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The Question that is asked, and the grace beneath the question

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:19 pm on Monday, November 20, 2017

A sermon preached on November 19th, 2017 based upon Matthew 25:14-30.Jeff with Kathryn and Anna

We finish off the liturgical calendar with a series of challenging parables that Jesus told at the end of his ministry, shortly before he was nailed to a cross.

Parables can be pretty frustrating.  The meaning can seem pretty obscure. Last week we had the wise and foolish maidens.  This week we have the three stewards.

We know a fair amount about the one who told the parables — that being Jesus — about what was important to him and what wasn’t, so we can say with some certainty that we haven’t gotten a hold of what a parable means when our initial reading seems to contradict what Jesus cared about.

Last week, although the maidens were praised as wise who didn’t share their oil with the foolish maidens we can safely say the point wasn’t that we shouldn’t share with those in need because… that’s not Jesus.

And this week the first read-through seems to suggest that we are to go out and devote ourselves to investing in the stock market with the hope of making as much money as we can, and that those who don’t make a lot of money – well, they’re wicked, lazy bums who deserve the impoverishment of their lives.  But nope…  that doesn’t sound like Jesus either.

Parables invite us to climb inside and play around with them, and as I did so with this parable I found myself thinking interesting thoughts.   If the story isn’t about the need to go make a lot of money, then it must be symbolizing something.

The story starts off with a very large gift being given to these three sevants.  In those days a single “talent” was a life time’s worth of wages — an enormous amount of money.  Perhaps the “talents” symbolize the gift of life itself.

Now it is interesting that the amount of money given to each servant isn’t the same.  One servant gets five talents, another two, and the third a single talent.

Perhaps there is a recognition here of an unavoidable unfairness in terms of the life people can get born into.  There are certain “givens” to any particular human life, and they fall into two categories.

Some are the givens have to do with our DNA.  Some people are born with more of the traits generally considered desirable:  intelligence, good looks, musical or athletic talents, and some not so much.   Some people are born with naturally healthy bodies and some with sunny dispositions, while some are born with disabilities or with brain chemistry predisposed to depression and other mental illnesses.

The other part of the givenness of our lives has to with the environments we are born into.  Some people are born into a stable family with a generous capacity for love, and some families have more money than others which opens up a range of opportunities.  Others are born into abusive, highly dysfunctional families and some into families that have no home at all.

So the hand we get dealt isn’t fair, but only God can see the true extent of the unfairness, because some settings that can appear ideal under the surface may not be nearly as ideal as they appear, and others that seem highly unfortunate may contain hidden blessings.

But regardless of our DNA and the environment we are born into, a question hangs over our lives.  In the parable, the question isn’t put into words until the end, but in every life whether spoken or unspoken the question is there and it is this:  “What are you going to do with the life you were given?” It is the question that points to the mystery of our free will – that regardless of the givenness of a particular life there are always choices to be made along the way that effect how the life will play out.

The answer to the question is always a work in process — that is until our life comes to an end.  Then the question becomes, “What did you do with the life you were given?”

There are, of course, different criteria by which the question can be answered.  In the eyes of the world the answer is thought to be found in how successful a person was — how much money and power they obtained, how much attention their obituary gets.

But again, that doesn’t sound like the way Jesus would assess the question.

We can assume that with Jesus, the question would have to do with what we did in the course of our lives for the sake of his kingdom here on earth.   What was the impact our lives had on others?  Were we an instrument of God’s love and justice in this world?

The answer to this question would take into account what God alone can see — the extent of the limitations and possibilities that were the givens of our lives.

There is this Biblical principle that applies in this final accounting of our lives, and that is, “to those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” With this principle in play, the people who get to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant” may be surprising to us.  

There could be a billionaire who regularly attended church and never broke a law – who was admired by many, frequently getting his name in the paper for giving away millions to various charities, but whose giving never involved any real sacrifice and whose real concern was with being admired rather  than with truly being of service to others. Such a man may hear at the end of his life, “That’s all you did with what I gave to you?  You had the opportunity to do so much more!”

And there could be a man born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, who never had a father, who grew up in foster care, who in his adult years spent a lot his life as an addict and a great deal of time in prison, but who in spite of the material and spiritual impoverishment of his life the man still managed on occasion to be truly kind to people, resisting the temptation to kill another human being when it would have been so easy to have done so.  Such a man may hear at the end of his life, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

I found myself a little annoyed initially that the parable has the two guys who at the outset received the most be the ones who end up getting the master’s praise, and the guy with the least getting called “lazy and worthless,” because it seems to give the prosperity Gospel people the encouragement they are looking to go for as much money as possible and to blame the people who struggle in this world as lacking faith. I wanted Jesus to have one of the rich guys be the one who flunks.

But then I remember that Jesus told other stories that make that same point.

“The Rich man and Lazarus” was one – where the rich man receives judgment for ignoring the suffering of poor Lazarus.  Another was the parable of the foolish rich man who reaches a point in his life in which his barns are stuffed full with grain. Instead of reflecting upon how blessed he is and considering how he might begin to devote himself to helping people less fortunate than himself, he chooses to press on in building bigger barns to contain even more grain to keep for himself.

So Jesus made that point elsewhere.

Maybe Jesus had it be the one talent guy who flunks the end-of-life test because we have this tendency, do we not, rather than comparing our lot in life to those less fortunate to compare ourselves instead with people who seem to be more fortunate:  “Look at the raw deal I got in life compared to them!”

We tend to look at ourselves as insignificant, with limited giftedness compared to others, and quickly conclude, “Hey, you can’t expect me to make a real difference in this world!  I’m not special.  I’m just trying to get by!  It’s up to the really smart people, the rich people, the politicians to make this world a better place!”

So we let ourselves off the hook.

But the Bible is full of stories of people who in the eyes of the world seemed like nobody special – the disciples themselves come to mind – who ended up offering themselves to God with the result being the world was mightily blessed by them.    It wasn’t Caesar, Herod or the clergy that turned the world upside down with the Gospel – it was a bunch of nobodies from Galilee.

And churches do the same thing.  We’re just a little church – what can we do?

One of the troubling things for most of us is the way the parable ends.  The third servant gets called “wicked and lazy” and gets thrown out into the “outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth”, seemingly for eternity.  Talk about harsh!

But again… that doesn’t sound like Jesus. (Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew seems to have had a particular fondness for such language.)

It is interesting how the parable simultaneously holds together judgment and grace.  Because the parable finishes the way it does, the judgment is easier to identify.

But the story starts off with grace.  Remember, a single talent was an enormous amount of money.  The master simply gives all he has to these three servants.  They didn’t earn it.  It was purely a gift that they were given – a treasure they were to be the stewards of for the rest of their lives.

The first two servants seem to get that.  They recognize the graciousness of the master, and trusting in that graciousness, they aren’t afraid to live their lives fully, to take risks, to truly enjoy their lives.  They’re not afraid to make mistakes, trusting that if something doesn’t work out, they can get up try again, and something will have been learned in the process of making the mistake.

But the third servant doesn’t experience gratitude.  Although he has his needs provided for he doesn’t feel blessed.  He views the master as being “harsh” in spite of the fact that the master gave him this treasure – this huge amount cash outright.   And then not comprehending the nature of the master, he buries the treasure, afraid to fully live his life – unwilling to take any risks lest things go badly.

So there is a direct link between the capacity to experience gratitude for our lives, and our capacity to offer ourselves to God as a part of God’s ongoing blessing of this world.  If we don’t experience our life as a gift, we won’t hear the question that God asks us in the course of our lives.

