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A Matter of Perspective

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:11 pm on Monday, September 18, 2017

A sermon preached on September 17th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:21 – 35.

Ryan smiling

The passage we just heard starts off taking about forgiveness with a parable that carries forth the theme, and therefore you might expect this morning’s sermon to be about forgiveness as well.  Perhaps I should be preaching a sermon about the importance of forgiving the people in your life — that it isn’t easy but keep at it, don’t give up.  Jesus wants us to keep on forgiving.  And that would be a good sermon, essential to hear.

But the thing I heard this time as I read the parable Jesus tells leads me in a different direction.   It was two details of the parable that are easy to overlook that caught my attention and I want to begin with the on that appears second.  It is the amount of money that the central character is owed by his fellow servant:  A hundred denarius.  This is not an insignificant amount of money – in those days it was the pay a day laborer would make in for a hundred days of back breaking work.  It’s essentially about a third of somebody’s annual income.

With this detail in mind, what happens if we jump into the parable midway through instead of at the beginning?  What I mean is let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the servant.  Let’s imagine you’re the guy — a contractor – a small business owner — and a while back you did a major project for this guy who wanted a sunroom built off the back of his house.  You trusted the guy when he said, “I have a little cash flow problem right now, but I can assure you that in short order I will have plenty of cash in my account, so you can trust me when I say I’ll be able to reimburse you for all the money you put out up front for construction materials, and pay you for all the work you put in, including the time you spent getting the permits.”

So you took him at his word and did a high quality piece of work for the guy – the sun room came out beautifully.  “Great,” the guy said when it was done.  “Looks wonderful.  My money is coming next week, and the first thing I’m going to do when it does is cut you a check.”

So a week passes, and then two, but no word from the guy.  You start calling on the phone but the guy never picks up, never returns the messages you leave. You go to the guy’s house a couple of times and ring the doorbell, but nobody ever comes to the door.

This is serious business.  With the money you put out for materials, not to mention all the hours you put in, you’re in danger of losing essentially one third of your annual income.  You’ve got bills to pay, a family to feed.  You trusted the guy and now it looks like you were scammed.   You’re furious and hey, rightfully so!

And then one day you see the guy walking down the street.   He tries to slip away, but you corner him.  “Give me the money you owe me!” you scream. The guy begs for mercy.  “The money is coming in next week.  There was just a little delay.  I will pay you, I promise.”

“Sure you will, pal, sure you will.”

If we still had debtor’s prison, hey, you would be quite happy to have him locked up.

I tell the story this way and we’re right there with the contractor – right with the servant in Jesus’ parable who refuses to forgive the financial debt of his fellow slave.

There are all kinds of other grievances Jesus could have put in his parable to talk about forgiveness. I think it’s significant that he chose to have it be about a financial debt.   We get pretty caught up in money. I know I do.  Jesus talked about how money can easily become our god.

So this brings me to the other easily overlooked detail of the parable, and it also involves money — the amount of money that at the outset of the parable the servant owes the king.  In today’s dollars, it’s something like a billion and a half dollars — an amount of money that makes 100 denarius seem like nothing by comparison.

The only way to make sense of the servant walking away from just having a billion and a half dollar debt suddenly forgiven by the king, only to immediately become a total hard-ass about the 100 denarius debt owed him is to conclude that somehow the servant didn’t really take in the magnitude of the gift he was just given.  If he had really taken it in, he would be in a state of such profound gratitude that it would simply be impossible for him to behave the way he does towards his fellow servant.

But somehow he’s blocked it out.  There’s some kind of major self-deception going on – a self-deception implied in the servant’s promise to the king that if the king will just be patient, the he will pay the debt back in full for sure.

He somehow thinks he’s still in control, but there’s no way he will ever pay a billion and a half dollars back.  If we insist on seeing ourselves as the masters of our fate, there’s no room for gratitude in the equation.

Week before last a police officer spoke to a bunch of people at our church about scams and things we can do to protect ourselves from getting cheated of our money.  This week there was news regarding an enormous security breech at Equifax, the result of which is that probably a majority of us in this room had our personal account data stolen – our social security number, our birth date, stuff like that.

It can be pretty anxiety producing.  We imagine somebody out there taking advantage of us akin to the way we imagined ourselves being the ripped off contractor, and so we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve done all we can to assure this doesn’t happen to us.

But here’s what most of us don’t worry much about.  Every time we get in our car and drive somewhere, there is a real possibility of something far worse happening than losing a third of our annual income.  We drive down roads going 45 miles an hour or more with drivers in cars coming back at us at the same speed, trusting that we’ll all stay on our own side of the little yellow line, when all it would take for a devastating accident to occur would be the slightest movement of the hand by ourselves or the drivers coming towards us.

But we think nothing of it.

I started reading this New Yorker article recently that was about people who had survived the experience of taking the life of another.  It began by telling the story of a woman who by coincidence was a college student about the same time as me, attending a school just 45 minutes away from where I was at college.  She described the moment everything changed.  She was driving her car in the manner that most of us drive our cars a lot of the time – sort of on auto-pilot — when suddenly there was this blur that came out of the corner of her eye as a child darted out into the road in front of her car.  The child was killed.

I stopped reading.  I simply couldn’t go on.  It was making me face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to face which is that it could just as easily have been me driving that car back there in college. That would be pretty devastating, to say the least. I stand in awe of people who have survived such tragedy and found a way to go forward to embrace life. The fact that I haven’t had to face such an ordeal hasn’t been because my driving ability is superior. It’s simply been my good fortune.

Understandably, we don’t want to think about these things.  But if we did, maybe we would get down on our knees and gives thanks and praise to God right there in the parking lot of Costco every time we arrive safely.

I have a friend who recently experienced a significant, permanent drop in his family’s income. If I were to experience a similar drop in income, I think I’d be freaking out, worrying about the future.  I asked him how he was handling this.  He was surprisingly calm about it.  He related it to serious health issues he has dealt with in the past, and continues to deal with, which have led him to view life differently than I do.  There were occasions in the past when he could easily have died, but he didn’t.  The health challenges are ongoing.  He has no certainty that he has a lot of time left in this world.  Maybe, maybe not.

In this larger context, my friend views his drop in income as relatively small potatoes – another version of “why sweat the small stuff?” because he’s looked the big stuff straight in the face.  And so he’s got this basic gratitude for being alive.  He’s grateful for each day he’s able to wake up and get out of bed and greet a new day.   The loss of income doesn’t touch this underlying gratitude.

It’s a matter of perspective, my friend said.

There was this Bill Moyers documentary I watched a few years back about World War II vets – pretty old guys who had survived the D-day invasion when they were just young men.  Two things struck me.  On the one hand, they had this basic awareness that there is so much we’re not in control of in life – that thy myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that they had bought into before going to war didn’t hold water.  Life is scary sometimes, and macho posturing is the stuff of fools.

On the other hand, in the years following the war they had found themselves much less inclined to be afraid when it came to taking non-life-threatening risks.  If they started a business and it went belly up, leading them to lose all their money – well, as they said, “at least nobody is shooting bullets at me.   I’m alive.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The recent hurricanes:  A man loses his home.  Understandably, he’s devastated.  But if in the course of the flood he thought that his wife or children had drowned, and then is relieved to find they hadn’t, well, the loss of the house wouldn’t seem like so much.

Perspective is the theme of the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is about to lose his business.  He thinks it would be better if he had never been born.  He’s about to take his own life.  Clarence the angel allows him to see what it would mean for him never to have been born, and it shakes George to the core.

The part we tend to remember from the movie is how he gets to see the positive impact he had on the town without realizing it.  But a big part of what Clarence lets him see is simply how precious and beautiful his ordinary life is – the profound blessing it is to have people who know and love him, and whom he has been allowed to know and love as well.  After seeing what he was about to lose in his wish to take his life, it doesn’t really matter that his business is going bankrupt.

So in the end, it is all a matter of perspective, and the possibility exists in each moment of awakening to that deeper perspective — to be set free from our own self-imposed prison of grudges and worries that sometimes it seems like we’re destined to inhabit eternally.

In the end, maybe forgiveness wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t deceive ourselves by thinking we are the master of our fates when in fact the deepest truth is that we have been given a great gift when God chose to give us life.  Life can be very hard sometimes — very painful — but it is also exquisitely beautiful.  It’s a gift. We didn’t earn this gift, nor can we pay this gift off.  It is pure grace, and to grasp this is to find ourselves filled with gratitude – a gratitude that leaves no room for grudges, no room for making money our god.  It only leaves room for love.

The Spiritual Power of a Truly Reconciled Community

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 2:16 pm on Monday, September 11, 2017

A sermon preached on September 10th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:15-20.

1-1-jess and maidie

“If brother or sister in the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained your brother or sister. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

It is remarkable that this particular Gospel lesson was assigned to be read on this particular Sunday, because this morning our service is all about the “church” since we baptized two persons and received three new members into the church. You might be surprised to know that the word “church” occurs only four times in the four Gospels – each instance in Matthew’s Gospel – and two of the four appear in the words of Jesus we just heard Bob read, and a third appears in the verse that immediately follows this reading.

