Friday, December 24, 2010

Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful

Christmas Eve Reflection 

Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful
By: John F. Wade
1st Published in: 1767

When Jim and I were waiting for our children to be born, we often wondered what would become of them. In those days, before ultrasounds, we did not know whether the child I was expecting was a boy or a girl. We took a lot of time determining the name of the child, so it would fit with our family name, and our personal preferences. We hoped and prayed that the child would be healthy. We hoped and prayed that the child would live, first beyond childhood, and then to old age. We hoped and prayed that the child would grow up to do whatever the child was gifted to do and interested in doing.
When Mary and Joseph were expecting their baby, they had much of this information given to them by an angel – the child will be a boy, he will be healthy, he will be called God-with-us, and he will grow up to be the savior of the world. Just how this would happen was not known – at the beginning, there was no warning about the crucifixion, and no prediction of the resurrection.
Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. We remember that God came to earth with skin on, as a baby, cuddly, cute, welcome, and adored by his parents and family and friends in the household.
Many of our favorite Christmas carols celebrate the events of the birth – we sing about Bethlehem, shepherds, mangers, angels. The angels tell the shepherds the good news, and the shepherds head to town to adore the new child. Soon, the Magi will appear, bringing gifts, and bowing down to worship and adore the child.

Let us also come to adore him tonight, by singing the refrain only of hymn # 283.
Oh, come, let us adore him, Oh, come, let us adore him, Oh, come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

This song describes, not the cute and cuddly infant, but describes who the baby really is. In the first verse of “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” Jesus is “born the king of angels.” Angels are heavenly beings, God’s messengers, often equipped with special powers. In Jesus’ story, angels announce the birth of John to Zechariah, they announce Jesus’ birth to Mary and to Joseph, and they minister to Jesus in the wilderness after the temptation. Jesus is more important than these heavenly beings.

The King of Angels is worthy of our adoration, so let’s sing again the refrain only of hymn # 283.

In the second verse, Jesus is described as, “Highest, most holy, Light of light eternal, Born of a virgin, A mortal he comes; Son of the Father Now in flesh appearing!” In other words, Jesus is equal to God – the highest and holiest being. Yet, at this moment, he is appearing in human form – God-with-skin-on. He is the very Son of God the Father.
In ancient times, the gods often appeared on earth, had intimate relationships, and gave birth to god-children. But this child is different. This child is at once a human child, and divine. Jesus and the Father are one, from the very beginning of time, beyond death, and into the unseen and unknown future.

The holy and human Son of the holy and divine Father is worthy of our adoration, so let’s sing again the refrain only of hymn # 283.

The third verse and much of the fourth verse call us to join the angels in singing our praise and adoration. The fourth verse ends by describing Jesus as “Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing!” This is a reference to the opening verses of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And, “The word became flesh and lived among us.” The presence of God has become visible on earth with the birth of this child and the life of this man.

The Word of God, who makes God visible to us, is worthy of our adoration, so let’s sing again the refrain only of hymn # 283

The refrain itself describes Jesus’ role in the history of God’s people. Christ is the Latin version of the Hebrew word Messiah. Jesus is the messiah the people had long hoped for, watched for, and waited for. Although he was not what many expected, he was and is the one God sent to offer us love and forgiveness. He is the Messiah – the Christ – and the Lord of all, one with God the Father.

Let us glorify God for the birth and life and gift of Jesus, the Word of God, the Christ, who is worthy of our adoration.

Let’s sing all four verses of “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” and give praise to God for the birth of the Son as we sing.

Oh, come, all ye faithful, 
Joyful and triumphant!
Oh, come ye, oh, come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the king of angels:

Oh, come, let us adore him, 
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.

Highest, most holy,
Light of light eternal,
Born of a virgin, a mortal he comes;
Son of the Father 
Now in flesh appearing!

Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God
In the highest:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, 
Now in flesh appearing!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Expectations Old and New

Matthew 11:2-11

This week, we notice that we are just over halfway through our wait for Christmas, especially if we start counting the days with Black Friday. As we wait, we count the days, open the windows of advent calendars, shop, hope for that special gift, sing carols (Advent and Christmas).  Many of us wonder if our waiting and preparing will make the event match our expectations.
Often, our expectations far exceed the reality. We hope for a family dinner with no fighting, no spilled food, and plenty of leftovers. Like the residents of Lake Wobegon, we expect all the women to be strong, all the men to be good-looking , and all the children to be above average. We expect to have God say yes to all our prayers, and the Christmas tree to disappear behind a huge pile of gifts that didn’t cost us a penny more than we budgeted.
One of my favorite Christmas time movies is “A Christmas Story” starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie. He has one wish: he wants a Red Rider BB Gun. Everyone, including Santa, predicts that he will put his eye out with the gun, but it’s what he wants. He does get the gun, and very nearly puts his eye out with a ricochet BB.
As he waits for Christmas, Ralphie has several other experiences. In one plot line, Ralphie sends away for a Secret Society Decoder Pin, which is the key to secret messages on the Little Orphan Annie radio show. He waits and watches for this prize to arrive in his mail box. On the day it arrives, he carefully writes down the code he hears, and then decodes it. It turns out to be an ad for Ovaltine! How disgusting! How disappointing! Not at all what he was expecting!
… For hundreds of years, the people of Judea had been waiting for a messiah. In the Hebrew Scriptures and thought, the word messiah refers to an anointed person, chosen by God to lead the people. King David was the prime image for what a new messiah would look and act like, and the Hebrew Scriptures lead the people to hope for a new King David, a new military messiah, sent to free the people from oppression.
John the Baptist expects this kind of messiah, too. Those who come to John agree with his stance on religion and politics. He’s the Rush Limbaugh or Jessie Jackson of his era. He knows what he believes, and he’s not afraid to confront the Jewish leadership. When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and now he can hardly wait to have him rid the temple of its money-hungry, power-thirsty leadership. He is waiting and hoping for the day when Jesus the Messiah assumes the throne of Judea and begins to clean house.
Imagine John’s disappointment and frustration when Jesus fails to meet his expectations. In our Gospel text for today, John is in prison, held captive by Herod. Many commentators explain John’s question to Jesus as a simple one, based on John’s own doubt. Others claim John’s question is much more rude. They suggest that John actually accuses Jesus of being a fraud. How can he be the messiah if he still isn’t gathering an army?
Jesus’ reply explains that he has other expectations of himself. He has been sent by God to fulfill different promises in Scripture. He has been sent to give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, cleanse the lepers, give hearing to the deaf, raise the dead, and bring good news to the poor. Jesus then adds, “Blessed are those who are not offended by what I have said and done.”
The crowd began to mumble at Jesus’ words about John, so Jesus talks about that. Basically, Jesus says, “John is exactly who you would expect to see if you went looking for a prophet in the wilderness, no more, and no less. He is indeed the messiah’s predecessor, sent by God to prepare the way for the messiah. He is great in the kingdom of heaven. At the same time, the least person in the world is greater than he in God’s eyes.”
… John’s problem then is our problem today. We all have ideas about who Jesus is, what he wants, what or whom he doesn’t like, when and how he will return, and so forth. We all tend to make Jesus fit our image of him, and our expectations of him.
But, much to our dismay, Jesus did not come to meet human expectations, but to fulfill the plans of God. He came because we needed him. We needed him then – and we need him now  – to teach us how God loves, how God forgives, and how to love God and others in return. We needed Jesus then – and we need him now – to teach us about God’s sacrificial love for us and all of creation.
In return, he needed us humans then, and he needs us now. It’s through us that others come to know about him; it’s through us that the hungry are fed, the homeless are given homes, the ill and homebound are visited. It’s through us that those we meet – at work, at school, on the golf course, on the soccer field, at the grocery store, and at the doctor’s office – it’s through us that those we meet in our daily lives come to know about Jesus.
During Advent – and during Lent – we are especially reminded of the reason Jesus came to earth, and of his love for us. Jesus fulfilled God’s expectations of him, not human expectations.
As believers, we need to be reminded Jesus also has expectations if us.  It’s easy this time of year to wish people a merry Christmas. So do that, as often as you can. Give generously, especially to those in need. Take a few door hangers and put them on the doors in your neighborhood. Knock on one or two of those doors, and issue a personal invitation for your neighbor to join you at worship, perhaps especially for the cantata next week, or for the God’s Global Barnyard event following.
It’s a good time of year to speak often about Jesus and what he has done for you. Tell the stories of your own faith.
Tell of how, as a child you had all sorts of hopes and expectations, some of which were never met, and yet, each Christmas was the best Christmas ever
Tell of your first Christmas without your beloved spouse, and how Jesus, through your family and friends got you through the season. 
Tell of how it made you feel to put money in the offering plate, drop some coins or bills in the Salvation Army kettle, and to make an extra gift for a special need in the community.
Tell of going to church on Christmas Eve and how you left worship with joy in your heart and new snow on the ground, and knew the love of Jesus filling your whole life.
Then tell of how, even though Jesus did not fulfill human expectations, he was and is the best messiah – the best Christ – ever.

