The Most Excellent Gift

“Love: The Most Excellent Gift”

1 Cor 13 love, ring

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (12:31) – February 3, 2019

In less than two weeks, the yearly holiday of romance and love will be celebrated. Yes, the holiday of Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. According to the popular women’s magazine Woman’s Day, people here in the United States spend a lot of money on their Valentines: an estimated $18.2 billion in 2017, including 144 million Valentine’s Day cards. [1] Gifts, cards and chocolates are wonderful for that special someone in your life! But—is this idea of love what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the Scripture passage we read today?

As we come to the end of our series of gifts from God, we can think back over the past month. As we celebrated Epiphany the first Sunday of January, we not only saw the gifts the foreign-born Magi gave to the toddler Jesus, but we celebrated the greatest Christmas gift of all time: the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We also rejoice as we remember our baptism and the tremendous gift of God’s grace bestowed upon all of us.

We consider what Paul was talking about in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts! We spent two weeks discussing the generous gifts God gives each of us—all of us. Gifts of helps, service, teaching, healing, wisdom, understanding—and then some. What is more, Paul encourages us to put these gifts into practice for the common good of others. And last week, we explored the interconnectedness of each of us and each of the gifts that we bring to this family of faith. We learned that we need one another in a fundamental way. [2]

Which leads us to our Scripture reading for today, from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul caps off this discussion of spiritual gifts with the most excellent gift of all: love.

Many people relate the reading of the this “Love chapter” with weddings. Romance and hearts and flowers—and Valentine’s Day—seem to go hand in hand with this chapter. That is, on the surface. But, when the Apostle Paul really gets going on the depth and breadth of God’s love, he does not mean hearts and flowers and candy at all. God’s love is what is offered to all of us.

What does God’s love look like? Paul gives us some vivid examples. Reading from The Message: “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Forgive me. I’ve just told you what God’s love does not look like. This is what happens when a person does not have God’s love living within him or her. A very sad, despairing state of affairs, to be sure.

Paul does tell us what love is, however. Again, from the Message; “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”

This description from Paul tells us what love is.

Very sadly, if we read the newspaper and turn on the news, we see another expression of God-talk. This kind of black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing talk comes from rigid or extreme religious groups. You know the groups I mean. Groups that say unequivocally “I’m on God’s good side, and you’re not. I’m going to heaven because I do the things God wants. You don’t, so you are going to hell.” It doesn’t matter whether they are stringent Christians, fundamentalist Catholics, extreme Muslims, or radical Hindus. Such hurtful thinking and corrosive speech lets us know these religious groups have likely not experienced God’s life-changing, wondrous love. You know, all of the wonderful, life-giving parts of love that the Apostle Paul just described to us.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has written and taught extensively on God’s love. He spoke of these hurtful religious groups, and then asked, “How can we do better? To begin, we might put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine why someone is so hateful.”

Father Rohr continues: “While working in the Albuquerque jail for over a decade, I met many men who had been raised in a punitive, authoritarian, absolutist way, often with an absent or abusive father. Understanding another’s story can teach us compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set some healthy boundaries. But it does open our hearts and help us recognize that other people are victims, too. They’ve been wounded, too. Yet they are still objectively an image of God, created in God’s image.” [3]

We are not all called to work in prisons, like Father Rohr. But, God has gifted each of us to offer our gifts to others. Each of us have been given gifts to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the love of God. Remember what we talked about last week, how all of our spiritual gifts are interconnected? Each of us is needed by the others in this family of faith. And, God’s love is one of the greatest connectors of all.

One of my absolute favorite people ever is Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to ministry in television and mass communication by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963. He had a marvelous, moving ministry to children—and to adults—for decades—in public television.

One of the ways Mister Rogers reached out and communicated to children with his television show was through music. He wrote over two hundred songs about important things and things that concern children very much. Like this one: “There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you. Many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Cleaning up a room can say I love you. Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays.” [4]

Important words from a loving, honest, generous man, Fred Rogers. He let us know that love can be as simple as hanging up a coat—or doing the dishes—or sending a greeting card. Mister Rogers would definitely agree that showing love is being kind to others, and being your honest, caring self. No matter what.

A reminder, from the Message: “[Love] Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.” That is the kind of God we have. Love is a gift God offers to all of us, freely.

