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The Eulogy for Charles ‘Chick’ Deeks

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 6:42 pm on Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Chick Deeks with Karissa

Charles “Chick” Deeks was born on April 21, 1938 in East Orange.  He grew up in Nutley with his mother and father, his brother Arty who was five years younger, and his sister Marilyn who was ten years younger.  It was a happy childhood.  Chick looked up to his father, who he idolized, and after whom he was named.

At an early age Chick began working at at McQuarie’s department store, and good big brother that he was, he would commonly share a dollar from his paycheck with his younger siblings Arty and Marilyn. There were lots of aunts and uncles in the extended family, and Chick was the first born of the cousins, so he got a lot of attention at the frequent family parties that were held.

After graduating high school in 1956, Chick spent a year in college before enlisting in the Merchant Marines where he served his country for four years.  Well over fifty years later Chick would recall the words his father told him as he left home the first time.  “Just remember that every woman you meet is somebody’s daughter.”  Throughout his life, Chick was always a gentleman consistently treating women with the respect they were due.

During his time in the service Chick was stationed in Beaumont, Texas but he took trips all over the world on oil tankers, serving as an engineer in the heat of the engine room.  In South America Chick was charmed by squirrel monkeys and ended up sending one home as an exotic pet for his parents and brother and sister.  Later Chick acquired one for his aunt and uncle and then another later when Chick started his own family.  Amy remembers from as early as she can remember having a squirrel monkey as a part of the family until the monkey died when she was ten years old.

It was in the merchant marines that Chick determined never to have a tattoo.  He recognized that the impressive tattoo on the chiseled body of a 20 year old would end up looking quite a bit less impressive on the sagging body of a sixty year old.  Acquiring a tattoo, he was quick to caution was a lifelong commitment.

After four years seeing the world in the merchant marines, Chick returned home to settle down in Nutley where he began his own rug cleaning business and continued to serve in the Army Reserves.  Not long after his discharge in 1961 Chick married a young woman from Nutley named Dahney.  The wedding took place in the Vincent Methodist Church where Chick would remain active through the years.  Before long Chick and Dahney were raising a family with Eric born in 1964, Amy in 1967 and Matthew in 1970.

In 1980 Chick entered the insurance business, staring Clover Insurance in Totowa.  In the company’s peak years of the 1990s Chick had more than ten employees working for him.

Dahney contributed to the family income by babysitting children in their home.  One of those children was a little Hispanic boy named Hughie who didn’t speak English.  Hughie had been born without thumbs and had undergone surgery as a baby to move his index finger so that it could function like a thumb.

Hughie’s parents faced severe economic and emotional challenges, and sometimes Hughie would sleep over night in Dahney and Chick’s home.  When duel tragedies befell little Hughie –  first his mother took her own life, and then his father either died either by suicide or murder – with the blessing of Hughie’s extended family members Chick and Dahney adopted five year old Hughie as their fourth child.

Around the same time as the adoption a series of doctor visits led to Hughie receiving the diagnosis of an extremely rare blood disorder called “Fanconi Anemia.”  At the time there were only 750 known cases in the world, and Chick and Dahney were told that Hughie would not live beyond the age of five.  But nurtured by the love he received from Chick, Dahney, Eric, Amy and Matthew  Hughie lived well beyond the doctor’s predictions of his life expectancy.

Although he grew to be only 4’ 11” Chick and Dahney encouraged Hughie to live a full life.  He excelled on the soccer field, and was quite the pool shark.   Persevering through endless doctor’s trips and stays in the hospital for surgeries and platelets and blood transfusions, Hughie lived to the age of 19. His death in 1994 broke Chick’s heart, and right up to the end of Chick’s life he would tear up whenever he talked about Hughie.

Deana Larsen was in youth group with Amy at the Vincent United Methodist Church.  She remembers frequent visits to the Deeks home and how it was always bustling with activity and the children’s friends were always welcome.  She distinctly remembers the excitement the whole family shared when Hughie’s adoption came through.  Deana has a memory of Amy holding Hughie in her lap, happily declaring, “He’s my brother now,” clearly undaunted as she proceeded to explain to Deana the medical issues Hughie had faced and the operations he would need in the future.

Deana was struck by how different each of the Deeks’ children were – how Chick and Dahney gave them room to find their own path and explore their own interests, and the pride they took in their children. She remembers being a part of a group of children that Chick took along with his own kids to see the great Pele play his final game of soccer.  Eric was quite the soccer player – the example Hughie followed in his pursuit of soccer.

In spite of all the love that was in the Deeks’ home, the marriage of Chick and Dahney wasn’t sustainable, ending in 1984.  They continued, however to share the parenting responsibilities.

In 1988 Chick’s first granddaughter was born — Amy’s daughter Jehna – who proceeded to hold a central place Chick’s universe.  Later other grandchildren would come along to join Jehna in that place in Chick’s heart:  Eric and Janna’s children Heather, Daniel and Logan and Matt and Marcie’s children Hughie and Billy, as well as Amy and Brian’s second and third daughters, Jessica and Karissa.

And there were also five great grandchildren who climbed into Chick’s heart when they were born:  Charlie, McKenzie, Lindsey, Elsa and Liza.

In 1998 Chick moved to Parsippany to take over his brother Arty’s home when Arty moved to Randolph. With the pool out back the home was the setting for many a family party.  Nothing pleased Chick quite as much as seeing the children enjoying the pool.

For years Chick stayed involved in Vincent United Methodist Church back in Nutley.  For years Chick would go to the church’s building on the first Monday of each month Chick to take a turn checking over the facility.  It was an act of service on behalf of his church, but also a time of spiritual grounding as well.

In 2012, recognizing that it simply wasn’t practical to make the trip back to Nutley each Sunday, and wanting to introduce his granddaughter Karissa to the blessings of being a part of a church family, Chick began attending our church. We quickly fell in love with this warm-hearted man with the big smile who looked a little like Santa Claus.  He seemed to quickly know he had found the right place to call his spiritual home beginning with the discovery in his first visit that there were three people who already knew him with fondness:  Deana Larsen, and Bill and Amy Gripp — all graduates of the Vincent United Methodist Church youth group.

In recent years Amy, Brian and Karissa lived with Chick.  He was particularly close to Karissa as will be reflected by some photos I will show you in a little while.  Karissa loved to play practical jokes on her Grandpa, and Chick though he would appropriately grumble in response, the truth was he loved being the recipient of those jokes.  The most famous was the time five years ago when Karissa went in to Chick’s room to wake him up, and ended up writing “I’m 74” on his foreheads and coloring a flower on each cheek.

From 1st grade through 6th grade Chick was the assistant soccer coach on Karissa’s soccer team – Amy’s right hand man — and over those year was greatly beloved by Karissa’s teammates. He enjoyed making up little songs for kids and was always quick to share a laugh.  When one of the girls asked Chick about a small protruding growth on his forehead, Chick was quick with his response: “that’s my horn – I’m actually a unicorn.”  This was never forgotten and from then on Chick was always known among the girls as a unicorn.  There is a actually picture taken just last summer shortly after being released from the hospital in which Chick is wearing a unicorn costume belonging to Karissa.  If something brought a smile to somebody’s face, Chick didn’t mind looking a little silly.

In the last two years Chick went through tough times physically with extended stays in the hospital and in nursing facilities.  He was always determined to get better, always positive.  He seemed to have an extraordinary tolerance for pain.  He was always a favorite of the nursing staff; through all their poking and probing he never complained.

Every time I would visit Chick, the thing that struck me was the deep sense of gratitude he would express for all the love he had known in his life. He had a profound sense of joy.  His consistent gratitude was particularly remarkable given that he didn’t live an especially easy life, and there were some times in his life that were truly tough.  He never really retired – he kept working right up to the point in which he simply could physically do it anymore.

Chick was remarkably generous, kind and compassionate. He was free from prejudice and welcoming of all. He nurtured and sustained friendships with people over long periods of time, and never held on to grudges.  “Let bygones be bygones he would say.”

When he breathed his last breath he was greeted on the far side by his parents Charles and Isabella, his brother Artie, and his son Hughie and countless friends from over the years who had made that trip before him.

Matthew 5:1-12 The Beatitudes: The Blessing of Getting Real

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 10:41 pm on Monday, January 30, 2017

A sermon preached on January 29th, 2017 based upon Mathew 5:1 – 12.

Greg maidie and ryan

At the start of the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus begins his ministry, he goes out into the wilderness for a forty day period of self-examination.  He must embrace the fact that although he has heard God declare him to be God’s son, he is nonetheless a human being with a physical body that gets hungry and exhausted and with an ego that is prone to lust after the intoxications of power and the adulation that comes with it – susceptible to the temptation to try and control others in a manner that does not respect their free wills. He must peer into the darkness that is a part of the human condition in which he shares, and having done so, he comes forth from the wilderness to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and that it is time for  people to respond accordingly.

Mark and Luke call it the Kingdom of “God”, but Matthew self-identifying as a Jew is reluctant to speak the name of God directly lest we might imagine ourselves capable of containing the great mystery in a word, so he calls it the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are reminded that this in-breaking kingdom is both a spiritual and a physical reality.  It exists fully formed in heaven where God’s will is fully done, and God’s will is always love.  But God desires that the kingdom should come here on earth as it exists already in heaven, but as we know there is a great deal in this world that resists God’s will and the way of love.

But here in the person of Jesus the kingdom can be glimpsed as he teaches and heals, and a great crowd of people are drawn to Jesus – mostly poor peasants who are fully aware of their need.

So here at the start of the fifth chapter Matthew tells us that, seeing the great crowd Jesus goes up to the mountain – portraying Jesus as the “new Moses”, who will reveal the new law of God to those who are serious about becoming his disciples and following in his way.  Up on the mountain Jesus gives what has come to be called the “sermon on the mount” which will extend to the end of the 7th chapter.  If we are to be the church and join with Jesus in offering glimpses into the kingdom of heaven, here is what we must do, says Jesus, and much of what he proceeds to teach is extremely difficult to carry out.  He says that we, too must examine our hearts for the hate and lust within, own it, and turn from it to choose instead the way of love.  We must love and pray for our enemies, and refrain from passing judgment.  He says that either we will love money or we will love God and that there is no middle ground.  He says we must refrain from hypocrisy and the temptation to project a false image of our goodness in order to win the praise of others.  He says we must place our lives totally in God’s hands, trusting God in all things.

Hard commands indeed, and we know we will fail in our attempts to carry them out, but this is what we must strive for if we are to be Jesus’ followers.

But what is striking to me this morning is that before he gets to the high demands that make up the rest of the sermon on the mount, here at the start of the sermon Jesus gives us not a list of “shoulds,” but rather a strong declaration of blessing and grace.  We tend to misunderstand what have come to be called the “beatitudes” – to see them as the conditions required in order for us to qualify for the blessings.  But they are not conditions at all.