So in this passage Jesus is giving us two things – first, some practical guidance regarding how we are to live together as his Church, and second, a remarkable promise.

Let’s look at the practical guidance first.  Nearly two thousand years before psychologists came up with the term “conflict resolution” Jesus begins by giving guidance for how to resolve conflicts that arise in the Church.

A couple of things to note:  First, Jesus assumes there will be conflicts in the Church, because we aren’t perfect. This should be a no-brainer given that the fourth reference to the church in the gospels is the one in which Jesus say Simon Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build his “church,” and the one thing that comes through loud and clear about Peter was imperfections.

We will have disagreements, and even more, we will hurt one another’s feelings, offend one another — often without realizing it.   We don’t need to pretend to be perfect.  Nor do we need to pretend that we don’t have the kind of feelings conflicts can evoke: hurt feelings, angry feelings.  We don’t need to, nor should we put on a facade of perpetual niceness, because when we try to pretend that nothing is bothering us when something is in fact bothering us, what happens is that we push people away, often in subtle ways. We keep our distance, physically, emotionally, spiritually from one another, and as we will see that is precisely what Jesus doesn’t want to happen in His church.

So Jesus gives advice regarding what to do when conflicts arise.  When I have a problem with another person, I should in relatively short order go directly to the person – I should not let the thing fester.  Nor should I go looking for somebody to complain to, no matter how perversely satisfying it can be to say, “You won’t believe what so and so said to me!!”

So I’m to go directly to the person and to talk to them, and notice what the goal of my conversation is:  It’s not to win an argument, or to get them to say to me, “you’re right, I’m wrong.  I apologize.  I’ll never do that again.”

The immediate goal is simply this:  to simply get the person to listen to me — which of course, is a rarity in this world.  To take the time to try and see things through my eyes – in particular, what happened that left me feeling hurt and angry.  It doesn’t mean necessarily that the way I see things is accurate.  Hopefully a conversation will open up between us that involves give and take, with not only the other person listening to me, but me listening to them as well.

But note the larger goal: to regain a brother or sister in the church.  The conflict has created a wall, threatening the deep, familial connection that should be at the heart of the church, and the goal is to restore that connection.

And I would suggest that when you go to this person, lead with your hurt and not with your anger.  Say something like, “when you did so and so, I felt hurt.”  I think Jesus would agree with this given the theme of embracing vulnerability that is a part of his “way.” Often anger is a secondary emotion that arises after the initial feeling of being hurt, but anger keeps us from exposing our vulnerability.  But the thing about coming at another with anger in these sorts of conversations is that we can pretty well count on their defenses going up and anger coming back at us.

Now Jesus recognizes that when I try to open up such a conversation, the effort will not always be successful.  Sometimes the attempt may seem to make the conflict even worse.  So there is a second step:  a second conversation is to be initiated, this time with one or two others from the church present.

There are two reasons for this, the first of which is to hopefully bring some objectivity to the conversations.  The emotions that arise can block the capacity for either of us caught up in the conflict to clearly see what’s going on.  So the one or two others can listen to the conversation and help clarify what is going on.

The second reason is this:  when there is a conflict between two people within the church, it doesn’t just harm them – it hurts the body as a whole.  So involving others expresses this truth, as does the third step Jesus gives. If the conversation with one or two others doesn’t work, bring the conflict before the entire church. Now this may sound like publicly “shaming” the person, but there are two things to take note of in this regard.  First, in the steps Jesus has laid out pains are taken precisely not to be publicly shame the person.  First I am to talk to the person alone, then if that doesn’t work with one or two others.  It is only as a last result that the whole community is involved.

The fourth step can strike our ears like major shaming.  Jesus says that “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  That sounds pretty terrible, right?  Cut them off.  Shun them.  Shame thing.  And sadly there are countless stories of churches that have done just that, feeling like these words provide scriptural support for doing so. But there is an irony that is often missed.   The reference to a “Gentile and a taxcollector” should sound familiar to us if we have read the Gospels.  The Pharisees tried to shame Jesus – for what ? Keeping the company of “Gentiles and taxcollectors.” So even if a person proves to be so toxic to the community that the community needs to in some sense separate themselves from this person,  the person remains the object of the community’s love, and the door is left open for the possibility of reconciliation further down the road.

Now I know what many of you are thinking – what a part of me is thinking: all this direct conflict resolution advice sounds great in theory, but I’m not going do that.  I don’t like confrontation.  In order to avoid confrontation, I’m happy to just let a relationship have some distance in it.  If I’m angry and hurt, maybe the person will figure it out on their own by the fact that I’m avoiding them.

I get that.  But part of the reason we are inclined to resist the advice is because we haven’t experienced the kind of spiritual power that is possible in a community of grace – a community truly obedient to Jesus as Lord.  A community truly connected, without the walls, with everybody on the same page, flowing as one in the river of God’s love.

And that’s the link between the practical advice of the first part of this lesson to the promise Jesus makes in the second part.

“Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

I got a phone call this past Thursday from Maidie.  She was feeling worn down by the battle she’s fighting with cancer. She was worried about the toll it was taking on her beloved Jessica.  She wanted me to pray for them.

And there was another little coincidence that I pointed out to Maidie:  she quoted to me the very Scripture that we had scheduled to read this morning, that when two or more pray together, Jesus is right here with us.

So reflecting on this, I felt God calling us to pray together for Maidie, Jes and Ryan this morning in a special way.

Taking the words of Jesus seriously, let’s take a few moments to prepare our hearts to be vessels together of God’s Spirit.

If it feels right close your eyes.  I’ve asked Barb to play softly.

If you’re willing, reflect for a moment about any relationships you may have either within this church, or in your life in general where you have allowed walls to go up, allowed your heart to harden, allowed grudges to fester and to the extent that you are capable, offer these relationships up to God to heal, to reconcile.  Ask God to open the channels of grace in your heart, to let the Spirit move through you.

I’m going to place a chair here for Maidie to sit in, and have Barb play “Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me,” that we may sing as those who feel so called come forward to gather around Maidie as we pray for her.

Maidie has been such a blessing to our Church since she came among us several years ago.  She has this unique ability to call forth love from people, to inspire us to be our best selves, to act courageously and selflessly for the sake of one another and this world.

(And here we prayed for Maidie, Jes and Ryan.)

The Burning Bushes Through Which God Calls to Us

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:26 pm on Monday, September 4, 2017

A sermon preached on September 3rd, 2017 based upon Exodus 3:1-15.

In middle age, Moses as he goes about his routine preoccupations of his daily life, shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, encounters in a burning bush the living God whose name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” conveys the truth that this God will not be our private possession.  Rather this God lays a claim and call upon the life of Moses, and if we too pay attention to the burning bushes that appear in our lives, will lay a claim and call upon our lives as well.

The one characteristic that is revealed about this mysterious God is compassion, that indeed this God hears the cries of the suffering of those he has given life to, and calls us to act in compassion to relieve that suffering.

Indeed, this God continues to appear to us in burning bushes of a multitude of forms if we are paying attention.

There was a burning bush that appeared this week in the midst of the suffering caused by Hurricane Harvey.  It is striking that a horrifying act of nature, as it brings forth so much destruction and suffering, at the same time calls forth the very best of people.   We have glimpsed the very image and likeness of God in all the stories of neighbors helping neighbors in Houston, acting courageously and selflessly to share what they have – and the stirring of hearts throughout the land asking, “How can I help?”

One such story — pretty small really.  Having heard that there was a single person left homeless at her local gas station in need of help, she went there and ended up bringing eleven people she had never met before as well as six dogs and a cat back to her home to live with her for a time.

Hurricane homeI am struck by the fact that it was only two weeks ago that the news with which we were consumed coming out of Charlottesville was that of division and racial hatred.  Now with the burning bush that has been the suffering wrought by Hurricane Harvey, all those divisions and bigotry seems so small, so petty.  In Houston we saw the distinctions between Black and White, between rich and poor, between Democrats and Republicans largely disappear as people had their lives stripped down to the bare essentials.  We realize that we really are all in this boat together.

Hurricane boat

Burning bushes though come in a host of other forms as well.  One such burning bush is the tragic story of Mallory Grossman, the 12 years old from just up the road in Rockaway who took her own life at the end school year last June following a year of bullying from classmates both at school and online.

Mallorgy Grossman

In the past ten years the rate of suicides in children ages 10 to 14 has nearly tripled.  In the burning bush that was Mallory’s suffering and death we are all called as a new school year begins this week to treat one another with tenderness and kindness, with a new awareness that the worst wounds are often the ones on the inside – the wounds we don’t see.