It doesn’t matter how each of us expresses God’s love. God gives many gifts to all of us, freely. Let us give love away to everyone, no matter what. Just as freely as God gives to us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.womansday.com/relationships/a4702/10-fun-valentines-day-facts-103385/

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/february-3-fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Exploring and Experiencing the Naked Now, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010).

[4] http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/music/songs/many_ways.html

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

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

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When Adam Was Afraid

“When Adam Was Afraid”

Genesis 3:8-10 (3:10) – June 3, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

do-not-be-afraid

How often have we seen children, after they have misbehaved? Oftentimes, they know very well they have done something wrong. Their little lips may tremble, sorrowful eyes fill with tears. They may duck their heads because they fear being punished, and not meet the adult’s appraising look. Or even, run and hide so the person in charge needs to go find them.

These traits can occasionally be true for not-so-little people, too. Can you remember people you knew who acted like this, at work, or school, or among the circles of friends you know? The feeling of embarrassment and guilt, even of wrongdoing, can be very strong.

We look today at Genesis chapter 3, and at the very first instance of being afraid recorded in the Bible. But before we take a closer look at the book of Genesis, I’ll give you a preview of our summer sermon series. We will focus on a phrase that appears dozens of times in the Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament. “Be Not Afraid!”

Fear and anxiety—and their companion, worry—haunt many people, on a regular basis. God keeps reminding us in the Scriptures to be not afraid! We can find this command many times throughout the Bible books, in many different situations.

As I said in this month’s newsletter article, I attended both undergraduate classwork at Moody Bible Institute as well as seminary study at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. I learned in my bible study and interpretation classes that if anything is mentioned with frequency in the Scriptures, it is really important. “Be Not Afraid” certainly is one of those statements.

But, what is the first time fear is mentioned in the Bible? For that, we need to look at Genesis 3, the account of the time sin entered the world. This narrative is about permission, prohibition, temptation, and most of all, about relationship. Free, loving relationship between God and humans.

To recap, in the beginning, God created humans. We look at two representative humans, Adam and Eve, who figure prominently in Genesis 3. The crafty serpent asks Eve a leading question about God and what God has forbidden them access to. The serpent puts doubt in her mind, and tells Eve that this forbidden fruit will cause her to become wise, like God. She sees the attractive fruit on the only tree God has forbidden, plucks it and eats it. She then gives some to Adam, and he eats some, too.

I could tell you lots more about the serpent, and how crafty and manipulative it was. I could mention about thoughtful Eve, and how she drew her own conclusions from what the serpent presented to her. I might add that she saw the tree as good for food and pleasant to the eyes. Moreover, when she brought some of the forbidden fruit to her husband, he “puts up no resistance, raises no questions, and considers no theological issues….The woman does not act as a temptress in this scene; they both have succumbed to the same source of temptation.” [1]

To say this in a different way, God has given the man and woman considerable freedom and latitude in their lives in paradise. The serpent slithers in and plants doubt in Eve’s mind. She eats the fruit, her husband also eats, and they have both transgressed the only hard and fast rule that God has given them.

Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened, and they realize they both are naked. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment are all featured prominently here. What are they to do? They both sew coverings out of leaves to cover their nakedness. Cover up their shame and embarrassment. However, their human resources are just plain inadequate.

Except—their guilt and sin are now compounded. When God—in some kind of human-like form, so humans could see and relate to God—came into the garden later that day, fear strikes deep into the hearts of both Adam and Eve.

Fear! What must that have been like? To feel fear for the very first time?

All of us have had that experience. All of us have experienced fear for the very first time, and I suspect you cannot remember the situation, or exactly when it happened. It probably happened when you were very young. We are told this is the exact situation with Adam, here in Genesis chapter 3.

Why are Adam and Eve afraid? If you had disobeyed a dear parent or other beloved family member, how would you feel? If you—as a child or teen—had purposefully gone against something that was forbidden, what would be the result? Wouldn’t you be afraid? At least a little bit? Afraid of being punished?

Fear of punishment is very real, even in areas where physical or verbal punishment is frowned on. Let’s look at how punishment is defined. ”The purpose of punishment is to stop a child from doing what you don’t want—and using a painful or unpleasant method to stop him [or her].” [2] That certainly seems like what Adam and Eve might be expecting. It seems like they expect God to be full of anger, wrath, even vengeance.  

