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!)

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Fishers of People

Matthew 4:18-23 – January 22, 2017

matt-4-19-fishers

“Fishers of People”

Is everyone here familiar with regular, ordinary work? Some people might call it common or mundane. The ordinary, everyday kinds of things that ordinary, everyday people do on a regular basis. That is what countless numbers of people do, every day, at work and at home.

That is what Peter, Andrew, James and John were doing, as fishermen. As the Gospel lesson today mentions, these men and their co-workers worked on their boat, doing hard work. Doing what they were used to doing every day. Probably, for some among them, doing the same ordinary, everyday things they had done on their boats for decades.

I suspect this day started out for Peter, Andrew, James and John like so many others. But, this day turned out differently, because Jesus showed up. Let’s see what happened from Matthew’s account: “As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.”

As one of the commentaries said, “Fishing was a popular trade on the Sea of Galilee. Fishing was the most common occupation for people residing in the small villages located on the lakeshore. Living on the shores of Lake Galilee with its abundant supply of fish, people understood fishing perhaps more than they did farming. Living on the shores of a fishing lake, the whole town was ‘into fishing.’” [1]

Typical for many people in the town of Capernaum, Peter and his brother Andrew were regular, ordinary working men, doing their regular, ordinary job, with others in their family’s boat. Casting their nets into the sea.

That troublemaking rabbi Jesus walks by the shore and calls out to them. He says, “19 Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What on earth does Jesus mean by that?

Some people consider their work to be simply that: work. But, a portion of workers think work is something more than just a way to earn a paycheck. They consider their work to be much more: something from which they receive significant satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.

One of the writers I consulted, Dr. David Lose, helped to formulate a survey describing “work,” “vocation,” and “calling.” The survey asked respondents various questions about their work, how they viewed it, and how important work was in their lives.

“Where do [these] people find the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose (terms to which these survey respondents resonated far more strongly than “vocation” or “calling,” by the way)? Relationships. Even those who identified their work as a source of meaning and fulfillment usually cited their relationships at work as the places of particular significance.” [2]

Peter and Andrew were interrupted in the middle of their regular, ordinary day by Jesus. When Jesus called out to Peter and Andrew and said He would make them fish for people, He called to them, to build relationship with Him, first and foremost. Then, to build relationships with others.  

These two guys in the boat? It’s their response that is really extraordinary. Our Gospel reading says: ” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Immediately! They don’t pause and think about it. Immediately, they go!

So now we have the rabbi Jesus, and Peter, and Andrew, walking along the shore. What happens next? “21 As Jesus went from there, He saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

The same thing. These two are sitting in their father’s fishing boat, and the rabbi Jesus calls to them. They get up in the middle of things, leaving the nets half-mended, and they leave.

What on earth is going on here? This reading is difficult to believe. It’s really a stretch of the imagination to think of getting up and leaving everyone and everything these guys know to follow Jesus. I don’t know whether I could do it! Don’t most people figure the disciples were extraordinary, first-century super heroes of the faith? You know. People that we can admire from afar but certainly not identify with.

Dr. Lose refers to some biblical scholars who suggest that “Jesus had been living in Capernaum for a while and had known Peter, Andrew, James, and John for some time, and so this call was neither sudden nor abrupt but was the natural outcome of their friendship. Maybe that was the case (huge emphasis on “maybe”), but given that Matthew reports that when Jesus comes and calls they immediately follow, I think we are meant to take notice.” [3]

Whether Jesus knew these four guys for a long time or for just a little while, Matthew tells us—he stresses they followed Jesus immediately. They didn’t think about it, they didn’t dither, or pause, or tell Him to come back tomorrow. No! They immediately followed and entered into a relationship with Jesus.

And, Jesus? He didn’t call them to come and work for Him. He didn’t just want to be their supervisor or manager. No! He called them into a close, genuine relationship with Him: the best kind of relationship there is! Jesus continues to encourage His disciples, His friends, to bring others into a close, genuine relationship with Him, too. BFFs, best friends forever.