How does this happen?  We get too anxious and troubled, too hurried in this world and miss the most basic thing:  that we are alive, and life is a blessing!  Life is an opportunity!  One of the things that church provides us with is encouragement to step out of the anxious hurry of our lives, and enter into the stillness of worship – to allow the natural gratitude that is within us to rise to the surface as we return to an awareness of the basic giftedness of our lives.

We are alive.  We didn’t have to be alive.  We didn’t choose to be alive.  God chose to give us life.  It is a gift.  Life includes a lot of very hard stuff in it, but it is far better to experience the gift of life than not to have the opportunity at all. Nobody gets to live our particular life but us.

Life is this holy adventure we are invited into where we get to experience wonder and beauty and love, and the God who gave us this gift was willing to embrace the adventure – to take the risk – of taking on human flesh and living among us.  Our God is a risk taking God.

Something that fascinates me about the parable is the way the beliefs that the servants have about the nature of the master get confirmed over time.  The first two servants view the master as generous and that belief leads them to experience life as full of wonderful opportunities.

The third servant views the master as harsh – a rigid law keeper just waiting to punish for any transgression, and full of fear he experiences life as being full of danger.   As the story progresses, he interprets what happens as confirmation of his initial belief.

So it’s not enough to belief in “God” – what matters is the kind of God we believe in.  The God revealed in Jesus is one who loves us more than we know, and although this God holds us accountable, this God never gives up on us, even when we live our likes like that third servant so consumed with fear that we seem to have no room in our lives to consider being of service to others.

If you’ve heard me preach for a time you know that one of my favorite Jesus stories is the one where he was teaching in a house fully of people in Capernaum.  Four friends bring a fifth friend who is paralyzed on a stretcher in the hope that Jesus can make their friend whole.  When they find no room to enter, they refuse to give up on their intention to get their friend to Jesus, and thinking outside the box, the hoist their friend up on the roof where they tear a hole through which to lower their friend.  Jesus seems not to care about the reconstruction of his house, but pleased indeed by the faith and determination of the four friends.

One of the interesting things about the story is what Jesus says right up front to the paralytic.  “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  It seems peculiar because the friends have brought the man to Jesus for a physical healing, but Jesus seems to recognize that the root of the man’s paralysis is a burden of guilt and shame that is keeping him from living his life.

He has bought into the image of God that was the dominant one abroad in those days – the ones held by the people present who grumble when they hear Jesus audaciously claim the authority to forgive sins.  They believe in a harsh ledger keeper God.  Believing this lie about God, the man has become the third servant in our parable, having buried the treasure of his life in the ground, afraid that he dares to truly live his life he very well might mess up yet again and add to the heavy burden of sin and guilt that weighs him down so, leaving him paralyzed.

But with his encounter with Jesus, he gets acquainted with the true God – one intent on empowering people to live their lives boldly, joyfully, lovingly.  Having set the man free from the burden of his sins, he commands him to take up his stretcher and walk.

That’s what we are about as the church – helping one another and this world to know the God revealed in Jesus – a God generous with grace who created us for a holy purpose – to share the grace and love that is knit into creation.

In the Shadow of the “End Times”, bearing the Light of Jesus

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:28 pm on Monday, November 13, 2017

A sermon preached on November 12th, 2017 based upon Matthew 25:1-13.

Jeff and Ryan nov 12

Considering you could have been across town listening to Tim Tebow I really appreciate your being here at the place we gather each week to listen for the word of the Lord, and in this instance we have before us one of the most difficult parables to make sense of that Jesus ever told.  (What, the wise maidens are those who refuse to share?!)

If we are to begin to make some sense of the parable it is necessary to put it in context, and in large part this means understanding the concept of the “apocalypse” as it arises in the Bible and its meaning for today.

The word apocalypse originates in the Book of Revelation, referring to a secret teaching regarding the ultimate victory of God over the forces of evil at the end of history. Apocalyptic literature is not limited to Revelation.  In three of the Gospels, after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for what will be the last week of his earthly life, as everything seems to be coming unhinged Jesus takes time to talk to his anxious disciples about what are commonly referred to as the “end times.” He describes how things would get really bad, with increasing oppression and violence before the “Son of Man” — generally assumed to be Jesus himself although he doesn’t say this straight out – will return in glory at an unknown time.

Jesus describes a lot of scary stuff but basically tells his followers to keep the faith – to not give up hope and to stay alert – that they are in fact safe in the arms of God.  In Matthew’s Gospel this apocalyptic teaching occurs immediately before this morning’s strange parable so it’s safe to say the parable has something to do with the apocalypse.

The earliest Christians assumed they were living in the last days — that Jesus would return any day.  This belief brought a strong sense of urgency to their common lives.  “Jesus is coming soon so let’s not get distracted by the things of this world.  Let’s stay centered on living out the Gospel”.

This urgency gave the early Christians a clarity about the sickness of the larger culture.  There’s this story from early on in church history about this monk named Telemachus who came to Rome where at the arena he witnessed the spectacle of the gladiators fighting to the death, a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment in those days.  Horrified, he jumped into the arena in an attempt to stop the killing, and was killed himself.  But the emperor witnessed what he did, and shortly thereafter ended the practice.

As the years passed without Jesus returning the sense of urgency tended to get lost.

2000 years after his death and resurrection I tend to be skeptical of the literal notion that a day is coming when Jesus will come riding on the clouds, particularly when the Jesus imagined is one warrior king coming to kick the butt of his enemies – an image altogether different from that of the humble servant he was during  his earthly life – the one who lived and taught love – including the love of enemies.

The most common way I’ve made sense of such teachings is to interpret them on an individual level, because it’s as sure as sure can be that each of us will experience our own personal “end times” when our individual history on earth draws to a close when we die and go to meet our maker.   Not knowing the hour or the day, let’s stay awake, as Jesus said – not fritter away our days but instead live faithfully and lovingly in the present moment, knowing this could very well be our last day on earth.

But there is something different about the age we find ourselves living in that has made the word “apocalypse” one you hear spoken more often.

There has always been sin and there has always been violence, indeed in certain regards people in the distant past were often exposed more routinely to violence than most of us are today.  But what is different in the present age is that the means of violence have become vastly more destructive, whether we are talking semi-automatic guns or nuclear weapons or the range of other means of committing large scale violence that people have come up with.

There is also the reality of an altogether broader form of violence and that is that for the first time in human history we human beings have developed the capacity to do violence to the entire eco-system of our planet, and have done so already.

And so whether by the violence of more destructive weaponry or the violence of throwing the eco-system dangerously out of balance — for the first time ever the human race has the capacity to end human history, at least in any sense that it is presently recognizable to us.

We have the capacity to bring on an apocalypse.

A memory came to me as I thought of this.  When my first born child, Andrew was quite young — maybe 4 — I took him to a local carnival, probably the one St. Peter’s holds each year.  There was this little train ride that went around a track with up and down bumps. It was only for little kids; maybe just ages 4 to 9.  It looked pretty tame and Andrew wanted to go on it, so I let him.  Soon after it started, however it was clear it was a mistake because Andrew freaked out and started crying.  There wasn’t much to do but to wait out the sixty seconds that the ride lasted. I felt like a lousy parent even though he recovered soon enough and didn’t seem permanently traumatized by the experience.  He’d been afraid that he was going to get thrown off the train, but given the speed it was moving and the fact he had on some kind of safety harness on, that wasn’t really possible.

But what if the speed of the train was turned up several notches so that yes, the four year olds did begin to get thrown off, maiming and killing them? If you were a parent of a nine year old kid who was enjoying the thrill of the ride, you’d still have the responsibility to slow the train down.