God does not act in the expected way. “The Creator of the universe and all creatures chooses not to relate to the world at a distance, but takes on human form, goes for a walk among the creatures, and personally engages them regarding recent events.” [3]

What is that? Did the commentator on the book of Genesis say that God was seeking out a relationship with Adam and Eve? Doesn’t God go out of God’s way to look for the humans? Such a striking and unusual response for God to make. Instead of punishment and retaliation, the Lord comes looking for humans with open arms, even though God knew very well what they had done, and what was necessary to set it right.

Fear causes us to hide, too, when we sin. Fear of disappointment, yes, but also fear of shame, and embarrassment, too. Plus, there is fear of punishment: punishment on a horizontal plane, from other people as well as a vertical plane, from God.

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; there are sometimes mistakes we would like to erase. We all have sins, or mistakes, or errors in our lives. And what’s more, we can admit them to God and receive forgiveness.

We can see the loving response right here in Genesis 3, when the Lord was walking in the evening, and how God called and called. God took the initiative. Who was it who sought out humans openly and in love and compassion? God. Simply God.

What do we think when we see the Creator of the universe coming toward us in love, compassion, and relationship? Is that Someone we can trust? Is that Someone we can ask forgiveness from? Is that Someone who cares deeply about us even though God may know every single fact about our sin and disobedience?

God wants a free and loving relationship with each of us, just like trusting children and a loving, caring parent. We celebrate that relationship today with communion, remembering what the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, did for us 2000 years ago. God wants to restore us to the peace, joy and love intended for us from the day of creation. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] Frentheim, Terence E., Book of Genesis, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 361.

[2] https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/350/350-111/350-111_pdf.pdf, accessed 5/31/18.

[3] Frentheim, Terence E., Book of Genesis, 362.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Follow Jesus in Love

“Follow Jesus in Love”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:14-21 (3:16) – March 11, 2018

Many people like sports. They watch football, baseball, basketball and hockey games on a regular basis. One thing that repeats on occasion at these sports matches, whether college ball or professional matches, is people who hold up signs featuring some important message. One message that keeps getting shown and broadcast on national television is the simple Bible reference of John 3:16. That is all. Held up to the camera on t-shirts, posters, and even more.

Lots of people are familiar with that Bible reference from the repeated broadcasts, but how many can quote the verse, word for word? Even if people can quote it, how many can go the next step and explain it? Talking about the context, the biblical situation, and the reason why the verse appears?

For that, we need to go back to the beginning of John chapter 3, where Nicodemus the Pharisee teacher and member of the Sanhedrin sneaks away to meet the Rabbi Jesus under the cover of darkness. To get a feel for how secretive Nicodemus is, imagine a secret agent or spy going for an undercover meeting. Imagine the caution and care that Nicodemus would be taking.          If other members of the ruling Sanhedrin found out about Nicodemus and his hush-hush visit to Jesus, I suspect Nicodemus would be in big trouble. The Pharisees were not exactly best friends with the Rabbi Jesus, and some of them were extremely antagonistic to Him.

After some talk between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born from above, the Gospel reading for today picks up in the middle of the conversation. Jesus brings up an event that happened back in the book of Numbers. Eileen read this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for us this morning, too. Jesus breaks off talking about baptism and being born from above, and starts talking about Moses, of all things! Why change the subject to Moses in the wilderness?

The Biblical scholar Nicodemus understood immediately what Jesus was talking about. Of course he did! I bet he knew the Torah, the Books of Moses, backwards and forwards, and could even recite large portions of it, too.

However, the majority of us today do not have a clear understanding of this section of the Bible. Moses? A bronze serpent? Wilderness wandering? And of course, constant griping and complaining. It seemed like the people of Israel were forever complaining and griping. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other. Gripe, gripe, gripe, gripe!

Listen to John 3:14-15. “14 As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “ That is what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus.

Remember how I talked to the children today about healing, and how Jesus heals people? That was the situation Jesus referred to. Moses and the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The reading from the book of Numbers tells us that the people kept up their griping and complaining so long, and at such a volume, that finally God said “Enough!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it is pretty close to what Numbers records.)

