Sunday, October 21, 2018

Big Gulp and little sip

October 21, 2018
Mark 10:35-45

Jesus has several times announced that he will be arrested, suffer, die, and be raised. The disciples don’t fully understand what that means, because it hasn’t happened yet. When Jesus says he will be raised in glory, they imagine a king sitting on a throne with princes and managers sitting on the dais with him. They want some of that glory for themselves. And now, they go to ask Jesus to honor them by giving them those seats. 

Jesus says, “Are you willing to drink the same cup I am to drink?” James and John are positive they can do that. Jesus agrees that they will drink the same cup, but the seats at his right and left hand are not for him to give out.

Both spent the rest of their lives telling others about Jesus. Acts records the death of James by order of King Herod. John lived into old age, according to tradition. Some traditions say all of the disciples died for their faith, other traditions say only Peter, James and Paul were martyred for their faith.

Now, I wonder, what cup is Jesus referring to? Is he talking about the cup of death?  Or the cup of servanthood, which is what Jesus talks about next. To be really great, he says, one must be the servant of all.  I think it is both, a willingness to die while following Jesus. And a willingness to commit our lives to serving Jesus by serving others.

I got to thinking about this matter of drinking the cup while following Jesus. At 7-11, the Big Gulp drink is 30, 40 or 50 ounces of liquid refreshment. I know people who purchase a big gulp in the morning and sip on it all day, while others go through the big gulp in just a few minutes.

Others of us purchase – or pour at home – 8-12 ounces of coffee or tea and let that be enough. For today, I want to use the image of an 8-ounce cup compared to a 50-ounce big gulp as a way of describing the way we follow Jesus by serving others.

A few of us are big gulp people, but most of us are 8-ounce drink people. We fit following Jesus in and around the rest of our lives. We have jobs, families, doctor appointments, shopping, house cleaning, car maintenance and so forth, that prevent us from giving ourselves 100% to following Jesus. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to do more, but we live in the real world and have a lot of commitments to fulfill in addition to serving Jesus by serving others.

You know I am a Franciscan and studying the life and teaching of Francis of Assisi as a way to deepen my own faith life. Francis was a big gulp follower of Jesus.

Once Francis realized God was calling him to rebuild the church, he committed his life 100%. He came from a wealthy family, and gave away all he had. He realized that when we have possessions, we spend time and attention and energy holding onto those possessions, so he refused to own anything. He went to extremes most of us would not even consider. For example, in the middle of winter, he would give away his only tunic to someone who didn’t have one.

Another big gulp follower was Mother Theresa, who sought to see Jesus in the poorest, smelliest, sickest people on the streets of Calcutta. She persisted in this ministry despite years of doubt that Jesus even existed.

A third big gulp follower was Bishop Oscar Romero, who was recently proclaimed a saint. He defied the government by preaching about justice for the poor people of El Salvador. He made such an impact, he was assassinated while saying mass one Sunday morning.

Martin Luther King Jr. was another big gulp follower. King ended up losing his life because of his work for justice for all people. You know his stories.

Big gulp followers of Jesus  are not very common. But there are lots of 8-ounce cup followers, sitting here in this room. We do what we can, when we can. And, I can name a few who are 12 ounce cup followers. They are not pastors, they are lay people like y’all. Here is just one story. You can tell others, I am sure.

Ruth was a member of Saron Lutheran Church. Ruth hadn’t been active in church before she came to Saron, but she went once to help at our day at the soup kitchen. And she was hooked. Soon, she became the leader of our day, the 4th Thursday every month. Then, she became the substitute when the main manager was away. In a few years, she was the manager of the soup kitchen, and spent every day there. Ruth became an advocate for the hungry in our town and passionate about gaining grants and other assistance for them.  

And now, I ask you, how deeply do you drink of the cup of service when you follow Jesus? How is he part of your life? How do you serve Jesus by serving others?

Here are some suggestions:
·         Let others go first in the grocery line
·         Say please and thank you
·         Look in the eyes of cashiers and restaurant servers and get to know their names
·         Say a table prayer in the restaurant
·         Bring food for the food pantry, and fun things for the Ocali School
·         Donate a gas card or Walmart Card for the office to give to a needy person
·         Offer to pray for a friend who shares a worry or illness
·         Say the name “Jesus” in public, like, “Jesus loves you”
·         Increase your financial commitment to Ascension by 2% or more
·         Volunteer your time with Interfaith Ministries
·         Visit the homebound people. They are always grateful for some company
·         Advocate for a cause you care about – hungry people, health care, voting rights, etc.
·         Vote. Think about how you are serving Jesus with your choice, and vote!
·         Be generous with what you have

In order to drink of the cup of service, we need to be nourished by the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing. Each week, we come to the table and drink—not deeply, but enough – to be filled with God’s love and call to service as Jesus served. Come soon and be filled, and go out to serve others.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you call us to serve others as you have served us. Show us the way to drink deep of the big gulp of servanthood. And refresh us always at your table as we eat of your body and drink of your blood. Amen

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Power and authority

September 30, 2018
Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50

How many of you watch the TV show Hawaii Five-O? If you watch the show, you know that Detective McGarrett often takes matters into his own hands, disobeying rules, disregarding orders, in an effort to get the bad guy or gal. On Friday’s episode, I heard this quotation: Everybody knows that Steve McGarrett only takes orders from the Governor and God.