It feels at times like our society is a train that is going way to fast – that it’s spinning out of control.   It feels like the world is coming unhinged when we hear of last Sunday’s mass murder in a church in Texas and other similar occurrences of random violence, and when we hear the saber rattling of nations with nuclear weapons.  The world feels unhinged when we witness the extreme divisiveness of politics and the breakdown of civility.

There are certain societal trends taking us in this direction.

*One is the increasingly isolating nature of human life in which less and less face to face contact takes place in which a connection and commitment to a larger community gets lost.  People detached from such bonds sometimes do terribly frightening things.

*Another is the fact that as time passes people have less and less contact with God’s natural world, and with this an increasing absence of soul-restoring times of stillness.

*Another is the fact that in spite of all our supposed time saving devices, the pace of modern life has simply become more hurried and frantic – the train is going way to fast.

All these trends contribute to an ever increasing sense of anxiety and fear, with the fearfulness breeding deeper and deeper division among us.  Along the way the weakest and most vulnerable among us are getting thrown off the train.

So to return to this strange parable Jesus told:

There is this wedding party that will begin when the bride groom arrives later in the evening, but for some reason he is delayed.  There are these ten maidens who have a job to do:  when the bridegroom arrives, they are to carry lamps that will light the way. As the waiting stretches out, the ten fall asleep.

Finally at midnight, the darkest hour, the bridegroom appears, but five of the maidens can’t do their job because they have no oil.  They ask the others to share oil, but they can’t or won’t.  The five go off to try and buy some, but when they return the door is locked and they miss out on the wedding party.

What it all means is impossible to say for sure, but it is safe to say that Jesus isn’t telling us we shouldn’t share because he spent a lot of time talking about sharing, including with the parable he told shortly after this one – a parable that isn’t hard to understand at all.    This parable tells of a judgment to come in which the sheep will be separated from the goats on the basis of whether or not they shared and cared and opened their hearts to those in need, the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

So what does the oil symbolize?  Well, the oil burns to create light.  We are to put here on earth to shine the light of God.  How do we do that?  Well by being a faithful and loving presence in this world.

Last week I talked about how sin is often described as “hard-heartedness” – and specifically the hardening of our hearts that keeps us from feeling the pain of others.

How do we run out of oil?  By developing a pattern of hardening our hearts – refusing to feel the pain of others, or to acknowledge responsibility for them.  Somebody whose heart over time has hardened into stone can’t enter the kingdom of God – their closed heart will shuts down the door.

What leads us to close down our hearts?  A big component is fear.  With society becoming unhinged, it seems justified to fill our hearts with fear when deranged men are going to church services or country music festivals or New York bike paths intent on killing everybody there.

But Jesus had a great deal to say about fear.  For Jesus being full of fear was essentially the opposite of being faithful.  When fear would overcome his disciples, he would say, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?”

We were created out of God’s love for a purpose — to be the maidens whose oil-filled lamps shines the light of God’s love, lighting the darkened paths of this world.

If our hearts are filled with fear we cannot love.

The parable right after this one – the one we will hear next week – involves a steward  who is given a talent but because of the fear in his heart he fails to put it to use. Jesus was saying, Don’t be the steward who buries his talent out of fear.

But wait a minute.  Haven’t I been saying that there is a whole lot of reason to be afraid in the present age – that our culture is spinning out of control in destructive ways that conceivably could bring on some kind of apocalypse?

I did.  But it is precisely in such a time as this that the world needs people who recognize the destructive paths the world is travelling and in the midst of that knowledge can demonstrate what it means to trust God and love boldly.  And not just my people but all people, since God loves all people.

If we truly believe what we proclaim – that the Jesus who gave his life sacrificially in love wasn’t abandoned by God bur rather raised by God from the dead  – then in the end, we need not be afraid either – whether we live or whether we die we are safe in the arms of God.

This of course isn’t easy to do.  But it is the direction we need to try and move.

If society is a train that is going way too fast then we bear responsibility to slow it down.  We need to regain the urgency of those early Christians – like Telemachus – and see the madness of the world’s values.If we are going to call ourselves Christians – followers of Jesus – it’s not enough to simply be somebody who keeps his or her nose clean and doesn’t cause any trouble.  We have “to be the change we want to see.”

There are hopeful signs that perhaps the apocalypse can be averted.  All the stuff that has suddenly come out in recent weeks about how people with power – most often men – have been sexually harassing people has brought about a dramatic shift in our culture.  This stuff was hidden away in the shadows, largely accepted as just the way things are.  But suddenly there is a collective “No!” being shouted, saying this is not the way we treat people.  Women are not toys for powerful men’s amusement.

In this age we can’t just be about setting our sights on obtaining our piece of the pie.  If the American dream means nothing more than that each succeeding generation will have a higher standard of living – more and more stuff, more and more comfort and pleasure – then it’s time for the American dream to die, because the pursuit of such a dream is part of the reason the train is going off the rails.     To choose to simply stay the course – to let the current of the culture carry us along – is to choose to bring on the apocalypse.

We have to be actively engaged in slowing down the train, which involves living more simply, and in that simplicity to care about the most vulnerable among us.  To realize that we really are in this together — that each of us is far more frail and vulnerable and dependent on one another and God than we usually care to admit.

We are called to be a peaceful presence in a hostile world, refusing to get drawn into the fear and the hatred, to be a connector, a reconciler, a peacemaker.

We are called to witness to the true light – to Jesus our savior.

Shedding the Tears that God Will One Day Wipe Away

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:12 pm on Sunday, November 5, 2017

A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday, November 5th, 2017 based upon Revelation 7:9 – 17.

All Saints Sundayhe first thing that caught my attention in John’s vision is that “there is room in the circle” in the great multitude of saints.  There is room because Jesus, the Lamb of God seated on his thone is in the center of the circle making possible an inclusivity of that circle would have been mind boggling for John’s first century readers.  The multitude is more than can be numbered, and they come from every tribe and language and people, and so when we say every Sunday “There is always room in the circle,” we are taking our cues from the kingdom of heaven.

But the primary thing that caught my attention are the tears and the great promise that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” At first glance these words might suggest that tears are a bad thing, and yet in order to allow God to do this tender thing for us, we have to have tears in the first place.

One of most basic things that distinguishes we human beings from all other mammals is our capacity to weep tears. Although as anyone who has owned a dog knows, they like certain other mammals can feel sadness but we are the only creature that sheds tears. This ability is related to the fact that our capacity for empathy and grief surpasses that of other creatures because of the unique self-consciousness that comes with being a human being — this awareness that one day we and everyone we love will die.

We wish it weren’t so, but to be a human being is to profoundly suffer emotional and spiritual pain.

We say that Jesus reveals to us God, which he does, but Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human. It is striking that on two occasions Jesus is described as shedding tears:  at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and as he approaches Jerusalem he weeps, knowing the pain the people will endure for their failure to learn the things that that make for peace. On one occasion Jesus was at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee when a woman crashes the party to throw herself at the feet where wordlessly she weeps, bathing his feet with her tears.  Jesus commends the great faith in her tears while the hard-hearted Pharisees condemn her. When the prosperity Gospel folks suggest that you can always walk on the sunny side — they simply aren’t paying attention to Jesus.

Jesus loved a good party and knew great joy but he also knew profound sadness, and in this life you cannot have one without the other.  We were put on this earth to love one another, and with great love comes both joy and sorrow.  There is no way around it.  Even if we have the good fortune in life to avoid the degree of pain and heartache that is the fate of so many in this world, if our innate capacity for empathy isn’t blocked it is impossible for us not to share in the pain and sorrow of those less fortunate.

