paso, Texas, we saw a horrific example of evil. The young, white shooter took the lives of twenty people, and did horrible harm to the lives of countless more. Is there a more visible example of corrosive sin and evil that can be shown to us? Sadly, violent situations such as this happen all too often, with tragic repercussions.

Yet, God the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, saw this horrible, pervasive evil of sin and nastiness and hatred that entered into the world, and knew its sweeping, widespread effects. God the eternal Son emptied Himself of all Godhood, and became a tiny, helpless baby human.

As the Apostles Creed tells us, We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. Every time we say those words of that ancient—most ancient of creeds, we affirm those eternal truths. Are many Christians aware that in repeating this creed, we regularly proclaim the Good News of Christmas, the miracle of God the eternal Son breaking into human history and becoming a tiny baby?

As we examine that ancient birth announcement from Isaiah chapter 9, we reflect on those words that reverberate deep in the soul. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The music that George Frederick Handel used in his oratorio “Messiah” for this chorus ring in my mind whenever this Scripture passage is read.

Yes, God the eternal Son was born as a baby, just as this verse from Isaiah says. But not just a human child, but much, much more! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This baby was sent into the world to change the world. This baby was sent into the world as the Prince of Peace, to bring peace to a troubled world and dispirited people. This baby was mighty to save.

It is sort of a challenge to communicate all of that difficult, mind-blowing stuff about sin and salvation to little children. I can well understand how the ease of having a birthday party for the Baby Jesus would appeal to them instead. Small children understand about birthdays and birthday parties. That is within their experience. And, we certainly tell them about the Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem at Christmas.

As we move to the second chapter of Luke, this narrative of the Nativity is so familiar. Is there anything here we haven’t looked at before?

We see Mary and Joseph, check. Knocking on lots of doors in Bethlehem, check. Refusal at an inn, but welcomed to a stable, check. We examine this next important part of the story. “There were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly, an angel appeared to them and said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be known to all people.”

While Mary and Joseph were busy with the birth of their firstborn Son, our scene shifts to the shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem. We are familiar with this next part of the story: shepherds guarding their sheep at night, and the heavenly angel breaking onto the scene.

Does anyone remember what we just looked at from the book of Isaiah? The Lord God had a wonderful birth announcement, given a few hundred years beforehand. But, this is the time! This is when the prophet was talking about. The angel told the shepherds that a newborn Savior had arrived. He is not only a Savior, He is Messiah, too, with everything that that means to an oppressed, downtrodden people in an occupied country. Believe me, Rome was not exactly a gentle group of overlords. No, the Roman empire was an oppressive regime. I can just imagine how welcome this heavenly announcement was! God-sent, indeed.

Plus, the name given to this special Baby by the angel Gabriel had great meaning. Mary and Joseph did not go to a bookstore and pour over the selection of names in a baby book to help them name their son.  If we go back a chapter to Luke 1, the angel who tells the teenager Mary she is going to bear the Messiah also tells her what His name will be: “You will have a son, and you will call His name Jesus.” In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” That is just what the angel tells the shepherds—”Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

What a build-up for this heavenly event! Imagine, repeated birth announcements for this wondrous Child born in Bethlehem. Is it any wonder that this was the biggest, best birthday ever? If we go back to our first example, with the children having a party celebrating someone’s birthday, we could have a humdinger of a huge birthday bash, indeed.

Happy birthday, Jesus! We can celebrate, because Jesus came into the world on that Christmas Day. We can celebrate, because there is no other name given among people that can save us from our sins. Praise God, we have a Savior, indeed!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

David Triumphs over a Bully

“David Triumphs over a Bully “

1 Sam 17 david-goliath, Peter Boon

1 Samuel 17:1, 4, 8-11, 20-24, 31-32, 41-51 – July 28, 2019

Who has experience dealing with a bully? It could be on the playground, or in your neighborhood, or at work, or even in a local church. It does not matter where you or your siblings or children or grandchildren or parents happen to be, chances are that bullies can be found all over.

Our scripture reading features a big bully. Saul is king of Israel, and the perennial enemy of Israel, the Philistines, come to attack Israel yet again. Instead of fighting with the two armies coming up against each other, the Philistines send out their acknowledged champion, a huge man called Goliath, to challenge someone from Israel to fight. Did I mention he was a big bully?

Children often encounter bullies at school or on the playground. As adults, we often have thicker skins and are able to deal with the physical, psychological and verbal abuse bullies so often heap on the smaller and weaker ones around them. Bullies can and do seek out their victims, intimidate, and prey upon them, even if teachers, coaches, administrators and other adults are on the lookout for bullying behavior.