In the beatitudes Jesus is getting real about what it means to be a human being – he is inviting us to join him in embracing the human condition.  Carl Jung said, “Wisdom begins by accepting what is; otherwise, we get nowhere.”  The blessing that is wisdom begins by getting real about what life is really like.

There is a need for such a call because there is a great conspiracy abroad in the world to deny our humanity.  The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is not just a funny children’s story.  The world conspires to persuade us to not own up to our innate frailty.

Let’s look at the beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge that we can’t fulfill ourselves on our own, that we need help – God’s help and the help of others. Our perpetual temptation is to strive to go it alone — to achieve the wealth of spirit that we image is complete self-reliance which, of course is an illusion like the Emperor’s new clothes. To be poor in spirit is to embrace our basic frailty and our fear and the fact that one day we will die. The mystery Jesus is describing is that when we give up our misguided and destructive attempts to deny this reality we discover to our surprise the grace of God – we discover life is nonetheless a great blessing we are called to share with one another.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will comforted.”  Some of us here are in the midst of grief, and we may wonder how such pain could possibly be considered blessed.  But the fact of the matter is that to be human is to grieve, that to live is to be in an ongoing process of losing people we love as well as various hopes and dreams; it has happened for all of us in some manner in the past, and even if we are not acutely aware of much grief at the present, our losses live buried within us and we will indeed grieve in the future.

There is a way to try and avoid the pain of grief – a way greatly encouraged by the world – and that is to harden our hearts.  It is to be very stingy with our love.  But love is why we are here, and it is the place where the joy lives, and to close our hearts to love in order to avoid grief is to cease to live in any sense that truly matters.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  For the most part we have misunderstood what Jesus means be being “meek.”  We think it means allowing ourselves to be doormats.  That’s not it.

I like how Eugene interprets this verse:  “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less.  That’s the moment you find yourselves the proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

To embrace the reality of what is within us, both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weakness, the light and the darkness, is to get off the world’s perpetual roller coaster in which one moment we feel good about ourselves because we seem to be better than others, and the next moment we feel like crap because some failure makes us feel less than others. This refusal to embrace the fullness of who we are leaves us needy for credit and praise and offended when we are criticized or don’t get the praise we think is our due.  To be meek is give up the great competition that is the way of the world, and in doing so we discover the capacity to be gentle – with others and with ourselves – regarding our flaws, our mistakes, our failures.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  The only way to truly be merciful is to recognize oneself as someone who has needed to receive mercy, and in truth, all of us have had and will have such a need.   Those who imagine themselves without sin are those with the incapacity to offer mercy and the compulsive need to pass judgment on others.

When we get real bout what it means to be human then the other qualities described in the beatitudes arise naturally.  We long (hunger and thirst) to do what is right.  We see life and its meaning clearly, which is what purity of heart is about.  We desire to leave behind the compulsive competition and to strive instead for cooperation, which means we become peacemakers.

But it is also true in doing so we will go against the grain of the world and there will be a push back – there will be persecution.  But it is only in embracing the human condition – the reality of our lives – that we discover grace and the blessing that is our lives.  A glimpse of the kingdom of heaven is received.

There are these stories I keep coming back to – this one I put at the end of the last confirmation play.  A man has a dream in which an angel takes him to see hell.  At first glimpse what he sees is surprising, because it involves a beautiful banquet table with delicious smelling foods abundantly present waiting to be consumed.  People sit around the table, but on closer inspection the man realizes that they are wasting away in the presence of the waiting feast.  Soon he recognizes the problem: each of the people sitting at the table is afflicted by a strange paralysis of their arms so that they can’t bend their elbows.  They are unable to bring the food that is before them to their mouths.

Then the man is taken by the angel to see heaven.  He is surprised, because at first glimpse heaven looks very much like hell.  There is the same beautiful banquet table generously adorned with delicious smelling foods.  Here in heaven people also sit around the table, and here, too they cannot bend their elbows to feed themselves.

But there is one simple difference in heaven that makes all the difference.  In heaven, people have learned to feed one another.  And so the sumptuous feast is enjoyed, TOGETHER.

The strange paralysis represents the human condition.  The choice to love – to feed one another in their common affliction – is the difference that turns a curse into a blessing.

One of the things that happens in a community of grace is that broken people discover that they are more than their failures, more than their shortcomings.  Nor are they stuck in the story they have told themselves of being victims to their misfortunes.  They have gifts to offer.  They have opportunity to be a part of the blessing.

As many of you know this past week I made an effort to get our church advertised on social media.  Connie suggested this at Ad Council last week, and I decided to try and make it happen, and we’ve had some success as many of you have written reviews on Google and Yelp and Facebook testifying to what you have experienced here. There were two reasons I did this.  One is rather shallow. I want to be a success – a winner in the church advertising competition. I want to have the feather in my cap of being the pastor of a growing church.  I say this to you because it is important to tell the truth in church, and I want to try and model that for you. Our motivations are mixed with light and darkness, and to pretend that there is no darkness within wouldn’t be helpful when it comes to trying to embrace the truth to ourselves and to one another about what it means to be a human being.

But there is a deeper reason I worked to advertise our church and that I really do think that our congregation is a blessed community – that to a great extent than you find in most churches we create a safe space together where we can be real and acknowledge the truth of our lives.

There’s another story I keep coming back to and that is the one my wife tells about how 25 years ago when her first marriage was falling apart and her husband had left her with her little daughter, she went to church for the first time in a long time.   Her husband hadn’t been into church and she hadn’t wanted to go alone, but having been raised in church in this time of great need she wanted to go to church in search of some hope for her life.

She sat alone in the congregation, and in the course of the service she began to weep.  And not a solitary soul acknowledged her tears.  No one came to her to offer a kind word or a gentle embrace.  She was left feeling like a leper.

This is a church where it’s okay to cry.  You cry here and you have people who will seek to comfort you – people who remember their times when they had tears to shed and a need for the comfort of another’s gentle presence.  This is a place where you can be real.

There are plenty of people in our community who would be greatly blessed by the glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that is found here.

It occurred to me while I was going about trying to advertise the church that there is a spiritual community that holds services in our church four times a week.  They don’t advertise, and yet they fill our parking lot with our cars.  They don’t have a budget or a paid staff.  Their services, held in our fellowship hall are very simple.  It consists of people taking turns standing up and saying, “I’m so and so.  I’m an alcoholic.”  And everybody responds, “Hi, so and so.”  Then they tell their stories as truthfully as they can.  Where they went wrong, and how, day by day they are trying to go right.  They find strength and understanding and the courage to keep on trying.  They end by standing in a circle and saying together the Lord’s prayer (which happens to come smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.)

They come because they have all reached the point in their lives where they recognized their poverty of spirit, how in attempting to make it on their own they had made a mess of their lives through their misguided attempts with alcohol to try and escape the reality of what it means to be a human being.  They came knowing they need God, or if they weren’t ready yet to acknowledge “God”, their “higher power,” and clearly the support of other people who know their struggle.

Since it is an easy thing to find out where AA meetings are held, there is no need for special advertising or recruitment.  People just come.  And as they get stronger, they begin to reach out to strengthen others, to feed their brothers and sisters because they know that in doing so the hole in their souls will be filled as well.

It occurs to me that what we are doing here is essentially the same. Hopefully we aren’t afflicted with alcoholism, but something has brought us to our knees, and we too have our tried and true ways of attempting to flee the human condition, and all these attempts are various forms of what is known as “sin.”

So maybe we should do the same.  “Hi.  I’m Jeff.  I’m a sinner.”  And in response, you say, “Hi, Jeff.”  And together we glimpse the kingdom of heaven.

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016 “That’s What Christmas Is All About”

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff, Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:38 am on Sunday, December 25, 2016

Jeff at Christmas Eve 2016

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve, 2016 based upon Luke 2:1-20.

So the baby is born in a barn after a long hard journey by Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey no pregnant woman should have to make, yet a journey made because it has been compelled by the distant dictator who ruled the known world, Caesar Augustus, that he might fill his treasury with taxes from the further lengths of his empire.

Caesar Augustus declared himself to be the son of God, but the true son of God was born not in a Roman palace, but in a barn, because there is no room for him in the inn, born in the midst of stench and filth.

Part of what is so powerful about the Christmas story is that it pulls no punches in describing the darkness of this world – the darkness into which the bearer of the true light was born.  Life in this world, the story acknowledges, can be very, very hard.

The story continues from where Bob left off, and I am willing to bet that everyone here this night has heard before the telling of what follows in Luke’s story that I am about to play for you.  In playful cartoon fashion, it portrays something of the same darkness – a kind of darkness we have all at one time or other known. And that is the darkness of self-contempt that Charlie Brown knew.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CojUP5nRidA

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  

In the end Christmas isn’t something we do, because we like poor Charlie Brown can’t fix ourselves.  It is something God chooses to do for each one of us, out of great love — the gift of a savior who enters our darkness, born to a homeless family, for whom there was no room in the inn, his birth announced first of all to poor shepherds, for whom there was no room in the towns and villages.  The savior comes to those left out of the circles of this world, declaring that there is room for every single human being in the great circle of God’s love.

Like the clip that I just showed you, there’s a movie that I would be willing to bet pretty much every one of you has seen, that for me expresses something of what Christmas is all about.  It was made in 1946 and wasn’t such a great hit when it came out. You probably have guessed what movie I’m talking about:  “It’s a Wonderful Life”.   It tells the story of George Bailey, who grows up in the little town of Bedford Falls, with big dreams of leaving the town to win fame and fortune.   In the course of his life, however, George is presented with choices to make which, if, he is going to do the right thing — the decent thing – will mean sacrificing those cherished dreams.

The movie even has it’s own version of Caesar Augustus, or more exactly, evil King Herod from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth, the sinister Mr. Potter who connives to crush the little ones that God cherishes.

George has tried to do the right thing for the sake of the little ones of this world, but at the climax of the movie Mr. Potter seems to have successfully conspired to destroy poor George.

The movie was somewhat shocking when it was first released, because in certain scenes the movie expressed a depth of despair that wasn’t considered appropriate at the time for movies meant for entertainment. The deepest darkness in the movie occurs late afternoon on Christmas Eve.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQmOz0RO3qU&t=6s

Like Charlie Brown before, I suspect most of us past a certain age have felt at times some degree of identification with George in this scene — this mixture of anger and deep sadness, the temptation to despair, that leads him to go to the bridge with plans to take his life.

You know what happens.  In order to keep George from carrying through his plan, a junior angel named Clarence appeals to George’s better nature by jumping into the river before George has the chance to, compelling George to save him.  In what follows, George declares to Clarence that it would have been better if he had never been born.  So Clarence shows George what BedfordFalls would have looked like if he hadn’t ever lived, and as you know, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

Afraid his wish to have never lived has been permanently granted, George ends up standing alone at that bridge crying out, “I want to live!”  And he is given back his old life, but now his old life seems truly wonderful, leading to this familiar clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBa2Mm-nP50

His heart is bursting with love — love enough it would seem to love his enemies, to wish Mr. Potter a merry Christmas.