As it happens, the storyline is that a former governor of Hawaii recruited McGarrett to set up a special force to deal with especially nasty criminals. The only way McGarrett would sign on was if he had no rules, no red tape, and full authority to do what needed to be done.

So, it is true that McGarrett obeys only God and the Governor.

… There are sort of two similar stories today, one about Moses and one about Jesus. In the story about Moses, Moses has realized the need to delegate his workload. God instructs Moses to gather 70 elders to help make decisions and make sure all are taken care of. God takes some of the spirit from Moses and gives it to the newly selected elders. The elders prophesy this once, and never again.

Early in the formation of the Israelite people and the folks are already pointing fingers. Who has power? Who should have power? Who should not have power? At first, there were few enough of them that it was fairly easy to obey only God and Moses. Now, there are more people, there are more problems, and more people need to be involved in guiding the people. Moses is still in charge, but he now has some deputies, who have God’s and Moses’ authority to make decisions, solve problems, and be spiritual guides.

There are two men who were not selected, and not gathered with the chosen elders, who also felt God’s spirit and began to prophesy. A young person notices and runs to Moses’ assistant Joshua and tattles on them. “Did you know that these two guys you did not choose were also prophesying? They don’t have permission to do that! Tell them to stop!” (my words) Moses replies, “I wish everyone felt God’s spirit!”  

… In the story about Jesus, the disciples have become somewhat accustomed to being able to heal people. He taught them that his name has power so when they say, “Be healed, in Jesus’ name,” the sick are healed.

But they discover that someone is making unauthorized use of Jesus’ name. Sick folks, people with demons, are being healed by a man who was not following Jesus. Apparently, this man knew of Jesus’ power to heal but didn’t believe in him as the Messiah. Yet, he could gain access to Jesus’ power to bring about healing.

The disciples are angered enough to tattle on this man to Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus is not angry but pleased that someone else could heal people. Whoever helps someone else in my name is blessed. (my words)

… God does not limit divine power to only those in authority. Through our baptisms, we are authorized to do ministry in Jesus’ name whenever and wherever it seems appropriate. We do not need Jesus’ permission to offer a dollar or two to a beggar, or a bag of food to a hungry person, or a ride to the doctor to a sick person. When we feel the Spirit telling us to do something kind, we should do it. The Spirit’s guiding is all the authority we need.

Sometimes, congregations have strict rules about who can start new programs and how to go about it. Unless it involves spending a lot of money, or changing a written policy, it appears to me that if the Spirit moves someone at Ascension to start something new, it happens. Of course, I have only been here a short while, but I am thinking about two things.

First, the support for the Ocali Middle School. I don’t know the specific history, but it seems Cindy discovered the school and its needs and came up with a plan. With just a little money and a number of in-kind donations, the school now has a positive reinforcement program and creative gifts for children.

Second, I am thinking about Bunco. I mentioned playing Bunco at another church as a fundraiser and Gail took off with the idea. Before long, people gathered to learn the game, and plans were made to have a Bunco night once a month. The hope is not just that some funds will be raised for ministry, but that people outside the church will come to meet the people, have a fun time, and eventually become part of the congregation.

… When the Spirit moves us to do something, we don’t need permission to do it, we just do it. While there are plenty of secular laws to obey, like speed limits and taxes, Jesus has only two simple laws: love God and love one another. It is the Spirit who leads us to show love; all we have to do is pay attention to the Spirit’s leading. We can do so much more than we imagine if we draw on the power Jesus’ Spirit has given us.

Please pray with me. Jesus, your name has power and your Spirit enables us to do more than we imagine is possible. Remind us to call on you and lead us to follow you even into places we never dreamed of. Amen

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Greatest and the Least

Mark 9:30-37

Last week, Jesus announced to the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and be raised. He then added that the best was to serve God is by serving others – to be humble and take up a cross of one’s own. This week, Jesus states again that he will be betrayed, killed, and in three days he will rise again.