Last week in our Gospel lesson, Peter answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the answer, “You are the messiah, the son of the Living God” – not Caesar, but Jesus of Nazareth.  In the continuance of that story Jesus proceeds to tell his disciples that as the Lord’s anointed one he must go to Jerusalem to enter fully into the suffering of this world, to the point of death on a cross, confronting the cruelty of this world.  In response Peter tells him it need not be so, to which Jesus cries out. “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus, hanging on the cross, dying for every single one of us, is the ultimate burning bush, calling us from the preoccupations of our daily lives that we may embody the compassion that is at the heart of God.
In a few minutes we will share again the sacrament that reminds us of the death Jesus died for us.  The bread that is his broken body, and the cup that is his blood shed for us, we God calls to us once again.
If you are like me, if you are like Peter, if you are like Moses, your first response to the call and claim that Jesus would place upon our lives is to turn away — to say it is beyond us to do the great work of compassion to which God is calling us.  But as the call comes to us, we are given the same assurance that was given to Moses, and that is that God will be with us.  We are not alone.  Don’t be afraid.

A Strange Rock Indeed

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:15 pm on Sunday, August 27, 2017

A sermon preached on August 27th, 2017 based upon Matthew 16:13 – 20.

Maidie back

Our story this morning (Matthew 16:13-20) is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. So far in the Gospel story he has been wandering about Galilee, with the power of God clearly present in the healings he performed, but in other ways as well. Twice he has fed thousands of people who have followed him out into the wilderness.  Two times out in a boat at night on the sea of Galilee, the disciples have witnessed him first silence a storm and second, and then walk on the water.  When Jesus talks to his disciples they often seem confused.  We pick up the story as Jesus puts a crucial question to them.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi – the location where the conversation we are about to hear takes place is very significant. Originally the city had contained a shrine to the pagan god Pan, but the Romans came along and established a military outpost there. Herod the Great — known to us from the Christmas story — named the city after Caesar Augustus as a tribute to the emperor in Rome.

Later Herod’s son extended the size of the city, renaming it Caesarea Philippi making it not only a tribute to Caesar, but also to his own lineage, for he had a son named Philip.  “We may not be the top dogs,” he seemed to be saying, “but in the great chain of command that rules this world, we are just a notch from the top.”

So the city represents the way of this world, where a person’s identity is established by their ability to Lord it over others – to have people look down on.

Once upon a time in this country the KKK was seen as a respectable organization.  White men of stature openly took part in its activities.  In the past forty years, however, it has been primarily an organization of poor white males. Having bought into the way this world whereby to feel good about yourself you have to have somebody to look down on, they have clung to the notion that, “well, at least we can look down on blacks and Jews.”

This is what Caesarea Philippi represents.

he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

“Son of Man” was by far the most common title Jesus used for himself. There was, it seems an intentional ambiguity to the title.  On the one hand, it is an expression of humility, emphasizing the humanity Jesus has in common with all people.  He identifies himself with all of us.

But in the Book of Daniel there is a reference to the “Son of Man” as a heavenly figure who will come in the future to exercise divine judgment. The “Son of Man” is the one we are ultimately accountable to.

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The disciples repeat what they’ve been hearing from the people – that they are clearly impressed by Jesus, for the names they give are all great prophets of the past – people who clearly spoke for God in this world.  In particular, they spoke “truth to power” – they called out the kings of Israel when they failed to rule with justice, abusing their power by robbing from the poor.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ah, now the conversation suddenly gets very personal. No longer is this merely a matter of repeating the gossip the disciples have heard, or an intellectual discussion.  “Who am I,” Jesus wants to know, “for you?”

The impression you get is that for a moment there was stunned silence – the disciples avoiding eye contact, examining the backs of their hands perhaps — until Simon, the impulsive one finally breaks the silence.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The claim Simon is making is bold indeed.  There are two parts.  He names Jesus as the “messiah” – a Jewish term for the “anointed one” – “Christos” in Greek — as once long ago a young David was anointed by the prophet Samuel, indicating that though in the present moment he appeared merely a humble shepherd boy, he was nonetheless the very one God had chosen to replace corrupt King Saul who had failed to rule in line with God’s will.  Jesus is, therefore, the righteous King for whom the people have been waiting for centuries.

The second expression, “the Son of the living God,” is extraordinary, because there already was one who was commonly referred to as the “son of God,” and that was the Emperor Caesar in Rome, whom the city is named after.

The assertion being made here is one if spoken openly could get a person crucified for sedition.  Simon is claiming that contrary to the appearance of this world, Jesus – not Caesar in Rome – had the real authority in this world.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

On the surface, this sounds like a compliment to Simon, but the point being made here is that Simon hasn’t figured this out on his own.  That he has come up with the “right answer” does not mean Simon has special insight and wisdom – rather, he is just a very average Joe to whom God has chosen to reveal a truth missed by others far smarter than himself.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

There is a play on words here.  “Petros” is the Greek word for “rock.”  Simon is given a new name – essentially, “Rocky” – the rock upon which Jesus’ church will be built.

The irony, of course, is that from the stories we know of Simon Peter, he is anything but “solid as a rock.”  A little earlier in the story we have heard how Simon impulsively stepped out of the boat to stand on the water, only to promptly sink when fear overtook him.

Next week when the story continues, we will hear how Simon goes directly from receiving this blessing and revelation, to being called “Satan” when he shows he completely misunderstands the way of Jesus, the only individual to be so named.

And of course there is the story that later all four Gospels contain, how on the night Jesus is arrested Simon Peter will impulsively declare how he is superior to the other disciples in that he will never abandon Jesus, only to deny him three times before the night is over.

A strange rock indeed upon which to build his church.

and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Often “Hades” is translated “hell”, but that isn’t an accurate rendering.  Hades is simply the realm of the dead.

There is a great promise here.  The powers of death will not prevail over the church.  The church may go through hard times indeed, often losing its way.  Church buildings may close but the revelation of Jesus as Lord that is at the heart of who the church is will never be lost.

This past week, in the editorial page of the New York Times of all places, a young Chinese seminary student in Hong Kong penned a piece with the remarkable title, “I Worship Jesus, Not Xi Jinping (the supreme ruler of China.)” He spoke out in the piece of how the church in China was being oppressed and the leaders of the church were succumbing to the threats of violence imposed by the regime.

He knew that in proclaiming Jesus Lord and not Caesar, he would likely end up in prison and possibly be killed.  But he would not be silenced.  He was determined to speak the truth.  Contrary to appearances, Jesus is the one in the end before whom we will all be judged — not the Caesars of this world.

We do not have the religious oppression experienced in China in this country, but the pull of this world to get our marching orders from some source other than Jesus is nonetheless pretty powerful.

Long before apartheid was cracking in South Africa, Desmond Tutu, the little meek and mild archbishop would often speak to the defenders of apartheid. There was a constant, ringing theme of triumph in his words.  His message was this:

“We must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge. You are not God, you are mortals.  It is God whom we worship and God cannot be mocked.  You have already lost.  Come and join the winning side.”

Despite the threats of the powers of death and Hades, in the end, Jesus will win.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are all these jokes you hear about people meeting Peter at the gates of heaven, and not being allowed to enter until they answer some question he asks.  These jokes are all based on this verse.  Jesus gives Simon Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The jokes generally have very bad theology.  They miss the irony of Simon Peter as the rock upon which the church is built.  We don’t earn our place in the God’s kingdom; we are invited with the same grace Jesus extended to pathetic Simon Peter, who in the darkness of that long night denied Jesus three times.  I heard somebody suggest that when we think about Peter at the gates of heaven, we might do better to imagine the greeter at Walmart. This is not a place that is only open to the elite, to those who have proved themselves spiritually superior to others.  This is the place where there is room in the circle for all – for all us poor slobs on the bus.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

He tells them not to tell people that he is, indeed, the anointed one of God, because they do not yet understand the way of this messiah, which is the way of the cross.  The disciples — and all of us who call ourselves Christians — will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand the way of this messiah, because it is so different from the direction this world pulls us in.

In the end, Jesus reveals his greatness not be lording it over others, but by offering himself as a servant, who accepts death on a cross, dying for all people, not just some people, in order to reveal the extraordinary love that is at the heart of God. As he dies on the cross, the powers of death seem for a time to prevail.  But the story doesn’t end there.

The Lord rises from the dead.

Charlottesville and Jesus’ Own Cruel Racism

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:14 pm on Sunday, August 20, 2017

A sermon preached on August 20th, 2017 based upon Matthew 15:21-28.

Chip and boys

It is amazing that the story we just heard is even in the Bible, because it shows Jesus’ initial response to the desperate Canaanite woman seeking a healing for her daughter is one of racist cruelty.  First, he essentially says, “your kind isn’t welcome here.” Then when that doesn’t work to send her on her way, he resorts to a racial slur:  “You are a dog – not a child of God from house of Israel.  You are undeserving of the food I have come to bring!” You might have thought that in an attempt to show Jesus in the best light, the Gospel writers would have left the story out, but Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain the story.  But there it is.

Some people feel obliged to go through some mental gymnastics to try and get Jesus off the hook for his initial reaction, suggesting he was just testing the woman, or maybe giving an object lesson to his disciples.  They point out that the word translated “dog” can also be translated “puppy”, a term of endearment.  But people didn’t have dogs as pets in those days.  Dogs were wild scavengers.  At best dogs might be used for protection, but people didn’t sit around watching cute Youtube videos of puppies.  To call somebody a dog was to declare them less than fully human.

