Compassion and Babies

Exodus 1:15-21(1:20) – June 18, 2017

Exod 1 Pharaoh and the Midwives, Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, early 14th century, British Library,

“Compassion and Babies”

Who doesn’t love babies? Babies are sure to put smiles on the faces of many, many people, all over the world. Chubby little hands and feet, delicate ears, nose and mouth. They are adorable when they smile and yawn, and little angels when they are asleep.

I realize there are some people who are not wild about babies, but these are in the minority. Could we focus on one particular person who did not like babies at all? Our Scripture reading today from Exodus tells us a good deal about him. Starting at verse 8, “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”

Joseph and his brothers had been dead for many years—perhaps centuries. This king of Egypt did not remember anything of the marvelous things that Joseph did and the wonderful miracle he helped bring about, assisting all of Egypt and the regions surrounding to survive a great famine that lasted seven years. No, as far as the Pharaoh was concerned, he had forgotten all that history in the mists of a far-off past.

The King of Egypt had grown afraid of the numerous descendants of Jacob, who were growing more numerous and prolific all the time.14 The Egyptians made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” In other words, the Egyptians were using these newcomers to their land as servants, even as slaves.

But, this hard labor—forced labor—was not enough. Pharaoh and many other Egyptians continued to be intimidated by the Israelites. When enough was enough, the Pharaoh called the two midwives to him, the ones who helped the Israelite women to give birth, and gave them a terrible command. He commanded genocide.15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

I suspect everyone here can guess what the midwives’ reaction is to this terrible command. Horror, shock, and revulsion, followed by refusal and resolve.

According to Dr. Brueggemann, “This narrative plunges [us] into a world of danger, brutality and desperation. It is a world into which a settled congregation does not easily go.” [1] Sure, this Scripture reading from Exodus is definitely not warm and fuzzy.  Many congregations regularly romanticize the Bible, and thus ignore the difficult parts, the ominous conflicts, the slavery, wars, death and destruction.

Imagine, so many powerless little babies, just born into this world. Remember the children’s sermon? Remember how certain people today are powerless, too? Similar to our activity during children’s time, here is a story in the book of Exodus about babies in danger who needed help. The babies couldn’t help themselves, and others—the midwives—came along to be sure they were safe.

Continuing from Exodus, “The midwives answered to God, not the king, and so they let the boy babies live, too. The king called for them, and when they came, he asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives said, “Oh, king! Hebrew women are so strong—they give birth on their own, before we can even arrive!”

These courageous women defied the direct orders of the Pharaoh. “They feared God more than they feared the new king, and for that reason they refused to participate in the state-authorized killing.” [2] What is more, they give a wonderful reason for not carrying out Pharaoh’s horrible plan: they say that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly! These women are filled with vigor and a liberated power for life, and for life-bearing, too. [3]

The Hebrew women were not the delicate flowers that many Egyptian women supposedly were. Instead, the midwives appeal to what appears to be Pharaoh’s own prejudicial sense of the relationship between physical difference and ethnicity. They insist that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19).

The Hebrew word here for “vigorous” shares the root of the word “life.” The midwives deceive Pharaoh, and at the same time use language that also winks at the reader: the Hebrew women are full of life. [4] Their identity as God’s people resists death. Death is what Pharaoh demands to bring into their powerless lives—but it does not work. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, not only defy the King of Egypt, they also show compassion to the Israelite boy babies and their families, as well. Their community grew and became even stronger, and God was pleased with the midwives; their disobedience to the King was faithfulness to God.

According to the king, as Pharaoh, he was mighty, wily and powerful; on the other hand, the boy babies of the Israelites had no power, and neither did their parents.

Do we know what “powerless” means?  It’s to need help from others because we cannot help ourselves. Who else might be powerless? I mean, with less power in our world, or our own lives, or in their lives. Who are some people you can think of that don’t have much power in our world today? How can we help these people? Are there ways we all could show compassion and kindness to them?