I am sure all of us know somebody who complains all the time. I don’t mean some of the time, or even most of the time, but all the time. Complain, gripe, moan. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. The food stinks. The leaders are constantly wrong, and the people surrounding them can’t do anything right, either.

Wouldn’t that be annoying? Troublesome? Irksome? Even extremely frustrating? How would you feel if everything you always did and said was wrong? According to this really negative person, that is? Take that negativity, and multiply it by a lot. By thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Practically all the people of Israel were thinking, talking and acting like this. Negative thinking and acting. Some people refer to it as “stinking thinking.”

Reading from the book of Numbers: “But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can’t stand any more of this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” What an extreme reaction to griping and complaining!

But, don’t you and I act like that sometimes? Don’t you and I talk against leaders, and friends and families? Moan about the food and the accommodations, and complain about God and how we always get the short end of the stick? Gripe about how “It just isn’t fair! Why does that always happen to me? What’s the use?” You know what I mean. People who complain, gripe and moan. Maybe they even look a little bit like you and me?

Jesus reminded Nicodemus that God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. After the people repented and asked God to save them, Moses held up the bronze serpent high on a pole, and everyone who looked at the serpent was healed.

The truth about God and God’s purposes is confusing. Some people just do not get it (like Nicodemus, and like us, too). “Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.” [1] Nicodemus just did not understand the spiritual healing that God was holding out to him—and to us, too!

Sometimes, the world says “no.” Sometimes, God’s message of Good News just makes no sense to us at all. Sometimes, we are in the same situation as the people of Israel, where they got stuck in their complains and negativity.  One of the commentators I consulted believes “the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. Godloved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. God “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.[2]

We all are familiar with the picture or representation of Jesus on the Cross. Artists in Central America turn this picture around, and paint crosses with pictures or faces of lots of people on them. What a cosmic understanding that our Gospel writer had when he insisted that Jesus was raised up on the Cross, and He drew all the people of the world to Him! [3]

If we look at this from Nicodemus’s point of view, “for Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew. “ [4]

Jesus did not draw not just you and your friends to Himself. No, Jesus did not draw just one particular region or country to Himself. Jesus also drew people of other races, other ethnicities, and other faith traditions to Himself. Think about that. Really think.

God so loved the world. That means everyone, in every part of the world. As the apostle Paul might say, God loves everyone: Jew, Gentile. Slave, free. Rich, poor. No exceptions. Including you. Including me.

For God so loved you. For God so loved me. Praise God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394  Lance Pape

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Do Not Be Afraid!

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Luke 1-38 annunciation icon

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – December 17, 2017

Pictures of Christmas in the church bring to mind all sorts of things: Joseph and Mary entering a crowded Bethlehem, shepherds abiding in the fields, pictures of the Nativity scene. All manner of different pictures. But—we still haven’t gotten to Christmas. Christmas has not arrived yet. We are still in the waiting period; we are still in the third week of Advent.

Our Gospel reading—and presentation this morning—comes to us from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We look on with Mary, the teenaged girl engaged to Joseph, when she has a heavenly visitation. This Annunciation, or visit from the angel Gabriel, has been the subject of paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, and other forms of artwork for centuries. About as long as the Gospel of Luke has been written down.

In many of these paintings, the teenaged girl Mary often looks relaxed and comfortable. She’s holding a book, she’s sewing, she’s arranging flowers, she is hardly startled at all. [1] Consider this situation another way. What are the first words out of the angel Gabriel’s mouth? “Do not be afraid, Mary!”

Look at another picture of Mary and the angel Gabriel, in the modern-day image of the Annunciation painted by Benedictine priest, John Giuliani. “In his rendition of the Annunciation, Have No Fear, Father Giuliani depicts Gabriel coming down from heaven, feet first, aimed right at Mary’s face, with a stem of lilies outstretched like a sword. For her part, Mary nearly falls out of her chair as she shields her face from Gabriel’s descent. The chair is pushed back on only two legs, swept over by the force of the messenger’s entry into time. It’s not as pretty a picture as the ones on Christmas cards, but it might be more accurate.” [2]

Before we go further into this Gospel reading, we need to consider Mary. A teenaged girl, can we even consider how frightened Mary must have been after she was greeted this way by a heavenly visitor, an angel? I am not sure, but I suspect I would have been at least as frightened as Mary at the totally unexpected visit of the angel.  How do you think you might feel if an angel appeared to you?