What were some things the New Testament tells us about this relationship with God? To bear each other’s burdens, care for each other (especially the vulnerable), and hold onto each other, through thick and thin. Striving to do this, we will always be upheld by God’s grace. [4]

Some people still don’t think they are worthwhile, or good enough to be real disciples. After all, I suspect we don’t have any super duper saints here in this church. No super heroes of the faith! Can God use me? Can God use you?  I know I am imperfect. I’m just a regular, ordinary person, going about my business, doing regular, ordinary things. I suspect that describes everyone here.

I have good news for us all, however. Jesus is still looking for people to come, to answer His call. He is calling to regular, ordinary people in regular, ordinary situations to rise up and become extraordinary.

Jesus is calling to you and to me, holding out His hand to each of us. Jesus wants us to be in a close, genuine relationship with Him, too. Jesus wants us to go the next step and have concern and love for others: to be in a close, genuine relationship with them, too. Not in a mission, or a ministry, or a movement, but in genuine love and caring for one another.

Here’s an action step for you: find one person with whom you are in significant relationship. Perhaps it’s a relationship that brings you particular joy, or sorrow, or frustration, or hope. It doesn’t really matter, just so long as it’s significant. Once you have that person in mind, please take a moment to pray for that person every day for a week … and to believe that God is using you to make a difference in the life of the person for whom you are praying. [5]

Come back next week and let me know what happened. Did you feel closer to God? Did anything change for that person? We all can rejoice, for all of us strive to be faithful. Alleluia! Amen!

 

(A great big thanks to Dr. David Lose for his excellent words and thoughts on Matthew 4 and his bible study “Fishers of People.”)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_fishing_for_christGA.htm “Fishing for Christ,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018  “Fishers of People,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[3] Ibid. (emphasis mine)

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018  “Fishers of People,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

Cup of Cold Water

(I preached this sermon last September at St. Luke’s Christian Community Church. I delivered it again yesterday, as part of the Big Soul series on Jesus in the Gospels at Epiphany UCC.)

“Cup of Cold Water”

mark-9-41-cup-of-cold-water-word-cloud

Mark 9:39-41 – (from a sermon of September 27, 2015) September 25, 2016, preached to Epiphany UCC, Chicago

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 have made it to the playoffs! 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 sad, even ashamed of themselves. We can see 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.

A year ago, 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 was here, in this country. He arrived 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, and visited a Catholic grammar school in a poor, Latino and Black area of the Bronx. Then, he flew to Philadelphia. And, he celebrated a huge open-air Mass in the middle of downtown Philly. Plus, he 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 last September from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications.
            “Students with SXEF Greece are mobilising to help throughout the country. Grigoris, 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.’

Sophia, a student, helping there, agreed with Grigoris. ‘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? Often times, no. But, they are human things. We can each do the small things we are able to do. And with a little help from everyone, we can do a whole lot!

I think of what Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress last September: “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 who are right handed. 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 Chicago. In Illinois. In the United States. Yes, even the whole world.

@chaplaineliza

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

 

Embody God’s Love

“Embody God’s Love”

John 13-34 love one another, swirls

John 13:34-35 – July 3, 2016

Have you ever seen the following scenario playing out? In a friend’s life, in a relative’s life, or perhaps on television or the movies? Two teens or young people bicker or argue, sometimes even coming to blows. A teacher or a supervisor or a coach steps in, and urges the two people to face each other, say they are sorry, and then shake hands. Then, sometimes, the relationship is repaired, even better than it was before. (At least, that is the hope.)

How often do we see the disciples of Jesus bickering? Arguing? I would not be surprised if—every once in a while—one or two of them even came to blows. Then, Jesus would have to take that adult or parental role. Encouraging His disciples to come together in relationship, in friendship, in His gentle yet firm way.

Here’s the situation. Here we are again in that Passion Week, the last week our Lord Jesus spent here on earth as a human. Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and went to a number of places with His friends that were particularly public. Out in the open. Jesus made no secret of being in Jerusalem for the Passover holiday.