This week offers us a story of humankind’s inhumanity to one another, and it is a story that gets played out in every generation. Why are we human beings unable to end our hunger for finding a group to be bullied or ostracized, be it on the playground at our local elementary school, in our neighborhood, or in the land that God promised to the Jews all those generations ago? [5]

It is the same old, same old story. One group of people come to consider themselves superior to another. Perhaps they think they are superior because of their appearance, or because they enjoy a more satisfying lifestyle, or they practice a particular religious faith. Maybe they feel they are superior because they have interpreted the Bible in such a way that they have come to believe God supports their views and lifestyle, and God condemns the views and lifestyles of those who differ from them. [6]

Who in our community enjoys favor and who is scapegoated? How does our church address these problems? Do we speak out? If not, why? Who stands to gain and who stands to lose from speaking out or keeping quiet? Can you put your own story into the story of the Hebrew people suffering under the abuses at the hands of the Egyptians? [7]

Thank God for these midwives, for Shiphrah and Puah. They stepped up, they came alongside of the Hebrew women, and they showed kindness and compassion.

How can we act today with kindness and compassion? How can we come alongside of someone in our neighborhood who is being bullied, ostracized, or even abused?

God willing, we can, and we will! Amen.

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, Exodus, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 696.

[2] Ibid, 695.

[3] Ibid, 696.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2169  Commentary, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

[5] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost4#notes1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Compassion through Hospitality

Genesis 18:4-5 – June 11, 2017

Exod 18 Abraham bends down before Holy Trinity - angelic visitors at Mamre - mosaic in Monreale Cathedral

“Compassion through Hospitality”

Almost everyone enjoys visiting with friends. This can involve meeting for a cup of coffee or tea, going out for a meal, or having friends over at your house. What do you do to make friends or relatives welcome at your table? How do you like to be welcomed, when you go over to someone’s house or apartment?

These are great things to think about. We begin our first sermon of the summer, our Compassion sermon series. Let’s take a look at Genesis and at Abraham, the friend of God. He and his wife Sarah were on a nomadic journey—a very long caravan camping trip that lasted for years and years. While they were traveling, they camped for a time in the land of Canaan near what is now the town of Hebron.

God appeared to him. Here’s how it happened: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Right off the bat, this bible reading lets us know an important fact. It’s sort of the summary statement at the beginning of this reading, and then the passage explains what it’s all about.

This first verse tells us a lot. Abraham had his tent set up by some big trees. There wasn’t any air conditioning in those days, so he looked for some big trees to provide natural cooling. Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent—a cool place, to catch any little breath of wind drifting by. We also know it was the middle of the day—a really hot time in that semi-desert terrain!

Now that we’ve explained more about it, in your mind’s eye, can’t you just see Abraham sitting there, catching the breeze in the cool shade, at the door of his tent?

What happens next? “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

We are not sure how much Abraham knew about these three men, but he goes out of his way to greet these three strangers. In many places in the world, people give you a warm welcome when you come to their home. It’s certainly true of many people and places throughout the Middle East.

“As a nomad, Abraham and his family lived in tents, as they traveled with their grazing herds in the desert. The few who lived in the harsh deserts of Judea depended upon each other for survival. Visitors were treated very well, for they brought companionship and help for the host. The practice of hospitality was highly prized in Abraham’s time.[1]

“Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to strangers that come to their camp, upon seeing the strangers coming in the heat of the day, it’s suddenly high gear hospitality.  Hospitality would be the duty of any desert dweller of the time.” [2] I mean, really greet you! They give any stranger an extravagant welcome.

Let’s turn to a modern-day example. When our children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews go over to a friend’s house, what are some things that might make these young people feel welcome? Yes, their friend might offer them a drink or a snack. That is great. But, let’s go further. What if their friend goes the extra step? What if their friend lets our children play with their toys? What if their friend lets them pick what show they would like to watch on cable or DVD? How about inviting them to stay for dinner, or even inviting them to sleep over? All these ways of helping them feel welcome in their home are ways of showing “hospitality.”

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed these unexpected strangers, can’t we do the same thing? Maybe make a special effort to welcome each person into our house—or church, regardless of whether we know them or not? We can help them feel noticed, cared for and safe in joining our group of friends. How did Abraham show these three people they were welcome?

“Abraham said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.”

Let’s play a little game with this bible reading, a topsy turvy game.

What if Abraham did not feel like showing hospitality to the three strangers? What would that have looked like? What might have happened, then? As the three persons came near the tent, Abraham might hide inside and shut the tent flaps tight. When they knocked at the tent door, Abraham could tell them to go away, in an angry voice. If the three persons insisted that they were thirsty or hungry, Abraham might yell that they should go some other place, and freeload off of someone else.