(WE INTERRUPT THIS SERMON TO SEE WHETHER PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY READING.  IF YOU ARE READING THIS VIA FACEBOOK PLEASE WRITE “I found it.” IN THE COMMENTS SECTION.  THANKS.)

We may try to avoid sorrow, but the only way to do this is by hardening our hearts like the Pharisees, which is one of the ways the Bible talks about sin.  When we harden our hearts we are attempting to avoid the pain of love – the pain of being a human being.

In John’s glorious vision the multitude of saints are said to be those who have “come through the great ordeal,” by which he was referring to the persecution the early Christians endured.  But if you live with an open heart like Jesus, there is a sense in which life itself is a great ordeal, full of a great multitude of griefs.

Have you ever had a moment, say when our choir sings a particularly stirring anthem like we had this morning when you are surprised to discover tears rolling down your cheeks?  Music is powerful that way.  It can open up the heart.

I had such a moment recently.  A couple of weeks ago I read this enthusiastic review in the newspaper of an off, off Broadway show that caught my attention.  It was essentially a one woman show written and performed by this quirky woman from Louisiana with a peculiar faith.   She described the show as what she called a “requiem mass for the souls of the dead.”

I like weird creative stuff, especially creativity that affirms the resurrection so I ordered tickets online for Sarah and myself.  A week ago Friday we drove into Brooklyn which was pretty intense in itself.  We thought we had plenty of time but of course the GPS lied to us, and so full of anxiety we were fortunate to get there in time though with only five minutes to spare.

The show was in this tiny little upstairs theater, smaller than I imagined, and as the audience we sat around the stage almost in arms reach of the woman and her wonderful four member backup band, making it all quite intimate.  For about an hour and a half the woman alternated between wandering around telling stories and sitting at her piano playing songs about growing up in the south with her grandparents and others she loved who had died but whom she was convinced were still with her — right there in the theater – and it was moving and funny and thoroughly entertaining, and reminding me a bit of my own southern raised mother.

But towards the end of the show things got a little more intense.  She brought on this chorus of singers – I think they were made up of the ticket takers and stage crew and such.  And then for several minutes all the lights in the theater were shut off – she’d warned us at the outset this would happen and I’m sure it was probably breaking various fire codes – so it was pitch black darkness which was weird.  The darkness was suggestive of death itself, but it also allowed me to let go into the music – the songs that were being sung – songs that involved calling out to God for mercy.

After a time one pinpoint of light appeared in the darkness, and then gradually one by one other pin points of light appeared, and it looked like the stars of the sky but also maybe the great cloud of witnesses of which the letter to the Hebrews speaks – the saints who have gone before us into the life beyond this one.

Eventually the stage lights came back on and the woman began handing out these little bells to people in the audience that had recently lost a loved one, instructing them to ring the bells whenever in the finale we heard a “hosanna” being sung, and then she and her band and backup choir began singing this glorious hymn full of hosannas and bells a-ringing, and this re-occurring line:  “God is in your broken heart”, and tears began running down my cheeks, tears of sadness but also of joy — all mixed together.

We drove home, and realizing my hardened heart had opened up within me, I knew there were more tears inside me to shed.  I sought out he darkness of the backyard as Sarah retired to bed.  Under the stars, and mindful that my neighbors on both sides were away, I took advantage of the softening of my heart that had occurred in the theater and began to weep for all the grief of my life — for my mother and my departed grandfathers I never met, and for other kinds of grief as well – for broken relationships and lost hopes and dreams and missed opportunities of both myself and the people I love.  As the tears flowed it seemed as though all the different griefs were connected by a single thread.

My weeping became a prayer, and it felt as though I was praying on a deeper level than usual, remembering that phrase in the finale of the show: “God is in your broken heart.” There was this strange mixture of sorrow and release, of joy mixed in with sadness, which was related to a profound sense of connection I felt at that moment with every other human being knowing that deep inside everyone of us there is our own unique version of burden of grief.  I felt within my body the truth of that beautiful saying:  “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

I do believe we all carry around inside us a great deal of grief.  Some of us may be intensely aware of this grief because a recent loss has brought it all to the surface, and for you there may well be the wish that the tears would stop – that they would all be wiped away and wiped away right now.  Others of us are less aware because the grief has been pressed down deep inside us, and with it has come an unconscious hardening of our hearts.  We soldier up and do what needs to get done, but along the way times of joy become less frequent.

So here on All Saints Day we are given this vision of a day that will come when God will wipe all the tears away, and all the broken relationships restored.  We will see those we have loved and so many more.  But in the meantime, let us pray for the courage not to flee from our grief, but rather to embrace it, for it is a testament to the love within us – the love for which we were created.

And let us pray that in embracing our grief, we may as Jesus said, turn and become like little children who cry easily but also laugh easily, and in doing so experience together the kingdom of heaven even now, here on earth.

The Mind Was Made to Be an Instrument of Love

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:54 pm on Sunday, October 29, 2017

A sermon preached on Sunday, October 29th, 2017 based upon Matthew 22:34-40.

Ryan with candleWhen I read our passage for this morning, I thought of an apocryphal story I heard way back in seminary.  It took place in the early centuries of the church and it involved these three simple monks who lived alone on an island where they loved God and loved one another, and prayed fervently for the world.

A learned Bishop decided to visit the three monks.  Upon arriving he quickly was struck by how the monks who could not read knew so little about the Bible or church doctrine.  He proceeded to spend the next three days giving the monks a crash course in the Bible and Christian theology.

At the end of the three days the three grateful monks bid the bishop farewell as he stepped onto his ship.

The bishop took some pride in having covered so much with the monks in such a brief time.  Surely they were better off because of him.

That evening as the bishop sat upon the deck of the ship, he saw three lights on the horizon, moving rapidly towards the ship.  To his astonishment, it was the three monks running to him on the water.  When they reached the ship they cried out, “Dear Bishop, after you left we realized we didn’t quite get it about the doctrine of the Trinity.  Would you be so kind as to explain it to us one more time?”

“No, my dear brothers,” said the startled and humbled Bishop, “I have nothing to teach you. Go back to your island, and please make sure you include me in your prayers.”

Sometimes our minds make things too complicated.

(WE INTERRUPT THIS SERMON TO SEE IF ANYONE ACTUALLY READS THESE SERMONS.  IF YOU ARE READING THIS VIA FACEBOOK, PLEASE WRITE IN THE COMMENT SECTION “I found it.”  THANKS.)

In our Gospel lesson, things are coming to a frenzied head.  A couple of days before Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem to great fanfare on Palm Sunday.  The disciples who followed him and those who greeted him were simple, unlearned folk.

With his arrival, it was clear that Jesus was a threat to the status quo – to those who held power in society, and lorded it over those without power.

And so these people made alliances where usually they would have none.  The Pharisees and the Herodians and the Sadducees – usually competing powerful factions — teamed up together to defeat the common threat to their power that was Jesus.

Unlike his disciples, these were smart, well educated people – presumably with high IQs if they could have measured such things.  Clever thinkers, they came up with a series of three questions that were designed to trip Jesus up.

They asked the questions under the pretense of a sincere quest for truth, but they weren’t that at all.  They hadn’t come to listen and learn from what Jesus has to say.  Their sole purpose was to defeat him in argument.

Which leads us to ask ourselves, how often do we truly listen to what others have to say, and how often do we simply pretend to listen, we what we’re really doing is waiting for the opportunity to make our points?

With high intelligence comes a high capacity for deception, but in this case, Jesus wasn’t deceived.

The first question was whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar.

The second was a question about marriage and the resurrection.

Jesus wasn’t deceived and he answered both questions well.