Please pray with me: Jesus, you are our joy, and go well beyond our human expectations. Fill us today and always with love for you and for all people. Amen 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

John the Baptist and Rev. Billy Graham: Making a commitment

Matthew 3:1-12

When I was about 12 years old, one of my girlfriends invited me to go with her family to a Billy Graham Crusade. I remember that it was held in Soldier Field in Chicago. I have no idea what Reverend Graham said, but I do remember how the event ended. Graham’s Crusades always end with an altar call.

After preaching, Graham asked his listeners to respond to his message by committing themselves publicly to Jesus. Thousands of people, it seemed to me, headed to the field to speak with the counselors, who were prepared to receive their commitment and offer them information to help them follow up on their commitment.

When the family I was with responded by turning to leave the stadium, I was puzzled. Didn’t they pay attention to what they were being asked to do? Why were they leaving without making a commitment? Years later, I can make sense of it. Billy Graham Crusades are directed toward new believers, and to those who need to repent and make a new start with God. So, some people attended hoping to find faith, meaning, or at least hope.

I did some research and discovered that Graham’s Crusades in the 1950s and 1960s also emphasized a religious America in contrast to what Graham and many others called “godless communism.” So, perhaps many attended just to prove that America was a “Christian nation.”

Many, including the family I went with, already belonged to a church, and saw no need to make a new commitment. They merely went to see and hear the famous preacher in person.

… The folks who went to hear John the Baptist went for many reasons, too. Some went out of curiosity. Many had heard about John’s message and went to respond to his call to repentance. Many went to see the show, because he was a fiery speaker, and they never knew what he was going to say and do next. Some – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – went to keep a close eye on him, because what he was saying and doing infringed on their territory. It’s interesting that for once these two opposing religious groups agreed on something – the need to keep a close eye on John the Baptist.

John’s in-your-face style called the people to repentance, using a variety of images.

• Make straight the crooked road;

• You are snake offspring – this was a serious insult in that time and place;

• Don’t boast about your famous ancestors;

• Bear good fruit, because if you don’t, the ax is ready to cut you down;

• The Messiah is coming and he will separate you into chaff and wheat kernel, and you know that chaff gets thrown into the fire.

How do you respond to John’s language? For me, it depends on who I am in the crowd. If I’m the poor local baker or shepherd, I hear good news. I can get washed of my past and recommit myself to God. Even better, I can do it without a trip to the temple and the fees I’d have to pay.

If I’m just curious, gathered with the crowd, I’ll be one of those cheering when John yells at anyone but me.

If I’m a Sadducee or a Pharisee, I’m insulted that my work to preserve the faith of Israel is being attacked.

If I’m hoping for a Messiah like King David, I’m excited because soon, we’ll be rid of Herod, that pretender to the throne, and he’ll defeat the Romans as well.

… Do you also hear a challenge to inspect the kernel and chaff in your own life? Where is the kernel in your life? In what ways do you put God first in your life? How are you a good neighbor? How do you bear good fruit?

Where is the chaff in your life? Which commandment do you find yourself breaking the most? How do you not put God first in your life? In what ways are you not a good neighbor? How could you bear more fruit?

John the Baptist is not just interested in us showing up to hear him preach and yell insults. He wants to see the result of our faith in fruitful living. Billy Graham echoes the need to frequently recommit ourselves to a life of faith. Jesus calls us through our baptism to make a commitment to faithful living.

It’s not enough to make a commitment once. What might that mean for you this year?

Do you need to commit yourself to more time for prayer, or to more heartfelt prayer?

Do you need to commit yourself to more time for Bible study?

Do you need to commit yourself to more time for service in Jesus’ name?

Do you need to commit yourself to reaching deeper into your pocket?

Do you need to commit yourself to being more ready to forgive?

Do you need to commit yourself to using different God-given gifts?

Whatever commitment you feel called to make, ask God to help you make and keep it.

Please pray with me: Merciful God, we come to you today knowing we don’t give our whole being to you. Help us to increase the kernel and get rid of the chaff in our lives. Help us make a deeper commitment to following you every day. Amen