If all that had been true, bible history might have happened very differently!

But, no! Abraham and Sarah were fine hosts. Let’s read more of the bible passage: “Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

As a fellow pastor commented, “There was no Holiday Inn, or highway rest area, there is only Abraham and Sarah’s camp and their herds and their well. So, when strangers appear in the heat of the day, needing a wash and a rest, you tend to their needs. Some kind of host switch has been flipped.  Abraham runs, he hastens, he quickly prepares.  His hospitality seems to go above and beyond – the best of the herd, the best flour and in abundance for the meal.” [3]

Modern times have not changed hospitality. How do good hosts show us their hospitality today? They offer food and drink and try to make us as comfortable as they can.

I remember my dear prayer partner Zhou Hui. She was born in mainland China, grew up in a poor neighborhood in a medium-sized town, did really well in school, and was able to get awarded a scholarship to university. She came here to the United States as a graduate student, and became a naturalized citizen. She lives near here, and her children attend New Trier High School. She is a devout Christian, and a real pray-er. I thank God I was able to be her prayer partner for years.

I bring up Zhou Hui because she always bends over backwards to be a wonderful hostess. She has the spiritual gift of hospitality, and she always offers wonderful food and drink to her guests. I can remember many, many enjoyable meals my young children and I had at her house. That is just what Abraham did here. He and Sarah hurried up and offered their unexpected visitors wonderful food and drink.

Abraham and Sarah not only showed these strangers genuine hospitality, they showed compassion—Godly compassion.

Hospitality is the way we help others feel welcomed and cared for, and that we can do this anywhere we are: for friends at our homes, new students in our classrooms or new neighbors on our block.

This narrative is a beautiful reminder that when we show compassion and kindness to other people, we are showing compassion and kindness to God.

When we read about Abraham, we might think, “How nice! What a good job, showing kindness and hospitality.” I have news for you: Jesus shows us hospitality! Jesus shows each of us kindness and compassion! Does this change the way we see other people in our lives, especially those we don’t know very well? Or, those we don’t even know at all?

How might we show hospitality to others? I know we pride ourselves on our kind, compassionate welcome to anyone who comes into our church. We can show our community that St. Luke’s Church witnesses to the love of Christ, not only with words, but doing what we do best: serving food and showing people a warm welcome.

Hospitality is a wonderful way to show everyone the love of God and show kindness and compassion—the same way God has already shown love, kindness, compassion and welcome to each of us. Let us go out, and do likewise.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/16-c/FR-16-c.html “Abraham Welcomes the Lord,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Lectionary Resource for Catholics.

[2] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

[3] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

Confess Sins, Accept Forgiveness

“Confess Sins, Accept Forgiveness”

1 John 1-9 if we confess our sins

1 John 1:8-9 – June 19, 2016

Have you ever seen a small child when he or she knows or realizes they have done something wrong? Sometimes, they gasp. Their lower lip may tremble. Sometimes they might start crying. The realization that they have made a big mistake sometimes overwhelms them.

Does this picture sound at all familiar? I do not care whether it’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. When a small child realizes they have done something wrong—well, that can be the saddest time in the world for that young person.

Sound familiar? I suspect it ought to. This awful feeling affects not only small children, but it can trouble grown-ups. It can happen to you or to me, too. The realization that nothing is the way it ought to be? Affecting, heart-rending, deeply sad. Sometimes feeling like the bottom dropped out of the world!  And, get this: it’s all my fault.

If we look at our Scripture lesson for today, we will find exactly that. The older Apostle John tried to get his readers to see this, in the first verse of our reading today. I will read both of these stirring verses from 1 John, chapter 1. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

And, we are on the next line of the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission. “Empowered by the Holy Spirit . . . To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God’s forgiveness.”

I am going to depart a little from my usual sermon format, and ask: what do we do every week in our worship service, right after the opening hymn? After our prayer of invocation, where we ask God to be with us in our worship service, we move into the prayer of confession.

Why on earth do we need to confess our sins before God?