And here in this morning’s reading is the third question.  It’s about which law in the Torah is the greatest.  Potentially the question could trip him up because there are actually 612 laws in the Torah, and in choosing one he could get himself in trouble for seeming to put down the other 611.

But once again Jesus answers well.

He quotes two verses from the Torah – two laws, the first of which should have been a kind of no-brainer. It comes from what’s called the “Shema” – a verse in Deuteronomy that every Jew would recite each morning and each evening:

“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Unless you love God why would you bother to keep any of God’s commandments?

And then, refusing to stay within the confines of their question, Jesus adds another commandment that is “like unto it”. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Which is to say — the two commandments are really inseparable.

If you love God, you are obliged to love what God loves.  It doesn’t take a Phd to figure this out.

Here’s an analogy:  When I married Sarah 24 years ago she had a six year old daughter named Kate and I had a six year old son named Andrew.  There was no distinguishing my love of Sarah from my love of Kate.  Kate was the most precious person in Sarah’s life, and Andrew in mine.  It would be impossible for me to love Sarah without loving Kate.  And the same was true for Sarah with Andrew.

The analogy breaks down, however in so far as we both had just one kid, where as God has several billion kids.  God loves the whole world. Not just my family or my country or the people who share my religion or political party.  For that matter, not just my species either.  God loves every living being.

Jesus drove this point home when he said we have to love our enemy, because the one I consider an enemy is still precious to God.

To return to the first of the two commandments, there is an interesting little change Jesus brought to the commandment.  In Deuteronomy the verse Jesus quoted reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”

Jesus took the liberty of changing one word.  He said that we are to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind.

He changed “strength” to “mind.”

You wonder if he did that because he was talking to the smart kids.

God gave us brains that we may use them for the purposes of love.

But rather than being used to more effectively love, intelligence and education often become a source of pride, of arrogance and oppression of others.

The worst evil has always been committed by very smart people.

As the Apostle Paul said, “If I understand all mysteries and possess all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.”

The earliest Christians were fairly simple folk who caught hold of the Spirit that was in Jesus and began to follow in his “Way.”  That’s what the earliest Church called Christianity:  “The Way.”  Their belief system was pretty simple:

Jesus was the crucified and risen Lord, and we should conform our lives to his life.  That was about it.  Following his path was all about love – loving even to the point of self-sacrifice.

As time passed and the Church became an established institution the people who gravitated to positions of power within the church tended to be people with a lot of brain power – people who spent a lot of time thinking about the finer points of belief and doctrine. Since they were in charge, they tended to over value all that thinking they did.  What a Christian was required to believe got more and more complicated, with the definition of what it meant to be a Christian becoming someone who believes the right things – the stuff the thinkers believed was important – rather than someone who lives a particular way – the way of Jesus.

And that was unfortunate.

Often these thinkers – the “smart” people with big brains disagreed over what the right beliefs were, the result being all the divisions in the church.

To give one example, in the eleventh century what was called the “Great Schism” occurred splitting the church in two:  The Roman Church and the Eastern Church.

You know what they split about?  Whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, or just from Father.  As though this really mattered.

It was just an intellectual pissing contest.

What Christianity is really all about is relatively simple.  Jesus spelled it out in this morning’s lesson.  It’s about loving God and loving people.

It’s not complicated, but not easy either. Not easy at all. Which is why it often seems preferable to have it be about believing the right things.  That can be relatively easy.

Although I grew up a Methodist, I stopped going to church as a teenager.

I found Jesus in college, and thereafter went off to seminary.  When I began to think about becoming a pastor I needed a denomination to be ordained in and there were basically two reasons I became a Methodist pastor:

1) The Methodist church in which I had been confirmed as a youth hadn’t taken my name off their books, which made it easier than to start from scratch in another denomination.  And,

2) I was always really lousy when it came to learning languages.  And Methodists didn’t require that their preachers know Hebrew and Latin.

Pretty superficial reasons, wouldn’t you agree?

Overtime, however as I found out more about Methodism I realized I was, in fact in the right place.  John Wesley was a very smart, highly educated man but initially his intellect presented an obstacle to him in experiencing God’s grace.

He thought he could think his way into the Kingdom of God.

It was only when in his early thirties his arrogance led him to “crash and burn” that he had his heart “strangely warmed” experiencing the fullness of God’s love revealed in Jesus.

And he got it thereafter about love being the most important thing.

There are other Protestant denominations that say “faith” — which often ends up meaning having the “right beliefs” — becomes the most important thing.
But for John Wesley the Methodist movement, love was always the most important thing.

And the other thing about John Wesley that I’ve come to really appreciate it was that it understood that the Christian life is a process – a process in which through a combination of our effort and the grace of God we become more loving people.

If we do any bit of honest self-reflection on our lives and what Jesus said life was all about – loving God and neighbor – we realize that none of us are very good at carrying out these commandments.

I love God, or try to, but I know I love a lot of other things as well:

To name a couple, I love people’s praise, I love success, I love my kids and their success, I love money, often worrying about having enough of it.  Often times these loves eclipse my love of God.

And I try to love other people, but I know I often fail miserably on a lot of counts.

So we look at ourselves and own up to the fact we aren’t very good at loving, and it’s okay, because God loves us in spite of our failures in love.  But God doesn’t intend to leave us where we are.  God intends to transform us over time — make us more truly loving people.  It’s a process with plenty of setbacks, but each set back holds the potential for a little more humility, a little more self-awareness, a little more grace reaching deeper inside us.

Try again, says God, try again.

It’s not that what we believe doesn’t matter.  It does, but it is always about whether our beliefs are leading us to become more loving.

If we believe God is a son of a bitch who is ready to curse you if you stumble, well, a) you’ll have a hard time being honest about your failures, and when you can’t help but admit your failures, you will consider yourself to be an unlovable piece of crap, and be ready to give up.

And b) you’ll consider the stumbling, imperfect people around you as being unworthy of love.

But that’s not the God revealed in Jesus.  This God seeks eats with the sinners and taxcollectors, and in doing so, transforms them into shining lights of love.

The Strange Contagion of the Gospel

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 7:08 pm on Sunday, October 22, 2017

A sermon preached on October 22nd, 2017 based upon 1Thessalonians 1:1-10.

Jeff with Jake Marissa and Ben

I mentioned at our Church Conference a book I’ve been reading a compelling book called “Strange Contagion:  Inside the surprising science of infectious behaviors and viral emotions and what they tell us about ourselves.”

The author is a journalist named Lee Daniel Kravetz who moved to Palo Alto, California when his wife took a job with Google.  The town is in the heart of Silicon Valley, near Stanford University with a very high density of the smartest people in the world – people who have started high tech companies that have changed the world.  The author and his wife were about to have a baby, and one of the reasons people move to Palo Alto is because of the reputation of the local high school, where, surrounded by smart, high achieving kids, students absorb a culture of hard work and intelligence.

It became apparent, however shortly after arriving in Palo Alto that that’s not all that kids absorb there. In the course of a year five different high school students – all high achievers and seemingly well adjusted – decided to step in front of the speeding train that passed through town — taking their own lives.

(WE INTERRUPT THIS SERMON TO SEE IF ANYONE ACTUALLY READS THESE SERMONS.  IF YOU ARE READING THIS VIA FACEBOOK, PLEASE WRITE IN THE COMMENT SECTION “I found it.”  THANKS.)

This terrible “cluster” of suicides revealed the dark side of all the ambition and high achievement present in Palo Alto – that it could create at times an excruciating pressure on young people driven by an underlying perception that their self-worth was dependent upon their successfully achieving at a very high level.