He has his old life back, problems and all, but he feels like a newborn baby, for he sees his life with new eyes, with a new heart.   He sees the wonder of all the love.  His heart is bursting with all the love.

So the Christmas story as told by Luke reads a little like “It’s a wonderful Life.”  The shepherds lived hard lives.  They lived out in the fields with their sheep, scratching out an existence, exposed to the elements, unwelcome in town.   They are given an amazing vision of angels dancing and weaving in the sky, declaring to them that they need not be afraid, that the future is in God’s hands, and all will be well.   They hear good news of great joy to all people.  And joy is different from mere happiness.  It comes from a far deeper place.

The vision of the angels was extraordinary, but it wasn’t really the centerpiece of the story.  The heart of the story came later, when those shepherds made their way to Bethlehem and found the little, newborn baby, lying in a manger – a baby in appearance I suspect not so very different from any other baby, but having seen that baby, they could never look at their old lives – let alone any child or grown up – the same again.   They were awoken to a great love that under-girded their lives to a depth they had never imagined possible.

When I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and when I contemplate the Christmas story – I experience a healing of my heart, moving me to tears of joy, cleansing my vision.  I already have what I most need: People to love, and people who love me. It shifts my attention away from a sense of frustration and longing for the things I don’t have that I am tempted to believe I must have if I am going to live a full life. And I experience instead a sense of abundance, that if God could be born in a broken down old stable in Bethlehem, God can be born in my life as well, with all its imperfections.

May it be so for you this night.

The Backstory of Santa Claus

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 11:03 pm on Friday, December 18, 2015

It has always seemed curious to me that people have not wondered more about the backstory of Santa.  Why? would Santa do what he does would seem to be the natural question to ask.  To that end, I intend to give the quite compelling backstory of the man known as jolly Saint Nick.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: before Santa was known as “Santa” he went by the name of Arnold Wolfheimer.   Arnold was born into a poor family on the south side of Chicago. This is a picture of Arnold as a boy — that’s Arnold on the right — his little brother Sammy is on the left.   

Picture1

It was the time of the Great Depression, which meant that a whole lot of people were really poor, having to struggle just to put food on the supper table.   This is a picture of Arnold’s grandfather — a dear sweet man that Arnold loved dearly — selling apples on the street to help support the family.

Picture2The family didn’t live in Chicago for very long because Arnold’s father lost his job and there simply wasn’t any work to be found there, so they had go where he had some hope of finding work.  They didn’t have a car, so they would either have to hitch a ride or take a bus.  This is a picture of the family waiting for bus.

Picture3After they left Chicago, Arnold would never see his grandfather again. In the years that followed. Arnold’s family never really stayed in one place long enough to call it “home.”   Home was simply wherever his family was, and that kept changing.  There were nights when there was nothing for supper.  At Christmas time, Arnold and his brother Sammy would consider themselves fortunate if there parents could manage to put a ham on the table.  If they found an orange in their stocking that was a big treat, because generally speaking oranges simply cost too much, since they had to be shipped all the way from Florida.

In Arnold’s memory, however these weren’t unhappy years.  They had each other, and that was the most important thing.

The truly unhappy years came later when Arnold and Sammy were teenagers, and his parents got sick and couldn’t work to support them, so now Arnold had to go looking for work, and usually this took him away from his family.This is a picture of Arnold from those years — it’s also the time when Arnold got used to carrying things around in a big bag.     Picture4

He’d send money back to his family when he could, but it was never enough.  He felt very, very lonesome.

And just when he thought life couldn’t get any worse, Arnold got a letter from his brother Sammy telling him that his parents had both died, and that Sammy himself had gotten caught stealing some food, and so he was in a reformatory — which was kind of like jail for kids.

So Arnold felt just as bad as could be.  He felt like he’d let his family down, which, of course he hadn’t, but that’s how he felt.

At that point Arnold just sort of fell apart.   For a number of years he wandered from city to city, always the stranger.   It was during this period that he first got into the habit of not shaving. But as you can see, going hungry so often he was quite skinny in those days.  He took to drinking to drown his troubles.  He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio his life slipping away. He was ready to just give up.

And then something mysterious happened.  It was Christmas Eve. As Arnold was crossing the street he was hit by a car — not so badly as to break any bones, but he did take a knock to the head that put him in la-la land.   And in la-la land, he had a dream — a vision really.

He found himself back in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born.   He was a child again — a shepherd child along with other shepherds searching for the baby Jesus. They were looking all over — high and low — and finally they found the baby with his mother and father in a dark cave.Picture5

There was a little fire burning — the light flickering softly, illuminating the little baby sleeping so quietly on the manger that took the place of a crib.  Arnold felt so peaceful there, like he had finally come home.   Tears started rolling down his cheeks — happy tears.  He looked up at the shepherd woman sitting next to Mary, and it was his mother!  She looked so healthy and happy.

He looked up at the man sitting beside him, and it was his father!

“Mom, Dad,” he said, “you’re alive!”

“Yes, Arnold, we always have been alive,” his mom said.  “One day you will be with us in heaven.”

“Can I go to heaven to be with you?”

“One day, my little one,” said his father.  “One day.”

“Why can’t I come now?”

“Because God has a special work for you to do on earth,” said his father.

His mother added, “God wants you to help people know joy.”

When Arnold woke up, you might think he would have been disappointed to discover it had been a dream, but some how it didn’t matter.   What he had seen in the dream had seemed so real.   All his sadness and fear was gone.”

Arnold started walking down the street, not sure where he was going, but somehow certain that he was headed in the right direction.  He came upon a Church holding a Christmas Eve service.

Throughout his life, Arnold had kept his distance from churches. Partly this had to do with the fact that he was embarrassed about the way he looked; he was always kind of dirty and didn’t dress the way he figured people did when they went to church.

But the bigger reason why Arnold had stayed away from church was because he had been angry at God.   It seemed like so many things had gone so terribly wrong in his life, starting with his parents dying. Why had God allowed these things to happen?

But now it seemed like all his anger had left him.  So Arnold headed inside. The church was dark, but there were so many candles that broke the darkness with light.  It was lovely.  The congregation was finishing a hymn as he entered — “O little town of Bethlehem.”

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The preacher began to talk about the Christmas story, about how Mary and Joseph were poor and had no real home when Jesus was born; how they had to find shelter in the stable, which was probably just a cave.  How the shepherds didn’t really have real homes either, they just slept out in the fields with their sheep, which was the only thing they owned in this world.

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And how the wisemen were also far away from their home, having set off on a very long journey —  how they didn’t really know where they were going, but that when they finally found the baby they felt like they had truly come home for the first time in their lives.

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The preacher finished up by saying that Christmas meant “Emmanuel;” that God has made his home with us, all of us,  wherever we are.

Well, everything the preacher was saying was hitting home with Arnold — it felt like the preacher was telling the story of Arnold’s own life.  Arnold felt like he had just received the most wonderful gift in the world — the gift of truly feeling at home in this world for the very first time.

He was struck by the fact that the wisemen had given gifts to the baby.  Arnold imagined the gifts all wrapped up with fancy bows, and the little baby Jesus tugging at them with little baby fingers – it made Arnold laugh.

Suddenly this seemed to Arnold like the most wonderful thing a person could possibly do — to give gifts to others, especially to give gifts to children.

He sat there through the rest of the service lost in his own thoughts, softly crying, and again it was happy tears, not sad.

He barely noticed that the service had come to an end, and that most of the people had left.

Arnold realized that there was someone who had come to sit next to him. It was a woman about his own age.  Arnold thought to himself, “she looks just like Mary did in my dream.”  He was sure she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  

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The woman had noticed that Arnold was crying, and she had come to sit beside him, because she didn’t think people should be left alone when they were crying.  She didn’t mind that he was poorly dressed, that his clothes were dirty — that he was a mess.

Her name was Ginger Willington, and there had been many men who had asked her to marry them.  They were handsome, and some of them had a lot of money.  But for a long time Ginger had believed God had a plan for her life, and every time she asked God whether the plan included one of these men, Ginger had felt deep inside her that the answer had been no.

Arnold asked Ginger if she would like to find a place to get a cup of coffee, and a maybe a donut, and she said yes,  so they set out to look for some place that was still open at this late hour on  Christmas Eve.  They found a little diner called “Geri’s grill” and as they sat there sipping their coffee, Ginger listened as Arnold told her his life story —  pretty much the story I’ve been telling you.

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Ginger really zeroed on the thought he had had in church about giving gifts to children.  She said that she thought the idea had come to Arnold straight from God.

Well, Ginger and Arnold fell in love that night, and by the following Christmas they were married. With Ginger cooking for Arnold he began to put on weight — quite a bit of weight in fact. He offered to shave off the beard, but Ginger said she rather liked it, and as the years passed it turned to white.

Over the years, with much prayer they hatched together a big plan that involved giving gifts to children at Christmas time, as many children as possible, and especially to poor children, homeless children.   As you now know from the story I’ve been telling you, Arnold had a special feeling for the homeless, having been homeless himself for so long.  He kept thinking about how when God came to earth, he came as a homeless child, and was greeted by people who were homeless.

Picture8Ginger was fond of quoting the grown up Jesus when he said, “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did it to me.”  So in a way, when they gave gifts to children, they would be giving them to the baby Jesus.   It was a crazy idea, an impossible idea. How would they possibly fund such a thing, Arnold wondered. But Ginger just reminded him what the Angel Gabriel had said to Mary:   “With God, all things are possible.  

It was about this time that Ginger paid a visit to her Uncle Louie who was very sick and about to die.  Louie was very rich, and he hadn’t ever been very kind to the people who worked for him, and now, getting ready to meet God, Uncle Louie shared with Ginger that he was feeling pretty bad about how he had lived his life. He wondered at this late hour if there was any way he might begin to made amends for the way he treated people in his life.

Once again, it was like Ginger was hearing God whisper in her ear. She told her uncle she knew exactly what he could do –which is how Arnold and Ginger ended up with the seed money for their dream.

They found an old warehouse up north in Canada — there was something about the tax laws there that was more conducive to working out their dream.   All they need were some  willing employees who would share their dream with them.

Ginger had helped Arnold get back in touch with his brother Sammy. It turned out Sammy had become a labor organizer back in Chicago. He’d recently organized a strike for some severely underpaid workers, and it hadn’t gone well:  the workers had suddenly found themselves out of work.  And when Arnold and Ginger heard about this, once again it was as if they could hear God whispering in their ear.

Before long all these unemployed workers in Chicago were packing up their families and moving to Canada for jobs that paid three times as much as their old jobs, doing work that they could really get excited about, making toys for the children of the world.

Arnold realized that that his name, Arnold Wolfheimer just didn’t roll off peoples’ tongues easily, and that for marketing purposes, he needed a new name.  Ginger told Arnold about a Saint that lived way back in the third century named St. Nicholas whose story Arnold found himself identifying with on a number of levels.

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Nicholas’ parents also had died when he was just a young man.