Ah! That is where John’s reminder of our sinfulness is helpful. Remember, the Bible came first. Scripture was written to be helpful to believers, and to offer praise, and to admonish and correct our behavior—when we needed that. Afterwards, people started to set down a formal worship service. Especially in our Protestant tradition several hundred years ago, they always had a formal confession of sins—just like the Apostle John mentions here.

Each of us—every worshiper here today—sins. Every day. It doesn’t matter who we are, or how good we are trying to be. Each of us makes mistakes. It is like someone using a pencil. That is what erasers are for. To erase wrong or messy writing, and to correct mistakes, like in arithmetic at school.  We all have sins, or mistakes, or errors in our lives. And what’s more, we admit them to God. We tell God all about them.

Let’s look at the first sentence in our prayer of confession today. “Merciful God, who has compassion on Your sinful children.” Right here, this has several deep theological ideas! We are saying that God is merciful! God is not unforgiving, or uncaring. Instead, merciful. Full of mercy toward each of us. The Lord has compassion on each of us, too! God feels with each of us.

The next part of the prayer: “You sent Your son Jesus Christ to be the Savior of the world.” Ah! Here is the Gospel, the Good News. This is why God sent Jesus! God knew the terrible mess humanity was in, and God had a solution: to send God the Son—in the flesh, made as a human—to become one of us. To be our Savior, and save us from our sins.

Some years ago, I knew a practically perfect person. He was a stickler for perfection, for writing precisely, for trying to act appropriately at all times. He used to joke that he thought he made a mistake once—but he was mistaken. (He understood his tendency as a perfectionist, and gently laughed at himself.)

This is where our Scripture reading is helpful. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Except—the New Testament says that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (In the letter to the Romans 3:23.)

We continue with the prayer of confession: “Grant us grace to lament our sins; help us by prayer and meditation to repent and turn to You.”

If you recall, I often repeat this verse from 1 John as the weekly assurance of pardon: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”

Sometimes in our confession of sins, we have a time of silence for personal confession. In addition to the prayers written in the bulletin each week, from time to time I provide space in our service for each of us to come to God silently in prayer, a quiet time to come with personal things that are particularly burdensome. And, did you hear what John said in this verse? “God IS faithful and just, and WILL forgive us our sins.”

The next sentence in our prayer of confession today: “Give us a true longing to be free from sin. Thank You for Your abundant love and forgiveness.”

Praise the Lord! Did you hear? “God will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!” Those are the words of John, written in the first century. Moreover, they are still true today!

Just like dirty clothes are cleaned in the washing machine, especially when we add some laundry detergent, so we are cleansed from our sin. My mother had a wringer washer in the basement. I used to go downstairs and wash the clothes for the family. I put water in the washer, added the detergent, and turned on the agitator. Scrubbed the clothes, and then wrung them out into each of the double sinks, rinsing, and then rinsing again. I saw firsthand how this business of washing clothes worked. How the soapy water got so dirty. How the clothes got rinsed clean.

That’s us! When we come to God to confess our sins, correct the mistakes we have done and said, it’s like God has cleaned us in a washing machine. Sure, sometimes I feel like I have been in a washer from time to time. Been agitated by the machine, and then put through the wringer. I bet you can relate, too. Some people go through the wringer more often than others—and how!

 However, we come out the other side as clean people. We receive God’s abundant love and forgiveness!

The final words of the prayer of confession: “We pray these words for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Redeemer, amen.” Jesus is the only Redeemer. Not ourselves. Not saints, or good works, or some television minister, or prayer book, or other holy practice. Our Lord Jesus is our blessed Redeemer. We are indeed redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, as our closing hymn tells us.

The assurance of pardon is what follows this confession of sins. This is not a half-hearted assurance. This is not “maybe,” or “I hope so,” or “fingers crossed!” This assurance is complete. As Jesus said as He died on the cross, “It is finished.” The work of redemption is completed. Praise God! Just as what John said in this verse: “God IS faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.”

Shortly, we will sing a hymn all about forgiveness and redemption. I close this sermon with a verse of this wonderful old hymn, written by Fanny Crosby:

“Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child and forever I am.” —Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love, Despite Bad Choices

“Love, Despite Bad Choices”

Luke 15-20 prodigal, father, brother

March 6, 2016 – Luke 15:20

Most of us—maybe even all of us—have some experience with a prodigal child. Either one of ours, or one of our close friends’ or relatives’ children. Are you familiar with the parents, loving their child enough to let him or her go away? Go far away, cross country, or even into a foreign place? This might be familiar. It can be very sad. Heart-breaking, in fact.