The Gospel of Mark, more than the other disciples, portrays the disciples as rather dense. They never seem to get what Jesus is trying to say or do. Without the fact of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, since it hasn’t happened yet, they struggle to understand what Jesus means. Apparently, their struggle to understand frustrates Jesus, so they don’t ask him for more information or an explanation.

It is true that Peter and Andrew and John and James are closer to Jesus than the other disciples are. They are the first disciples he called. When Jairus’ daughter was ill and dying, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him into the house when he brought her back to life. On the mountain, when Jesus was transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appeared in a vision, it was Peter, James, and John who were with Jesus. Jesus probably confides in these three or four the most. They are what scholars call the inner circle. So, why should they not consider themselves the greatest disciples?

But, Jesus is appalled. He spots a child in the group. See this child, he says. This child has no economic value. No political power. No social status. This child can be sold as a slave to settle a debt. Jesus means that only by taking on the value and status of this powerless child can you really be great.

If you are able to see a child as great, and you can see Jesus in the child, then you will also be welcoming the one who sent Jesus – God the Father.

… This is a radically different way of looking at power and status in Jesus’ time and in any culture around the world today.

A quick scan of the headlines tells us who has value and who doesn’t. At least, the headlines tell us who appears to have power and value, and who doesn’t.
·         Through the #metoo movement, our society has been made aware, again, of the amount of oppression women have experienced and continue to experience.  
·         We have conflicting and conflicted emotions about immigrant children and their parents.
·         We are barely aware of the women and children who are the victims of the sex trade.
·         We occasionally become aware of the way businesses have treated the land – dumping hazardous waste in areas where it will affect the people living nearby.
·         We constantly judge each other, and compare others to ourselves. They (or we) are too thin, too heavy, too uneducated, too rebellious, too poor, too rich. They have darker skin or worship God differently. They are Republicans. They are Democrats.  

Jesus’ message is that we are all equal. We are all loved by God, and the best – the greatest – way to demonstrate our understanding of this is to see Jesus in the child, in the poor or rich person, in the heavy or skinny person, in the foreign person.

… One story about welcoming children. Most congregations want to attract young families because they believe that is the way to grow a congregation. Most, though not all, congregations believe they are child-friendly. Pastor Judy wanted to help visiting families see that they really wanted children to feel welcome at her church – I’ll call it Trinity --, so she suggested creating a children’s quiet corner in the sanctuary. She wanted to put a small table and some chairs, some quiet toys, some coloring books and crayons, some children’s worship bulletins there. She hoped that families would know that children were welcome at Trinity.

Pastor Judy thought it would cost less than $50 to set it up, but her idea needed approval because it was a change to the worship space. So, Pastor Judy took her proposal to the council. A few council members thought it was worth a try, but one vocal member of the council said, “When we start having children, then we can do that. Until then, I think it is a terrible waste of money. People might trip on the toys, or the children will be unsupervised and noisy. I vote no.” Because of his opinion, the children’s area was never set up, and families with children visited once and never came back to Trinity.  

… This week, I hope you look for Jesus in everyone. Not just those you love, but those you are tempted to judge as less than yourself or as greater than yourself. Not just those who are here already, but those who are not here yet. Look for Jesus in the children, because they may know him better than we do. You are no lesser and no greater than anyone else in God’s eyes.

This is one of Jesus’ most important messages to us. We are all God’s beloved children, no matter how old we are, no matter how much or how little we own, or how much or how little power we seem to possess. Jesus loves you. And he loves those around you, too, no matter who they are.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you teach us some challenging lessons. We like things the way they are. We don’t want to love everyone. Help us, forgive us, and continue to love us anyway. Amen

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Who do you say Jesus is?

Mark 8:27-38

It is hard for us to imagine a time before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Those events changed history. It took some time for those who followed Jesus, who walked the earth with him, and for those people who followed him afterwards, to make sense of what his death meant. We are still trying to do that today.
Peter takes the first step. First, he puts into words what everyone is saying: Jesus is the messiah. Jesus praises him for voicing this insight, saying it comes from God. Jesus then goes on to describe what kind of a messiah he will be: he will suffer and be killed and rise again.

Peter is aghast; No way! That’s not the way the messiah is supposed to act. The messiah is supposed to gather an army and get rid of the Romans and bring freedom back to the people.

We know it works out for the best, but 2,000 years ago, Peter and the others could not comprehend a different kind of messiah, especially before the resurrection. It always amazes me, even though it probably shouldn’t, that the disciples never hear the third part of Jesus’ prediction. They only hear that he will suffer and die. They never hear the part about rising again.

We know the rising is the most important part. Lots of people were tortured and crucified. But only one rose to life after death. Yet, even today, we struggle to explain and understand what Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection mean for us.

Jesus asked the disciples, Who do you say that I am? Today, we often ask the question of each other and of ourselves. Who do you say Jesus is? Here are some of my thoughts.