The separate branches of the Christian faith think of Mary in different ways.

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. For me, surrounded as I was by Roman Catholics, I knew that Catholics considered the Virgin Mary to be an extra-special woman. It was not until years later that I learned exactly how: “for Roman Catholics, Mary is a Co-Redeemer with Christ whose job description is to act as a go-between with us sinners on earth and God in heaven. During the Middle Ages, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk, as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. In the councils of the Church through the centuries, she gradually gained supernatural qualities.” [3]

Again, we are getting way ahead of ourselves! Here in Luke chapter one, Mary is still a teenager. The angel Gabriel has just left. She travels to see her older cousin, and now we come to another great picture from the life of Mary. We have the Visitation of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, another picture that has been painted countless times throughout the centuries.

Women are so often overlooked, when we consider the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in general society, women are forgotten, ignored, shunted aside, and treated as second-class citizens. That is, unless we are reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke lifts up the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, and provides a memorable exchange.

“God is already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations.” [4]

At our neighboring church here in Morton Grove, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Shrine of All Saints, we would discover something else about Mary—and about her cousin Elizabeth, and about many women of many periods and cultures. We would see that in many pictures at St. Martha’s Church, each woman has a covering on her head. Similar to certain cultural standards of dress today, many religious women cover their heads. Like religious Christian women today—like many Catholic nuns, and like many Orthodox women all over the world. We have religious Jewish women who cover—like observant married Jewish women. And, we know some observant Muslim women today, here in our area as well as in other places, cover their heads. They wear hijab. Head coverings. Just like Mary and Elizabeth did.

Returning to the many pictures and other artworks that portray the Virgin Mary, many of them show Mary interrupted from reading. A book is something that has been in pictures of Mary for centuries. Mary remembered as a literate young woman.

What a wonderful thing to tell our children and our children’s children! We have it on good authority that Mary could, indeed, read. Many Jewish women of that time could, unlike their contemporaries in other places. What a wonderful opportunity for the young Jesus to have both an earthly mother and father who were literate and able to teach their children.

Is there anything better that what Gabriel said?  The angel “assured Mary that God’s Holy Spirit would be with her. Even though she was frightened, Gabriel promised that God would take care of Mary. Mary learned from the Bible about God’s love, so she knew that she could trust the words of the angel when he said “Don’t be afraid!” [5]

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth adds some intelligent and insightful comments.  “When Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,’ she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning.” [6]

The high-powered priest Zechariah was skeptical when the angel came to him, a few months before. He asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. In contrast, Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the girl from a poor family believed what the angel Gabriel said. “Her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.[7]

We know God’s call is not always convenient. And sometimes, God asks us to set aside everything we think we know about reality in order to accomplish the Divine agenda. Such was the case with Mary. Thankfully, we know the end of the story. All of us can listen to the angel when he tells us “Do not be afraid!” Those are good words for all of us to take to heart.

 

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/mary-reluctant-prophet-alyce-mckenzie-12-17-2012.html  “Mary, the Reluctant Prophet,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

[5] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@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!)

By Grace Alone

“By Grace Alone”

 

sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide

Ephesians 2:4-10 (2:8) – October 22, 2017

How many people catch their breath or look troubled when they see an ambulance whiz by, sirens blaring, and lights flaring? I think that is a common reaction. I feel that way from time to time, too. Sometimes, I feel helpless, even useless, just watching from the sidelines. Or, in some cases, the sidewalk. Working as a chaplain, I met ambulances in the Emergency Department where they would unload their critically ill patients.

This is so like the situation that the apostle Paul talks about in our scripture reading for this morning. Let’s read Ephesians 2:4-5. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”

I know how difficult this discussion is for some people. Some of you or some of your friends or relatives might have traveled to the hospital, following that ambulance. I know, because I met with many families and loved ones in the Emergency Department. I’ve sat next to beds in the intensive care unit or other critical care units and prayed with seriously ill patients. I’ve comforted both patients and their loved ones. Sadly, I have been with a large number of people who died in the hospital. That is what Paul is talking about here. This is the situation. Paul says we—all of us—are dead in transgressions.

This is looking at things from a really dismal point of view. Absolutely! Sure, we might be walking around, physically breathing, hearts pumping. But as Paul tells us, we are dead because of our trespasses. Our transgressions. Our sins. Our thoughts, words and deeds that are not what God wants from us, and not who God wants us to be.