For me, however this story has always made Jesus more accessible, emphasizing the humanity he shares with us, as opposed to his divinity.   In this moment, tired and stressed, worn out by all the requests for help, Jesus’ access to the Holy Spirit is blocked.   He falls back on the brain circuitry formed in his childhood that absorbed the prejudices of his culture.  We’ve all been there.

It was striking that this was the Gospel reading on this week in which we have all been distressed by the news coming out of Charlottesville regarding the marching of White Supremacists and Neo Nazis carrying swastikas with their rage-filled  chants against Jews.  We watched the video of them carrying torches at night that intentionally evoked memories from the past of both the Nazis and the KKK rallies and lynchings, and then the violence that followed, especially the violence that led to the murder of a beautiful young woman named Heather who came there to stand against such hatred.

The first thing to be said is to emphasize the importance of naming evil when it clearly appears, and the ideologies of White Supremacy and Nazis are evil indeed.

But there is this problem with being a Christian and that is that Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to loving our enemies.   That who carried torches and swastikas chanting hatred have souls, and they are in danger of losing their souls to the demonic power of hate.  When we declare, that “we won’t let hate win”, what we must include in that assertion is that we won’t let our hatred of those who profess these ideologies to win either.

Part of what this morning’s Gospel story says is that to be a human being is to have this pull with us that blinds us to seeing people as individuals, but rather as merely a category, a stereotype, and to pass judgment on peoples’ souls when we have no right to do so.

Racism is a kind of demonic possession.  If you listened to the story of the young 20 year old man who was responsible for killing Heather in Charlottesville, it is hard to miss the inner woundedness that made him susceptible to the evil ideologies he had come to embrace.  His father was killed by a drunken driver when he was still in his mother’s womb, and the developing baby in a mother’s womb is damaged when their mother endures such trauma.  He grew up without a father, let alone older siblings who might fill in the gap.  His mother was disabled, confined to a wheelchair.  From early on he was clearly trapped in a place of unresolved rage that resonated with the evil ideologies of hatred of the Nazis and the White Supremacists.

So how do we love these people who are wounded in this way, and in danger of losing their souls to evil?

There is a lot of research that when it comes to trying to change the beliefs of others, arguing simply doesn’t work.   We form identities that are deeply connected to the beliefs we hold, and when somebody argues with us, threatening our beliefs, it threatens our sense of self and our instinct is to dig in our heels all the harder regarding to what we’ve come to believe is true.

Although there needs to be a clear condemnation of evil ideologies, goodness doesn’t triumph simply with condemnation.  Goodness, in the end, triumphs only through love.

So if arguing doesn’t change people, what does?  Stories change people.  Stories can speak to us in a way that arguments can’t.  That’s why Jesus told stories.  When a Pharisee wanted to argue with him over the question of “who is my neighbor for whom I have moral responsibility?” Jesus didn’t argue with the man.  He told a story about a man left beaten, half-dead at the side of the road with the only person willing to put himself out to help the man — doing so in a big way — was a Samaritan, a member of a race of people that Jesus’ listeners had grown up being taught to hate.

Not only the stories Jesus told, but the stories of what he did are powerful, describing him caring about the people others overlooked – others rejected.  And the most powerful story of all is the one of how Jesus embraced death on the cross for all people, refusing to embrace violence and hatred.

This morning’s story is an unusual because in a sense the usual roles are reversed.  It involves a Gentile woman who refuses to give up on Jesus, as if to say, “I know who you are Jesus – that you come from God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and I refuse to believe that this racism with which you are rejecting me is the final word from you – your deepest truth.  I won’t give in to this old racist belief you were taught as a child.  I will persist until you truly listen to my story, and take into your heart my suffering – the torment of my beloved, demon-possessed daughter.”

And in the end, Jesus’ heart is changed, which is also a powerful story to tell.   We don’t have to remain stuck.  We can impact one another for good, through love.

There is this progressive Christianity website I sometimes turn to for inspiration and this week it  posted an essay entitled, “Should We Be Okay with Punching a Nazi?” The author’s conclusion was, “Yes, we should.” My reaction was:  “A few hundred wounded birds carrying swastikas and confederate flags and chanting hateful slogans is all it takes for you to abandon the way of Jesus!?” which is not to say we are to sit passively by while neo-Nazis and white supremacists go out into the public to march.  We must stand firm in our witness against the evil of their ideologies, but violence is not Jesus’ way.

So stories are powerful, and at this moment of time it is important to choose carefully the stories we will tell one another.

We need to retell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line when he followed the way of Jesus, standing up against racism and injustice and declaring:

Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. . . . Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

The story of Nelson Mandela is another good one for us to tell now:  how he fought against Apartheid in South Africa, ending up spending 27 years in prison, living in a tiny cell under severe conditions, forced to perform back-breaking hard labor for his oppressors who routinely humiliated him.  As he suffered in prison, his fame grew as he became the symbol of the resistance to an evil regime.  When he came forth from that prison cell he did so without a spirit of vengeance but of peace and reconciliation, eventually becoming South Africa’s first black president, and leading the way to the healing of his very broken and divided nation.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he wrote, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He also wrote words well worth our reflection at this moment in history:  “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

I continually come back to the power of listening to one another’s stories, and how infrequently we have the opportunity to do so.  Every time I give a eulogy, telling something of the story of the person’s life, some of us always say, “I wished I had known the story while they were still living. I would have appreciated them all the more.”

I have this conviction that if we were given the opportunity to truly listen as pretty much any other person told us their story – their real story without the veneer, that includes not only the good stuff that happened, but the struggles, the pain and sorrow they knew in the course of their journey, the wounds they received – we would find ourselves responding with love and compassion.   We would recognize the human being who longs for love, the soul that seeks redemption.

So let us seek to listen to one another’s stories, and let us tell stories that move and inspire, that together we may call forth the better angels of our nature.

Transmuting sadness and disappointment into compassion and connection

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:50 pm on Sunday, August 6, 2017

A sermon preached on August 6th, 2017 based upon Matthew 14:13 – 21

Jesus feeds 5000

With the death of Lois on Monday, and of Fred on Tuesday I didn’t have much time until yesterday to think about this morning’s sermon.  Early in the week I glanced at the lectionary and saw the familiar story of the feeding of the 5000 people, and thought that would fit well with communion. I also took note of the fact that immediately before this Matthew tells the story of the evil that possessed King Herod’s family, which led to John the Baptist’s murder at Herod’s birthday party dinner, the news of which seems to lead Jesus to withdraw into the wilderness specifically in order to grieve.  And since we are grieving for Lois and Fred, I made a mental note that this was a place of connection to our experience as well.

Yesterday I finally got some time to focus on the Gospel passage, and one of the things I noticed was the story that immediately precedes the story of John the Baptist’s murder, and that is the story of Jesus’ trip back to his hometown of Nazareth.

It doesn’t go well.  Apparently, as surprising as this may seem, when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, he didn’t stand out, at least in any way that would suggest, “Hey, we’ve got the future savior of the world here!” The people simply knew him as “the carpenter’s son” and as the son of Mary, and as the brother to various siblings who apparently still lived there when Jesus came for a return visit.

They took offense when Jesus began to teach – implying that he had something of great importance for them to hear – something they didn’t already know.  They thought they knew Jesus, and were upset by the notion that they didn’t really know him, and they rejected Jesus when he claimed differently.

So if you think about it, this too must have been a very painful, sorrowful thing for Jesus to experience — being rejected in his hometown.  To be a stranger to the people he’d grown up with, to have them not understand him.

This must have made the murder of John the Baptist all the more painful for Jesus, because of all the people in this world, you could make the case that John was the one person who came closest to “knowing” and understanding Jesus.

The people who should “know” him – the people he grew up with – don’t really know him at all, and the one person who understood something of the great love that had taken possession of Jesus – defining who he truly was – was no longer with him here on earth.

There is a prophesy in Isaiah that describes the coming messiah this way:  “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3a)  That’s who we have at the beginning of our story this morning when we hear that Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The crowds hear of his retreat into the wilderness however and follow him there, and so strangely, although it can’t be said that the crowd truly “knew” him or “understood” him, without the preconceptions of the hometown folk they nonetheless seem to have perceived in him something the hometown folks couldn’t take in.

This got me thinking about Lois and her funeral.  If you were able to make the funeral, you may have noticed that there were basically two groups of people present.

The first group was made up by those of us who knew Lois through our church – her spiritual family.  The second group knew her as a member of their biological family.  It would certainly be accurate to say that this second group “loved” Lois.  They’d known her their entire lives, and because of that life-long knowing they were probably pretty confident they had a good handle on who she was.

But there was a certain limitation to how they knew Lois.  They knew her simply as the sweet aunt who was always there at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and at weddings and baptisms and graduations, but since she lived some distance from them, she was not someone involved in their week to week lives.

The one exception I think was Lois’ niece Mary Lou, but as she described when she spoke yesterday, she only came to know Lois in a deeper way in the past nineteen months when it fell to her to look after her aunt and make decisions about her care.   Mary Lou acknowledged that the role she found herself in wasn’t easy — indeed it was at times very hard — but she was quite clear that God had given her this time with Lois as a gift and that the experience had permanently changed her for the better.  We would all say the same.