Our scripture reading for today is set on this last evening. The last supper, that Passover dinner Jesus shared with His disciples. And here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives them some final instructions, as we can tell from this reading today. I’ll start in John 13:33. “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Jesus is preparing the disciples—as best as He can—for the horrors and agony of the next twenty-four hours, and beyond. It’s true. There is a lot going on in this Passion Week, and Jesus and His disciples are still in the Upper Room. (The events of later that Thursday night and on Friday still have not happened yet.) Our Lord has some extremely important information to communicate in John 13:34. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

This is that Passover dinner where Jesus just got done washing His disciples’ feet. “As I have loved you—served you—wholeheartedly—so you must love one another.”

Problem: Jesus’s disciples must have been distracted. Fearful, anxious, forgetful. Perhaps their nerves were frayed. Tempers flared. Some might not have been able to concentrate fully on Jesus and His words, with all the tumultuous events swirling around. It’s true, many factors contributed to a fearful, anxious time. The possibility of hostile soldiers knocking at the door at any time of the day or night must have been only one of these fear-producing factors.

Jesus had a huge amount of things to contend with, too. However, here in John 13, we see Jesus once again demonstrating His never-ending love.

He shows huge love to these same guys who will fail Him, and fail miserably! Commentator Elisabeth Johnson said, “Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.” [1]

Jesus is not referring to showing love to strangers outside of the church here. (Jesus talks about that in several other places.) He’s meaning our fellow church members! Brothers and sisters in the faith. Showing love, friendship, fellowship to those we worship with.

I am certain we all can tell horror stories about a church torn apart by arguments, or jealousy, or friction, or hurt feelings.

What about disagreements about church meetings or the color of the church carpet or Sunday service or the new pastor or the old pastor or the church music? Pro or con, big or little, one way or the other. Such disagreements and arguments are not the way to carry out this important command of Jesus.

Let’s change gears and take a look at the topic for our Summer Sermon Series, the UCC Statement of Mission. What is the section for this week? As I turn to it, I find: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves: To embody God’s Love for all people.” I will repeat that last part: “To embody God’s Love for all people.”

I chose these verses from the Gospel of John to illustrate this important part of the Statement of Mission. We are not only to show God’s Love to others, but we are to strive to embody God’s Love. Go above and beyond.

My first thought was, What on earth does “embody” mean? A great place to start is close to home, and this—St. Luke’s Church, our local church—is our church family. Our church home. We are able to show others God’s Love through genuine, earnest, wholehearted, servant-love towards each other in the church.

Now is a good time to look at verse 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” Did everyone hear? Jesus is telling us to love one another. That means to get along with one another, not bicker and argue and fuss with each other. What better way to let everyone outside of the church know that we love one another—to be genuine and pleasant to each other, to care for each other, to go out of our way for each other.

This is for real. Not pretending, not putting on a false face. For real.

How many of us know someone who gossips about other people in their church? I am not talking about anyone in this church, mind you. But I know we all know people in other churches. What about someone who is mean to other people in their church? Or, someone who ignores others, or is openly disrespectful, or even goes around trying to stir up trouble for others in their church? I know these awful things go on at churches all across the country, every day.

Would it be different if we tried things the way Jesus wanted us to do? What if we loved others? Could we strive to embody the love of Jesus? Show His love to everyone we meet, and especially in the church? What kind of witness would that be to people outside of our church? Wouldn’t they be curious about St. Luke’s Church?

“I wonder what is happening at that church? What gives? What kind of preaching is going on there? Those people really show each other that they love and care for each other. I’d like to find out more about that church!”
One of the commentators I respect has an article on just this subject. I quote from John Pavlovitz: “As a Christian, Love is the only acceptable legacy I care to leave the world; not Love covered in doctrine, not Love couched in religion, not Love loaded down with caveats and conditions; just the beautifully potent thing itself, distilled down to its essence and delivered directly to people as honestly and purely as I can.