If you think of it in contemporary, even humorous terms, think of the whole human race like zombies—spiritual zombies. Sure, our bodies are walking and breathing, but we are all spiritually dead.

The apostle Paul is really clear about this. We—all of us—are spiritually dead in our trespasses and transgressions. Because of sin. What can we possibly do to heal ourselves from this spiritual death?

Some people might think they are not too bad off, not as bad as other people. I can hear them now: “I haven’t murdered or cheated anybody. I can’t be that sinful.” Or, “Look at that gal. She did all that illegal, nasty stuff. I’m not half as bad as she is.” Well, I have news for you. Really bad news. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Same apostle, different New Testament letter.)

For some, it might help if you can picture this. It’s as if each of us is in a spiritual boxing ring, boxing with the Devil. The tricky Devil flattens us with the one-two punch of temptation and sin. On our own, we are permanently knocked out, down for the count, forever.

Sin hits different people in different ways. Sometimes it’s sin like anger or envy or jealousy. Other times it’s the sin of pride or gossip or nasty words. Sometimes it’s the sin of mean, unkind thoughts—like Jesus told us, wishing you had something that belonged to somebody else—that is called coveting. Or, getting so angry at a friend or relative you call them, “You idiotic fool!” And, really mean worse than that. Jesus called all of that sin, too.

Let’s read from Ephesians 2:4-5 again: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Wait a minute. I’ve heard some people with another take on this sin thing. They try to work their way onto God’s good side. “There must be something I can do! Maybe, pray a bunch of times a day—really earnest prayers, too!” Or, “Maybe bringing some extra special offerings will make God happy. Maybe that will take away some of the black marks against me.” Or, “Maybe doing lots of good deeds. Maybe God will look at that and be satisfied.”

Paul says there is a problem with that. We cannot work our way to heaven by ourselves. What does Ephesians 2:8-9 say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” In other words, the only way we can be accepted by God is only God’s doing. It is all God’s mercy, love, kindness and grace. Especially grace. Grace alone. Sola gratia. Not grace plus good works, no!

“Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace apart from works. If we were saved based on our works we would all be going to hell because our greatest works are filthy rags before God.[1] All we need to do to check that out is to read Isaiah 64:6 – “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

Stan Mast from Calvin Theological Seminary had this to say: “I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So, was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.” [2]

God’s grace. Amazing grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord.

As I said to the children at the beginning of the service today, grace is undeserved. We do not deserve it. A newborn baby cannot do anything to make his or her parents or grandparents love him or her. We don’t expect them to! Can the newborn baby say “I love you?” Can the newborn baby give people hugs? Yet, the baby’s family loves that tiny human very much.

Remember the definition of grace (actually, Carolyn Brown’s definition): “grace is loving someone even when they don’t deserve it and God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.” [3]

I used to enjoy taking my children to the park, to the playground with all of the play equipment. I would often bring a book and read while the children played for a good long time. Sooner or later, it would be time to go home. Occasionally, when I would call my children, one or the other of them wouldn’t be ready to leave. Every once in a while, they would take off running in the opposite direction. I would have to go running after them.

Sure, I’d get upset. Sometimes, I’d be afraid and even angry, because they might wander off the playground and run near a busy street. But, I wouldn’t stop loving them. I’m a human, fallible parent. How much more does God love my children? And, how much more does God love me? And, you?

I am okay with God speaking of me—of us—as a small child (which the Bible does, on several occasions). When you or I disobey or run away from God, does God keep loving us? Remember Carolyn Brown’s definition of grace? “God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.”

From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, we all are saved, justified by God’s grace alone. By God’s grace, “we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.” [4]

God’s grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Amazing grace. Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] God’s Grace…… Earned or Freely Given?  http://www.reformedgnome.com/  Posted on February 9, 2016

[2] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

[3] Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 2012http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

[4] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

@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!)

His Name: Emmanuel

“His Name: Emmanuel”

emmanuel-plainsong

Isaiah 7:10-14  – December 18, 2016

So many people love babies. Look at just about any gathering of people. Church congregation, senior center, exercise group, book club. When anyone mentions that someone has just had a baby, what happens? Lots of comments like, “What did she have? Boy or girl?” How big is the baby?” And, especially, “Oh, I hope mom and baby are happy and healthy!”