Like Arnold, Nicholas had a special feeling for the downtrodden, going so far as to give his inheritance away to help the poor and the sick of his community.  Like Arnold, Nicholas loved Jesus, and like Arnold, he had a white beard.  Ginger started calling Arnold “St. Nick”, and it caught on around the plant, but it still wasn’t quite what Arnold was looking for.

One of the neat things about the workers was their diversity:  they came from all over the world, and enjoyed getting to know each other’s cultures, which was something Arnold and Ginger really valued because, as they said, the baby Jesus welcomed people with really diverse backgrounds,  such as  poor shepherds from Bethlehem and wisemen from far away in Persia, and that got along together just swell.

There was this Mexican worker named Omar who began calling Arnold “Santa Nick,” because “Santa” is the Spanish word for “Saint.” Arnold liked the sound of “Santa”, but he felt like it needed a different last name to go with it.

A contest was held to come up with the best last name for Arnold, and this German guy named Hans came up with “Claus” because he had a favorite uncle named Claus who was great to the kids at Christmas time.  And Arnold liked that, so “Santa Claus” it was, and Santa Claus it has been ever since.

The workers started calling themselves “Santa’s elves”, partly because some of them tended to be on the short side, but mainly because they just had so much fun together, like little magical elves. This is a picture of them playing rugby during their lunch hour.

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Well as you know “Mr. and Mrs. Claus” — as they are now called — have gotten to be pretty old. They’ve loved every minute of their work, but I do have to tell you they have a few concerns now late in life.

The first concern is a small thing and it has to do with all the electronic toys kids are asking for.  They can be fine for short periods of time, but when kids end up preferring to play with these kinds of toys instead of playing with other kids or their families, that’s a problem.  “Play is something that should be shared,” is how they like to put.

A bigger concern, however is that their dream was never that this should end up being all about them, or to be something they alone did.   They always had in mind that what they did would catch on as something lots and lots of people would get involved in.

They’re particularly concerned that there are poor children in this world that, for whatever reason they can’t seem to locate when Christmas comes, and they end up getting nothing at all, and feeling abandoned and unloved.

This just breaks the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

So Santa asks that instead of leaving him cookies and such on Christmas eve, which his doctor tells him he really shouldn’t be eating anyway, that you make a donation to your local food bank to help care for hungry people.

And Mr. and Mrs. Claus also worry that in a lot of peoples’ minds Santa has become bigger than the baby Jesus — that people are forgetting whose birthday this is.   Kneeling Santa 3

The only reason Santa does what he does is because of the love he found with Jesus.  Jesus is the inspiration for everything he does. He was lost, but now he’s found, and he attributes this all to Jesus, whose love is the biggest love of all.

Mark 7:24 – 37 — Open Hearts and Open Minds

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 2:34 pm on Monday, September 7, 2015

A sermon preached on September 6th, 2015 based upon Mark  7:24 – 37.  

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus in desperation seeking help for her very sick child, and Jesus initially rejects her, using a racial slur.  He tells her that she and her kid are dogs in contrast to children of Israel.  This story has troubled the church all the way back to the first century.  We know this to be the case, because Mark recorded the story first, and then who Luke typically incorporated all of Mark’s stories into his Gospel cuts this one out altogether.  Matthew seems obliged to record the story, but he edits it such a way as to soften the harshness with which Jesus comes across.

More recently commentators have tried to get Jesus off the hook by suggesting that he had “a twinkle in his eye” as he spoke to the woman, as if he intended to heal the child all along – he just wanted to call forth the woman’s determined faith.  But this is nonsense – there is no way to read this story without concluding that Jesus has been downright cruel to this woman in her hour of desperate need.

It seems to me that this story is a problem only if we feel the need to hold onto a belief we picked up perhaps way back in Sunday School that Jesus was this embodiment of perfection, floating above the rest of humanity – that he didn’t have to engage the often pain struggle of discovery by trial and error that is a part of being a human being.

But I think this is a mistaken and unhelpful belief.   The truth was that even as Jesus had a unique connection to the divine, he was still fully human, embroiled in the same human condition with which you and I grapple daily.  And understanding this is good news for us, because it means that Jesus shares the same life as we live, and as such, is here to help us.

So in this story Jesus has closed down his heart and mind to the woman.  He does this because this is what we human beings do when we become tired and stressed out, which is how we find Jesus at the outset.  He has been through this stretch of time in his ministry in which thousands of people have come to him with their pain seeking help, and on top of this, he has had to fend off the attacks of the scribes and Pharisees who have called into question the legitimacy of his ministry.

So, exhausted,  he retreats into Gentile territory with the hope that he can be anonymous there.  He enters a house, Mark tells us hoping that no one would know he was there.  He is looking to be left alone for a time that his soul might be restored.

And then this woman shows up.

We really know just two things about this woman.  We know she was a Gentile which means she was a member of a race with a longstanding animosity with Jews.  Gentiles were considered unclean by Jews, and direct contact was to be avoided.  Jesus and his disciples were all Jews.

The second thing we know is that she was a mother.  We don’t know whether by the standards of the day she was a “good” mother or a “bad” mother.  She was simply a mother, a parent.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent.   Parenting always involved a mixture of what I would call the sublime and the profane.  By profane I am referring the way it involves repetitious, mundane tasks that over time inevitably wear us down.  The adorable baby grows into a child who at times displays distinctively brat tendencies.  They seem to demand everything from us and give little in return.  We devote ourselves to our kids, and oftentimes they don’t even give us the respect we deserve.  They don’t appreciate all we do for them.  All of this has the effect of tempting us to close down our hearts and minds.

I suspect that every parent among us feels some gratitude this week that their kids are headed back to school, because being around them all these extra summer hours, we surely witness a lot of the bratdom, am I right? When they get older, hitting the teen years, and the cuteness factor seems to fade to altogether away, well,  it can feel at times like being a parent amounts to being little more than being an unappreciated, unpaid chauffeur, and one that our kids are embarrassed to be seen with in public.  And a part of us starts counting the days until the brats go off to college, or move out on their own.

This is what I mean by the profane part of parenting.

But there is also a sublime part, and one of the places this is revealed when something frightening happens that threatens our child.    Our child gets sick, or in danger, and our heart breaks open and suddenly the child is no longer the little brat, no, he or she is our heart walking around on legs, the preciousness for whom we will go to the very ends of the earth if necessary.  Suddenly nothing matters but the astounding, powerful love that arises up within us, that river of love that was always there inside us, but which gets buried under all the profanity of parenting.

And this is the place where the woman in our story is when she comes to Jesus.  Her daughter’s very life is threatened by evil powers she is helpless on her own to overcome, and so she throws herself at his feet to beg him to heal her.

It is interesting to note that we only hear about two women in the Gospels who approach Jesus in order to receive a healing.  The other one came not on behalf of a child but for herself — she had been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years.  We don’t get the feeling in that story that the woman felt particular worthy as she approached Jesus.    The rules of the day said that women like her don’t belong out in public among men, so she tries to avoid public humiliation by being inconspicuous in her approach to Jesus.   Hidden in a crowd, she hopes to receive a healing by quietly touching the hem of his garment.

I suspect there would have been the same desire for anonymity for the woman in our story if the healing she sought had been for herself.  But it wasn’t – she comes for her daughter who is in deep trouble.  And where she might have felt unworthy herself, there is no question in her mind at this moment of her daughter’s worthiness.  As she comes to Jesus she can expect humiliation, but she doesn’t care, because her ego has left the building, so to speak, to make room for the pure river of love for her child that flows through her.

She throws herself at the feet of Jesus and begs on behalf of her daughter, and sure enough, Jesus treats her in a manner that would typically bring humiliation, rejecting her and insulting her, but with no ego to bruise or pride to lose she is incapable of humiliation.  She will not be deterred.

(There is a similar state of mind describe in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son when the father comes running out to greet his wayward son who is headed home.  By the standards of the day, a father would have been absolutely humiliated to be seen running out to greet a son who had disrespected him so, but like the mother in our story, this father has lost his capacity for humiliation, because of all-consuming love that runs through him for his broken son come home.)

So this absolutely determined mother takes the insult Jesus hurls at her and turns it around.  “My daughter and I may well be “dogs” as you say, but whereas your people may view dogs as unwelcome scavengers, in our tradition dogs are members of the family, welcome to sit beneath the table, where they trust the children will share with them their scraps.

If you are a parent you know something of what that mother is feeling at this moment.  And if not a parent, perhaps you’ve experienced something similar for a friend, a sibling or a parent in trouble.   The love experienced at such moments is as close as we will ever be to experiencing the love God has for each one of us — a love willing to suffer death on a cross for each and every one of us.

There is a kind of faith that goes along with this pure love, and it is the conviction that behind the seeming indifference of this world, deep down there is a grace that can make us whole, and we will persist until that grace is revealed.

The love and faith of this woman awakens the ocean of love inside Jesus that has been blocked when his human heart closed down in fatigue.  His heart is opened up, and he gladly heals the woman’s daughter.

But it’s not only Jesus’ heart that is opened up, but his mind too.  The woman changes the way he understands the world and his mission.  He sees that he was wrong in when he thought, as his tradition had taught him, that his ministry was limited to the “chosen people,” to the Jews.  He sees now that he is a gift to all people.

Our egos tend to be attached to the idea that we are “right,” but Jesus in this story shows he has that same attachment.  He is open to the truth, wherever it is revealed.

So this is why in this story Jesus models something for us that is different from what we see in all the other stories about him, and that is his willingness to change his mind through an encounter with another person. It shows him having, in the end, an open mind.

He realizes he thought he knew what was true, but in this case his thinking was wrong.  Perhaps it was this experience that was part of what he was drawing upon when he said on the cross, “Father, for they know not what they do.” There had been times in his own life – this being one such time — when he had not known the harm he was doing.

Jesus’ changed thinking changes his behavior as well.  No longer does Jesus refuse to minister to Gentiles.  In the story that follows, he is still in Gentile territory, and it was Gentiles who brought to Jesus the deaf and mute man, presumably also a Gentile, and this time there is no hesitation on his part.  He puts his fingers into the man’s ears and says, “Ephatha”, which means, “be opened.”

The United Methodist Church has a slogan we don’t always live out:  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  The openness of both heart and mind that Jesus demonstrates in this story is something that can often be missing these days in Christians.  Christians can live in such a way that we convey the impression that we are utterly unwilling to entertain the thought that the way we are seeing things just might be wrong.  That we alone are the possessors of truth and we refuse to listen to a point of view that challenges our own — refuse to listen to what others might be able to teach us.  We lack the humility and openness Jesus displays here.

And we can do a lot of harm in this world when we close our minds in this way.  But I want to tell you a story about Christians who were willing to be changed.

There is an organization within conservative Christianity known as Exodus International that for 37 years felt themselves called to help gay and lesbian person stop being gay and lesbian.  They promoted something called conversion therapy which claimed to be able to help people change their sexual orientation; to move from same sex attraction to heterosexual attraction. They claimed to have helped thousands of people do exactly that.