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Waiting for Jesus

Matthew 24 36-44; Romans 13:11-14


Today we begin a new church year, the year of reading Matthew.  Matthew’s Gospel is written to Jewish Christians, intentionally including details that show Jesus to be the new Moses,  and the new King David. This King will lead God’s people in a new, more faithful direction.
Advent is the season of waiting, waiting for the birth of Jesus, again.  But we don’t get to start with the birth, or even the genealogy, 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. The lectionary calls for us to begin at the end of Jesus’ life, so we can never forget that Jesus’ birth had a purpose: death on the cross, and life after that death. As the people of Israel waited for a new King David, a new prophet like Moses, in Advent, we wait, and we get ready. We decorate, we count the weeks, we shop.
… And we party. When we get ready for company,  Mike and I clear away the clutter, and ask our house cleaner to come and clean a day or two before guests arrive. On the day our guests are due, I touch up the bathrooms and kitchen, and make sure the cats’ litter boxes are fresh. I get the dishes and glasses and silverware ready, as well as the serving pieces. If I am cooking a meal, I plan the timing for the various items so everything comes out at roughly the same time. I try to give myself a few moments to rest, and to change clothes just before guests arrive. I imagine you all do similar things. You may also choose to decorate, cut fresh flowers, light candles, and much more. I usually never get around to that.
That’s what we do when people are invited. But, what do you do if people show up unexpectedly? Some of you may always have your houses so clean, they are always ready for company, and unexpected guests are no big deal.  My attitude has usually been that those who come unannounced deserve to see the house as it normally is. Don’t get out your white gloves – they’ll get dusty! Beware the stacks of books and magazines, all partially read.  You’ll need to brush off your clothes when you leave, since they’ll be full of cat hair.
What would you do if Jesus came to visit? If you knew he was coming, you would probably give the house an extra-thorough cleaning, get out your best dishes and clothes, put the big Bible on the coffee table, and wear your best clothes.
But what about if Jesus showed up unexpectedly, with your house dusty and cluttered, you wearing your most casual clothing, and next to nothing in the refrigerator to serve him?
In the Gospel reading, we hear that Jesus will come again, but when and how he comes is unknown, except to God. It appears that his return will be a cosmic, gigantic event. Jesus warns that one will be taken and another left. Lutheran and many other scholars agree that what Jesus meant by these statements is that those who are taken are the unbelievers. Those who believe in Jesus will be left to continue his ministry. They will be like Noah’s family who alone were saved from the flood when the others ignored the warnings.
Jesus is warning his followers then – and now – that it is important to be ready.  But we need to find a balance in our readiness. If we are constantly on the alert, watching to make sure we are always perfect, we won’t really be ourselves, to each other or to Jesus. If our houses have to be perfectly ready for Jesus, all the time, we will be living fake lives, much like the Pharisees Jesus tried so hard to reach.  
If we think, it’s been so long since Jesus said he’s coming back, maybe he’s never coming back, or it’s going to be thousands more years before he returns, we begin to think we can live any way we want to and forget about God and Jesus, then Jesus won’t recognize us as believers.
We need to find a middle ground, somewhere between constant anxiety and total oblivion regarding Jesus’ return.  Some obvious ways are to pray daily, worship regularly, attend Bible study, volunteer our gifts and talents to help the church and the people in the community, and give generously of the abundance God has given us.  We must not just go through the motions, but do these things with our hearts, intentionally honoring God with our actions.
The Apostle Paul reminds us of our baptism; he says “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are clothed with Christ, bearing him in our hearts and spirits. Jesus lives within each of us, not just in the space around us, or in that mysterious somewhere we call heaven. When we meet others, we can remember that Jesus lives within them, too. When we welcome those who come, expectedly or unexpectedly, into our lives we have an opportunity to welcome Jesus. 
… Mary once told me about her experiences riding the commuter trains in Chicago. She always tried to get to know the person sitting beside her. She wanted to know their name, how many were in their family, where they lived, where they worked, and where they worshiped. Often, the conversation lasted the full 30 or 40 minutes of the train ride. Mary wasn’t content to politely smile at her fellow passenger and return to her book. She wanted to meet the Jesus inside the passenger.
… Advent is about waiting. Being faithful Christians is about waiting with purpose. Jesus has put us on earth to do ministry in his name.  Instead of waiting and watching for Jesus to return in cosmic power, we can look for Jesus in our every day lives, in every person-to-person encounter we have.
We don’t need a clean house; we don’t need the right food with the right timing; we don’t even need to be at home; we do need to be ready to see Jesus in everyone we meet. So, this week, as you clean and cook and decorate and make plans, be alert for those chance – or maybe not so chance – encounters. The people you chat with this week are clothed in Christ, and bear Christ in their hearts; try to see Jesus within them.
Please pray with me: Jesus, you promised so long ago to return. Sometimes, we get so caught up in day-to-day living that we forget to even look for you. Help us to find you wherever you are, including within ourselves and each other. Amen 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What king is this?

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43; Colossians 1:11-20

Today is the last Sunday of the church year; we call it Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ. I like the term Reign of Christ because it more easily implies that the Kingdom of God is not a place but the ruling and reigning of God over all that exists.

The Sunday of the Reign of Christ gives us an opportunity to review the whole year, and the many ways in which we speak and think about Jesus. Singing hymns from each of the seasons of the year is another way to remember all that Jesus means to us. We’ll sing an Advent hymn, a Christmas hymn, a Lent hymn, and an Easter Hymn. The choir will sing a Pentecost piece; unfortunately, we’ll miss Epiphany. Each song we sing today will help us reflect on part of Jesus’ life and what it means for us.

At Christmas time, one of the favorite hymns is “What child is this?” When we sing it, we sing of Jesus in many ways, from birth and lying in Mary’s lap, to being honored by angel, peasant, shepherd, and king, to hanging on the cross, to being recognized as the Word (capital W Word) of God – so Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The sermon, this morning will be a take-off on the song “What child is this” and we’ll look more in depth at Jesus by asking, “What king is this?” in each reading for the day.

In Jeremiah, we ask “What king is this” who comes as a shepherd to gather the scattered flock back together? The flock had been scattered, even driven away, by evil leaders. A new king is promised, who will govern with righteousness and justice, and all Israel will live in safety. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and that’s one of our favorite images of him.

In the Gospel reading, we have several images. What king is this who hangs on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns? What king is this, who goes meekly to his death, without a dozen defense lawyers trying to plea bargain the sentence from death to five years in prison? What king is this who is honored, not with gold, frankincense and myrrh, but with spitting, beating and mocking? What king is this who, though dying, offers salvation to the criminal hanging on the cross next to him? What king is this who offers this grace to the one who came to believe in him only moments before his death? What king is this, who forgives those who have accused, arrested, tried, convicted, and executed him?

In the letter to the Colossians, the author helps his readers understand just who this King Jesus is in their lives. The passage is from an early Christian hymn. It also seems to me to be a sort of creed, because it explains or defines who Jesus is.

What king is this, who died so that all may have life in him? What king is this who shares his divine inheritance with us, an inheritance passed on from God the Father? What king is this who has conquered the darkness of evil and brought light into our lives? What king is this who created all things, including the powers of earthly rulers? What king is this who forgives us our sins?

What king is this who died, and was raised again to prove that God is more powerful than death? What king is this who is the visible image of the invisible God? What is this king who is God with human skin on? What king is this who is Emmanuel, God with us? What king is this who brings peace through his death and resurrection?

What king is this who lives today in the hearts of those who believe in him? What king is this who invites us to share the good news of his love and forgiveness with others? What king is this who helps us endure life today, through the gift of the Holy Spirit? What king is this who teaches us to serve, not for our own gain but to help those who are in need of what we have to offer?

As you take time this week with family and friends, as you take time to give thanks to God for all God’s blessings, remember the many ways in which Jesus reigns over your lives and our world. Ask yourself, “What king is this in my life?”

What king is this Jesus? He came as a child, and we love to celebrate his birth.

In his lifetime, he healed many. We to ask him for healing and wholeness, in our lives and in our world, but don’t always believe he hears and responds.

He challenged the status quo and the powerful of his time and place. We cheer with the under-dogs, forgetting that sometimes we are the supporters of status quo and powerful.

When powerful people hated him for what he said and did, they put him to death. We resist even thinking about that, but we must never forget.

But his death wasn’t the final word. He also was raised to life again, to give us hope that we all will be raised with you to a better world. That’s really something to celebrate!