You’ve probably heard me make reference during my Sunday morning prayers of thanksgiving to “people who have lived many years upon this earth, and through the many ups and downs of life have come to shine a bright light.” Lois was always one of the people I had in mind.

And it was we, her church family who were allowed to see something of that bright light, and it was her biological family who maybe only yesterday first caught a glimpse of the brightness of that light in the course of our celebration of her life.

Now if Lois is listening to me from heaven, I can imagine her rolling her eyes at me and laughing, insisting that all this praise is misplaced, which is what she did whenever we would sing her praises when she was with us here on earth.

She would tell us that she was far from perfect, acknowledging in so many words that within her were all the same dark feelings and thoughts to which the rest of us are prone.  But she was special, and what was special about her wasn’t that she was some kind of cardboard saint who never felt anything but kindness and joy.

Although she most often appeared with a smile on her face, her life included a significant amount of sorrow and disappointment.  Over time however, through her faith and her commitment to her church family, Lois had learned the secret of day by day letting God transmute her pain into compassion and connection rather than to bitterness and isolation, and this she learned in the end, from Jesus.

So in our story Jesus goes off by himself, heavy-hearted with loneliness and grief, and this great crowd of hurting people follows him out into the wilderness.   And he looks out at them, and it would have been understandable if he were to resent their presence, but he didn’t seem to, instead, he looked out at them and recognized the same pain he knew, and Matthew tells us, he had compassion on them.  He walked among them, and his presence was experienced by them as healing.

If we let it, grief opens up our hearts – making possible a connection to others that is not always there.  We recognize how precious life is, how easily we lose track of what matters and what doesn’t.

Think back to the days immediately after 9/11 – how all the impatience and irritation and resentments we routinely feel towards people, including the strangers we bump into in the course of our lives just fell away, and we felt for a time a deep connection in our common grief, our common humanity.  I think something like that took place that day with Jesus.

Out there in the wilderness, a feast of food, but more importantly of grace, was shared by all the people.  There was enough – more than enough for everybody — room for everybody.  So different from the feast that was held at Herod’s birthday party – a feast of gluttony to which only the most privileged were invited.

The party Jesus threw out there in the wilderness was the kind Lois would have loved – where all are welcome and there’s room for everybody. A party where it’s okay to cry if that’s what you need to do, but after you cry your tears out, you end up laughing, because the love at the party is just that beautiful.

It is to such a party that we are all about to be invited to come and share in, as we share together the body and blood of our savior, Jesus the Christ.

A very long and dramatic story is coming to a climax

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:56 pm on Sunday, July 30, 2017

A sermon preached on July 30th 2017 based upon Romans 8:26 – 39.

Caesar

The verse that caught my attention in our reading was this one:

“For those whom (God) foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (8:29)

It includes that word “predestined,” as in “predestination” – a doctrine that is troubling for most of us.  Predestination is the notion that from the beginning of time God pre-destined certain persons to be redeemed – to be the “elect” who would enter into the kingdom of God – with the corollary being that all other people were “pre-destined” by God from the beginning of time to be damned.

The important thing to note here is that Paul is writing to a particular group of Christians who are in need of some serious encouragement, because lately life has been a mighty struggle for them. Paul is not at this moment addressing himself to anybody else. He doesn’t say specifically that there are people pre-destined for damnation, which is a good thing, because the God expressed in such a doctrine is a cruel god indeed – not the God that Jesus came to reveal.

So, if you didn’t already know, you will be relieved to learn that John Wesley – the father of the Methodist movement — rejected the doctrine of predestination, declaring that it is God’s desire that all people would be redeemed through Christ.   The only thing that stands in the way of that happening is the fact that God made us with some measure of free will, leaving it to us to decide whether to accept or reject the grace freely offered in Jesus.

But this morning I don’t want to talk about the doctrine of predestination – what I want to focus on is the idea expressed in this verse which is that from the beginning of time there has been a purpose written into creation — a “destination” if you will towards which the creation has been moving – a moment in time in which a creature would evolve with the capacity for a conscious, unbroken, freely chosen loving relationship with the Creator.

And that with the coming of Christ the fulfillment of this purpose has begun to emerge – that Jesus was the “first born” of what God intends will be a very “large family.”  And that the ultimate purpose written into our lives is to “conform our lives to His image”— to reach our destination of becoming “Christ-like,” embracing our place in the family of God.

A similar thought is expressed a few verses before this morning’s reading where Paul says,

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (8:20)

That all of creation has been eagerly waiting, indeed longing for the appearance of Jesus Christ and the family he would birth through the Holy Spirit.

Now God gave us a certain capacity to reason, and intended us to put it to use, and part of what I think that means is that we are obliged to respect the findings of science about the nature of creation.  For instance, we can’t just reject the theory of evolution simply because the story of creation found in Genesis doesn’t specifically portray life “evolving.”

The research of biologists has shown that it is reasonable to believe in evolution, but that doesn’t mean God couldn’t be the one who designed this operating system we call “evolution.” It is a marvelous thing that, though trial and error is a part of it, there is this operating system underlying all of life that perpetually leads to ever-more-complex forms of life, bringing us over time to this moment in history in which we human beings walk upon the earth.

Reason alone can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, but every so often science stumbles upon something that makes scientists themselves stop and wonder.  There was such a moment in the 20th century when a consensus was reached among physicists and astronomers that the universe did in fact have a specific beginning – the so-called “big bang which took place approximately 15 billion years ago, with life first appearing 3.5 billion years ago.

Now it wasn’t simply the fact that there was a beginning to the universe when previously it was assumed there wasn’t, nor was it the mystery of what caused that first “big bang.” The thing that captured the attention of astronomers and physicists, filling them with wonder was the undeniable fact that from that very beginning, the universe seemed to have been “designed” – indeed, “fine tuned” in a particular way that was required to make it possible over what from our perspective was very long time for not only life, but the awe-inspiring complexity of human life to come into being.

Here is how one writer I came across put it:

“As early as the 1980s, physicist Paul Davies concluded that the physical evidence for design of the universe and of Earth for human life could rightly be described as overwhelming. Today no physicist or astronomer who has researched the question denies that the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, and the solar system possess compelling hallmarks of intentional design for human life.  Many researchers have commented over the past twenty years that it seems the universe ‘knew’ humans were coming.”

Now this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of physicists who adamantly resist the conclusion that there is a God behind everything, but these discoveries presented them with challenges to their conviction that there is no God – that everything in the end is utterly random.   (One of the ways they have sought to get around the apparent design of our universe was to theorize that there are actually an infinite number of universes – each structured differently – with the idea being that we just happen to have the good luck of finding ourselves on the one randomly structured in such a way that human life could become a possibility.)

Nonetheless, it is striking that the notion suggested by certain astronomers that“the universe ‘knew’ humans were coming” echoes the words of the Apostle Paul who, without the benefit of the insights of science, declared that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

Paul wrote the words we heard Bob read by way of encouraging certain Christians who were undergoing a time of great suffering.  And here is the thing: when we are going through intense suffering — and we all have such times — it makes all the difference in the world whether we  view our lives as being inherently meaningful or altogether devoid of meaning. As Victor Frankl who survived the horror of a Nazi concentration camp put it, “He who has a ‘why’ to live (that is, a purpose) can bear with almost any ‘how’” (that is, any trial or tribulation.)

I think the great blight on our time – of our affluent, technologically advanced culture — is that there is this haunting sense of meaninglessness that underlies our culture.  We are rich in things but poor in spirit.  We can choose between a hundred different kinds of tooth paste and a million different websites to visit, but what difference does it really make if life itself has no higher meaning?  The sense of the sacred gets lost in our consumer driven culture.

But stop and consider the implications of the idea that for 15 billion years the whole creation has been moving towards this particular moment in time when conscious creatures with free will — you and me, and every other human being – would finally make our appearance on earth.  The thing is, though — merely finding ourselves here doesn’t in itself fulfill the great destiny towards which creation has been moving over all these years.  The 15 billion dollar question is, “What will each of us do with this opportunity given to us as conscious, free creatures?”

Will we open ourselves up to the Spirit of Christ?  Will we seek “to be conformed,” as Paul puts it, “to the image of God’s son,” embracing our place in the family of God?

Or will we drop the ball so to speak.

I recently went to the movies for the first time in a long time, and was struck how in the darkness of a movie theater it is possible to get absolutely caught up in the story line of the central character of the movie.  More often than not the main character is someone we readily can identify with because like ourselves, they possess a mixture of strengths and weaknesses; they get discouraged at times, feel like a loser, maybe consider giving up.

The movie draws us in because we find ourselves caring about what happens to the main protagonist, so we sit there on the edge of our seats waiting to see what will happen as the drama builds to the climactic final scenes, which inevitably revolves around some choice the main character must make.   Will the story end up a tragedy, or will it be a story that inspires?  It all comes down to the choices the character makes, and the help the character opens him or herself up to along the way.