We have the familiar parable of the Prodigal as our Gospel reading today. What is the setting for this parable? In verse 1 of chapter 15 we see Jesus sitting down to dinner with a bunch of social outcasts. As far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned, that is—they were outright offended! How could Rabbi Jesus, a self-respecting, reputable rabbi, be associating with riff-raff, with undesirables, with people like that?

Tax collectors and sinners. The upright Pharisees even had rules about associating with those people. They just didn’t. They were forbidden to have any dealings with them at all. But—Rabbi Jesus welcomed the tax collectors and sinners. Get this—He even ate dinner with them!

The Pharisees and scribes (teachers of the Law of Moses) were judging Jesus for some bad choices they saw Him making, according to them and their strict rules.

You know what Jesus’s response was, before I even tell you. Jesus said, “Let me tell you all a story. A parable.” Except, He didn’t just tell one parable, He told three of them, all about similar things. Luke chapter 15 is called the chapter of lost things. Jesus tells three interconnected stories about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Today, we are focusing on the lost son. Our Sunday school gave us a wonderful retelling of the gist of this story!

The parable of the lost son is a parable about bad choices. As the story continues, we see that the younger brother made a series of bad choices. Wanting to leave home. Asking his father for his inheritance. Going to the far country and blowing all the money in fast living. All of these decisions were bad choices.

Let me expand on just one of these bad choices. According to the inheritance rules of the time, the younger son was to receive one third of the total assets of the father, after his death. (The oldest son would get two thirds, just because he was the eldest son.) But—this shouldn’t have happened until after the father died. The younger son was so uncaring, so disrespectful to his father, that he essentially said, “Dad, I wish you were dead already, so I could have all of my inheritance now. In fact, I want you to cash in all your assets and give me one third, right now. I can’t stand around waiting for you to die for me to get my hands on your money!”

The amazing part, the unbelievable part of all this? That’s exactly what the father did.

We all know what happened. The younger son goes to the far country. (A Gentile country.) Is estranged from his father and family. He mismanages and squanders his inheritance with debauchery and fast living. The far country has a famine descend upon it, which makes the younger son lose his money even more quickly. Finally, he becomes completely poverty-stricken. Runs out of funds, and is forced to hire himself out as a pig herder. (A surprising occupation for a good Jewish boy.)

If you ask me, these all sound like pretty bad choices.

I posed the question at the beginning of this sermon: do you know some young person who has been making bad choices? I want you to keep that person in mind.

Then, the good choices start happening. The younger son “came to himself.” This phrase means so much! It could mean that the young man had taken leave of his senses, at one point. Yet, now, he makes a good choice. A sensible choice. He remembers that his father’s servants—even the most lowly servant, on the bottom rung of the ladder—had enough to eat. That lowest servant was not starving, even though he was a servant.

If you or I were in that desperate situation—practically starving in a famine-torn land—I would suspect that thought would sound pretty good to us, too! Moreover, the younger son makes the decision to ‘fess up to his father. He realizes that he has acted in a really bad way towards his father. Plus, he acted in a really bad way … towards God, too. He returns to his father, and in so doing, returns to God, too.

We all know very well that the younger son made some really bad choices. Yes! And, isn’t there just a little bit of self-satisfaction at how bad things got for the younger son? “I told you so!” “I could have predicted that!” and even, “Just what you deserve!”

Yet, how many of us make bad choices from time to time, too? Once in a while, or even a little more often than that? How many of us come to our senses, and realize we have acted badly? We return to our heavenly Father, hat in hand, tail between our legs, and ask for forgiveness. We repent, just as much as the younger son did.

Yes, the younger son finally made a good choice! He gets up, leaves the far country, and returns to his father. His faithful, loving, compassionate father.

The absolutely joyful part of this is the father’s reaction. The father sees his son coming from a long way off. All the time the son was gone, the father kept looking for the far-away son. The father kept hoping that the son would return! And when he finally sees his son in the distance, the father throws away all concern for propriety and loss of dignity. He runs down the road in the middle of town to meet his son! Embracing his son, showering him with kisses! So relieved and overjoyed at having his beloved son with him again!