… During our lifetimes, Jesus is usually many things to us, depending on what is going on. When we are in good shape, physically, emotionally, spiritually, Jesus is the Christ, the Savior, who promises us eternal life, here and now, and after we die.

… When things are not so good, when our health, or spiritual or emotional well-being is challenged, Jesus is our friend, our neighbor, our sister or brother. At those times, Jesus is the one who puts his arms around us and tells us he loves us and is here with us.

… When we or someone we love are near death, we are sure we will see Jesus and our loved ones on the other side, whatever the resurrected life looks like. We know this is possible because Jesus’ resurrection proves that God is more powerful than death.

… Jesus is God-with-skin-on, God incarnate. From the moment of his conception to his birth, his life as a rabbi, to his suffering and death and resurrection, every second of his earthly life Jesus is human and divine, all the time, at the same time.

… Jesus is merciful, offering us grace even though we are far from perfect. Jesus does not reject us any more than he rejected the disciples or the Pharisees or Pilate or foreigners. Jesus accepts all people for who they are, no matter who they are.

… Jesus is the one who came to earth to help us understand God’s heart, and how much God loves us and cares about us. The best way to demonstrate that love is for God’s only Son to live and die on the cross and be raised for us.

… In our daily lives, we may assume Jesus loves us. Or, maybe we doubt he could love someone like us. This is also part of who we say Jesus is. It is comforting to know that Jesus hung out with people like the disciples, who were people just like us.

The disciples were not wealthy or powerful. They were “regular” people like us, and that’s why Jesus chose them. He did not invite them to help him fish for people because they were perfect. He invited them to follow him because they were just like us.

Perhaps we are most like Peter. We believe, we doubt, we wonder, we are not perfect, we speak what is on our minds, we are impetuous, and we are not always right. We are judgmental, we ignore God, we don’t take time for prayer and study, we want more stuff than we can afford or have space for. We need Jesus to love us just the way we are.

… Jesus is also the one who challenges us to follow him in giving ourselves, our lives, to demonstrate that love to others.

… Who do you say Jesus is?  Do you answer that question differently on different days?

How do you respond to the love and mercy offered by Jesus?

How do you pass on the love?

How do you commit yourself to serving Jesus by serving others?

Please pray with me: We thank you, O God for Jesus. We thank you for the way he showed us how much you love us. And we thank you for showing us how to love others. Amen

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Crumbs, or the whole loaf?

James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a conversation with a foreign woman that surprises us. We know Jesus loves everyone and included even non-Jewish people in his ministry. This seems so unlike Jesus, but it will help to look at the whole story of Jesus so far.

We are in chapter 7 of Mark, and so far, Jesus has stayed in and around Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing Jews. So far, only once does he venture out of Galilee, and that is to cross the Sea of Galilee to heal Legion, the man possessed by demons. After this healing, he quickly returns to Capernaum to continue his ministry. He has become so well-known he needs some rest. He knows that he can’t get a break at home, so he leaves the Galilee and goes into non-Jewish territory northwest of Galilee, near Tyre and Sidon.

Hoping to remain anonymous, he tries to have the disciples with him protect him: “Tell them I am not available.” Apparently, the people in the region have heard of him but they are respecting his request for some time off. Except for one woman. Her daughter is seriously ill, infected with a demon, and she is desperate for healing for her. She will not go away.

Finally, Jesus says he will talk with her. “Don’t you realize I have been sent to feed the children of Israel first? Later will come your time.” The woman hears a promise – that eventually the good news Jesus brings will come to foreigners. But, she wonders to herself, why not ask for something now. Why do we have to wait?

So she challenges Jesus, “The dogs get the leftovers from the whole loaf of bread. Why can’t I at least have the crumbs?” Jesus is amazed at the faith he hears in her statement. “Go on home. Your daughter is already healed.”

It surely seems that Jesus learned something in this encounter, something he had not considered until this moment. His mission was not just for the Jews, but for all people.

The woman is happy with the crumbs. Think about this. How many people do you know are happy with the crumbs? How many people do you know would rather have the whole slice, or even the whole loaf?

Last week I heard a brief story about someone who would be happy to receive some crumbs. He said something like this: “I grew up poor. We got by, but the hardest thing was the shoes. We could get clothes, but it was really hard to get shoes.”  He would have been happy to receive our cast-off shoes, the crumbs of our efforts at closet-cleaning.

That’s rather how we think about it, isn’t it? What aren’t we using now? What stuff can we get rid of to make room for more stuff? If we can make money on it, we’ll put it in our own yard sale. But if it’s not that valuable, we’ll give it away directly to the poor or to the church yard sale. We sell the slices, and give away the crumbs.