Curiously, the movie I went to see was “The War of the Planet of the Apes” in which the intriguing plot twist involves the fact that it is the super-intelligent apes – specifically the main character, their leader named “Caesar” who, in the end, steps up to the plate to act in a Christ-like manner, while the human beings drop the ball.

So, what I’m getting at is that contrary to what our consumer conveys to us, our lives actually resemble a totally engrossing movie with a storyline that began 15 billion years ago.   More often than not, however we miss the great drama behind our lives and the sense that the story is, in fact, heading to a climax. We lose the big picture, and get lost in the routine, our lives often seeming to us meaningless and insignificant when in fact, as Paul tells us the entire creation has been waiting with eager longing to see if we will reveal ourselves to be the children of the Creator.

So, as I said before, Paul was writing to encourage some early Christians who were in dire need of encouragement.  The discouragement they were dealing with was coming from both within themselves and from outside themselves.

In chapter 7, Paul makes himself remarkably vulnerable, acknowledging the discouragement that arises from within in his attempts to follow Christ. “I can will what is right,” he says, “but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”(7:15,19)  Paul wants to live a life of love, but lo and behold, he finds this other stuff rising up inside him – the enduring power of sin in his life – leading him at times to feel like a failure.

We know how he feels.  We aspire to be a loving, faithful presence in this world, but often instead we find these parts of ourselves that just refuse to get with the program:  feelings of fear and resentment, envy and anger.  We start thinking that we’re frauds, failures — like just giving up.

And then in chapter 8 Paul focuses on the things that happen to us, from the outside. He mentions “troubles, hard times, people hating us, ending up homeless, getting bullied, stabbed in the back” (– these are the words Eugene Peterson uses to paraphrase Paul’s words in 8:35.)

He talks about how throughout all of this there is this realization that comes to us that we should be praying, but we feel absolutely clueless regarding how to pray, or what to pray about — just overwhelmed and confused.

And these voices of condemnation arise, some from outside of ourselves, but the worst ones come from the inside, telling us, “You’re no good.”  “You’re worthless.”  “You should just give up now.”

And in the face of all this, Paul declares the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who is in a position to condemn?”  Only one person, and that is Jesus, but Jesus does not condemn us — he loves us so much he gave his life for us.

So we don’t have to be afraid of those voices, either from outside or inside, because the only voice that matters is Jesus’ voice, and he has declared us worthy of dying for.  And so we can acknowledge our failings, our stumblings without shame – we can simply get back up and try again — because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And in our times of confusion, when we don’t even know what to pray for – not to worry says Paul, the Spirit prays for us, with sighs too deep for words.

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Jesus has won the victory for us.

(We concluded by singing “Victory in Jesus” which was Jack Kelshaw’s favorite hymn, and therefore also a favorite of Lois Kelshaw who will soon be crossing over to the far side to join Jack who departed this world 28 years ago.)


Getting off the Judgment Seat

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:08 pm on Sunday, July 23, 2017

A sermon preached upon July 26, 2017 based upon  Matthew 13:24 – 30.  1-Shack Jud

So, a there is this field in which good seed has been planted with the intention of bringing forth a harvest of wheat, but as the plants first appear, behold, there are weeds that arise as well.

Now parables include surprises, and on one level, there is a surprise in the fact that the field hands are surprised.

Of course there are weeds!  What did you expect?  As long as gardeners have planted seeds, there have been weeds to contend with in the gardens, and gardeners have always devoted plenty of time to pulling up the weeds.

And then a second surprise.  When the farm hands offer to go and pull out the weeds, the farmer tells them,

“No, don’t do that, lest in doing so, you accidently pull out the wheat as well. Let them grow together side by side, and we’ll sort things out at harvest time”

a sorting which — from the farmer’s point of view – would seem far more difficult if you don’t start pulling weeds well before you get to the harvest.

The parable has something to do with the problem of evil in this world.

The weeds, we are told are the work of a devious, secretive “enemy”, who has planted them while the farm hands weren’t watching, with the apparent intention of wreaking havoc the farmer’s field.

So, the parable addresses the question I hope to address on Tuesday night:  How do we understand evil and suffering in this world from a Christian perspective?

Why does the farmer – an apparent stand in for God — allow the weeds to exist in his garden in the first place?  And why does he tell his servants to forgo pulling out the weeds?

Isn’t it our duty to make judgments between what and who is evil in this world, and wherever possible to rip out the evil?

Some of the men of the church recently read a book called “The Shack”, which also deals with the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  The book was turned into a movie, and for me one of the most powerful scenes deals with this question of rendering judgment, and in a moment I want to show you the scene.

But first a little background to set the stage.

The main character is a man named Mac, the father of five children.

As a child, Mac was left emotionally and spiritually wounded by a terribly cruel father who was fond of quoting Bible verses when he physically abused his son.  In spite of this, Mac had grown up to be a loving father of several children.

Six years earlier from what takes place in the book, Mac had taken a camping trip with his three youngest children, Josh, Katie and little Missy.   Because of work, his wife Nan couldn’t come with them, but even so, the trip had been extraordinarily happy — that is until the horrible thing that happened on the last day.

Josh and Katie were out on the lake for a canoe ride, when Katie raised her paddle to wave to her Dad on the shore, causing the canoe to capsize.  Katie quickly surfaced, but Josh was trapped beneath, and in a panic Mac swam out to rescue his son, which after a struggle, he succeeded in doing.

But while everybody’s attention was distracted little Missy back at the camp site was abducted by a man possessed by evil.  In spite of an intense massive pursuit by law enforcement, it soon became apparent that Missy has been murdered, although neither Missy’s body, nor the abductor would ever be seen again.

The family, of course is absolutely devastated.  A “great sadness” descended upon Mac, along with profound sense of betrayal by God.

Six years after Missy’s abduction Mac receives in his mailbox a mysterious note addressed to him from “Papa” — the term of endearment Mac’s wife Nan commonly used for God — inviting Mac to come to a weekend get together.  The location where the visit is to take place is none other than the “shack” — the old hunting cabin deep in the woods which was the last location where the abductor was known to have taken Missy, and where evidence was found that she was murdered.

And though deeply conflicted and highly skeptical, Mac decides to accept the invitation, and the body of the book is what happens there at the Shack.

The scene I’m about to show you is one I found particularly compelling.  Mac has been led into a large cave where he meets Sophia, a woman who embodies “Wisdom”.   She begins by asking Mac, “You don’t believe that God is good?”, and when he replies, “No, I don’t believe God is good,” she invites Mac to sit upon the throne of judgment.

View scene:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUiW7bOqGPA

How exactly do you separate the weeds from the wheat?

Who is worthy of judgment, and who isn’t?

It may have been hard to follow all that was said in this scene, so I want to review what we just watched.

Sophia points out that although Mac, and we ourselves, are reluctant to admit the fact we routinely pass judgment on the people we meet in life, on the very slimmest of evidence.  We claim the knowledge to sort the weeds from the wheat.

We are, in fact, all connected.  The father who beat Mac was once a little boy terrified by his own father who beat him as well.  And the man who abducted Missy once was a child who had a father who “twisted him into this deviant monster.”

And they too are God’s children, who God loves, even as they do things that break the heart of God.

Sophia presents Mac with a choice between two of his own children. One must go to heaven, she declares, the other to hell.  Mac resists, but nonetheless Sophia presses him to render a judgment:  she points out that they have both done things that have hurt their father, things he wasn’t even necessarily aware of.

He refuses.

“Take me.  Send me to hell. Leave my children out of this.”

Sophia smiles tenderly.  “You’ve judged your kids worthy of love, even if it costs you everything.  Now you know Papa’s heart.”

But still Mac clutches tightly to his anger that God — also known as Papa — did not stop Missy from suffering at the hands of the sick, twisted man who took her life.

He declares Missy undeserving of such pain — his wife and surviving children as undeserving of such pain, but he’s not so sure about himself.  Perhaps he deserved such punishment, but not them.

“Is that who your God is? What happened to Missy is the work of evil and no one in this world is immune from it.  You want the promise of a pain free life. There isn’t.  As long as there’s another will in this universe, free not to follow God, evil can find a way in.”

“There has to be a better way,” Mac finally says.

“There is,” is the last thing we hear Sophia say.

The expression, “better way,” echo the worlds of the Apostle Paul, in his introduction to the great love chapter:  “The more excellent way” is the way of love:

“Love is patient, love is kind… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things hopes all things.  Love never ends.”

We all will be judged by God for the choices we make in this life, but the one who judges us loves us more than we know.  We are all God’s children, for whom God is willing to suffer and die.  So let us resist the impulse to judge others, and let us trust the God whose heart is merciful.

The Sower with the Seeds of Life

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:39 pm on Sunday, July 16, 2017

A sermon preached on July 16, 2017 based upon Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23.Jeff and Seeds

The Gospel writers tell us that when Jesus taught, he used parables: little stories taken from ordinary, commonplace happenings that invite us to climb inside to experience some kind of surprise, through which we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  The parable we heard is particularly significant in that it is the first parable told, introducing the theme of “seeds”, which will be the subject several more parables Jesus will go on to tell.