It also revealed that suicide can be a kind of “strange contagion” – an infection that can be caught by simply being in close proximity to those who took this self-destructive act – the idea that hey, there is a way out from carrying this heavy burden of constant performance anxiety.

Concerned about his community, and wondering about what growing up in Palo Alto would mean for his own son, the author set out on a quest to try and understand “social contagions” – the often unconscious ways in which thoughts, emotions and behaviors spread among people like germs, for good and for bad.

One of the things that caught my attention early on in the book was the author’s description of the history of Bulimia, the eating disorder that can afflict teenage girls (and occasionally boys as well) in which feeling driven to lose weight, they compulsively induce themselves to vomit.

The diagnosis originated in the sixties when a psychiatrist noticed a handful of such cases in his clinic.  At first it was an extremely rare occurrence.   But the number of cases quickly sky-rocketed into the millions when three major magazines ran stories about Bulimia.  Unfortunately the publicity planted the idea in young peoples’ heads that they could lose weight by inducing vomiting, with the result being the eating disorder spread to the ends of the earth.

For a time there was only one place where medical records were kept where no cases of Bulimia had occurred and that was the Fiji Islands.  But that changed in the early seventies, and the trigger was easily located – it was the arrival of television.  When the people of Fiji got hooked on watching the popular television shows of the West they absorbed the belief that the ideal body image for a woman – what it meant to be “beautiful” – required that a woman be thin.    (Some of us are old enough to remember the strange phenomenon that was the super-model “Twiggy.”)

So something very sinister and destructive was spread to the Fiji Islands from the culture of the west:  the idea that a woman’s self-worth was directly tied to her ability to embody this emaciated ideal of beauty.

This got me thinking about all the other subtle yet toxic and contagious messages that we are bombarded with through television as well as through social media – messages we absorb often without our even being aware that it is happening that entice us into embrace greed and lust and division and prejudice and fear.

And as I thought about this, the story in the New Testament of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness came to mind; in particular, the claim the devil makes that the kingdoms of this world belong to him.  The values that dominate this world are the Devil’s values – spirit killing values that we unconsciously absorb.  The unconscious belief that our value is tied up with how thin we are, how much sex appeal or money we have, how high our SAT scores are, or how big our house it, or whether we are a “winner” as opposed to a “loser”, and the ability to Lord it over other people.

It’s as if we’ve all been infected with the sinister virus that first infected Adam and Eve, which the Bible calls sin, and it’s become so second nature that we can’t even recognize it.

But the antidote – the cure – to this virus entered the world in a man called Jesus, who lived and died and rose again 2000 years ago.  In him the kingdom of God was present encompassing a set of values quite different from those of the kingdom of this world – the devil’s kingdom.

By simply being in the presence of this man with open hearts people “caught” the cure – this contagious alternate way of being in the world.

In a relatively short time the cure — also known as the “Gospel” – the good news – spread to every corner of the earth.

And that’s what our Scripture reading this morning is about.

An interesting fun fact about the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonia is that it is the first book to be written in the New Testament – written, scholars think, just twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Thessalonia was a city in Greece, so in just twenty years, the contagion of the Gospel had spread from a handful of people in Jerusalem all the way across the Mediterranean Sea.  How did this happen?

Well, Paul tells us.

Paul writes: “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.”

The strange contagion of the Gospel was spread by the Paul and his fellow missionaries who came from Jerusalem to Thessalonia.  He makes the point that although they spoke words – telling the people about Jesus – it was more than the words they spoke – it was the example of their lives in their time together that gave the words they spoke power, so that, as Paul says, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”

The people in Thessalonia, having caught the contagion of the Gospel, became “examples” of the Gospel life spreading it to people in other parts of Greece – “in Macedonia and… Achaia.”

Another interesting thing I read in the book had to do with a soap opera in Peru in the early 70s that was purportedly the most popular soap opera ever, with millions glued each week in front of their televisions to watch a story in which the central character was a poor young woman who left the indigenous culture of the mountains to come to the big city where she learned how to sew on a sewing machine and took night classes to learn to speak the national language of Peru. In the course of the story the young woman becomes a fashion designer, building a large business.  By the end of the soap opera she is a multi-millionaire living in Paris.

Now the interesting thing was that as a result of this soap opera, tens of thousands of women bought sewing machines and learned to use them, and similar numbers enrolled in language classes.  They imitated the central character with whom they had come to identify.

Social scientists took note of this and applied the principle involved to social problems, for instance, in Africa where the AIDS epidemic was spreading out of control.  It was frustrating to people trying to contain the epidemic when it proved to be relatively ineffective to simply provide people with the information needed about the changes of behavior required to keep from contacting or spreading the disease.  Words alone weren’t very good at changing behavior.

So they developed a soap opera with appealing central characters and embedded themes of healthy behavior into the story line, and as the soap opera became popular lo and behold people began to change their behavior in healthier directions.

What the scientists discovered was that the message of healthy behavior needed to be subtly embedded into the story line.  If it was too overt people were far less receptive.

Something similar happened in the US with smoking.  When information first began to be made public about the dangers of smoking, it was hard to change behavior.  The tide changed in regard to smoking habits when the role models – the movie stars and athletes and such – began to quit smoking.  It was no longer “cool.”

So the point is this:  Take it from a preacher — people don’t like being preached at.

They will however absorb the models – for good or for bad – to which they are exposed.

And so the Gospel – the cure to the destructive virus of sin that infects the human race — is spread less by words than it is by the example of lives that live out the Gospel, which seems to be what Paul is saying about the believers in Thessalonia.

It was the radically loving way that Paul and his fellow missionaries related to them in their time among them that made them receptive to their message.

It had to do with how they related to them as people worthy of respect and compassion regardless of their worldly status, creating communities where all the divisions that separate people – between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free were overcome.  It had to do with how they weren’t driven by the same anxieties and fears that seemed to consume most people — how they allowed themselves to be vulnerable in their midst for the sake of love.

This is what caught their attention.

It reminds me of the words of St. Francis:

“Go into the world and preach the Gospel.  Use words if you have to.”

There was this famous preacher in the 19th century named Phillips Brooks who was once asked by an earnest questioner why he was a Christian.  He thought seriously for a moment, and then replied, “I think I am a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.” A Christian is someone who knows one – someone who lives the faith out with integrity and authenticity.

So to wrap this up: a big part of what this all means is that we truly do impact one another in profound ways – for good and for evil – in ways we rarely fully realize.  We catch from one another moods and attitudes and value systems, and most of this happens on an unconscious level.

Violence itself is a “strange contagion”.  If a person witnesses violence, they are more likely to commit violence.  But what is also true is that a handful of people can turn the tide of violence in troubled neighborhoods.

A scientist looking at maps over time of neighborhoods in big cities that had high murder rates noticed that they resembled the maps that showed the spread of disease in villages in Africa.  Violence is a virus, and by training leaders in  neighborhoods with high rates of violence to serve as what they called “interrupters” – to fan out into the community when violence has occurred or was rumored to be about to occur – to talk people down from the ledge and point them to a better way – violence could be kept from spreading, and murder rates reduced dramatically.

By implementing such a program the murder rate in Baltimore was reduced by a remarkable 56 percent.

Without speaking His name, they were ambassadors for Christ – the great reconciler.

So our lives truly matter.  The little acts of kindness, of forgiveness, of reconciliation – witness to Jesus more than we know.

We come together here to absorb Jesus so we can take him out into the world in the lives we live.