We also treat some people like the whole loaf and other people as the crumbs. James cautions us that all are loved by Jesus and none are his favorites. “If we show partiality, it is a sin,” James says. And he quotes Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

From Tyre, Jesus traveled east toward the region of the Decapolis, which is sort of where the kingdom of Jordan is today. Once more, Jesus is in non-Jewish territory, and once more, Jesus has in interaction with a non-Jewish person.

This time, he doesn’t try to turn the man away. Instead, he takes him away and does the healing in private. We have such surprising details about the healing, and no explanation about why Jesus took these steps – putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting and touching his tongue. The man is healed with the words, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened!”

This time, for this healing of a foreign person, Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He touches a foreign person despite the rule that doing so will make him ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t give him just the crumbs but the whole loaf.

When we participate in the order for healing, we assume Jesus can and will hear us and heal us. But we don’t really believe it. We show up. We pray for healing. We say amen, which means “so be it.” But, deep down, we aren’t sure we will really be healed. We are convinced that we will receive only the crumbs of healing, and not the whole loaf. We are sure we will feel God’s blessing, but not a relief from pain, or a cure of our cancer, or a mending of our arthritic bones.

Hear this. God wants for us to have the whole loaf, not just the crumbs. God wants for us to be healed. God wants for us to have enough of everything we need to live a full life.

The challenge for most of us is that in order for everyone to have enough, we need to give to others more than just the crumbs of our lives, of our closets.

This week, I encourage you to pay attention to how you think about people. Are all people you think about worth a whole loaf, or are some of them just crumbs? When you think about yourself, how much are you worth, just crumbs, or a whole loaf in God’s eyes?

When you think about the things you are donating to the yard sale, are they just crumbs, or at least a whole slice? When you write your check for the offering, are you giving God the leftover crumbs, or enough to make a difference?

Please pray with me. God of healing, we thank you for the gifts you give to us. Help us to see them as the blessings of your whole heart, given to us as whole loaves, as much more than crumbs. Amen 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Pure and undefiled

It seems to be easy these days to call people names, to point fingers, and tell others that they are wrong. I won’t itemize all the places and ways in which finger-pointing happens, but you all know about it.  I admit I have done some finger-pointing myself.

Finger-pointing and telling others that they are wrong is not a new activity. The Bible is full of such stories, especially when the prophets tell the priests and the people they need to shape up. And, naturally, the people and the priests point right back.

When God was speaking with Moses and establishing the relationship between God and people, God said here are a few basic rules for you to live by. The next Chapter outlines them: put God first, worship often, respect each other and be kind to one another. Those rules, the Ten Commandments, that began so simply became lists and lists of details, depending on the circumstances.

The expanded rules were an attempt to be fair to all, and still to keep God front and center. By Jesus’ time, there were 613 commandments, and written and unwritten rules about how to live them out.

The priests and rabbis knew most of them. The Pharisees were the ones who studied the laws and knew them well. It was their belief that by obeying the laws, they would be honoring God. Those who intentionally disobeyed the laws were dishonoring God and caused those present to be similarly guilty.

The laws about handwashing were intended for priests, but had recently been extended to the general population because they were easy enough for most people to do. In this passage from Mark, the Pharisees who are pointing fingers have noticed that some, though not all, of Jesus’ disciples have not washed their hands.

The Pharisees are highlighting anything they can about Jesus to make him seem less appealing. They don’t all wash their hands; they eat grain on the sabbath; they ask for healing on the sabbath. He is an evil-doer and the people should have nothing to do with him.

And Jesus points fingers right back. He comments that the outward actions of people, such as handwashing before meals, is not important. What is important is the motivation that come from the heart.

The Pharisees and the scribes and Jesus all use the word “defile”. It means to make something lose its purity. There are secular uses for the word. When waste is dumped into a river, we say it has been defiled.

Here in the Gospel reading, defilement is used only in a religious sense. Only the pure could enter the temple, so rituals were designed to create and preserve purity. Women during their monthly bleeding were not pure, so they had ritual bathing to purify themselves. Without it, the men would become defiled. Lepers had imperfect skin, so they were defiled, and the defilement was contagious. Those who touched them would also become defiled.

It’s not quite the same today, but we still have a sense of defilement in the church. For some people, writing in a Bible defiles it. For some people, women in the pulpit and behind the altar defile the pulpit and altar. When vandals enter and use spray paint to write hate words, the space feels defiled. … It is not the action itself which defiles but the way our hearts respond to the action.

The Pharisees who were pointing fingers at Jesus and the disciples were looking at the outward actions and not at the heart. They were not looking at the hearts of Jesus and the disciples, nor were they looking at their own hearts.