When my husband was growing up on the west side of Winnetka, a neighborhood bully named Adam lived just a couple of blocks away, to the east. You may even have seen him on television or on the big screen after he grew up.

According to common knowledge around the neighborhood, Adam had an unhappy home life, and I feel badly about that. That probably contributed to his negative attitude. Adam was antagonistic to other boys in his neighborhood. He was a sizeable kid, and would intimidate and beat up many other boys. My husband was fortunate, since he never tangled with Adam. I suspect Adam was well known at the local school, and not for a good reason.

Is this similar to Goliath’s backstory? A great question, and one we cannot answer.

1st Samuel 17 tells us for forty days the army of the Philistines were in attack formation, drawn up in battle gear across the valley from the army of Israel. For forty days the large man (some would call him a giant) Goliath would stride in front of the Philistine battle lines to challenge the army of Israel to send out a champion of theirs, to fight. As Ralph Klein, retired professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago tells us, “The idea that a combat between two champions could decide a battle is well known in ancient sources. Goliath was 9′ 9″ tall and extremely well armed. His armor would have weighed about 125 pounds.” [1]

Just think—a huge guy with impressive armor and weapons. Goliath was massive!  That alone would be disheartening. But, wait. When we add physical and verbal intimidation to what the Philistine army would be guilty of, we see what a horrible impression they made on the army of Israel. And not only the army of Israel, but for the whole nation of Israel by extension.

Does this sound familiar? Do we have bullies in our neighborhoods? Our schools or workplaces? When we examine and break down how Goliath used intimidation and fear, we can see that Goliath was a master intimidator. (Or, at least, how antagonistic and intimidating were the people who wrote the words for Goliath to say. He might have had great writers.)

What about the other side of this lopsided-looking match-up? We do know what David looked like, from this and other descriptions in 1 and 2 Samuel. At this point, while David is only a teenager, he has not become tall and broad-shouldered yet. He is described as ruddy and good looking. We can also see how full-grown warriors of Israel are afraid and intimidated by the insults and trash talk of Goliath and the Philistine army, and the teenaged David has a very different response. He is horrified at the blasphemies and trash talk Goliath spouts.

Let’s examine what Goliath said, more closely: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.  If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”  And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

Goliath was a soldier by profession, and very good at what he did. He had probably honed and fine-tuned his scare tactics. We see classic manipulation and intimidation patterns.

I would like to highlight one type of person from our modern context. This can be an office manipulator, a neighborhood busybody, or an overbearing and mocking know-it-all. This type of person is not necessarily a huge menacing presence. They might not be physically intimidating, but their verbal browbeating and coercion can be just as terrorizing. This poisonous activity can induce just as much fear and demoralization in the attitudes and behavior of those surrounding this toxic person. This toxic person can be a virtual Goliath, and might come in many shapes or sizes. We need to be aware and on the lookout for mean bullies like this.

Let’s go back to David. He comes to the army camp with supplies for his older brothers, but the whole camp is away at the battle lines for Goliath’s daily intimidation. “There, David finds his brothers, and as he talks with them, Goliath steps forward to repeat his challenge for the 81st time (see 1 Samuel 17:16). Goliath says what he always does, but this is the first time David has heard him. David listens to this giant’s challenge and his cursing of Israel and her God. He watches the frightened Israelites (including his brothers) draw back, their courage shattered by this man’s words and appearance.” [2]

Wait, says David! Who is this Philistine, and why is the army of Israel cowering in fear?

Great question! We all know the rest of the story. David volunteers to challenge Goliath, comes at him with only a slingshot and smooth stones, and nails Goliath between the eyes with an Olympic-worthy shot from his sling. As the huge man falls to the ground, dead, David hews off Goliath’s head with his own sword, and thus becomes the darling of all of Israel for defeating Goliath. The original David vs. Goliath match-up.

The point of this bible story often displayed for children in Sunday school is that God is with us even when we are afraid, just like God was with David when he faced Goliath. However, from an adult understanding, we can go further. Yes, absolutely, God will be with us in all kinds of unequal, David-versus-Goliath battles. What is more, using God’s perspective can be lifechanging. From God’s point of view, David was the winner even before he used his slingshot. David was a teenager after God’s own heart. He kept his eyes on God and prevailed against a bully, against all human odds.

Are you facing a continuing battle today? Is there a mean bully in your workplace or neighborhood? Finding God’s perspective on the toxic problem is a great help. Continue doing what you know is right, in a winsome and positive way. And, God will continue to be with us, against all the Goliaths that come into our lives.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=331

Commentary, 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, Ralph W. Klein, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2009.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/14-david-and-goliath-1-samuel-171-58

“David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

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