But the fact of the matter was that these so-called conversions didn’t hold up. There were thousands of gay and lesbian people who felt obliged to try as hard as they possibly could to act like straight people, when in fact their sexual attraction remained primarily homosexual.  They were forced to live as frauds to the truth they knew deep inside them.  The staff of Exodus International was largely made up of such persons, but in the end, had to admit their ministry had failed – they it was, in fact, altogether misguided.

And so three years ago, the leader of Exodus International, a man named Alan Chambers, made a public an apology.  It is a remarkable statement some of which I would like to quote:

Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives. For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.

As part of the statement, Chambers announced that Exodus International was hereby closing down.  He expressed his intention to begin a new ministry that would focus on reducing fear within churches.

This Gentile woman demanding to receive the crumbs that fell from the Master’s table opened up the heart of Jesus, and changed his mind.  Insofar as most of us here are Gentile by birth, we have a debt of gratitude to this woman, for she called forth the ocean of love with which we are welcomed this morning at the table we will shortly approach, as together we share the grace revealed in the Lord’s Supper.

Doing the Math

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 10:48 pm on Sunday, July 26, 2015

A sermon preached on July 26, 2015 based upon 2Samuel 11:1 – 15; Ephesians 3:14 – 21; and John 6:1 – 21.  

I couldn’t find a thread connecting the three lectionary scripture lessons until I started looking at the numbers that show up in them.

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians has the biggest number:  Infinity.  He prays that they (and we) will be rooted and grounded in love.   Love is what it takes to be rooted and grounded in this world.  We think other things root us:  a career, money, owning a house.  They are all good things to have but we are only rooted by being a part of a great love.

How big is the love that would ground us?  Paul speaks of comprehending the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ.  It’s too big to measure.  It’s infinite.

We hope to be a part of a community of faith that embodies this great love, but the love originates in the kingdom of heaven.  We are loved by God more deeply than we know; but Paul prays that we might have the power to comprehend something of the majesty of this love.

In our Gospel story, Jesus and his disciples are looking out at an approaching mass of humanity — 5000 people.   The underlying question is: What do they need?  Jesus brings up the question of bread; is bread what they need?   Yes, they need bread, but the numbers don’t look good:  Eight months wages won’t buy enough food.  In the end, it always seems to come down to money in this world.

Andrew then calls attention to this little kid who is willing to share the lunch he brought.   But quickly the offering is discounted, because the numbers are so low:  only 5 loaves and 2 fish.  But truth be told, what the boy offers is exactly what is needed.  An offering of sacrificial love to remind everybody of what really matters.

Jesus takes this boy’s offering of love, and a chemical reaction of the holy spirit is ignited, a great feast comes forth to feed all the people.  How it happens, nobody knows for sure… Was it a supernatural multiplication of the loaves and the fish… maybe, or maybe the boy’s sacrificial offering ignites the offering of others — love flows throughout the community as everybody cares for and shares with one another.   Turns out they have more than enough when love is present — 12 baskets left over.

What people need is to be caught up in a great love.  Sharing bread is a very concrete expression of such love.  But having bread alone isn’t enough.

When Jesus was fasting in the wilderness the devil suggested he should use his power to turn stones into bread.  No, said Jesus, we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  There is a soul that needs to be fed with the grace of God.

If their eyes were open what they experienced that day gave all present a glimpse into the meaning of life.  The kingdom of heaven touched down on earth.

The experience  gives them insight to the meaning of life — they’ve just experienced the kingdom of God. They’ve seen that when a community is filled with love for one another rather than competition and strife there is always abundance, everybody gets what they need.  What we want and what we need are often quite different.

But the way of this world has a strong pull, and almost immediately, it seems, most of the people focus on the fact that their bellies were filled.  They think that what they need is to make Jesus king so he can provide for them to have a prosperous middle class lifestyle.

A few years back my daughter spent a semester in Tanzania.  As part of the experience she spent time living with families who by our standards were very poor.   She was struck by how together they were — they shared their possessions and their lives and there seemed to be a good deal more happiness and contentment than is found here in America where we put a premium on our independence and isolate ourselves from one another.  The people she lived with could understand her Ipod.  You are listening to music alone and not sharing it with others?  It made no sense to them.

It is harder to be poor in America than it is in other parts of the world.  We are bombarded by so many messages that we should have a life rich in things.   The cost of living makes it very difficult to intentionally live a simple life.

People from outside our church contact me from time to time asking for help with bread.  I have the pastor’s discretionary fund for such situations, and I give them what I can.  If they don’t belong to a church I always invite them to come be a part of ours.  But you can lead a horse to water…   The thing that strikes me is that their greatest need isn’t so much for thee money they are asking.  What they need is to be a part of a loving community who will be there for them in their times of need.  They are so alone in this world.

When we get to the Old Testament story, we hear about a middle aged King David.  He has everything that the world says should make for happiness and contentment.  He has more money, power, status, comfort and pleasure than anybody else, but he is missing something.  He has six wives, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  The one he must have is the one that is not his — beautiful Bathsheba who sees bathing in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep.  He feels lust and the thrill of conquest; it makes him feel young again.  What he is feeling has nothing to do with love.  He has fallen out of the flow of love.

He ends up committing the original sin of Cain — he has the husband of Bathsheba murdered.  He believes his trespass of the sacred bonds of human life and marriage has gone unseen, but his sin lives like a cancer in his soul.  Fortunately, Nathan comes and confronts him with his sin.  He confesses his sin and repents, paying a heavy price, but this soul is saved from perishing.

I recently watched on Netflix the first few episodes of “Breaking Bad” the phenomenally popular television serial about a middle aged man named Walter White.   What is a brilliant high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal lung cancer.  Often this kind of new brings a certain clarity about what matters in life — that love is a thing.  In a very limited way this occurs for Walter as he becomes obsessed with the traditional masculine expression of love in our culture, that of bread winner.   He realizes he hasn’t made enough money to provide for his family after he is gone, so he uses his knowledge of chemistry to cook crystal meth.  There’s lots of money to be had in drug dealing.  He pulls away emotionally from his family and enters into a very dark, sinister world the drug trade.

By the third episode he has committed his first murder.  It is another drug dealer who may well have killed him, but nonetheless he senses that in taking human life like King David he has transgressed a sacred barrier.

He has a flashback to a time when he was a graduate student in chemistry, and a conversation he had with a young woman he was in love with.   They are trying to figure out all the chemicals and their percentages that make up a human being.   They mention hydrogen and oxygen and carbon and nitrogen and calcium, which makes up 99.9%.    “There seems like there’s something missing,” says Walter trying to figure out the missing .1%  “What about the soul?”asks the young woman.    “No, there’s nothing but chemistry here.”

But yes, there is a soul, and it is failure to acknowledge the soul that has led him down this path which just gets darker and darker.

The soul is that innate capacity that God created us with to love and be loved; to be a part of God’s great infinite flow of love that holds the universe together.  It is possible to lose our way in this world by listening to the world’s belief that money and all it represents is the most important thing, and cut ourselves off from the love that we need most to be a part of.  Love is why we were created.  Love is why we are here.

The dark waters of baptism, and what happened in Charleston

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 4:57 pm on Sunday, June 21, 2015

A sermon preached on June 21, 2015 based upon Mark 4:35 – 41.  It was the occasion of the baptism of Amanda and Christina, and the Sunday following of the massacre at the AME Church in Charleston, SC. 

It takes a village to raise a child.  Tuesday evening I went to the home of Mary and Donna where a portion of the family that will be on the front lines of the raising of Amanda and Christina were gathered.  We talked about the meaning of the baptisms we celebrated this morning.

We talked about the vows that they would make on behalf of Amanda and Christina — how they would “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sins.” Life is a great struggle between good and evil and how it is easy to miss this fact.  The struggle between good and evil goes right down the center of every person’s heart.

What are the “spiritual forces of wickedness?”  It is that power at work in the world in so many ways in this world that would harden our hearts to one another.  First and foremost, it is hatred.

Hatred isn’t just out there somewhere; hatred lurks in the darkness waiting for an opportunity to take hold of our hearts. Hatred can seem benign.  “What does it matter if I hate somebody?  It’s not like I’m going to kill somebody.” Hatred can even feel righteous.

Hatred is never righteous, though many lost souls have been badly mistaken about this.

We talked about the best gift we can give Amanda and Christina is to attend to the health of our own souls; that they may absorb light and not darkness from us.

We talked about the symbolisms of water:  How water represents life, reminding us that life is a precious gift that only God can give. How water is used for baths, and that the water of baptism reminds us of the forgiveness that God offers us that cleanses our souls when they are stained, and how we must live out forgiveness with one another.

And then we talked about the harshest meaning of water, and that is that it represents death — death by drowning.  The ancients realizing how dangerous water is.  They had to send folks out on water to fish in order to bring food home for the families, but often their boats would not return.

So here in this lovely ritual of baptism, so full of life, there is death — there is Jesus’ death.

And although Amanda and Christina and you and I will all one day undergo a physical death, our baptisms proclaim that we are already one with Christ, and we share in his death, and also in his resurrection.  Having been baptized, we have, in a sense, already died.  And so we need not fear death.

We talked about how on a practical level baptism reminds us day by day to raise our fears up to God, because fear gets in the way of love, and when we are raising up these beautiful children, we want to be led by love, not by fear.

But there sure is a lot to fear in this world.

That was Tuesday evening.

Wednesday morning we had our usual Wednesday morning Bible Study down at the church.  We felt pretty safe as we talked about the story Bob read for us, which talks about the fear evoked by the deep, dark waters.  As the sun was setting, Jesus commanded his disciples to get into the boat to cross the sea of Genesseret, to go to the Gentile territory on the far side.  He must have known what he was doing.  There’s a lot of danger to go out on that deep, dark water, especially at night.  The weather would change so quickly out there.

And sure enough, a storm blew up, and the disciples were terrified as the waves were crashing into the boat.  They were afraid they were going to die, and their fear led to anger, as fear will do, and they lashed out at the sleeping Jesus, who was sound asleep on a pillow in the stern of the boat.   “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing!”

Jesus awakened, stood up, and addressed the wind and the waves: “Peace!  Be still!” And suddenly the winds stopped blowing and the sea became very calm.  And then he turned to address the twelve disciples, saying, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

Now that question would seem to be the perplexing piece of this story.  What did Jesus mean?  He seemed to be placing faith and fear as opposites.   Instead of being afraid, why didn’t they trust?

Trust what exactly?

Trust that nothing bad was going to happen to them out there on that boat in the storm at night? But sailors died in such conditions all the time in those days.

Trust that nothing bad would ever happen as long as they were in the company of Jesus?

Well the problem with that is that we know how the story carries out.  Some people full of fear and hatred arrest Jesus, torture him, and nail him to a cross.   So apparently the trust goes to a deeper place.  The trust would seem to mean: whether they live or whether they did, they are in the hands of the Lord.

Trust because when evil comes our way because God has the power to take what the evil does and bring forth good from it.