Las Vegas, the Ten Commandments and Staying Close to Our Moral Center

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 5:07 pm on Sunday, October 8, 2017

A sermon preached on October 8th, 2017 the week after the shootings in Las Vegas, based upon Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12 – 17

Spandan

It is distressing lately the way the bad news out there in the world is providing the topics for sermons.  Such is the case once again this week, as we all find ourselves horrified by what happened in Las Vegas Sunday night when thousands of people were gathered to enjoy a good time at a country music festival – only to have horrific violence erupt that took 58 lives and injured hundreds more.

What is the appropriate way for me as a preacher of the Gospel to address such horror?

Some of us would say that the place to begin is by calling for gun control, and I simply want to say that I believe that at this point it seems undeniable that there is a need for sensible gun control legislation.  But that’s not what I want to focus on today, in part because it seems just as clear that no matter what kind of legislation might come out of this, it won’t solve the deeper issue, which has to do with the violence – the hatred – that seems so deeply rooted in the human heart.

The struggle between good and evil runs straight through the hearts of every one of us.  But what seems particularly unsettling is that the direction our society is headed appears to be one in which our violent and hateful impulses get intensified and unleashed.

Like me, you’ve probably found it deeply distressing regarding what we know — as well as what we don’t know — about the man who with such intricate planning took so many guns and so much ammunition to his hotel room in order to suddenly rain bullets down upon the innocent crowd of people beneath him.

As of now, those doing the investigation are at a total loss to explain his motive.

In so many ways he doesn’t fit the profile.  He didn’t seem to hold either extremist political or religious views.  There was no indication that he suffered from serious mental illness, and he wasn’t a young man:  he was 64 years of age.  He was a rich and privileged white guy.  He had a girl friend who reportedly viewed him as kind and claims she loved him deeply, but never had a any clue this was coming.

So we are left with a disturbing mystery regarding the origins of the evil our country witnessed this week.   As I looked over the scripture choices the lectionary offered me this morning I was drawn to the Ten Commandments – this ancient expression of morality given by God to the Hebrew people through Moses – this call to move from away from evil and towards goodness.

So what follows are some reflections of mine in the context of the horror in Las Vegas on the Ten Commandments and the basic question of how we hold onto — or lose touch with — our moral center.

Our reading this morning began this way:

“Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

There are three things I took notice of here.

First, these commandments are addressed to a community.  It assumes that the people hearing these words are living in community – indeed, a very intentional community.

Although in so many ways the man who opened fire in Las Vegas “didn’t fit the profile” of a mass murderer, in this way he did.  Like the Unabomber — he was isolated — disconnected from any larger community.  He lived quite far from his mother and brothers.  Apart from his girlfriend, he seems to have had no significant human relationships.

As God said to Adam, it is not good to be alone.  We were designed by God to live out our lives in community, with other people to rely upon and who rely on us, in the midst of an extended network of meaningful human relationships.

One of the most distressing things about our society is its steady movement away from real community.  We often don’t know our neighbors.  These days idealized life is often viewed as a life where we don’t have other people bothering us — placing demands upon us – leaving us free to do whatever we please.

People these days think they have no need for the kind of intentional spiritual community provided by a church or synagogue or temple — that it seems altogether preferable to have a morning home alone than to make the effort to go out and connect with other persons.

Although there are certainly good things about the internet and the connections it makes possible, when the kind of human relating that the internet provides is substituted for the human connection that comes from looking into the eyes of another in direct conversation, something fundamental to our humanity is lost.  Without the kind of connection with all the subtleties of communication that come from actually being in the presence of another — it becomes so much easier to view others as not being real.   Other people get reduced to mere words on a screen – not as a human being of inherent, sacred worth, with actual longings, joys and sorrows just like myself.

The absence of deep human connection in a person creates a breeding ground for evil.

My second observation regarding the opening line of the Ten Commandments is that it calls those who hear what follows to a posture of gratitude:  the God who is addressing the people with moral commandments is the same God who brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. You owe your freedom to me, says the Lord.

There is a connection often missed between a basic sense of gratitude and the ability to stay close to one’s moral center.  If I think that all I have in life is strictly a result of my own hard work – my personal achievement, with no debt of gratitude to either God or my larger community — then I will not likely feel a sense of responsibility to either God or others.

According to the brother of the man who took so many lives in Las Vegas from an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone.*

He seems to have lacked any gratitude.  It wasn’t good fortune or even good luck that brought him riches through gambling, it was his significant intellect that coolly calculated the odds.

Ungrateful people commit evil.

The third observation is tricky.  It involves the question of how morality relates to belief in God.  This is tricky because there have been countless evil things done by people of every religious tradition “in the name of God”, and for this reason a lot of people are skeptical and wary of the whole notion of believing in God.  It is quite possible for an atheist to have a stronger sense of a valid moral center than someone who claims they believe in God.

But when belief in God is altogether cast aside, then the baby can be thrown out with the bath water, and it becomes possible to view all moral judgments as nothing more than mere opinions, without roots in some deeper, eternal truth.   We end up with a situation where I can say abusing children is wrong, but if another person says it’s not, well, all we’re left with is a difference of opinion.

There are valid reasons to vigorously question the morality of many of the hundreds of laws in the Bible that over time got added on to the Ten Commandments in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  But the power of the Ten Commandments has to do with the fact that they stand up to the test of time, dealing with very basic stuff regarding how we treat one another that true-hearted people of all faith traditions would readily recognize as knit into the design of life by the Creator.

Don’t commit murder and don’t steal.

Be faithful to your basic familial commitments to your parents, your children, and your spouses.

Don’t allow yourselves to be consumed by envy.

And don’t lie — tell the truth.

There are trends abroad in our society that suggest we are moving in the wrong direction in regard to a lot of these basic commandments. Families are breaking down at an alarming rate as those basic familial commitments get cast aside.  Children and the elderly end up getting neglected. More and more our culture seems practically based on stroking the passions of envy as we are bombarded with advertisements and images of the rich and famous that encourage the sin of envy and the discontent it breeds.  We are encouraged us to value things more than we value people.

And the commandment to not bear false witness – to be dedicated to telling the truth – seems to be a major casualty of our age.  Something basic is lost in a time where facts don’t seem to matter anymore because you can find on the internet support for pretty much any point of view, no matter how disconnected from reality it may be.  It often seems in our culture that what matters isn’t whether you tell a lie but rather whether you get caught lying, with the result being the fraying of the ties that bind us together, and to our moral center.

The first commandment God gives is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The killer in Las Vegas appears to have made one of our society’s prime gods his master, that being of course, money.  The story of his life as told by his brother was about pursuing riches, which he acquired first through real estate and then gambling.  He was single-minded in his pursuit of money.  And not surprisingly, the happiness he believed his god would give him never arrived.

And finally, the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”:   It may sound to our ear as archaic and disconnected from morality – but the truth is that without regular times of Sabbath rest we lose our connection to our moral center.  God designed life with a rhythm between work and rest, and if we can’t find the balance of that rhythm, we lose our sense of gratitude and our moral center.

This doesn’t mean we have to rigidly keep Sabbath laws – Jesus himself rebelled against such rigidity – but is important that our lives regularly include times in which we set aside our agendas, and set aside our distractions, to experience the inherent goodness that we can lose sight of in all our frantic activity.

Again, we know very little about the man who killed so many in Las Vegas, but the picture conveyed in the news reports is of a man who did not have stillness in his life – a man intent on always being in control – a man who would spend hours on end obsessively video gambling, distracting himself from the stillness that might have healed his soul.

To keep the Sabbath holy means setting aside times when, as the song we sing each week puts it, we “find the quiet center in this crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed. Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see   all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.”

Without contact with our quiet center – with the goodness of God that is at the center of life, our souls become at risk to being taken over by evil.