But, wait! That’s not all! The father restores the son to his place, puts shoes on his feet, a ring on his finger (showing his status in the household), and gives him the best robe (a restoration of position). Reconciled! Restored! On top of that, he throws a big party!

If we celebrate the recovery of a lost sheep or a lost coin, how much more should the father celebrate the recovery of a lost son!

I don’t have time to go into the bad choices of the elder brother. That would take a whole other sermon. Suffice it to say that the disgruntled older brother made a bad choice or two, himself, even though he stayed at home. Remind you of anyone? The Pharisees and scribes, perhaps, keeping all their strict rules to the letter, but not having compassion, love and forgiveness?

So, Jesus hits the Pharisees and scribes where they live, with their own disgruntled remarks and attitudes. And, Jesus gives hope to all those who make bad choices. Including us.

God the heavenly Father—the heavenly Parent—is actively looking for us when we make bad choices. When we come to our senses and return to God for forgiveness, God comes running to meet us, from a long way off.

If that isn’t love, what is?

 

[I am indebted to R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on Luke, chapter 15, found in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series (United States of America: Abingdon Press, 1996). Thanks for several insights interwoven into this sermon.]

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!

Cup of Cold Water

“Cup of Cold Water”

Mark 9-41 cup of cold water, photo

Mark 9:33-41 – September 27, 2015

This weekend is the first weekend of autumn, here in the Northern Hemisphere. The baseball playoffs are around the corner. Football season is with us again. And who isn’t interested in team rankings? The Chicago Cubs—fingers crossed!—are in the playoffs, in a wildcard spot! And whether you enjoy college football or pro ball, rankings are certainly something much discussed, in news columns, on television, and in personal conversation.

What if you do not care for sports? Have you or one of your relatives looked at Yelp lately, to check out that new restaurant down the street, and see how many stars the restaurant gets? What about U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the top colleges in the country?

Face it, this mentality has transferred to the church, too. Who’s the top ranked preacher in the country? Does the church down the road make it on to the list of best churches in Illinois? Or what about the top ten children’s ministries in the Chicago area?

In our Gospel reading today, we see that the disciples were not immune to this kind of thinking. Even though they didn’t have the Internet, or Yelp, football, or even the printing press, we can still tell that the disciples were jockeying for position. Arguing and trying to figure out which one of them was the “best.” Who was the “greatest,” anyway?

I think Jesus made them ashamed of themselves, since they got very quiet when He asked them what they were arguing about on the road, just before they reached their destination for the evening. They didn’t want to admit they were arguing over superficial or unimportant things like rankings! Who was the “best,” or the “greatest.” Striving for superficial, unimportant things. I suspect they already knew what Jesus would say about that kind of thinking and striving.

To make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. And then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.”

Wow! Pretty pointed remarks, let me tell you! In other words, Jesus said that being kind to the least of society (for that was what children were, in the first century) was far better than seeking status or striving to be the “best” or the “greatest.” The disciples were right to quiet down in embarrassment when Jesus asked them why they were arguing on the road.

But, all of that is preamble. Setting the stage for what I really wanted to talk about today. And yet, this sermon topic is a continuation of Jesus speaking about being kind, thinking about, and being of service to the least of society.

The disciples just didn’t get it. Jesus makes His point clearly, repeatedly. Being kind to those who are overlooked or ignored? Helping out those who have little or nothing, with no thought for a “return on your investment?” The disciples misunderstand or get confused, over and over and over again. Like right here.

This past week, the people of the United States had a rare opportunity to see the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, in the flesh. For real. Pope Francis is here now, in this country. He arrived earlier in the week, in Washington D.C. The President, Vice President, their families, and many other members of Congress and other people in Washington were among those who had the opportunity to hear his Holiness speak to a joint session of Congress. Oh, and the Pope ate lunch with the homeless, instead of with the bigwigs at the White House.

Pope Francis then went to New York City, celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, drove along Central Park where thousands greeted him, and visited a Catholic grammar school in a poor, Latino and Black area of the Bronx.

Then, he flew to Philadelphia. Yes, he is celebrating a huge open-air Mass in the middle of town today, but he also visited a prison, as well.