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The End?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

As we get to the end of the church year, the Bible texts call us to reflect on the end of Jesus’ life, and on the End Times.
Some denominations and groups pay a lot of attention to the End Times. When life is scary or very challenging, looking toward the End Times is seen as a way to escape the hardships of life. Often, those who focus on the End Times put a limit on the number of those who will make it into the next world, often using the number 144,000 from Revelation. The Left Behind novels propose the idea that the good people will be taken from the earth, and only the unbelievers will remain.
In contrast, Lutheran theology stresses the goodness of all creation, and the idea that God works through us humans to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection redeemed not just believers, but all of creation, all people. No one will be left behind in Lutheran theology. Lutheran focus on the End Times is very Pauline: until the end happens, there is ministry to be done, so let’s get busy. There is even a legend about Martin Luther in which he states, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I’d plant a tree today.”
… In our text today, Jesus warns the disciples to not focus much on what the  End Time means or when it will happen. He says, “There will come a time when the beautiful temple you see here will be destroyed, not a stone left standing on stone. There will be many who try to lead you astray, away from me and my words; avoid them. Scary events will happen: wars, natural disasters, famines, disease, persecutions, betrayal, hatred, death. Your faith will be tested, and you will be asked to prove or deny your belief. When you are asked to testify, I myself will put words in your mouths to defeat your enemy.” 
This indicates to scholars that Luke was written after 70CE, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolt, and there were persecutions of Christians in many places in the Roman Empire. The destruction of the temple must have seemed like the end of the world for the Jews and Jewish Christians of the time. Never again would there be animal sacrifices. From then on, religious practices were decentralized, and carried out in local synagogues. Prayer became the sacrifice offered in place of animals. 
20 years earlier, in 50 or 51CE, the church in Thessalonica was too focused on the End Times. Based on Jesus’ statements that he would return, many believers were convinced it would be very soon. In Thessalonica, some folks even stopped working, so they could be ready whenever that day came. This meant they were dependant on others, and Paul objected to this. Even he, who as their pastor had a right to depend on the church to feed and house him, did not do so. He worked a secular job, probably tent-making, while he was with them. To make sure they understood Paul makes it plain: “If you don’t work, you don’t get to eat. Yes, the world as we know it may end tomorrow. In the meantime, do not grow weary in doing what is right.”
Throughout history, it has often seemed like the world was about to end; or, conditions have been so bad, the end of the world has had great appeal.
In 721BCE, the Assyrians conquered Israel, and dispersed the people, who would never be gathered together again. In 587BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, and hauled the people off to exile for over 40 years. It surely seemed to them like the world was coming to an end. Psalm 137 says, “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?”
From the middle of the first century until 321CE, when Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, there were persecutions. It seemed to them that the end might be near. In the 1300s, the Plague killed nearly half of the population in Europe: half the farmers, half the laborers, half the doctors, half the priests, half the soldiers. With few available to plant and harvest crops, people starved. Without leaders to govern, soldiers to protect, and landowners to give orders, chaos ensued. It seemed to the people of that time that the end was near.
In each century, there have been severe natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in China and Haiti, tsunamis like the one in Indonesia, hurricanes like Andrew, Katrina, and Rita. For the people who lived in those places and struggled to survive there, whose family members died there, it sure seemed like the world was coming to an end.
… And yet, people still pass on the faith. In Communist Eastern Europe large numbers of adults chose to leave the church and deny their faith, but many remained faithful despite the persecutions. Churches continued to run nursing homes and hospitals. Members found ways to gather despite restrictions, disguising Bible study as choir rehearsals. Guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer vigils at St Thomas Church in Leipzig were instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism could not defeat the faith of committed believers.
In Haiti, where surely for at least a few moments, the people must have thought the world was ending, the Lutheran church is a model for how relief and recovery efforts can be done. There are no disorderly and unequal food distributions in the areas where the Lutheran churches are; they are well organized and safe. The ELCA and the Florida Bahamas Synod have short and long range plans for the reconstruction of buildings and lives in Haiti. They are not worried about the End times; they are concerned with ministry today.
Whether the End Times are near, or are far off in the future, Lutherans turn their focus to ministry in the mean time. Today, we have two prime examples of ongoing ministry: we donate financial offerings for Women of the ELCA for their ministries, and we bless stacks and stacks of shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. These shoeboxes represent countless hours of work in gathering and assembling, labeling and shipping. And tomorrow, we begin on next year’s shoeboxes. There are cartons full of quilts in the Hall, and more in various stages of completion. Quilting is a ministry that sends our love and concern to needy people around the world.
Yesterday, a few folks distributed door hangers at a few area houses, to share the news of Hope and Angel Food Ministries to our neighbors. Monthly, folks gather in the Hall to distribute boxes of low-cost food.
When I asked, you as a congregation donated over $1500 to the Pastor’s Discretionary fund, to help a local family in need. Each year, turkeys are purchased for a mission in Ocala, and each month, non-perishable food is given to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Food Pantry. As a congregation, we care a lot about each other, and we care about those in need. We are not worried, day by day, about when the End will come. We are focused, as we are called to be, on taking care of those in need today.
… We do not know what will happen tomorrow. There may be natural disasters, or human illness, or financial chaos, or a terrorist attack. The disaster may only affect one family, or it may reach all of us. Our calling is not to despair, not to panic, but to trust that the same Jesus who promised the disciples to be with them always will be with us too. We are called to trust in Jesus, and to endure, no matter what happens. We are to trust that the future is in God’s hands, and that every hair on our heads is known and counted by God. (I know that for some of us, there are fewer hairs than there used to be, but that doesn’t matter to God.)
Please pray with me: Eternal God, you have held the past and the present in your hands. We seek your assurance that the future is in your hands as well. Give us peace in our hearts, and the faith to trust in you, no matter what. Amen 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This world and the next

Job 19:23-27a
Luke 20:27-38

2 Thessalonians 2

Job has been miserable for many chapters, many days by now, in Chapter 19. His family and his livestock have all been taken from him. He has accused his friends of harassing him. He has accused God of not being fair to him. His lament is long and heartfelt. Despite all that has happened to him, he knows that God lives. Now, he wants the comfort of God’s presence, and really wants to see God face to face.

About 25 years after Jesus died, there were a number of Christian congregations. We have an image of all these early congregations as having similar theology, similar beliefs about Jesus, but this is far from true. Each of Paul’s letters describes similarities and differences. Each congregation had to make sense of the Good News of Jesus in their own context. Each congregation faced internal and external pressures.

Apparently, there was a rumor making its way around Thessalonica that Jesus had already returned, and the people of that congregation had missed the experience. They were afraid they had been left behind. Paul writes to correct this impression. “Don’t panic! Jesus has not returned yet. Remember Jesus loves you, and wants you to pass on that love to others. Don’t worry about that which is beyond your understanding or knowledge.”

Jesus said something similar to the Sadducees in Jerusalem. They asked him a question designed to test his knowledge of scripture and push him on the matter of resurrection. Sadducees were the religious conservatives of their day, believing only the scriptures, but not in the spoken or written traditions which interpret scripture. There is little in the Hebrew Scriptures regarding resurrection until the time of Daniel and Second Maccabbees, a couple of centuries before Jesus. The new-fangled idea of resurrection was just too modern, too “new-agy” for the Sadducees.