“And let’s not kid ourselves, most people know when they’re really being loved and when they been handed a lousy imitation with the same name—especially when it comes to religious people. I’ve come to believe that if someone’s color, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation keeps you from fully loving them, you’re probably doing Love wrong.” [2]

Thank you, John. Loving others in Jesus’s way is what we are commanded to do, what we have been called to do. Yes, we can celebrate Jesus and His love for us! And, we can take the next step—the step He commands.

Love one another. No fooling. For real.

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Commentary, John 13:31-35, Elisabeth Johnson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2830

[2] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/09/18/i-want-to-do-love-right/?utm_campaign=coschedule&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=johnpavlovitz

@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!)

Yes, And … (Not ‘No, But’)

“Yes, And … (Not ‘No, But’)”

holy trinity stained glass

John 16:12-15 – May 22, 2016

Just about everyone has been involved with play-acting at one time or another. Either as a child in a school play, in church at a Christmas pageant, or in a high school musical or other production. Or, if you weren’t in the play, one of your best friends was. Remember? Acting. Playing a part. Pretending you are someone else.

What about Jesus? He does not act fake or play a part or put on a false face (or voice). He is genuine, real. Jesus meant what He said when He was talking about the Holy Spirit, and about God His heavenly Father. His interaction with the other two Persons of the Trinity is completely natural, real, and genuine. Just as it was from before the foundation of the earth. The interaction between the Three Persons of the Trinity? Completely natural and perfectly genuine.

Let’s look at this passage of Scripture. From the Gospel of John, where our Lord Jesus spoke to His friends on that last night of His earthly existence. I suspect He had so much on His heart, so much that He wanted to say. Concerning His passion, death, resurrection, and all of the ramifications and consequences that would unfold. Jesus wanted to share all these things, but He tells us specifically that we cannot bear them now.

I don’t know whether anyone here has been in the position of understanding the full ramifications of a difficult situation. I am more familiar with healthcare, since I served as a chaplain for some years. In certain cases, I would be told about a patient’s diagnosis and prognosis, but then be hesitant to share that information fully. Because, the patient just couldn’t bear the full brunt of all the heavy, sometimes catastrophic news at that time.

It was sort of that way with our Lord Jesus, at that Last Supper table. He knew His friends could not bear the full brunt of the awful news Jesus knew so well. As the Amplified version of the Bible renders John 16:12, “I have still many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them or to take them upon you or to grasp them now.” In other words, in our 21st century understanding, the words and sentences Jesus could have told them would not compute. Would not penetrate into their brains.

The disciples must have been confused—anxious—maybe even downright fearful. And, who wouldn’t be? I’ve mentioned several times before about the tense situation in Jerusalem on that Passion Week, that last week of Jesus’s life. Our Lord Jesus delivered these words of our Scripture lesson today on the night of that Passover dinner, the night in which He was betrayed.

He knew He was going away—out of the disciples’ sight and daily experience. Jesus was preparing His friends for His departure. He wanted to remain with His friends, in fellowship and community. Letting them know He would be sending the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to be with them, always. Yet, in this situation—in absolutely every situation—our Lord Jesus was absolutely truthful. Real, and genuine.

A number of years ago, I wanted to use my voice for radio, and for commercials. I was coached by a professional. A professional voice-over artist. She had superb skills in using her voice, and was an excellent coach, besides. Since I was not as fluid and sometimes stumbled in interaction with others, she recommended that I try improv. Comedy improvisation classes. That led to two of the most enjoyable years of my life.

I went to small group improv classes at IO (formerly Improv Olympic) and attended comedy shows on a weekly basis for two years. In this improvisational work, I acted a multitude of parts. I wore different personas. That part of my story is important. Yes! I did play any number of roles. Yes, these roles were play-acting. However, improv brought my acting to a whole new level. Not only were my roles seem more real and genuine, my close-knit relationship with the rest of the improv team was cemented more firmly. For that little while, it was as if I were really embodying whatever role I was playing.

My parts and roles? Seem almost incidental compared to my most foundational learning from that time of doing improv. That lesson? “Yes, and … !” (As opposed to, “No, but … “)

If I say “No, but … “ it stops a scene right in its tracks. Difficult to keep going with that kind of negativity. “No, but … “ shuts people down, and cuts off possibilities. It’s like letting the air out of a balloon, and sometimes forces a scene to a full stop.