We don’t have much control over the direction our culture as a whole is moving.  What we do have some control over is how we will live our lives.  The Jewish people were called by God to embody a different way of being in this world – to faithfully follow the will of God in such a way that they would be a blessing to the whole world – a light to the nations.

Every time something happens like what happened last Sunday in Las Vegas, it is a call for us to be the church. To witness to the world through the way we live to a better way, a more excellent way, where we love people rather than love things.

The way of humility and service and love, rather than of arrogance and self-centeredness.

The way of Jesus, as opposed to the way of hatred and violence.

Take a Knee for Jesus in the Season of Unfriending

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:35 pm on Sunday, October 1, 2017

A sermon preached on October 1st, 2017 based upon Philippians 2:1-13

Cross with sliver of light

If you had to choose one passage of Scripture to meditate upon each day to help you stay on the path of Jesus, you couldn’t do much better than this. Paul challenges us to aspire to the mind of Christ Jesus — the mindset of the humble servant, embracing even death on the cross.

When Paul wrote his letters there was generally some kind of problem in the church he was addressing.  In the church in Philippi, something is happening to disrupt their unity. We don’t know the specifics regarding what is causing the disunity, but in a certain sense it doesn’t matter, because in the end, the root cause of all our disunity within the church is that we have failed to have the mind of Christ Jesus.

So Paul says to the Philippian Christians that nothing would make him happier than that they “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Those of us who are parents with more than one child – when they feud we know something of the longing of Paul’s heart — something of what God feels – in the longing for them to reconcile.

Whether you believe in a literal or a symbolic “devil”, the work of evil is always the same.  The devil is perpetually trying to “divide and conquer.”  The devil sows seeds of discord and hostility – turning friends into enemies, promoting hatred and fear rather than love.  Central to the devil’s game plan is to deceive us with false choices – pressuring us to take sides where side-taking is harmful.

A “friend” of mine on Facebook recently posted a short, on the mark sentence: He wrote,  “It’s the season for unfriending again.” By this he meant that the conversation on social media has recently become more divisive, more hostile. People are getting angry at other peoples’ postings with the result being they delete them from their “friends” list.

This is happening because we’ve failed to have the mind of Christ. To have the mind of Christ means valuing all people – it means always making an effort to understand the points of view of all people – where they are coming from – and in particular the people with whom we are inclined to disagree.

The focus of this particular “season of unfriending” is on what has become known as “taking a knee.”  Who’s side are you on?! We are pressured to choose whether we are on the side of Colin Kaepernik and his protest that involved “taking a knee”, or are we on the side of respecting our flag and the men and women who sacrificed their lives fighting under that flag.  The way it is presented, there is no middle ground.

It’s gotten so bad that that this past Thursday in Green Bay when the Packers’ star quarterback Aaron Rogers asked his fans to stand arm in arm during the singing of the national anthem not as a protest but simply as a show of national solidarity, the vast majority of the fans wouldn’t do it.

Friends, this is the devil’s doing.

So I want to briefly say a few things about the Colin Kaepernick controversy, and as Tracy said last week, I beg your patience because I may say things that make you uncomfortable, but before I’m through, I hope to say things that challenge people who have landed on either side of this dispute.

Colin Kaepernick has come to be seen by many people as the devil incarnate, but the truth is he is not a worse sinner than the rest of us.  You may be surprised to know that like Tim Tebow, another famous quarterback, Kaepernick strongly identifies as a Christian.  His faith sometimes leads him in different directions from Tebow, but like Tebow he is trying to take his cues from Jesus.

The point is often made, quite validly, that there is a distortion of values in our world when professional athletes like Kaepernick are paid vastly more money than police officers and soldiers in our military, nurses and teachers. In an age of self-absorbed, self-centered athletes – Odell Beckam Jr. comes to mind – Kaepernick has given away a lot more of his money than most pro athletes to charities seeking to help hurting people.  And Kaepernick personally sacrificed in “taking a knee” – he lost millions of dollars. 

These days, as long as somebody can help a team win, the NFL doesn’t seem to have a problem employing people who have committed various violent crimes.  Kaepernick is unemployed this season not because he isn’t talented enough – he is — but because he “took a knee.” He knew this was a possibility.  He thought that the issue he was trying to call attention to was worth the risk.

It is also worth noting that Kaepernick began his protest by sitting on the bench during the national anthem.  After talking to a wounded Navy seal, he switched to taking a knee because the Navy seal told him that he and his fellow veterans would have less of a problem with that.

Now having said all this, I would also argue that the way this has all played out, it seems to me that the form of protest Kaepernick chose was ultimately misguided and that was because he failed to take into account where a great many Americans were coming from – how they couldn’t get past what they saw as disrespect for the flag and the millions of American heroes who sacrificed their lives for the sake of our country.

Kaepernick’s original cause – calling attention to the very real injustice Black people often suffer in relation to our criminal justice system — has gotten altogether lost in all the controversy.  Or worse, people have hardened their hearts against having any sympathy for this justice issue because of the perceived disrespect.

And so now we find ourselves in the “season of unfriending”, and our country is all the more divided, and the devil is smiling.

I don’t want to be misunderstood here:  I am not saying that we should never engage in protests that make people angry.  The protests of the civil rights movement enraged a lot of people, but the thing about it was that it was very disciplined, always keeping the focus on the injustice of racism.  The protests were faithful to the call of Jesus.

I watched some of the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War. In retrospect it seems clear that the war arose sadly from some very misguided assessments by people in power of what was going on in Vietnam, resulting in decisions being made that set us down the wrong path. As time passed the people in power were simply unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes that had been made, the result being ever-increasing carnage and destruction for so many young American soldiers who sacrificed so much physically and spiritually, not to mention for all the people of Vietnam.

So it was appropriate for the American people to take to the streets to protest the war.  But it was wrong when some of those people began to burn flags, and it was especially wrong when the American soldiers returning home who had sacrificed so much were treated so disrespectfully.  And the devil smiled to see our country torn apart so.

Jesus himself made a lot of people in power very angry when he called them out for injustice. But the thing about Jesus is that he refused the devil’s choice:  Either you side with the establishment, or you side with those who would take up violence to overthrow the establishment. Jesus refused the devil’s false choice, and he paid for his refusal by dying on the cross.

Which brings us back to our scripture lesson, where we are reminded that Jesus humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, obedient even to death on a cross.  In doing so, he sought to overcome all that powers of death and destruction that would divide us. Once again, I was struck by a strange connection between the Scripture lesson assigned for this Sunday and what is going on in the world.  Curiously, Paul mentions “knees”, specifically, telling us that God’s ultimate goal in sending Christ Jesus into the world to live and die as a servant was that “every knee should bow” before the Lordship of Jesus.

When we proclaim Jesus as Lord – we refuse to allow the devil to divide us. We refuse to enter another “season of unfriending.”

So this World Communion Sunday, and this is absolutely what Holy Communion is about. At the last supper, Jesus prayed that we might be one, even as he and the Father were one.  When we choose to take the bread that is Jesus’ body broken for us and the wine that is his blood shed for us, we choose to defy the false choices the devil.  We humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself, entering into his great love that encompasses not just the people who agree with us – but everybody.

I want to end by reading our mission statement.  We define ourselves as those who refuse the devil’s false choices:

In a hostile, hurting world, we reach out to share kindness and laughter.

Our spirituality is based on JESUS and His love and compassion.

We provide a community of support and healing where all are welcomed and valued regardless of age, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or economic status.

In a world where people feel they can love only those who are like themselves,we seek to celebrate the uniqueness of every human being

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.

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