Essentially, Jesus said to them, “Life in the next world is not like life in this world. You are asking about divine things, and only God knows about them. I can tell you this: Do you remember when God said to Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’ Why would God have said that if they were dead? God is the God of the living, not the dead. Therefore, resurrection really happens.”

We do not know just what is in the other side of death. People who have had near-death experiences, when they died and were brought back to life, tell us that what they saw and felt was wonderful. But, God holds that as a surprise for us.

We live, knowing that God is the giver of life. We live, seeking a relationship with God that is challenged by events and circumstances of this life, and trusting that God will never abandon us, now or in the next life. We live in the meantime, with hope and trust in the resurrection, Jesus’ promise to us. We live, and believe in an invisible God, made visible for a time in Jesus, but present with us constantly through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Life can be a challenge; Job experienced it; the Thessalonians experienced it; we experience it often. When life presents challenges, we turn to God for comfort, and to Scripture for the reassuring words we can read there. We know God loves us, forgives us, and wants justice for us.

Today, we recognize today the loss of loved ones, and remember them before God. We are comforted by knowing that God will never abandon us, in this life or the next.

This week, we honor our service men and women and remember those who have died to protect our freedom. And we give thanks to God for the freedom we have to live, work, vote, worship, and play as we choose.

Over lunch today, as we face the pains and joys of Hope’s past and look forward to the future, we do so with the hope and faith in God’s presence. We will name our hurts and give them to God so we can forgive those who have hurt us. We will name our joys and give thanks to God for the blessing of such good memories. And we will seek God’s will for the future for this part of the family of God. How will we be led to live out our mission: to know Christ and to make him known?

Please pray with me: Loving God, you know our hearts, our hurts, and our joys. You know our worries and fears, and our faith and trust. Make your presence known among us and within each of us today and all our tomorrows. Amen

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Salvation comes to Zaccheaus

Luke 19:1-10

This little story about Zacchaeus is the last one before Jesus enters the area immediately surrounding Jerusalem. It occurs in Jericho, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Jerusalem. Today, it’s about 30 miles as the bus drives.
Luke frequently puts two or more similar stories together; you might remember the three “lost” stories we read not too long ago: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
Here we have two stories about wealthy people, although the lectionary skips over story of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to give away all he has to the poor. The rich man walks away very sad, because he was very rich.
There are two rather distinct ways to interpret this story. Let’s start with the more familiar way: A crowd has gathered, watching for Jesus to come. By now he’s very famous, so the crowd is very large. Try as he might, Zacchaeus can’t see, so he does the undignified thing for a grown man, especially for a very wealthy grown man, and climbs a tree. Jesus spots him, and calls out to him, and invites himself to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house.
People in the crowd know Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, which means he’s the supervisor for a number of other tax collectors. The tax collecting business means collaboration with the Romans; the way it was done resembles a Ponzi scheme. The higher you are on the pyramid, the more money you can make, and the more you have an opportunity to cheat others; it also means you owe larger amounts to the Romans, and ultimately to Caesar.
As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus bears the continual scorn of the people of Jericho. When Jesus sees him and invites himself over, Zacchaeus is suddenly convicted of his own sinfulness and repents, He promises to give half of his assets to the poor, and to repay anyone he has cheated with four times the amount.
Let’s assume he’s a millionaire; he gives ½ a million to the local food pantry. If each tax collector under him owed him $20,000, and he demands $25,000, he’ll repay him 4 times the over-charge of $5,000, or $20,000. If we assume he has 10 tax collectors under him, his total repayment is $200,000.
This leaves him with $300,000. While he’s still wealthy by our standards, he’s worth a lot less than he was a few minutes ago. He has given back over 2/3 of his estate.
Jesus is impressed with the degree of repentance, and promises that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house that day. Zacchaeus is now living a repentant, forgiven life.
Another way of interpreting this story begins with looking at the Greek text, which is always a good idea. In Greek, the verbs translated in English as “I will give” and “I will repay” are actually present progressive tense: “I am giving” and “I am repaying.”
The average person in Jericho makes assumptions about him, and most likely gossips about him. But they don’t know that he gives away ½ of his annual income to the poor, so he really lives on $500,000 a year, not a whole $Million.
In other words, Zacchaeus is an honest chief tax collector. If he determines that he has cheated anyone or overcharged them, he repays them. And he believes in living on half of his income and giving the rest to charity. Zacchaeus’ only obvious sin, then, is collaboration with the enemy Romans.
When Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to dinner at your house,” in this interpretation the intent is to say that tax collectors – those who collaborate with the enemy -- are welcome in God’s kingdom, or reign. Even though Zacchaeus has lots of money, he’s an outsider in the Jewish community, but he’s welcome in Jesus’ reign.
The major difference between these two interpretations is the giving of salvation. For many people, scholars and lay people alike, one must repent before receiving salvation. In the first interpretation, Zacchaeus repents and atones for his sinful cheating. Therefore, he deserves salvation.
In the second understanding of the story, Zacchaeus has not repented, though there is an attempt to live an upright life – except for that collaboration with the enemy. Yet he and his household are given salvation by Jesus. God has different rules than humans!
Is that not the key tenet of the Protestant Reformation? There is nothing we must do in order to receive God’s grace, God’s salvation?
Salvation is a key theme in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ very name refers to salvation: Yeshua (or Joshua) means “God saves.” [Jesus is the Latin version of the Greek version of the Hebrew name.] Here are some references to salvation in Luke.
·         In her song of praise, Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …”
·         When John (the Baptist) is born, Zechariah his father sings: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” 
·         When Jesus is born, the angel tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 
·         The word for healing and for saving is often the same in Greek -- sozo. People are healed and saved in the same moment.
·         Salvation refers to a way of life. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
·         Salvation is what the Apostles preach in Acts; for example Peter says to the High Priest and others: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
·          Salvation comes in Jesus’ presence: Old Simeon looks at Jesus in the Temple and says, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples….”

Jesus was sent to us so that we might be saved, forgiven, brought closer to God. I often say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more; and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” 
God sees us through Jesus’ eyes, as forgiven and loved sinners. God’s view of us is as saved people, children of Abraham, children of God … saved as Zacchaeus was, by Jesus’ words, and by Jesus’ presence in his life.
Knowing we are saved can bring us to respond with love, generosity, and forgiveness to others. Knowing others are saved as well can bring us to see them through Jesus’ eyes, too.
Let us live into God’s view of us all as saved people. Amen

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To judge or not to judge

Luke 18:9-14
In my studying this week, I found this story. It’s too good to not pass on. J

Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death.
On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for penance and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps. When another Jew saw him do this he rebuked him, saying, "Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi!"
So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, "Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!"
The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. The rabbi explained it this way to his congregation: "May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years old! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours were not, because he put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!"