We talked about fear at our Bible Study Wednesday morning, but we felt pretty safe. After all, we were at church.  What harm could come to us here?

And then that very evening, you know what happened.  Down in an African American AME church in Charleston, South Carolina  a group of Christians — twelve in fact, the same number of disciples who were in that boat with Jesus — gathered to hold their weekly Bible Study.  A young white man came in, asking for the Pastor.  The pastor greeted him, and invited him to stay for the Bible Study.

There was, after all, always room in the circle.

Clearly, the young man was agitated, and must have appeared to be something of a lost soul, and that is what he was.  He was searching for what these folks already had, a strong sense of purpose and belonging.   They knew themselves to be God’s children, followers of Jesus who had a mission of love in this world.  Even though the young man was argumentative through the course of the Bible study, they were real nice to him — even the young man would say so afterwards. They discussed the same passage that Bob preached on last Sunday, about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed planted in good soil that grows up to be a tree large enough to provide shelter to all the different birds of the air.

And then as the Bible Study was coming to an end, the young man took out a gun and began firing. He imagined himself to be claiming his mission in life, that he would be the hero who began a new civil war between whites and blacks.  His heart was full of hate, and he imagined his hatred justified.

But he was just a lost soul, utterly clueless.  He knew not what he did.

Nine of Jesus’ followers would die by the bullets the young man fired.

9-victims-of-charleston-church-massacre

 

 

We might be inclined to ask the same question that those disciples on the boat asked in the midst of the storm:  “Lord, do you not care whether we perish?”

Even a church, it seems, is not a safe place.

But here is the truth that is claimed in the baptisms we celebrated this day.   In death, as in life, they were in the hands of the Lord.   These beautiful souls were ushered directly into God’s blessed kingdom, where a place had been prepared for them, and it is more beautiful there than we can imagine, because there is nothing but love there.  No hatred, no fear, no guilt, just pure love.  Our faith declares we need not feel sorry for those beautiful souls whose lives on earth ended that night. They are safe and secure from all alarm.

The ones we need to pray for are those whose hearts are now broken with grief, who have lost these exceedingly beautiful people they loved so dearly.   We are to pray for the young man who lost his way, and so many others like him in this world, and to pray for these two little children, and all such children in this world, because it will be so easy for them to lose their way in this world — to lose track of what matters.  To forget that love is the thing.  Love alone is why we are her.

This morning I asked those of you who brought these children to the altar the following question:  “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?” And you responded, “I do.”

The Lord we would put our trust into brings good out of evil.

And it is important this day to take some time to witness to the goodness that has come out of the terrible evil that showed its face in Charleston this past week.

On Friday, there was a bail hearing for the young man, and South Carolina allows the victims of crimes to address the one charged with the crime.

And so the family members of the nine people killed addressed the young man.  They sought to put their whole trust in Jesus, just like their beloved had done. And they sought to be obedient to their Lord, who tells us to love the enemy.

And so the granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr. said,

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won’t win,”

The daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you.  You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”

“And have mercy on your soul,” she continued. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you. And I forgive you.”

Another victim’s family member, Anthony Thompson, said,

“I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it. Can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK.”

Rev. John Paul Brown, another AME pastor in Charleston, and a close friend of the pastor who was murdered, said in an interview with the New York Times,

“I know for a fact it only serves to make things better. Always in tragedy the creation of God has instilled in man… a redeeming quality.  And here, this fellow named Dylan Roof, who sought to wipe out — created an unrealistic explosion of warmth, love, caring, sharing.  Clearly you begin to see the opposite of what he wanted to see happening.

Dylan, what was your intent?  To create a divide? While we pray for your soul, and that you come to reality and join the human race again, we also thank you that you allow people to see what evil looks like.  And then you allow us to show them why good triumphs over evil.”

And so this day we pledged ourselves to be there for Amanda and Christina.  This is what we must remember:  whatever is in our hearts, our children will absorb. 

The struggle between good and evil runs right down the middle of all our hearts.

Jesus said that there is no essential difference between harboring hatred in our hearts, and being a murderer, and so let us, day by day, take a fearless inventory of our hearts, to acknowledge where hatred is trying to make a home, and repent.

Let us also take an inventory of the fear that would take hold in our hearts, because fear blocks love.

Jesus said to those disciples terrified out there in the boat in the midst of the storm, afraid they might sink into the deep dark water:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” It took them some time in their journey of faith to begin to learn how to hand over their fears.  They certainly couldn’t put their whole trust in Jesus, when Jesus was being arrested – they fled in terror.

But what we do know is that over time they did learn how to trust and let go of their fears.  The disciples could face down the lions and those who would do to them what they had done to their Lord.  Death no longer frightened them.  They knew where they were going.

We also are on a journey.  God is not done with us.   But if we continue to own up to the fear and the hatred that would try to take hold of our hearts, God’s grace will transform us.  We will learn to walk like Jesus.

A small prayer circle forms nearby where police are responding to a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

 

John 20:19 -23 & Acts:4:32 – 35 — Beyond Belief

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 4:08 pm on Monday, April 13, 2015

A sermon preached on April 12, 2015 based upon John 20:19 – 23 and Acts 4:32 – 35.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’  (John 20:19 – 23) 

There is a big difference between merely having a belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and having an experience of his resurrection power.  Presumably at the start of the story we just heard, the disciples who are gathered huddled together in that upper room had some kind of belief that Jesus had risen.  Peter and John had seen the tomb empty, and Mary had told them she has seen him alive.   But though they may have a belief, they do not have an experience yet of the power that was unleashed in his resurrection.  And so they are still held captive by their fear, their grief, their guilt.

That is until that evening when Jesus suddenly came and stood among them.  And it wasn’t just that he stood among them, like a ghost, letting them know that he had survived death.  No, he gave them two gifts:  He gave them his peace — the peace that the world cannot give — only God. And he gave them power —  he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and gave them the authority to forgive people — free them from the burden of their sin as he had freed them.   The experience of this peace and power transformed them from timid, overwhelmed phantoms of themselves to bold, joyful, loving, powerful apostles of Jesus.

The story that continues in John’s Gospel tells us of the disciple Thomas who wasn’t present the night Jesus appeared.  He refused to believe what they told him.  Thomas is known as “doubting Thomas,” and his unwillingness to believe is often seen as a shortcoming on his part, but there’s a certain integrity to Thomas’ refusal to believe simply because others tell him too.   He is living inside a deep darkness, characterized, as I said last week, by equal parts grief, fear and guilt, and mere “belief” won’t touch it.   He needs an experience of transformative power.  He needs the same experience that was given to the other disciples.

Interestingly, the gathering of disciples — the first church — doesn’t tell Thomas to get lost – as many churches would in the centuries that followed — if he refuses to believe what they tell him is true. They accept him and hold him in their love. They understand that there is a sense in which faith if a gift, not an achievement.   They have faith for him.

And sure enough, one night Thomas has an experience of Christ coming to him.  He is given something more than mere belief that Jesus has risen; he is given the power that takes him out of his pit of despair. And it’s significant that it happened in the midst of a community of people who were living in the power of the resurrection.

Three hundred years later the Emperor Constantine would embrace the beliefs of Christianity, at which point Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.  Pretty soon pretty much everybody “believed” Jesus had risen from the dead.  It was easy to believe; there was no risk involved.   And along the way, the distinction between mere belief and an experience of the peace and power of the risen Christ often got lost.  If belief doesn’t open us to experience that peace and power, it doesn’t mean much.

The group of men who gather with me on Friday afternoons listened to a talk by a man named Shawn Gordon who described how he grew up in the gang life of LA.  His father and grandfather both died by violence.  When he was a teenager his mother died of AIDS.  He was an angry, bitter violent cauldron of hopelessness, and he fully expected to die young himself, but instead he ended up in prison.  He spent his four years in prison scheming regarding the crime and violence he would commit once he got out of prison.

When Shawn was released from prison he was surprised to discover the love of a woman who he married and the gift of a child.   For a man who had known little of love, these gifts of grace began to open his hardened heart.  He still, however got back involved in crime, and once again he found himself in prison with a six year sentence.  This time around Shawn had an added reason for despair:  he had left a wife and now two children alone unprotected in the cruel, hard world he knew so well.

Midway through this second incarceration a fellow prisoner came into his cell repeatedly wanting to talk to him about Jesus.  Shawn told the man to “get lost” several times – his words were far harsher than the ones I’ve used — but the man kept coming back. The thing about the man was that caught Shawn’s attention was that he possessed a peace that was strange to him — that same peace that those disciples locked in that upper room had received when Jesus appeared to them. The man had a longer sentence to serve than Shawn did, and yet he was strangely, happy – there was a freedom he carried with him in spite of being incarcerated.

And so eventually Shawn accepted the offer of a Bible and he spent the rest of his time in prison reading that Bible, and as he read, he began to experience the power that allowed him to begin to become a new man.

When he was finally released, Shawn might well have gone back to the life he had lived before.  He was put in a halfway house in a part of the city with all kinds of familiar temptations and he was two hours away from his wife and children.   He was a man with a record, and everywhere he applied for a job he was turned down. But one day he met a pastor on the streets who invited Shawn to come and stay with him and his family — gave him in fact the master bedroom of his apartment and invited Shawn’s family to come and live there with him. The pastor mentored Shawn on how to be a husband, a father, a man.

Over time Shawn became a pastor himself, working with the least of God’s children in this world on the streets he knew so well.   He didn’t come to mere belief — he experienced the power two which his belief pointed.  It is important to notice the key roles played in his transformation by two men — the man who came to him in prison with the Gospel, and the pastor he met on the streets.

So our second Scripture reading describes the state of the church a couple of months after our first reading.  The apostles have received the power of the Holy Spirit, and they have left their fear and shame behind to preach boldly about Jesus Christ.  A remarkably diverse community has been drawn together, and it’s growing rapidly, and the power of God to heal peoples’ lives is on display.

Peter and John heal a man who hasn’t walked since birth, not by their own power, but by the power they access in the name of Jesus Christ.  They end up temporarily in prison, but like that man who visited Shawn in prison, the apostles are undeterred in the desire to share the Gosple.

People are amazed, because they are “uneducated and ordinary men” and yet they speak with an extraordinary “boldness.” (Acts 4:13)

We hear (Acts 4:4) that the church has grown to 5000 people, a familiar number, because it was the number of people who followed Jesus out into the wilderness during his ministry.   When Jesus offered up the little bit of food that and his disciples had brought with them, he inspires a miraculous surge of sharing among the people that results in everybody being fed.  For a few hours, the kingdom of heaven touched down on earth.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32 – 35)

The resurrection of Jesus was the center piece of the apostles’ preaching.  “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

As I said last week, the apostles themselves pointed to their experience of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus as the source of their transformation.  Without that experience they would still be crawled up in the fetal position behind locked doors.