These days, we seem to have been granted permission to look only at outward actions and not at the hearts of many people. And we have been told it is OK to speak our thoughts, pointing fingers and hurtful words anywhere we want to. We are right, and we want what we want, and the “Other Guy or Gal” who disagrees with us is just wrong. We too easily think of the other person as defiled. But when we do that, we defile ourselves, too, don’t we?

Let’s turn the topic in a slightly different direction for a moment. When we really stop and think about ourselves, we tend to think of ourselves as defiled. We know what goes on in our hearts, and it is not always pure. God does not always come first in our lives. We don’t always worship with our whole hearts. We don’t always respect other people, and we are not always kind. We don’t always think of other persons as God’s beloved. Indeed, we view some people as truly defiled, even though we know we shouldn’t.

It is a relief to remember that Jesus doesn’t see anyone as defiled. Sinful, in need of forgiveness, surely. But through Jesus’ eyes, we are all pure and undefiled. You are pure and undefiled. And even those whom we prefer to think of as defiled and unworthy of God’s love, in Jesus’ eyes, they, too, are pure and undefiled.

We all have automatic responses to certain people; if we pay attention, we recognize our responses as unfair prejudices and don’t want them, but they happen. We respond with thoughts of defilement to some politicians, some family members, addicts, beggars, undocumented immigrants, criminals, those of other faiths, and so forth. Our minds tell us someone or some group is defiled.  

Yet, I challenge you, when you are tempted to think of someone as defiled, to remember that God’s love is unconditional. Try to disconnect their actions from their true selves as one of God’s beloved children. Try to imagine what is in their hearts, and grant them some grace. And try to remember that you, too, are pure, undefiled, forgiven, and loved unconditionally.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hard to believe

Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; John 6:56-69

Last week, my husband Mike and I were in North Carolina at a retreat for pastors and church leaders. We had meals with different people at almost every meal. Mike volunteers at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. He loves to take photos of the animals and show them to everyone. He also tells the stories about the animals.

One of the things he is working on is learning the titles for the groups of animals. He was sharing these titles with our lunch companions one day. For example, what do you call a group of crows? (a murder) What do you call a group of flamingos? (a flamboyance) The people with us laughed at how appropriate such names were. Then Mike asked, What do you call a group of roseate spoonbills? When Mike said, a bowl, the folks found it hard to believe.

In our Bible texts today, one of the themes is how hard it can be to believe in a God whom we cannot see, in a God who takes on human flesh only to die like a criminal, offering up his own body and blood for those who believe.  

At this point in the story from Joshua, the invasion and conquest of the land has been completed. Now it is time to reflect on how they will settle in and become a people. One of the big questions is, whom they will worship.

It was common in ancient times for each kingdom and even each town to have their own gods, who had different responsibilities, such as fertility or war or healing. These deities were represented by statues, some large and housed in temples, and some small and portable, within each home.

But the Israelite god was invisible and yet responsible for everything. This was a challenging difference, and made the Israelites stand out from other peoples. It was hard to believe in such a god, unless one had direct experience of the blessings offered by this god.

At this point, Joshua reminds the gathered people what the invisible God has done for them. He invites them to make a choice. Do you want to worship a god of stone or an invisible yet powerful God?

Joshua then says the words that many of us have now memorized. “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” This day, the people agree and promise to serve the Lord, though it will not always be so in the future.

About 1,500 years later, Jesus has been preaching and teaching and healing people. For several weeks, we have been reading and talking about the way Jesus fed thousands of people with a small amount of food. He has been explaining to the disciples and the crowd what this sign means. Now, he is in the synagogue back home in Capernaum.

“I am the bread of life, sent by God. Those who eat me, who eat the bread, will know eternal life.” This is hard to understand, hard to believe. Of course, this won’t be fully understood until the resurrection, and many of those who had been following Jesus turn away. Jesus asks the closest disciples, “will you also leave me?”

Peter, blessed Peter who speaks first and thinks later, says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? [Only] you have the words of eternal life.” You should have caught the word I inserted – only – Jesus has the words of eternal life. No other gods offer the same benefit.

These days, many people find it hard to express their belief in Jesus. Sometimes, it is people like us Lutherans, who are simply shy about talking about our faith.

Sometimes, it is because something happened in a church to make us angry at organized religion. We still believe, but we don’t want to join with others to express our faith.

Sometimes, it is because God didn’t do something we wanted done, like healing a loved one, or stopping a fire, or preventing a disaster. We used to believe, but are angry and can’t bring ourselves to believe now.

And sometimes, it is because no one has told us about a loving, caring, powerful Jesus. It is hard to believe in what we have never experienced.