I don’t know how much anyone here follows news of Pope Francis, but he is a very unusual man for someone holding one of the highest religious positions in the world. A man of humility, who does not care for the spotlight. Who loves and engages with children and goes out of his way to take “selfies” with young people. He makes a special effort to visit disabled people wherever he goes. Pope Francis is fervent about being pro-life—that’s for all life, including ending abortion as well as capital punishment. He is fervent about protecting the environment—worldwide. He does not wish to be elevated or made much of. So, of course people recognize his humility, good humor, engaging behavior, and respond to him all the more!

(I am not advocating for or against his deeply felt convictions. I’m trying to give a snapshot of Pope Francis, so that we might see how real, genuine and compassionate he is.)

I think Pope Francis would understand immediately what Jesus was saying here. Jesus wanted His disciples to think about others, first and foremost. Not jockey for position, seek high status, or try to be the “best” or “greatest.” Not to go out of our way for standing or high rank.

Jesus goes on to say, “41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” Wait a minute. What’s this? First he’s talking about considering those on the bottom rung in society as fully human, too. Not second-class citizens! Children certainly qualify for that, as do women, the elderly, the disabled, and handicapped. As do immigrants, migrants and refugees.

Let me tell you about a college student bible fellowship in Europe, to give an example of what Jesus was telling His disciples. This comes from the prayer email sent out just a few days ago from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications.
            “Students with SXEF Greece are mobilising to help throughout the country. G., a staff worker in Thessaloniki, writes: ‘Greece has been one of the places on the global map where a lot of quite painful changes have taken place. Little did we realize that, in our own “neighborhood”, there was place for more suffering, until we saw the caravans of refugees and migrants crossing the borders holding their babies in their arms.

We saw this situation as an opportunity to show that the Christianity we preach is practical. So we went to the northern borders where migrants are gathering, to help in any way we can.’

S., a student, helping there, agrees with G. ‘Our daily missions gave us the opportunity not to just speak for God but to do something for him. Many times I felt that our actions had the biggest impact, whether with the migrants, the local authorities or humanitarian organizations.’

‘Just with a smile, a bottle of water or some food, I realized better why God wants to serve him with our actions. I think it is because that is also [God’s] own heart for us, to take away our fears and minister to our needs.’
Quite literally, we are sometimes called to give a cup of cold water to people in need. Like these college students did, in northern Greece. Giving a smile, and an encouraging touch. A handshake. Holding a cranky baby or a fretful toddler, so a tired mother can have a short break.

Are these big actions, or expensive things? Sometimes, no. But, they are human things. We can do what we are able to do. And with a little help from everyone, we can do a lot!

I think of what Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress several days ago: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. . . . On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Isn’t this exactly the same thing that Jesus said to His disciples, in our Gospel reading today? Isn’t this what the college student bible fellowship found when they ministered to the hungry, thirsty and tired refugees crossing through their country? Giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name has a huge impact. The action is not a huge deed. But the smile and handshake that accompany the water, or the food, or the supplies? Priceless. And welcoming.

Showing the least of these that someone cares. Someone is concerned. They are not all alone. Each of them is made in the image of God. Just like me. Just like you.

Remember, for God so loved the world. That is, the whole world. Not just part of it. Not two thirds of it. Not just people in the Northern Hemisphere or people with four good limbs. Not just people born to married parents, or the people who are sighted and can hear. But, everyone.

What’s more, Jesus is calling for each of us, all of us, to look at each other and see God’s image in each person’s heart. For God so loved you. For God so loved me. For God so loved . . . each person. In Morton Grove. In Illinois. In the United States. Yes, even the whole world.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[I appreciate the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications, for the quote from their prayer email from last week. And thanks to Paul Nyquist and TODAY IN THE WORD (Daily Devotions) for inspiration for a starting point for the sermon on this Scripture passage.]


Generous With Our Purpose

“Generous With Our Purpose”

John 2:10 – February 22, 2015

Big events can be a big headache. Taking care of the venue, and preparing where the big party is going to be celebrated is one big concern. The entertainment, the decorations are more challenges. So is keeping track of all of the food and drink. How much is too much? And what if I don’t have enough? What happens if I run out?

This is exactly what happened at a wedding at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, in Cana of Galilee. Let’s zoom in, and take a closer look. Jesus was invited to the wedding as a guest. His disciples were invited, and probably many other people He knew. And His mother, too.