Common, everyday occurrences, like young women getting pregnant and babies being born. That is exactly what the prophet spoke of in our passage today. The prophet gave a lot of background, but he finished this passage by talking about the clear promise from God. Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage from the prophet: “Again the Lord spoke to King Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” It sounds like the Lord God wants to give King Ahaz a really big message. But, wait. Why is this stuff happening?

A little backstory. The kings of Syria and Israel (Northern Kingdom) join together to go to war with the Assyrians. They ask King Ahaz of Judah (Southern Kingdom) to join with them, but Ahaz refuses. Both countries send armies to march on Jerusalem to dethrone Ahaz and put a puppet king on the throne.

We have big political intrigue going on in Jerusalem at this time! Remember, it’s about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz a second time, this time offering to give Ahaz a sign so that he will believe God. From Isaiah 7: “12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” and once again Ahaz refuses.

One of the commentators I consulted said, “King Ahaz received an oracle from Yahweh, directing him to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. This may refer to a sign announced by an earthquake or in lightning. With seeming piety, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign lest it put Yahweh to a test. Isaiah, however, treats his answer as a refusal to trust God and announces that God will give him a sign anyway.” [1]

What is this sign? A common, everyday sign. There may have likely been just a young woman who was at Ahaz’s court, to whom Isaiah could literally point a finger and say, “Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a sign that God is in the common, everyday things, the simple, ordinary passages of life.

Do the simple, small things that come into our lives change our course? These verses give us an interesting image. God would save the people of Israel through the sign of something so common and ordinary as a pregnant woman. Isaiah began by offering the opportunity for a great big, splashy sign, but instead gave the king a common image of everyday, ordinary happenings.

The sign was certainly not for the mighty and powerful. Rejected by those in power, God would work wonders among the humble and lowly. In other words, the simple common folk. The original reference for Isaiah was to a child born in his time, and in the near future. For the prophet, the message is that in a few years, both the kingdoms threatening Judah will be no longer a problem. This indeed is historically what happened.

Some centuries pass. The Book of Isaiah was originally written in Hebrew, which was the common language of Israel during the 700’s BCE. By the time we arrive at 300 BCE, there has been a huge turnover in the world. Now, the Greeks under Alexander the Great have conquered most of the known world, and they have spread the Greek language far and wide. Plus, the Jewish people had been scattered all over the Middle East and into Asia Minor.

Many of the scattered Jewish people could hardly read and understand their own Scriptures any more! So, a large group of Jewish scholars translated the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It is that translation that Matthew uses when he says, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Believers from the time of Matthew’s gospel have pointed to these verses as Messianic prophecies. Yes, there is a technical difference between “young woman” and “virgin.” This tension is evident if we closely examine the difference between the Hebrew words and the Greek translation. Yet—what is the same? It is a message of God’s caring and love that sees pregnancy and birth—simple, everyday happenings—as signs of God’s care and concern for God’s people.

Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in Isaiah’s day, with the Assyrian armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course! Isaiah gave the king a special oracle to let him know so. Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in the time of Jesus’s birth, with the occupying Roman armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course it was!

God has always had concern and love for God’s people, no matter where and no matter when. No matter if the persecuted Christians were running from the Romans, or being chased and persecuted by any one of the occupying forces in the centuries in between.

Jesus came from humble origins. Yet, He changed the world. Likewise, the birth of this child, was a sign that even in the midst of the chaos and destruction surrounding Jerusalem in the uncertain time of Isaiah and the uncertain time of the baby Jesus, God was still with them. Life still did go on. In a very real sense, that was (and is!) a miracle.

What is the simple message we receive from these words of the prophet? God will be with us, no matter what. That is the message to King Ahaz and the people of Israel, that is the message to occupied Israel in the newborn Jesus’s day. And, it’s the message we can take home with us this day.

“Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a joyful sign that God is in the common, everyday things, like the simple, ordinary passages of life. Like a baby being born, displayed to all of us as a wonderful sign from the Lord God. Praise God! God is concerned about the smallest and every day and ordinary, like babies and new moms and children, like you and like me.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/adventa.htm#Advent4, Studies on Old Testament texts from Series A, Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

@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!)