Today’s parable is addressed to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. We assume he’s speaking to Pharisees and Scribes, though the text doesn’t say that.
As we listen to the parable, we automatically think the Pharisee is wrong, because we know that Jesus and the Pharisees were usually at odds with each other.
But, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been the obvious hero in the story – he lived up to the standard expressions of faith, tithing, regular worship, fasting. He worked hard to discern how to live faithfully every day and to keep the commandments.
The tax collector would have been the obvious villain in the story – he was wealthy because he preyed on others, especially the poorer folks, the laborers and traders from whom he collected tolls. Even if he tithed, worshiped regularly and fasted, he would not have been seen as a model of faith expression.
When Jesus concludes the parable with the comment that the tax collector left the temple made right with God and the Pharisee didn’t, the audience would have gasped. It was just WRONG, what Jesus said. “No Way!” they would have thought.
To put the parable into modern perspective, we can change the people in the story. So, imagine if the parable started out: the TV pastor (perhaps Robert Schuller, T D Jakes, Joel Osteen, or Joyce Meyer) and the drug dealer went to church to pray. Immediately, we make a judgment call. We expect the TV pastor to be the hero, because we perceive them as models of faith for the rest of us; we assume the drug dealer will be the villain, because, even though he goes to church, it’s obvious that he is the sinful one.
Yet both – the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, the TV pastor and the drug dealer in our modern version – seek to be made right with God. And that is the twist in the story. God hears the prayers of the tax collector and the drug dealer, even though they admit to being sinners. And God disregards the prayers of the Pharisee and the TV pastor in the story, because their hearts aren’t in their prayers.
With a little imagination, we can hear what the TV pastor and the drug dealer are saying to God.
The pastor might pray like this: “O Lord, I ask for your guidance, for my own life, as well as for the life and faith of my congregation. I ask you to send more people to join my flock, so I can build an even bigger worship space to your glory.”
The drug dealer’s prayers may have gone something like this, “Please forgive me, Lord. I know I am doing evil in selling these drugs, but I can’t find any other way to make money for my family. If I try to quit, the thugs who are my bosses will see that I am permanently crippled, or even killed. Who will take care of my family then? I am such a worm, and I am helpless. Please show me another way.”
It’s human nature to look at others and evaluate who they are to make sure we are safe. When I was at seminary in Chicago, I was walking to the grocery store and saw a group of young black men on a corner. Since it was the south side of Chicago, and I was alone, I crossed the street, just to stay safe. Had I misjudged them? I’ll never know, but I know I judged them. I knew it at that moment, and I remember it today.
We judge and condemn many things, many people, without even thinking about it. For example:
Many of us care if the toilet paper rolls from the top, or from the bottom, and if the toilet seat is left up or down. We judge those who do it “wrong” as not caring about our own preferences.
I prefer music in which I can understand the words and sing along with the artist. I don’t care so much for rap because I can’t understand the words and the music sounds like a lot of noise. I remember my parents saying similar things about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We judge those who perform, and those who listen.
I want to tell some young men to pull up their pants! And I remember my mother asking why my skirts were so far above my knees. We judge what others wear, and we judge the people who wear the unusual.
As I listen to certain politicians in their TV commercials, I want to yell at them that they sure don’t speak for me. I’m sure some of you would agree with me, and some of you would just as strongly disagree with me. We believe some and judge the others.
We judge all types of people: people of certain classes, people of certain ethnic groups, people of certain ages, people of certain faiths. We judge them as just like us, or as too different from us to be loved by God.
We assume, as did the Pharisee in the parable, that the obvious sinner – the tax collector and the drug dealer – are beneath us in status, and less righteous in God’s eyes. It’s not easy, but we are challenged by this parable to not judge one another. And we are reminded that God knows what is in our hearts. The best we can do is to turn to God with the tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
When we are tempted to judge others and find them lacking in something we think they should have, let us remember that others are judging us and finding us lacking, too. We can have competing judgments, or we can confess our judgments, and remember that we are all sinners, and we are all in need of God’s mercy.
Your challenge this week picks up the last two challenges and adds one more part. This week, as you notice people around you, and think about how you might pray for them, reflect also on how you judge them. Remember that each one is a child of God, and deserving of God’s love.
Please pray with me: O Lord, we thank you that you judge us through Jesus’ eyes, and not through human eyes. Forgive us. Help us to remember that all people are your children, and you love each of us. Amen 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Praying with chutzpah

Luke 18:1-8

Life in many places in the Middle East today is like life in Jesus’ time. The clothes are different, jobs are often but not always different, technology is different, but social patterns are not much different.
A journalist tells this story:
There was a young man from Village A held prisoner by a leader in Village B. A few powerful people in the village wanted to keep him there, for their own reasons. The judge was happy to receive their bribes and refused to hear the case to let him go free.
One day, three women from the young man’s village went together and told the judge in no uncertain terms and with unprintable language what they thought of the judge. He let the young man go.
When the journalist asked about the incident, it was explained that if a man, or men, from the village had gone to press for the young man’s release, they would have quickly been killed. But the custom was that women could get away with it, and often were successful.
In the gospel story for today, we can assume something similar is going on. The judge is being bribed, or has some interest in refusing to hear the woman’s case. She repeatedly stands in public places and tells him in no uncertain terms and with unprintable language just what she thinks of him.
The text uses a boxing term: in English it says, she is wearing me out. In Greek it says, she is hitting me below the eye. In other words, she is giving him a black eye, metaphorically speaking. She is ruining his reputation, and it could have serious consequences for his career as a judge. To protect himself, the judge gives her what she wants.
The woman in the parable and the women in the modern village have pled their cases with chutzpah! They have done everything they can to obtain justice.
Jesus frames this parable in the context of prayer – persistent prayer in the pursuit of justice for the oppressed. The widow is being oppressed and justice has been denied, repeatedly. So she summons up her courage and demands justice until the judge agrees to give it to her.
When we pray, we usually ask politely for what we want, perhaps pleading with God to hear us. But we don’t often really believe God will even hear our prayer, much less respond with “yes, I can do that for you.”
When we are figuratively or literally on our knees, we know we are totally dependent on God, and the passion of our prayers reflects this. When we are desperate, we pray with chutzpah, “God, I need you to hear my prayer, and to find me a job so I can feed my family!” “Jesus, I can’t deal with this by myself. Please send someone to help me!” “God, I’m in so much pain! Help me!”
It’s true that if we pray for a new Blackberry, or a new plasma TV, or a new BMW, we are not likely to get it with God’s help. But if we are praying for justice, or for healing, or for someone in need, God is more likely to respond, “yes, I can do that for you.”
Praying with chutzpah may lead us to change our prayer. We may hear God’s response as. “that’s not what is best for you. Here’s what I can for you do instead.” Or we may hear God’s response as, “here’s what I want you to do for me.” Or we may hear God’s response as, “I am with you, and you can get through this. Change your attitude.”
The Bible records many instances of Jesus praying. Sometimes, he was renewing his relationship with God; sometimes he was asking for healing or blessing; sometimes he prayed with intensity. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed with chutzpah that there might be a Plan B, but he accepted Plan A as God’s will for his life – and for our benefit.
Martin Luther prayed repeatedly and at length for forgiveness, and could never find it. At last, his mentor sent him to Scripture, and there he found the concept of grace, freely granted to all, and radically different from what the Church taught at that time. As he led the reform movement, Luther recorded frequent battles with the devil. The story goes that on one occasion, he threw his ink well at the evil one. Luther also enjoyed a good beer, a good dinner, good conversation, and a good laugh. Luther prayed and lived with chutzpah. 
Martin Luther King’s biographers tell us the story of a night when King and his family were in danger. His enemies were threatening to bomb his house and kill him and his family. He spent the night in prayer and Scripture reading. He was tempted to end his campaign for justice for all people, especially African American people. When morning came, however, he knew he had no choice but to continue, and for the rest of his life, he prayed frequently with chutzpah.
Rick, a friend from Michigan, recently shared with me the news of his father’s death. Roger had been in poor health for 20 years, and the family had recently been asking the difficult questions about finding a nursing home for him, or even hospice care.
As he anticipated his father’s death, Rick began to wonder if he had an ulcer, because his stomach hurt so badly. Yet he knew that it was right that his father’s pain would end, and Rick began to pray for his father to be able to die. He prayed, then, with chutzpah for his father.
Roger died peacefully at home, in his own bed, a couple of hours after rubbing his wife Mary’s back. As Rick shared this story with me, he noticed that his stomach felt fine. The fear of grief had been much worse than the reality of releasing his father to God’s care.
As we live and pray, we usually focus on our own needs and wants. There’s nothing wrong with that, because prayer of any kind keeps us connected with God. Yet, the more we pray, the more we may recognize that God wants something different for us than what we think we want.
As we shift from our wants to what God wants for us, the transition and transformation may cause us to pray with chutzpah. We often resist what God wants for us, because it means more work, more commitment, and change, and that causes us to be afraid. Yet, the resulting trust in God is worth it, as we learn to believe that God really does have our best interests in mind.
Looking back at the text for today, it’s important to note this: When we pray with the chutzpah that we believe God will hear and respond, we are among the faithful Jesus hopes to find on earth.
Last week your challenge was to notice those around you, and how you perceived them. How might you pray for those you noticed? Were any of them worthy of prayer with chutzpah?
This week, notice how you pray. What is the focus of your prayer? Who is the focus of your prayer? Are you praying for your own wants, or for what God wants for you? Are there concerns that deserve more intense prayer, and you pray with chutzpah for those concerns?
Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, you taught us how to pray, and modeled many forms of prayer for us. Help us to pray, help us to know what is right, and lead us to pray with chutzpah about those things that really concern us and you. Amen 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