However—“Yes, and…!” is just the beginning! It’s a jumping off point. You have a multiplicity of possibilities.

In improv I learned—so well—about collegiality, cooperation, welcome, and helping people out. Being together in community, and fellowship. Yes, I knew about all these things, before, but not in quite the same way. I had learned about all those things in the abstract. More like book-learning, in school. But, how was it all different when I was on an improv team?

Instead, “Yes, and … !” was very much experiential learning. Where people depended on me, and I depended on everyone else. Where people grew very close, very quickly. Where there was mutual interdependence. Friendship. Fellowship And, extravagant welcome.

Sort of like the doctrine of the Trinity, which discusses the relationship and communion of the Three persons. The Trinity affirms “the total equality and complete uniqueness and diversity of the divine persons.” [1] Just so: opening up possibilities for us to see in the Divine Trinity, that Divine community from before the foundation of the earth. Mutual interdependence, friendship, fellowship, and—extravagant welcome.

Remember, Jesus told His disciples, “13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
This is the Holy Spirit Jesus is talking about! The Third Person of the Trinity who Jesus, God the Son, knew from before the foundation of the earth! Of course Jesus wanted to let His friends know that they would not be alone after His resurrection and ascension. That friendship fellowship and community that Jesus shared with them would continue. And, of course the Holy Spirit would remind believers of the things Jesus had taught them while He was on the earth. Guiding into all the truth—the Spirit of truth.

Three in One. One in Three. Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as traditionally identified for us in the Gospels and other places in the New Testament). All three Persons are included here, in this passage today. This holy mystery is about relationship and indwelling. It is about community and the self-communication of God. The Trinity is about the mutuality of God within the God-head, about our invitation into relationship by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. “And it is about our mutuality with each other, guiding, speaking, and declaring to one another the glory of God, Father/Creator, Jesus/Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is our way of life made possible by God.” [2]

Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the three Persons of the Trinity—had and continue to have a real, genuine relationship. I have seen something like this among the congregation here at St. Luke’s Church. Our church members are real, genuine, concerned for each other.

I would like to invite us all to think “yes, and!” Yes, we at St. Luke’s Church are loving, genuine and real to others in the congregation. Praise God! That is not all. We can go further. Do more. Be genuine and real to as many people as we can.

Is this sometimes … difficult? Sometimes … a challenge? Yes, to both. However, it is a God-given challenge.

A few years ago, it was a popular thing in churches to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” I am not absolutely sure, but I suspect Jesus would live in community. Be real and genuine in all His interactions. Embody friendship, fellowship, and—extravagant welcome.        Jesus would not say “No, but …” “No, but—that won’t be possible.“ “No, but—that looks too difficult.” “No, but—that is just too much work.” “No, but—that person seems scary. And different.”

Instead, I am sure He would enthusiastically say “Yes, and … !” “Yes, and, I’ll be glad to help!” “Yes, and, we can be welcoming to those newcomers!”   Yes, and—friendship. Yes, and—community. Yes, and—genuineness. Yes, and—countless other exciting opportunities.

We all can practice this foundational learning I absorbed in my comedy improv training. Yes, it prepared me to be a better improv player and a better member of an intimate team. And, it also helps me navigate life, today. Be a friend in community—any community. Be as real and genuine to as many people as possible. Just like the deep, intimate relationship between the Persons of the Trinity.

Are you ready? Can you say “Yes, and … !” Not just here, in this community of believers, but outside in the world? In other places, other communities? I encourage you—I challenge you—I challenge all of us not to shut down conversations and opportunities by saying “No, but … “ Instead, be open. Be encouraging. Be positive. Say “Yes, and … !”

What would Jesus do?

[1] Lacuogna, Catherine Mowry, “God in Communion with Us,” from Freeing Theology: the Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, 92.

[2] Hogan, Lucy Lind,  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1697

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.]