In the first century, Jewish custom held that most any wedding would be an event of celebration for several days. Our Scripture passage today shows an affluent Jewish family—with some servants and a household steward. We read that the family provided extravagant feasting for days. In the case of today’s Scripture, if there were any miscalculation or lack in provisions in food or drink, not only the bride and groom but also their families would most likely suffer great humiliation.

What about today? What are some challenges or needs that we might have right now? People all over the world have lack of funds, logistical problems, or miscalculations and find themselves lacking provisions every day. What about lacks or needs due to physical situations? Unemployment, illness, or suffering of other kinds? These things are nothing new, sadly. They can be overwhelming. I’m just one, puny person on this whole planet. Billions of people live today! Who am I to expect that Jesus even knows about my needs for food and drink?

Let’s go back to Cana, in Galilee. A couple of days of partying had already passed. It was the third day of the big wedding celebration, and a few people found out they had run out of wine. They ran to tell the chief steward. Oh, no! What was to be done? With a big crowd like he had in the house, I suspect he couldn’t just send out to the local liquor store for more supplies.

It was then that Mary, the mother of Jesus, got involved. Somehow, Mary heard about the lack of wine, too. She hurried to her son Jesus and told Him about it.

What about us, today? When we have needs or lacks, what do we do? Do we try to be tough, and go it on our own? Are we self-sufficient, not needing or asking for any help? Are we frozen by the need, unwilling or unable to budge? Or are we open and willing, like Mary, ready to trust Jesus, to go to Him for assistance?

Mary asked her son Jesus to help out. “They have no wine,” is what she said. There was some back and forth between mother and son. Jesus says, clearly, “What does this have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”     (Just wait, I’ll get to that comment, in a minute.)

Here we have Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, God in human form. God the Son, the Logos, the one who spoke at the beginning, and created the universe. Who formed our world and placed the stars in space. Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, is asking Him to change His mind, to change His plans, to change His timetable.

Mary eventually told the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” Mary trusts in Jesus. His mother trusts that whatever He will say or do is going to work.

Nearby were some large containers, for ceremonial washing. That’s stone containers, holding about twenty to thirty gallons apiece. With such a crowd of people, a lot of water was needed for everyone to wash before eating. Jesus told the servants to fill the large containers with water. After doing so, Jesus said, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”

What the servants brought to the steward was no longer water. It had miraculously changed to wine. And not any garden-variety wine, no! The good stuff. The best wine to be had!

Here we have Jesus—willing to change His plans, change His timetable. Willing to change His mind—because generosity puts people first!

Our Lord Jesus offers compassion and generosity to the people at the wedding celebration in Cana. And not only to them, Jesus offers a practical, tangible demonstration of compassion, generosity and kindness to all of us, today, as well! Here in this passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus shows Himself to be all this—so that anyone who reads these paragraphs will be able to see that this kind, generous, miracle-working God is the kind of God who is available to them, too!

Jesus caused this superior wine to be made available. I find it interesting that Jesus is sometimes portrayed as the True Bridegroom for the Church, after His resurrection. The True Bridegroom provides the best wine for all the people at the wedding, showing them His rich abundance and generosity.

What about us? When we finally come to Jesus with our need, with our problem, what then? Do we trust in Jesus with all our hearts? True, some are held back by many things. Fear is a big hesitation. Insecurity and doubt are two others. Will we offer what common things we have (the containers of water, in this case)? Jesus miraculously can change them to wine. Jesus can help us wherever or whenever we need it, providing for us out of His abundance!

The assistance can come directly from God, but this help may come from another source, too. Wherever or whomever the kind, generous help comes from, praise God! Jesus is generous to us, comes alongside of us and provides miraculously for our needs, too.

The six large containers held a whole lot of water. So Jesus changed it into a whole lot of wine. The good wine, at that! Jesus provided generously! He provided out of His abundance, His extravagance. Wonderful job, Jesus!

What is going on in your life today? Where do you need a touch from God? Jesus and His abundance, His extravagance, His generosity can come into your life today. Jesus wants to give you and me joy and blessing. Even good times and laughter, in abundance. We can see from the good wine He miraculously provided at the wedding at Cana that He can and will.

What a generous God we serve!

Praise God! Amen.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)