If we ask, what is the essence of a seed? The answer it would seem is that a seed represents the potential for life.  Seeds are small — easily overlooked, but within a seed there is the capacity for a great abundance of life to arise.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says straight out, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In the early portions of the Gospels we hear of Jesus giving life to many.  He heals the sick, he forgives those troubled by the sins they have committed, and he feeds the hungry.   He fills people with hope who otherwise would be tempted to despair.

People are drawn to him because the life force within him is powerful and un-mistakable, and in his presence they find themselves becoming more alive.  At certain points in the Gospels we are told that Jesus taught, but not told what the words were he spoke; rather, we are simply told that the people marveled how Jesus “taught with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees” – which is to say it was more than the particular words he spoke – it was the manner in which he spoke them.  People sensed they were listening to a man who was deeply, intimately connected to God, the source of all life.  His very presence awakened inside them a greater vitality for life.

Do you know what I mean when I say that inside all of us, there are two great competing impulses?  Speaking Biblically, the struggle is between that part of our nature that is made in the image and likeness of God, and that part which is captive to the destructive power of sin.  There is a voice inside us that recognizes life is a precious gift and like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would shout, “I want to live!” But there is also an opposing voice that says things like, “I’m no good – I’m a failure” or, “My life is a tedious, meaningless burden.  I might as well be dead.”

This is also the struggle between the impulse to love, to share, to recognize that we are all connected, and the impulse to harden our hearts, to treat others callously and cruelly, to look down on others, or to look at others with envy.

It is the struggle inside us between the willingness to trust, to have faith, to feel gratitude and that part of us in which fear and anxiety rule the day.

The people who responded to Jesus’ ministry were those who readily acknowledged this struggle within them — people for whom it oftentimes seemed like the “temptations of darkness” were prevailing.   They struggled with profound feelings of unworthiness, failing to keep the tenets of the Law.  They tended to be poor, weary from of the tedium of life and the struggle simply to survive.  They were tempted to give up.

And so they were pretty amazed when they encountered Jesus and in his presence they suddenly experienced their internal struggle shifting.  In his eyes they were worthy, in his presence, life felt again like a gift — that they didn’t have to be so afraid, and their desire to love and to share was strengthened.

But there were others who had the opposite reaction to Jesus.  His presence was not experienced as blessing, but rather as threat.  These were the people who in a certain sense seemed to be succeeding in saying “Yes” to their lives.  They tended to be better off financially, leading them to feel more self-sufficient, their lives seeming secure and stable.  They didn’t consciously struggle with feelings of unworthiness, and this was because they divided human beings into two basic categories, the sinners and the righteous, the good people and the bad people, and they had succeeded in convincing themselves that they were the “good people.”

In truth though, their sense of worthiness and stability was actually far more fragile than they cared to admit.  It depended to a large extent upon their capacity to look down on others, to feel superior.

So when Jesus came claiming to speak for God, comfortably keeping the company of the people they habitually looked down upon, conveying to these poor souls that they were in fact treasured by God, it threatened them, leading them to angrily lash out at Jesus.  And their hostility towards Jesus really spiraled out of control when he responded to their criticisms by calling them out for their hypocrisy – naming their self-righteousness and hardness of heart as expressions of sin at work in their lives — a more dangerous form of sin because of how easily it hides under a appearance of righteousness.

Jesus wanted to offer them a deeper, richer form of life – the kingdom of God — but in their eyes he simply threatened the hold they thought they already had on life.

The parables Jesus told were themselves like little seeds, intended to call forth life from those who could take in what they had to say.

Parables aren’t allegories, the meaning of which you can quickly grasp once and for all because all the parts of the story are easily identified as representing something else.  Twice in our passage Jesus speaks of the need to listen deeply to parables – implying that a certain willingness is required to patiently struggle with them, allowing the seeds they would plant to go deeper and deeper inside our hearts.

But we all tend to lack the patience parables require, and the Gospel writers themselves were no different.  They would sometimes try to turn a parable into an easy-to-understand allegory, which is what happens in the passage we heard after Jesus had told the parable about the seeds to anybody who was willing to truly listen.  Even though the parable is called “the parable of the Sower,” Matthew has Jesus privately give an interpretation of the parable to the disciples that completely bypasses the sower.  This interpretation focuses instead on the four types of soil, or lack thereof, into which the seeds fall, with each type representing different kinds of people.

The seeds, we are told, represent the word of God.  Some people are like the hardened ground that doesn’t allow the seeds to penetrate the soil, allowing birds to come and carry the seeds away — people who never understand what Jesus is saying.  Others people are like rocky soil – they initially have some understanding, but the understanding doesn’t penetrate deeply and so when hard times come, they forget what they heard.  The third type – the soil covered with thorns – are people who initially understand the word of God, but they lose their way, distracted by the lure of riches and the values of this world that conflict with the values of the kingdom of God.  And the fourth type, well they’re the good soil, the people who hear the word and spend the rest of their lives living out of what they have heard and understand.

Now this interpretation has some value.  It invites us to ask ourselves, have I really understood what Jesus was trying to say?  Have I forgotten what he had to say when times get rough?  Have I been distracted by the seductions of this world from trying to live a life centered in God’s kingdom?

These are good things to think about for sure.

But the thing that is unhelpful about this interpretation is that once again – just like the scribes and the Pharisees — it divides people up into distinct types:  the good soil people and then the various shades of bad soil people.  It can lead us to patting ourselves on the back – “I’m sure glad I’m one of the good soil people!” Or perhaps more likely, it can tempt us to despair.  “I’m one of the bad ones.  I know that often I just don’t get what Jesus is talking about.  When things get rough, I recognize how quickly I falter in my faith.  And when I’m honest, I recognize the many ways I’m easily seduced by the concerns of this world.   So, I guess I’m not worthy of the kingdom.  I might as well give up.”

The interpretation becomes more helpful, I think when we hear it not as different types of people, but rather as different parts of ourselves.  “Yep, all those things are true about me, but there is also a place inside me where the seed of the Gospel has been planted, even when I can’t locate that place.” This interpretation allows us to get away from a good guys/bad guys interpretation and to hear instead a “we’re all in this together” interpretation.

But the biggest problem with this interpretation is that it misses the central character of the story.  This is, after all, “the Parable of the Sower”.  And when we focus on the Sower – reflecting on what it would if the Sower is in some sense an expression of God and God’s activity in this world — well, that’s where the element of surprise comes in.

I mean, why is this sower so darn inefficient? If we were the sower, we would take more care, wouldn’t we?  We’d be more intentional about making sure the seeds land in places they could have a better chance of taking root and bringing forth a great harvest.  We wouldn’t just toss the seeds here, there and everywhere.  What a waste!  Thank God for the technological advances we have today that allow farmers to plant seeds so much more rapidly and efficiently.  Shouldn’t God be more like one of those fancy John Deere motorized seeders with computers that can precisely project seeds at the rate calculated to match the speed of the tractor so pretty much every single seed lands where it’s supposed to?

If you think about it, this objection is similar to the criticism that the Pharisees and scribes made of Jesus.  “If you really are from God, you wouldn’t be wasting your time on all this riff raff.  These taxcollectors and sinners.  These prostitutes.  These pathetic, broken wretches. You would spend your time with people like us – people who spend countless hours pouring over the words God gave us in the Torah in order to be ‘good soil’ for the God’s word to be planted.,

“And why do you waste so much of your time with this motley crew of disciples you’ve called:  Fishermen, tax-collectors, political nutcases.  They clearly aren’t the ‘best and the brightest.’”

And they had a point. Time and again the disciples showed themselves to be the hardened soil that is absolutely clueless about what Jesus is trying to teach them.   “Why, oh Jesus, did you invest so much time witch such a pathetic cast of characters?”

But the sower just keeps on casting those seeds to the four winds, spending little time worrying where they land.  Ever patient, ever trusting that seeds will land where they will find receptive soil.

So in the end, this parable is about God’s amazing grace – an antidote to our temptation to despair.  God doesn’t give up on us, even if we’re tempted to give up on ourselves.  God just keeps casting all those seeds out — seeds with the potential to call forth new life in the strangest places — knowing that some will find the soil they need.  Have no fear!

And oftentimes seeds do take root in the most surprising places. Sometimes it is in the darkest hours that people discover just how strong the life force is that rises up within them, like Jimmy Stewart’s cry of “I want to live!” That when life seems threatened, it’s preciousness becomes all the clearer, and all that truly matters comes rising clearly to the surface.

Rachel Naomi Remen has a memory that dates back to when she was fourteen and living in the city of New York.  She was amazed one day walking down the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue when her eye caught the sight of two tiny blades of grass growing up through the cement, standing their gazing down upon it with people bumping into her.  It struck her as truly miraculous, this powerful life force driving a seed planted in the harshest of environments.