Y’all are here this morning because you have chosen to persist in believing in something that is hard to believe. We believe that Jesus is God-with-skin-on. We believe that we experience his presence through the Holy Spirit and through the bread and wine we consume each week at the altar.

We believe that when we pray, God hears us and laughs and weeps with us. When we pray persistently sometimes God does what we were praying for. Just as easily, God changes what we are praying for into something God can use to help us grow in faith despite not giving us the answer we were hoping for.

This week, I invite you to reflect on those times when it has been hard to believe in Jesus. What happened to help you continue to believe? Or, if you have never doubted, what has kept you faithful?

I give thanks for all the faithful people I have known and served with throughout my life. And for all the faithful people in your lives as well.

Please pray with me. Lord, we turn to you for comfort, for wisdom, for courage. Lead us to believe even more firmly in you as we seek your words of eternal life. Amen

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Bread of Life, Eternal Relationships

1 Kings 19:4-8; John 6: 35, 41-51

Who remembers the 1980s TV show Cheers? It takes place in a Boston bar, with Ted Danson as bar owner Sam Malone. Diane and Carla are waitresses, and regular customers are Cliff and Norm.

As the show begins, there is always a little sketch with one of the lead characters, then a pause. The bar door opens and a chubby guy walks in and says, “Hi, everybody.” And everyone in the bar yells, “Norm!”  

The show is about characters who tease, support, cry, and love each other so well that the show ran for 8 seasons. The show worked because the staff and the regular customers were a family. They had a relationship with each other. So much in life is about relationships.

… For 5 weeks, the last week of July and all of August, the gospel readings are from John 6, the feeding of 5,000 people with bread and fish, and lengthy reflections on what the bread means. The Old Testament readings each week tell stories about other miraculous feedings. It is clear in each of these feeding stories that the source of the food is God, and that it is important to have a close relationship with God.

In today’s Old Testament story, Elijah has just fled from Queen Jezebel, who has sworn to kill him because Elijah defeated her priests in a fire-making contest. Elijah is tired, depressed, and ready to die. So he curls up under a tree and prepares himself for death.

But, an angel sent by God intervenes. The angel wakes Elijah and orders him to eat. The angel allows Elijah to sleep a while to recover his strength, and then the angel wakes Elijah again. Eat, the angel says, so you will have strength for the journey ahead. This time, the food lasts 40 days and nights, until Elijah reaches Mount Horeb, where he will have an encounter, a conversation, with God.

This story shows that there is a strong relationship between Elijah and God. Elijah has trusted God in the past, but he is so depressed he is finding it hard to trust God right now. God shows Elijah through the angel and the encounter on the mountain that God knows what Elijah is going through. Their trusting relationship is restored as God gives Elijah a new assignment.

… Jesus is talking about relationships in his lengthy commentary on bread. In today’s reading, he uses the phrase “I AM” for himself for the first time. “I AM” is the name God used when Moses asked what name he should use for God when he goes to the people. God replied, “I AM that I AM” or “I AM what I AM.” This name shows up in English Bibles as Y-H-W-H (YHWH) or Yahweh.

Jesus is saying that he is God, that he is the Bread of Life, which is provided only by God. Though the bread the crowd ate the other day was real bread, the bread that Jesus offers is life, life in relationship with God, through Jesus.

Having a relationship with God through Jesus gives us eternal life. Many people believe that eternal life happens after we die. Then we live eternally with God, wherever God is. People who believe this spend their lives trying to earn enough goodie points with God to make it to heaven. They constantly wonder if their sins are too big to be forgiven. They constantly worry about being good enough for God to love them. They focus on winning heaven as a prize instead of having a relationship with God.

But these bread of life passages make it clear that eternal life is not about getting into heaven. Tasting the goodness of the bread of life doesn’t have to wait until we die. The bread of life is available to us right now, today. All we have to do is accept Jesus’ invitation to have a relationship with him. Taste and see the goodness of God by enjoying the bread of life today.

So, how do we enjoy the bread of life? We show up! We show up at worship. We show up at service projects. We show up with our money. We show up at prayer during the week. We show up when the community gathers for fun. We show up to help each other.

We enjoy the bread of life when we show up to the altar and enjoy a taste of the bread each week in Holy Communion. This, by the way, is why I love to use real bread for communion instead of wafers. I want us all to have a sizable chunk of Jesus to chew on.

Mostly, we enjoy the bread of life by taking time to be with God and God’s people. Norm showed up at Cheers bar and people greeted him by shouting his name. That is in a way what I see happening before worship, the way each person is welcomed with a hug on Sunday mornings.