And the striking thing about this reading is the way it describes the members of the first church being quite literally willing to put their money where they mouth is.  They sell their houses and land and give the money to the apostles who provide for the needs of all the people. He reminds me of Jesus giving his supper away, and the pastor who was willing to share his home with a convicted felon in order to bring him safely into the fold.  There is a consistency between what they say they believe and how they believe:  If God has raised Jesus, the man who had compassion on all, then I must care about my neighbor’s needs.

So the most distinguishing characteristic most of this new community created by the power of Jesus’ resurrection was that it was one in which everybody shared everything they had — there were no private possessions— everything was shared and everybody was provided for equally.

I was watching a movie the other night about Senator Joe McCarthy and the witch hunt he conducted in the 1950s to identify and blacklist anybody who had even the least bit of sympathy with communists, as though communists were inherently and capitalists inherently good.   But the ideals that communism aspired to were similar to those embodied by the earliest church.

Communism failed, however, to live out these ideals, and unfortunately committed horrible atrocities in a misguided attempt to fix the injustice of society.

Phillip Yancey describes being a part of a group of Christians who were invited to the visit Russia in 1992 as communion was collapsing and the Soviet Union was crumbling.   They were invited to meet with the editors of Pravda which had formerly been the mouthpiece of the communist party.  They were shaken to the core and appeared sincerely for guidance, turning to religious leaders.  They confessed that they had failed in their attempts to motivate people to be good – to have compassion on their neighbors.  They seemed more interested in the escape provided by vodka then to help their fellow human beings.  Yancey writes, “74 years of communism had proved beyond all doubts that goodness could not be legislated and enforced at the point of a gun.”

Karl Marx said that religion is “opiate of the masses,” and often it is.  When religion induces a passivity in the face of oppression and injustice, focusing attention exclusively on a reward beyond this life, it is the opiate of the masses.

But what is described here in the book of Acts is anything but.  The ideals that communism set out to embody can only be approached where there is a respect for freedom, and there is access to the power unleashed on the world when Jesus was raised from the dead.

On our coins it says that “in God we trust,” but for the most part, that’s a lie.  Our natural inclination is to put our trust in money.  It is only through the grace of God that a generosity of spirit becomes possible in human beings.

There is evidence that the early church had difficulty fully living out the ideal of full sharing.  Just read a little further in Acts and there were problems.  But this is what we should be aspiring for, and it is only as we are open to the power that comes from beyond ourselves – the peace and Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus – that we can move to be a community all are welcome and all are provided for.

Jonah and the idol of Hate

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff — Pastor Jeff at 5:57 pm on Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A sermon preached on January 25th, 2015 based upon the book of Jonah. 

 

The story of Jonah deserves being told from start to finish.

Now the word of the Lord came Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it.”  But Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh, and who can blame him.   Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire which had destroyed cities in Israel, taking from those cities those who were not killed to become their slaves.  Ninevh is in present day Iraq.  For Jonah to go to Nineveh was akin to some guy from Tel Aviv going to the commandos of Isis to tell them they are going to hell.  One would not expect to survive such a mission.

But the issue for Jonah wasn’t a lack of courage; he seems to have had no lack of that.  For Jonah the problem was he didn’t want to have anything to do with the Ninevites possible salvation.  He was aware of the Lord’s capacity for mercy, and the last thing he wanted was for the Ninevites to receive mercy.

So Jonah hurries off in the opposite direction from Nineveh; he heads towards Tarshish, which required he go to the port city of Joppa where he paid his fare and boarded a ship.  Once it set sail for Tarshish, Jonah figured he could finally relax a bit, and he heads down to the hold of the ship to catch up on his sleep.

But the Lord made a great storm arise on the sea, such that the sailors on board were terrified for their lives.  They each began to pray to their gods for deliverance and they began to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship’s load.  As they were doing this, they came upon Jonah and woke him up.  “Pray to your God to deliver us from this terrible storm!”

In spite of all the prayers that were being raised up from that ship, the storm just got worse.  The crew decided to draw cast lots in an attempt to determine whom it might be that the gods were angry with, and the lot fell to… Jonah!  “Who are you, man!  What is your story?!”

Jonah told them that he was a Hebrew and that he worshipped the God of heaven who had created the seas and the dry land, and this made them all the more terrified.  He told them that he was the cause of the trouble and that they should throw him overboard, but the crew members were terrified at the prospect of killing an innocent man and incurring all the more the wrath of this great God.  So they tried rowing to shore, but that proved impossible.

So finally they prayed for mercy for what they were about to do, and then they tossed Jonah overboard.  Immediately the winds stopped blowing and the sea became calm, and they were all the more amazed at the God of Israel and made sacrifices unto him.

Meanwhile God saved Jonah from his certain death by drowning by sending a great fish who swallowed him up whole.  There Jonah stayed in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights.  He prayed a prayer not of repentance but of thanksgiving for deliverance, and sure enough, the great fish vomited Jonah up on dry land.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, and this time he set out for Ninevah, figuring now he had no choice, the Lord was going to force him to go there one way or another.

The city was enormous, and once he arrived he spent a day traveling deep into the heart of the city.  At the end of that day he gave his sermon:  “Forty days more and Ninevah will be overthrown!”  It wasn’t much of a sermon, but remarkably it did the trick.  The people began to put on sack cloth and ashes and to sit in dust, and the King himself made a proclamation calling for the people and the animals as well do this and to fast, with the hope that “who knows, maybe the Lord will yet have compassion on us.”

And sure enough, when the Lord saw the way the people of Nineveh humbled themselves, He, too had a change of heart, deciding not to go ahead with the devastation He intended to bring upon them.  .

Now you might think Jonah would have been pleased, given the fact that he has just become pretty much the most effective prophet in the history of the human race.  But he wasn’t pleased in the least, in fact, he was very angry.   He lashed out at God, “I knew it, I just knew it!  So just take my life; it would be better for me to be dead!”  The Lord asked Jonah, “Do you have any right to be angry?”

Jonah didn’t bother to answer the question.  He just went off to sulk, walking outside the city limits to a place where he could watch and hope against hope that the Lord might end up bring the vengeance he had promised after all — fire from heaven, an earthquake, that sort of thing.

It was extremely hot out there in the sun, and the Lord decided to give Jonah what amounted to a little children’s sermon — an object lesson focused upon a vine.  Lord showed mercy on Jonah by having a vine grow up beside him that provided him with some shade to cool his fevered brow.  This pleased Jonah happy.  Did Jonah deserve this kindness?  No, he was being a total brat.

But that God’s nature.  God is constantly giving loving gifts to people who don’t deserve the gifts.  These gifts are called “grace.”

Though the shade pleased Jonah, it didn’t alter the basic equation of his heart.  He wasn’t particularly grateful.  The one overriding emotion inside him was hatred and anger.  Hatred of the Ninevites.  Anger at God for not finishing them off.

In the continuation of the children’s sermon, God had a worm attack the vine overnight so that when as the sun came up the next day, the vine withered away, leaving Jonah without the shade he was so fond of.  Once again Jonah became so feverishly hot in the sun that he declared, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

Again the Lord asked Jonah about his anger issue: “Do you have any right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said, “I am angry enough to die.”

The Lord proceeds to point out that it was peculiar that Jonah was angry over the destruction of the vine which he neither planted nor made grow.  And then this great final line of the book:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, this great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.”

(It’s a nice touch, reminding Jonah that the animals matter too.)

So the book of Jonah ends right there, with this question to Jonah hanging in the air.  What happened next?  Did Jonah repent of the hardness of his heart?

We don’t know.

Everybody else in the story repents. The Ninevites repent of their wicked ways. God repents of his fierce anger.   Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes.

Jonah alone has not had a change of heart.

We are left to finish the story ourselves.  We the Jonah who lives inside of us have a change of heart?

The way the story ends reminds me of another well known Bible story, this one told by Jesus. Once upon a time there was a father who had two sons.  The younger of the two sons breaks his father’s heart by asking for his share of the inheritance; he doesn’t have the good sense to wait till his father passes on.  It is as if he is saying he would rather his dad was dead.

The father gives the son what he asks for, and the boy promptly goes to the far country where he squanders his inheritance on reckless living.  Before long he is broke and hits rock bottom.  He decides to head home in the hopes that his father will let him work as a servant, giving him a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

Then to his great astonishment, while he is still a long way off from home, he sees his father coming running down the road towards him with tears running down his cheeks.  The dad gives him a big bear hug, brushes aside the boy’s request to live as a servant, saying, “Nonsense!  You’re my son!  You were lost, but now you’re found.  You were dead, but now you’re found.  We’re going to have a big party!”

You remember the rest of the story.  The elder brother who has spent the years doing his duty, working his father’s fields, becomes extremely angry when he discovers that a party is underway for the prodigal, whom he no longer acknowledges as his brother.  And he refuses to go into the party.  So his father comes out to him to plead with him.  He listens to his elder son rant for a while, and then he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours (yes he still is your brother) was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

That’s where this story ends.  Again, what happened next?  We don’t know.  Does the elder brother soften his heart and come into the party?  Or does he continue to hold tightly to his anger?

The story of the two sons is well known as a story about grace, but the story of Jonah is as well.  Jonah has been the recipient of grace, a love he did nothing to earn.  Although he defied God, God saved him from certain death by drowning, and gave him a second chance to respond to his call.  God gives him shade when he was baking under the hot sun.  These graces are representative of countless other graces large and small that he has received in the course of his lifetime.

Similarly, the elder brother has been receiving all along the same grace that his brother is now receiving.  He has loved him simply because he was his son, not because of the work he had done.

The love was a gift.  But the elder brother has been too busy proving to himself that he was deserving of that love, which amounts to him refusing to acknowledge grace at all. He’s saying, “I’ve earned my place in this world.” Oh, really?   You earned the right to be born into this particular family where there was always a roof over your head, food to eat, an education and people who always loved you. You weren’t born on the streets of the far country.

So both stories end unresolved.  They ask us to finish the story, to ponder how we will respond to the grace we have received.

I love the line at the end about the hundred and twenty thousand plus people who don’t know their left hand from their right.   They are clueless.  Truth is, we are all clueless, stumbling around in the darkness.  It is of all of us that Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We think we know.  We think we know who the good people are, and who the bad people are, who are the deserving people and the undeserving people.

We think we have the knowledge of God.  Or maybe, like Jonah, we even think we know better than God.

And we get attached to certain idols.  One of our idols is the image we craft of ourselves as one of the “good people.”  We refuse to defile our idol.  We overlook or excuse the body of evidence that suggests we aren’t as good as we want to think we are.  But we don’t excuse similar evidence in the people we’ve judged to be bad. And we refuse to acknowledge any sign that they might not be quite as evil as we want to make them out to be.

And that’s because we become attached to something else.  Like Jonah, like the elder brother, we are attached to our hatred and our anger and our righteous indignation.

The New Testament author to use the word “grace” more than any other was the apostle Paul, and before he was Paul — you know the story — he was Saul the Pharisee, who was attached to his seething anger and hatred against the first Christians.  He had convinced himself that his anger and hatred was pleasing to God — that it was a holy anger, a righteous indignation, just like so many others through the centuries have convinced themselves, right up to the present age.