The image of those blades of grass rising up through the cement became an important one for her when later as a young college student she received a diagnosis of Crone’s disease.  She was told she needed to drop out of college, live her life very cautiously, and that she could not expect to live past forty.   But a determination rose up within her that refused to give up, that she would study to become a medical doctor and now in her eighties she continues to share the wisdom she has gained of the spiritual dimensions of healing and wholeness.

The Divine Sower is there in the midst of our lives continually casting those seeds of the Kingdom of God.

And know this as well:  you have the capacity to cast seeds of the Kingdom of God to the four winds as well.  To touch lives with graciousness in a way that, beyond our knowledge, can profoundly call for the life force within them as well.

On the Desire to Protect Our Children

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:26 pm on Sunday, June 18, 2017

A sermon preached on June 18th, 2017 — Father’s Day — based upon Romans 5:1-5

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Fatherhood.  Traditionally throughout history the focus of a father’s role has been as the provider and protector of his children, and although in recent decades the role has expanded, I want to focus for a moment on the theme of protecting our kids, which of course, is a concern also shared as by mothers.   Instinctively we want to protect our children from depravation and harm — from all the possible ways this world could injure them.

In recent years an expression has entered our lexicon – the “helicopter parent” – referring to particular parents who “hover” over their children, trying as much as possible to manage every aspect of their child’s life.

But it seems to me that because of the ways over time our culture has shifted, in comparison to the parents of a couple of generations past, most of us parents today are to some extent “helicopter parents.”  In part this has to do with the perception that the threats out there — whether real or imagined, and I think there are some of both – are greater now than they were when I was a kid.

Those of us of my generation remember a time when if we didn’t have school and the weather was decent our parents would likely encourage us to get out of the house – to meet up with other neighborhood kids to find ways to entertain ourselves, altogether unsupervised by adults.  “Just be home in time for supper!” our mother would say.

That doesn’t happen much these days.

There was a day when if a child was going to become an accomplished athlete it would be because the child went out every chance the child got to find likeminded children to play ball with. These days, as I know from personal experience, if a kid is going to become skilled in a certain sport it will only happen if the parent is able and willing to spend countless hours chauffeuring the child to supervised practices and games, where the parent often has little choice but to wait till their kid is done, inevitably spending the time watching the child from afar.

The culture has changed, and the result is we are more aware of our kid’s day to day struggles, and with this awareness, the instinct to protect kicks in.

So to greater or lesser extent we all hover over our children – I know I have — and we do this because we want to protect our children, with this protection extending beyond the dangers of abductions and the like.   We naturally want to protect our children from threats of other kinds as well.

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we were given super powers allowing us to be the ultimate helicopter parent – allowing us to pull invisible strings that determined the outcome of all our child’s experiences.

It goes without saying that we would protect our children from having to face starvation, homelessness, and violence as well as from getting sick or injured, or suffering some kind of disability.

But our invisible string pulling wouldn’t end there – we’d arrange it so that our children never got rejected, or teased, or bullied on the school playground.  We’d make sure they never got lonely – that they’d always have plenty of good-natured friends.  We’d have them always experience success in their studies. When they played sports, we’d make sure they never sat on the bench, or got chewed out by a hot-headed coach — that they’d win most of the time, and at least once have the experience of winning a championship.

As they grew older, we certainly wouldn’t allow them to get into a car accident, or abuse drugs or alcohol, let alone become addicted.  When they began to date, we’d want to make sure they never got their hearts broken.  We’d arrange to have them accepted into any colleges or graduate programs they choose, where they’d succeed, and upon graduation get the jobs they want in their chosen careers, where they would experience success and advance nicely in their careers.

Of course if we were really going to succeed at smoothing the road ahead for our children, we’d need the power to go back before the moment of conception and pick their DNA so they would be innately smart, good looking, athletic, not pre-disposed to depression or any other serious illness — all of which as we speak is actually becoming a real possibility in the future with the technology presently being developed for genetic engineering.

You probably see where I’m heading with this.

Loving our kids, our instinct is to protect them from pain, and a good part of this has to do with the fact that it causes us pain to watch them suffer, but if we were to succeed on the level I’m describing we would likely end up with offspring that were extraordinarily shallow, self-centered and lacking in the capacity to feel compassion for others.

And if somewhere along the way we were to lose our superpowers to protect them and our children found themselves encountering for the first time failure, rejection, loneliness, heartbreak, or sickness, well, in all likelihood, they simply wouldn’t be able to cope with it.  They would never have had the opportunity to develop what psychologists call “grit.”

The Apostle Paul was getting at the same point when he invites us to

boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

It’s a truth we resist, but without some measure of pain and suffering in our life, qualities like perseverance, character and a hope that endures – will never grow within us.

The greatest people among us are always those who have overcome some kind of serious adversity in their lives – people who have experienced the truth of the hymn we will later sing, in which our heavenly Parent with a wisdom infinitely greater than our own declares:

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace, all sufficient shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design  thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

If you ask most parents, “what is it you want for your child?” most of us, myself included, would instinctively reply, “I simply want them to be happy.”

And although this answer comes from a place of love I think it’s actually a mistaken goal, because what we call “happiness” is very elusive — dependent upon so many things that aren’t under a person’s control.

What we should hope for our children is that they come to have a deep sense of meaning and purpose to their lives – that they would come to know that mystery Paul calls “faith” which trusts that through all of life’s twists and turns, God is with us, loving us, and that God has a purpose for our lives, and sometimes the experience of failure and suffering is a part of the journey we must make to receive this gift.

If happiness is our goal, then the inevitable pain and suffering that is a part of every life – and some lives far more than others – will be seen as nothing but a road block – a reason to become embittered and maybe to give up.  But if we can hold on to the belief that God is at work in our lives, and that God wants to give us not merely happiness, but something much deeper – to shape our souls so that we can be a vessel of God’s love – then as Paul says elsewhere in Romans,

“all things work for good for those who love God.”

I keep coming back to Jesus’ famous parable of the Father with the two sons – a good story to ponder for Father’s Day.  At the beginning of the story, the younger son hurts his Dad terribly, asking for his share of the inheritance.  Normally, this wouldn’t come to him until his Father’s death, so implicitly the son is saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” The older son – the “good son” – would never do such a thing.

The amazing thing about parables is that after forty years I can still hear new things in them – and in this case, as I consider this parable from the lens of our instinctive desire to protect our children, it seems likely that since this Father truly loved his son, that in spite of the hurt his son had caused him — his instinct to want to protect him would surely have remained.

And in this regard, the Father must have felt so helpless.  His son is an adult, so he’s free to choose to do what he wants.  The son is intent on going out into the world, thinking he knows everything when in fact he is clueless about the ways of the world, but he’s got that arrogance common to youth that isn’t interested in listening to the knowledge and wisdom the father has acquired over the course of his life.  So the Father knows the son is going to end up getting hurt, and hurt badly.

I wonder if at this point the father experienced some self-doubt.

“Where did I go wrong with my boy?  Was I too hard on him?  Or maybe too soft on him?”

Perhaps the Father derived some comfort when he looked at his elder son:  “At least he’s grown up to be a responsible adult.”

But maybe that consolation was undercut by the messages conveyed – either directly or indirectly – by the elder son that, “Dad, you were always too soft on the little brat.  You spoiled him.”

If he had the expression in those days, maybe the elder son would have accused his father of having been a “helicopter parent” with his younger brother.

So the elder son stays safely home, and the younger son goes off to the far city, and sure enough, he makes a royal mess of his life.  He ends up penniless, hungry, homeless.  A modern day version would have him becoming a drug addict.

But that’s not where the story ends.  In the deepest point of his suffering, the younger son “comes to his senses,” and slowly begins to make his way home, hoping to live merely as a slave in his father’s household, where at least there will be a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

And to his astonishment, he discovers that his Father has never stopped loving him – that he welcomes him home as a son, not a slave – not only that, he throws a big party to celebrate his homecoming.

The impression we are left with is that the suffering of the younger son — through the process of this great humbling and the astonishing love he has encountered it led to — has ended up in an extraordinary place, experiencing what Paul referred to in the first part of our reading — the gift of faith –

“peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

But strikingly, the parable doesn’t end with the younger son discovering grace.  The story proceeds to tell us about the elder son, the one who had appeared to be the Father’s example of “successful parenting”– the one he had succeeded in protecting from undergoing the suffering that the younger boy was forced to endure.

This son refuses to come into the party.  He pouts in bitter self-righteousness.  Though he has grown up to be responsible and dutiful, he has no humility, no compassion for his younger brother, no sense of

“there but for the grace of God go I?”

So I am left reflecting on the fact that the full significance of our parenting in particular — and our lives in general — can’t really be known in the short term.  What we think we are doing right we may be doing wrong, and what we think we are doing right, we may be doing wrong.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and what seems like failings or defeats in the present moment – what seems like “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet, may in the big picture of life take on a meaning we never could know in the present moment.

God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, and in the lives of our children, even when we can’t see what the Spirit is doing.  So let us put one step in front of another, even when the darkness is deepest, and let us cling to that conviction that lies deep in our souls – deeper than all our anxiety — that the one great certainty in life is that God truly cherishes us, and will never forsake us.

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