I encourage you to try this at home: Each day when you pray, imagine hearing Jesus saying your own name with joy as you call on God in prayer or praise. This is one way to enjoy the bread of life each day. God does indeed know your name and is delighted to spend time with you whenever you wish. It is this relationship that is the bread of life.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you are our bread of life. Lead us to taste your goodness often. Amen

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6: 24-35

Last week, we read the story of Jesus turning five little loaves of bread and two small fish into enough food for thousands. The hungry folks ate it up. Today, they have gone looking for Jesus because they are hungry again.

But Jesus wants nothing to do with giving them more food. He accuses them of misunderstanding his message. Well, wouldn’t we, too? ‘We’re hungry, you fed us, please do it again, Jesus!’

So, he tries to explain. ‘The manna the ancient Israelites received was not from Moses but from God. This is the true bread from heaven, which gives life to the world.’ The crowd says, ‘We want more of that kind of bread.’

This passage is full of double-entendres, words that have two or more meanings. Bread of heaven, bread of life, signs. This is typical John story-telling. People say one thing, Jesus says something that sounds the same, but means something quite different. Jesus has given the people real bread, and asks them to think of him as the real bread. If they believe in him, they don’t need anything else. I am sure the folks were still confused.

The word ‘sign’ is John’s way of saying miracle with a powerful message added. There are seven signs in John’s Gospel: water into wine; feeding thousands; healing several people; giving sight to the blind man; raising Lazarus from death. Jesus’ signs include a message of abundance, the reminder that God’s love is for all people, and the stunning revelation that God has power over illness, blindness, and even death.

It’s tempting to think that these signs occurred during Jesus’ time only. Certainly, these specific events happened while Jesus walked the earth. But I believe God sends us signs all the time, and we can see them if we are looking for them. They are signs of God’s presence!

I saw signs of God’s presence frequently during my time in Nebraska last week. I attended a retreat for Lutheran Franciscans. We are a motley crew of pastors and lay people, men and women, introverts and extroverts, with a wide variety of gifts and interests. What unites us is our passion for justice for all people, the joy of praying several times a day, and the practice of holding lightly to the things in our lives.

… So, some stories about my week. I traveled on Monday, going through Charlotte to Omaha. When I got to Omaha, I sought out a person I hadn’t yet met, whom I had offered to drive to the retreat center. Once we found each other, we went together to the car rental counter. I had reserved the least expensive subcompact car. The woman at the reservation counter asked about how many people would be in the car. I said, just the two of us for now, but maybe more on the way back. When we went to pick up the car, we saw that I had received a free upgrade to a nice sedan.

… One of my favorite activities of the retreat is peer spiritual direction. In order to be the people God created us to be, we take time for spiritual care, examining our lives by asking the question: ‘what is the state of your soul today?’ In groups of four, we take turns listening to each other, commenting on things we notice, celebrating the joys and encouraging the tough parts of our journey. While we don’t always want to hear what others say, it is always helpful to learn more about ourselves.

… One morning, I sat with Sally, who always had an oxygen concentrator with her. We talked about health challenges. She has an auto-immune disease. I will eventually need a knee replacement, my lungs have some limits, and the sprained ankle and bruised knee from a fall on Sunday were limiting my activities. Sally said, ‘I am glad to discover I am not alone in my limitations.’

… On the way home, the ride from Omaha to Dallas was smooth; so was the ride from Dallas to Tampa. We arrived almost 15 minutes early. But, there was a plane still at our gate, so we had to wait. In the meantime, storms rolled in. Winds from 50-60 miles an hour and skies-opening water were fascinating to experience in an airplane on the tarmac. Water streamed in a river across the pavement in a flood that would knock gate crews off their feet.

We sat there for over an hour and a half until the lightning ended and it was safe for the crew to be outside. In the meantime inside the plane, strangers became friends. Without the noise of the engines, we could hear each other talk. Might as well learn more about each other: my seatmate lived in Carrollwood and worked all over the country with electronic systems. While no long-lasting relationships happened, we were, for a short time, a community.

… These events seem ordinary, people meeting and talking together in a variety of settings. Yet, I believe God was in them. God helps us communicate with each other. God is always prompting us to hear what is happening in each other’s souls. God prompted the conversation about the size of the car which led the agent to surprise us with an upgrade. God helped Sally and me to talk about our health challenges so Sally would realize she is not alone in her suffering. And while the wind and rain are expressions of the world God created, it was the Spirit which helped us shed our tendency to keep to ourselves and become community.

Here, then, are my grateful moments: for the agent who gave me an upgraded rental; for those who listened to me and heard the depth of my soul; for the conversation with Sally and the opportunity to encourage her in her chronic illness; and for the community that made the wait in the airplane less stressful.

Where have you seen the Spirit this week? What signs of God’s presence have you noticed? Signs of God’s presence are always there if we take time to look for them. These signs are pieces of the Bread of Life Jesus promised us. Take and eat and enjoy.