POAMN Conference Thoughts

Notes from the speakers: Eileen Lindner and Jon Brown

Our life stories do not begin at our birth, nor do they end when we die. Our stories reflect our ancestors, perhaps for many generations, our culture, and our faith history. Older folks know that the older we are, the more we can see in the rearview mirror of our lives. If we only look backward, we can lose our way because we also need to keep looking forward.

The book of Hebrews, especially chapters 11 and 12, outline for us the faith story we belong to. The letter looks backward at the history of the people, and forward into the future. Using the refrain, “by faith” the author of Hebrews reminds us that we have a long history of people who stepped out in faith and did sometimes irrational acts. Noah built a boat on dry land; Abraham left home with his wife and family; Moses confronted Pharaoh.

At the time of the writing of Hebrews the people to whom the letter was addressed were experiencing torture and death because of their faith. The author encourages the people of this community of faith to remain faithful and remember the long history of the people of faith to which they belong, and to continue to pass on the faith to the next generations.

How do we remember the past and look forward to the future at the same time?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


2 Kings 5:1-3. 7-15; Luke 17:11-19

Today’s Old and New Testament Scripture readings are about miraculous healings. I think it is unfair to call people by their diseases, even though the Bible does. After all, we don’t refer to people with cancer as “cancerites.” Such terms single people out. So, we’ll talk and think today about people with leprosy, not “lepers.” It’s a matter of perception.

The disease for today is leprosy, which refers to a variety of skin diseases. Some diseases were not contagious, but had about them an “ick factor,” red, pussy, oozing, scaly, lacking color, and so forth, which are not normal conditions of the skin. Such diseases rendered the sufferers unclean, and under severe punishment by God.

In a time without today’s medical knowledge, such isolations were the only sure way to avoid the spreading of contagious diseases. It also prevented the spread of uncleanness. Those who had been cast out of their communities were dependent on the mercy of families and passers-by to give them food to eat, extra clothing, news, and so forth.

In the Old Testament reading, Naaman the Aramean general had a high opinion of himself, and a skin disease. Apparently, his disease did not cause him to be isolated; or maybe it was his high ranking. The text doesn’t say. No one in the kingdom could heal him. An Israelite girl had heard of the prophet Elisha, who had healed a few people and suggested that Naaman go to him.

He did, but was surprised at the way he was treated. As important a person as he was, he expected to be treated with some pomp and circumstance, but Elisha chose to speak through a messenger instead of face to face. “Go and wash in the Jordan River.” Naaman spoke with disdain about the Jordan River, a shallow, muddy stream at that time of year, and not nearly as magnificent as the rivers at home in Aram. It was a matter of perception.

But, eventually, he obeyed, and received the gift of healing. In response, he recognized the power of Elisha’s God, and vowed to worship only that God from that time on. Naaman knew he had received a gift, and was grateful for it. His perception changed radically, based on the God-given gift of healing.

… As we turn to the Gospel story, you remember that Jews and Samarians hated each other, and would avoid each other if at all possible. The region between Galilee and Samaria was a sort-of no-man’s-land. In this land, there lived some rejects, some people with skin diseases who had been banished from their respective communities.

Cultural enemies, these people with leprosy formed their own community; they probably prayed, ate, slept, and wept together. Their perception of each other was shaped by their common disease, and of being outcasts together.

Jesus approached this region and heard the cries for mercy. His perception of the people was different from most Jews and Samaritans. He saw them as folks in need of healing. In response to their cries for mercy, he said “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they walk, they are healed.

Here’s what I think happened. The perception of the Jews with leprosy was to obey the rabbi and go to the priests. There, they would be declared healed and able to return to their families. Their response was automatic. Perhaps their perception was that they had done enough prayers and requests for mercy, and God now owed them healing. Getting to the priests as quickly as possible was all they could think about. Their perception was to obey God by obeying the rules of their faith.

At first, the Samaritan went with them, until he realized he was no longer forced by circumstances to associate with the Jews. His thought process was interrupted. He turned to head in the direction of his own priest, and it was that turning that called to mind the idea of giving thanks. When he turned, then, he had a new perception of Jesus as having access to God’s healing powers.

… We are all human, and our perceptions are shaped by the realities of our lives, and by what the church has taught us is appropriate.

In the past, perceptions included the rightness of slavery, because people with darker skin were not fully human. Perceptions included the rightness of the banishment of pregnant teenage girls, who went to live with distant relatives until the baby was born and they could return home. Perceptions included the rightness of keeping women barefoot and pregnant, with no right to vote, much less serve as elected officials or corporation CEOs.

You probably remember the reactions to the discovery of AIDS. Even if we knew someone who suffered from it, many of us wanted the victims to stay far away from us. We didn’t want to catch it.

Then, as we learned more about AIDS, we began to have sympathy for those who acquired AIDS by transfusion, but not for those who got it by inappropriate sexual activity or illegal drug use. By now, we are appalled at the number of innocent victims, especially in Africa where ½ the population has been affected by this disease – either as victims or as orphans. Our perception of the disease certainly has changed. As our perceptions changed, we have been able to pressure the drug companies into making the medications available at prices even people in the poorest parts of Africa can afford.