And then he had his encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus in a blaze of light, and he discovered that what he thought was his holy anger was in fact a perverse form of sin, — that it caused great pain to God. By all counts, he figured he deserved to get zapped right then and there, but instead it was love he was given — amazing grace.  In the face of this wondrous grace his anger and hatred melted away, and Jesus have him the job of being the apostle to the Gentile world, to proclaim the same grace that he himself, once “the chief of sinners,” had been given.

One of the great gifts that Martin Luther King Jr gave us was the witness of how destructive is our attachment to hatred   “Darkness cannot drive out darkness;” he said, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

We pay a price with our attachment to anger and hatred and righteous indignation that we are slow to acknowledge.  Here is how Frederick Buechner put it:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.  To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.  The skeleton at the feast is you.”

During Lent I will be leading a study based upon a book by Phillip Yancey entitled, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”  He describes how he was brought up in a church that led him to believe in a Jesus who was really all about law and judgment.  When he read the Gospels for himself he discovered a quite different Jesus — one who was in fact all about grace. I want to finish with some beautiful words Yancey wrote in another book, “What’s So Amazing about Grace?”

“Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it and I am one of those people.  I think back to who I was — resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace.  I do so because I know, more surely than I know anything,that any pang of healing or forgiveness I have ever felt comes only from the grace of God.  I yearn for the church to become a nourishing culture of grace.” (p.42) Yancey

The Spirit Hovering Over Chaos and Confusion

Filed under: Conversatons with Pastor Jeff, Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:25 pm on Monday, January 12, 2015

A sermon preached on January 11, 2014, the Baptism of Our Lord, based upon Genesis 1:1 -5 and Mark 1:9 – 11. 

A sermon preached on January 11, 2014, the Baptism of Our Lord, based upon Genesis 1:1 -5 and Mark 1:9 – 11. 

The primary reason people have believed in God throughout the ages is expressed in the first few verses of the Bible:  In the beginning, there was this primal, watery chaos, “without shape or form,” and the Spirit of God hovered over these dark and murky waters, like a mother hen brooding over her nest.  With the command of God, the Spirit gave birth to creation, bringing order where before there was only chaos, creating the foundation upon which everything else could evolve. Suddenly there was light in stark contrast to the darkness — a sense of order where before there was no order.  Later God will look at the order and recognize that what he has created an recognize that it is good.

Deep inside of all of us there lives this basic question.  It only arises to the surface, if at all, in moments of stillness and reflection, perhaps when we are outdoors experiencing the wonder of nature, for instance, under a clear and starry night. The question is this:  Why is there everything, and not nothing?

Scientists call it the unanswerable question.  Intuitively though, most of us sense that if there were no higher intelligence at work behind reality, there would be nothing but chaos, confusion, disorder, darkness, the great void.  But that’s not what there is:  there is this remarkably ordered universe with light and darkness and extraordinary beauty, with all the reliable laws and principles of creation that can be studied by scientists and mathematicians to come to greater and greater understanding about how the creation works.

Why should this even exist, if not for some kind of designer — a benevolent higher intelligence and power that has intentionally created order of the sort that allows good things to come into being?  A creator who creates because his nature is love.

And here is the thing:  that loving, intelligence that we call God whose spirit is pictured in Genesis hovering over the original chaos — this God didn’t just do his thing once and then walk away, like a master clockmaker might build a clock and then never have anything to do with it again.  No, this God, the Bible affirms, and we affirm from our own experience, is a God who actively loves us, and continues to hover over the chaos of our lives to bring about order, purpose, balance, peace.  If you listen to our second Scripture lesson through the lens of the Genesis passage, this is what you see happening.  The same Spirit of God that hovered over the original chaotic waters, hovers over the scene at the Jordan River where John is baptizing.

There is something inside all of us human beings that tends to drive us towards chaos and confusion. It is the urge to go it alone, to put our egos at the center of our lives where only God belongs. Without God at the center, we lose perspective on what truly matters in life, and in doing so, we end up making a mess of things.

On one side, we refuse to take responsibility for the havoc we cause. On the other side we try to be in control of that which we cannot control, which inevitably leads to frustration, resentment, and self-condemnation, because we think we ought to be able to control our destinies.  The perception arises in certain places in our lives that we are spinning out of control.

Perhaps we manage to keep our desperation hidden from others, and succeed in portraying ourselves as people who have it more or less all together. But in our private moments there is this sense of sinking into the dark waters of chaos.  We may reach a point where the facade comes crashing down.  For a time the people around us see our lives as  shipwrecked.  And though this can feel like the worst possible thing, the pain of such moments can actually be a kind of labor pain — the onset of a spiritual rebirth.

I’ve experienced this in small, private ways through the years; life gets more and more stressed, and with it a feeling that I’m losing control, until I reach this point of surrender, of letting go.  And peace descends. Calm returns to my life, a sense of balance.

I experienced this in a more dramatic way that time (and it has a couple of years since this story has shown up in a sermon!) when as a child I was in utter distress to the point of panic about the fact that I had almost drowned while swimming in dark waters, I cried out to God, and a sudden peace descended upon me that permanently ended the sense of drowning in my anxiety over having come so close to death.

I experienced this again 26 years ago when my first marriage was disintegrating, and I feared the public humiliation this would mean.  There came a point of surrender, of acceptance, and a kind of peace and calm came to me that I hadn’t known was possible.

If you come to our church on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday at noontime you will have a hard time finding a parking space, and that is because of the AA meeting that meets in our fellowship hall.  All these people come from diverse backgrounds with one thing in common: because of alcohol addiction their lives reached a point of being unmanageable, wrecking themselves and harming the people they loved.

Each one of them reached a point in their lives where they were compelled to acknowledge they were personally helpless to bring order to their lives; they realized they needed help. They underwent a profound humbling, a kind of surrendering to the chaos, and began attending the meetings with others who had similarly been humbled, to encourage one another to keep the humble walk, reaching out daily, hourly to God, the higher power, the One who hovered over the original chaos.

I think there is something very instructive for those of us who aren’t alcoholics to listen to the stories folks in AA tell, because this drive towards chaos and confusion lives in all of us.

I recently read an account of woman named Alicia who began drinking at age nine.  She moved out of her on her own at 15 to live with other teenagers who wanted to run wild with alcohol.   Alicia ended up out drinking all her friends, and they all moved out, all except a boy named Luke, They were bound together by mutual addiction.  Eventually they married, and the next decade floated by on a sea of scotch.

“It was just one big long drunk,” she said. “Round the clock. I didn’t have any days of sobriety at all until I was pregnant with my older son.  I was twenty six.  That was the first time I was ever clean.”  Staying clean during her pregnancy fueled the illusion that she was not an addict; she could stop at will, after all.  Luke continued his affair with cocaine, and a month after she gave birth to her son, Alicia began using cocaine and painkillers.  Eventually she became pregnant with her second son. “And that was where I started to get to my bottom,” she said, “because in that pregnancy I couldn’t stay clean.  I had crossed the line. And I knew I was really sick.”

The spiral downward continued after her second child was born, as Alicia nursed her infant and tried to care for her toddler.  She could barely breathe for all the chaos in her life and in her head. She and Luke would spend most of their take home pay on drugs, calibrating their highs and lows with a mix of uppers, cocaine, and alcohol.  She had lost her job, she was stuck at home with crying babies, and she began to plot her suicide.

“I felt completely broken. How could this happen?” she asked.  In retrospect, Alicia draws a straight line from that desperate moment to a sublime one that occurred a few days later.

On a Friday night, Alicia and Luke were buying groceries at Costco.  “It was payday,” she said, “and Luke had already spent all the money on drugs.  We had loaded the bag and we were in line and he told me, ‘You know, we can’t pay for these.’  And I just looked at him.  And we had to leave the whole basket of groceries there. We came home and I remember the dishes were piled up in the sink.  I just remember laying my head on the side of the sink and feeling the coldness of the sink right on my forehead.”

And then she described how all of a sudden something literally moved through her, on the inside. “This alignment took place inside.  And it started down low, like in my stomach and in the lower back, and it was like my spine was being straightened out.  It’s like when a cat gets scruffed by its mama on the back of the neck and they get kind of lifted up.  And all of a sudden, I knew I was just done. That was it.  I took my kids to my mom’s and came back and told Luke I was going to get clean and sober, and he had to go.  And I was in rehab a couple of weeks later.”  She said, “I think my soul got righted at that moment.  And everything changed.”

Alicia has been clean of all addictive substances since that moment a decade earlier.  Luke returned, sober, nine months later, and has remained clean as well.   Her family has prospered in a manner that would have been impossible to imagine during the years of her drinking.

The one constant in her changing world is AA.  It is built on admitting one’s brokenness, surrendering to a Higher Power, and experiencing a “spiritual awakening.”  It relies on a God of one’s own understanding to reach down and help the addict overcome his vicious disease.  It is the most spiritual of recovery programs.  It is also the most successful.  (Account recorded in “Fingerprints of God,” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.)

Returning to our Scriptures… Water shows up in both our lessons.  In the Genesis account the chaos is pictured as consisting of deep, dark water with no boundaries.  Water expresses many things, but one of the things it expressed in the ancient world view was destructive chaos, the very opposite of creation.  People who dared to go out in boats upon the waters to fish and travel and often wouldn’t make it back to shore alive.

And so John the Baptist had extended this invitation to all the people who had come to an awareness that living without God at the center of their lives was leading them in the direction of greater and greater chaos and confusion.  He invited them to come to the waters of the River Jordan to be baptized by him, dunked down into the water.

In doing so, the way of life they had been living would be — a life without God, a life centered on their own egos, would be symbolically put to death — drowned in the waters.  They would rise up into the sunlight of a new life lived with God.

Mark tells us that Jesus quietly came to the River with all the others. Instead of standing apart as the sinless one, he entered into those same waters to be baptized by John himself.  Jesus fully shared in the human condition which involves living with a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.  He entered into the chaos of the waters, undergoing that same sort of spiritual death, and as he arose, once more the Spirit of God — the same Spirit that had hovered over the waters in the original story of creation — descended upon Jesus bringing a clarity to him that had not been there before.  The Spirit took possession of his life, and he knew in the very depths of his being that he was God’s beloved child.

As a result of this movement of God’s spirit over the waters, something altogether new has been introduced into the human experience — there is a man who is whole – a man who walks upon this earth in intimate, unbroken communion with God.

We were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection.  His new life has come to live inside of us. Time and again we will set it aside to try to be in charge, getting caught up again in the old way of living that leads us towards the sensation of drowning in our own chaos and confusion.

But we don’t have to reach that point where everything comes crashing down around ourselves. We can humble ourselves daily before God by surrendering ourselves in moments of prayer, and joining others so inclined for this mutual humbling by gathering for worship on Sunday.

We believe in a God who brings order out of chaos.  We believe in a God who, as in the song we sang just before this sermon, who brings something beautiful, something good out of all our confusion, our brokenness and strife.

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