We are beginning to recognize that isolating people because of a disease or condition is not just, for them or for us. We have much to learn about God’s perceptions, but if we keep an eye on Jesus, we can learn a lot. The people “proper” society rejected are just those who were there at his birth. The people “proper” society rejected are just those whom Jesus loved and healed and ate with and welcomed into the band of disciples following him. The people “proper” society rejected are just those who shared the story of Jesus with other social rejects.

Our personal perceptions affect how we see those around us, and if we even notice those around us. It is easy to judge the Pharisees and others in Scripture who rejected some members of their society. But we must be careful that we are not doing the same thing.

Your challenge this week is to pay attention to those around you. How do you perceive them? How do you see the cashiers and baggers at the grocery store? How do you see all the workers in the doctors’ office? How do you see the elderly man with the walker in Walgreens, blocking the aisle? How do you see the mom with several children trying to get the best deal on ground beef for her family? How do you see the woman in the liquor store, with a cart full of beverages? How do you see the business man talking on his cell phone at the restaurant? Do you perceive them with love, as Jesus would? Do you greet them and share a smile and a kind word with them?

Please pray with me. Jesus, there are so many people in the world around us. Help us to see with your eyes and to feel with your heart, and to reach out to them with your love. Amen

Friday, October 8, 2010

Be not afraid

Luke 12:32-40

The encouraging words, “Be not afraid,” “Have no fear,” and “Don’t worry” occur regularly in Scripture. Unfortunately for the wimpy among us, these words always challenge us to go beyond our limits, beyond whatever we thought we could or wanted to do.
They are said as the Israelites face battles, as prophets face angry kings, and as God’s people are called to follow where God leads them. In Luke, these words are said by angels to Zechariah and to Mary, and in Matthew, an angel says them to Joseph. “Don’t be afraid. God has something for you to do, and will not leave you alone. This is going to be really good!”
In today’s gospel text, Jesus begins by telling the disciples, “Have no fear… It is God’s delight to give you the kingdom, so you experience God’s reign in your lives.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t be afraid. I’m in charge, so go get some rest.” Instead, Jesus means, “Don’t be afraid. Come follow me and we’ll work together to bring God’s reign into all of creation.”
We are not sent to fix the whole world. It’s our job only to do what God calls us to do in our little corner of the world. And we do not do our job alone. God works with us and through us to make more than we dreamed possible happen.
About 4000 years ago, God called Abram & Sarai – later called Abraham and Sarah – to leave home. God promised them land and offspring, but didn’t give them any details about how that would happen. God simply said, “Go. When you get where I want you to be, I’ll let you know. And I’ll give you lots of children.” So, they left home and traveled west. At some point, God said, this is the land I promised you.”
But, years and years went by, and there were still no children. Abram and Sarai were old when they left home, they were even older once they reached the promised land, and still childless. They complain to God, and God answers, “Don’t be afraid. Wait a little more. My promise is still good, and I haven’t forgotten you. You will have more descendents than there are stars in the sky.” After waiting 25 years for the children God promised, they finally had a child, Isaac, who had 2 sons Esau and Jacob, and each of those boys had many children. “Do not be afraid; it is God’s delight to give you the kingdom.”
… In the gospel text for today, these two statements: “Do not be afraid; it is God’s delight to give you the kingdom.” And “Sell all you have, and give it away,” sure seem like contradictions. We wonder, “How can giving away everything we have bring us joy? Don’t we need what we have to live, to enjoy life?” 
But Jesus knows that when we focus our attention and time on getting and maintaining possessions and money, it draws us away from focusing our attention on God. It also encourages us to be less reliant on God’s provide-ance of those things we really need. We begin to believe we got it ourselves, and didn’t need God’s help to get it. If we have less stuff, we won’t be afraid that someone will take it away.
“Do not be afraid; it is God’s delight to give you the kingdom.” People who are really poor hear these words very differently than those of us with plenty do. They hear words of promise that they and their children will have enough to eat, clothes and shoes to wear, school supplies, and a home to live in. If we give away much of what we have, we give it to those who have less than we do, and through us, God provides for them.
… There’s a new show on TV, called Breakthrough with Tony Robbins. Robbins is a motivational speaker, whose reality show takes people who are struggling and helps them find a new outlook on life and success. This past week the story was about Ron & Marie Stegner. Ron’s business was failing, they were on the brink of foreclosure on their home, and their marriage was a disaster.
As TV cameras rolled, we watched as Ron, in his own state of despair, failed to respect Marie, and ridiculed the income she thought she could bring in as a tiny percentage of his, and so she might as well not bother.
Tony’s work with the couple begins with the idea that when you face up to your fears, life’s challenges are not as hard as they seem. Tony’s team develops new, tougher challenges to help put the regular challenges in perspective.
The main fear Ron and Marie had to face was being homeless, so they were sent to live for a week in a homeless shelter. There was an additional hitch: if they didn’t learn what they were sent there to learn, they would have to spend another week in the shelter. Marie started the week with a flat refusal to participate. “I’m not going. I won’t do this!”
Suddenly, Ron became her protector instead of her critic, and he encouraged her to go with him, and found ways for them to be involved in the homeless community. Homeless folks in the shelter adopted them, and showed them how to survive.
Ron and Marie began to rediscover their love and respect for each other and came out of the experience with a stronger relationship. Even if they end up losing their home, they have learned that life is not about how much you have, but about the relationships you have with others and with each other. In terms of family, they have been given the kingdom.
… What, do you suppose, God has for us to learn? In how many ways is God saying to us, “Do not be afraid; it is God’s delight to give you the kingdom.” Here’s what I see. As a congregation, God is calling us to communicate better with each other. As a congregation, God is calling us to do ministry with and for the people in our community. As a congregation, God is calling us to not be afraid, but to go where we are sent, and trust that we do not go alone.
Signs of that call and God’s promise can be found in the spirit of a congregation. I don’t know about you, but I sense a healthier atmosphere at Hope lately. We have proved we can do VBS on a shoestring, when we work together. People are coming to visit during worship, and some are coming to join. A couple of families in real need have asked for help, and received it through the generosity of our members. Folks are participating in social programs, and volunteering to take leadership roles. Ted and Diane have enrolled in the Deacon training program, to be more intentionally involved in the ministries of Hope. And two financial bequests, one from Bea Rossi and another from Irma Reichenbaugh, will help us through financially tough times. The money they have left us will be used for non-budgeted expenses.
How is God calling you as individuals? Is God calling you to teach Sunday School? Is God calling you to serve on the congregation council, or lead a committee? Is God calling you to dig deeper into your pockets than you thought was possible? Is God calling you to visit the homebound and hospitalized members? Is God calling you to share your faith with someone? Is God calling you to invite a particular person to an event at Hope? How is God calling you to use your God-given gifts?
Whatever God is saying to you, God says it with this promise: “Do not be afraid; it is my delight to give you the kingdom.” We are not called to follow and left to our own devices. God goes with us wherever we go, and whatever we are doing.
Please pray with me. (This prayer is traditional, and taken from the service of morning prayer.) O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen