Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Luke 17:11-19

Generations of Generosity: Grounded in Gratitude

October 9, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Kent Millard is a retired United Methodist pastor who was once appointed to be a district superintendent in South Dakota, following Reuben Job who’d been elected a bishop. This appointment required his family to relocate, and as sometimes happens, not everyone in the family was happy about moving. Kent’s son Kendall absolutely did not want to move and leave his friends, and he made his unhappiness abundantly clear. When the Millard family arrived at their new parsonage, however, Kendall was shocked by what he found set up in the living room. It was a beautiful electric train set with a note that read, "This is a gift from the Reuben Job family to Kendall. Hope you enjoy your new home."

You can imagine the excitement and joy from young Kendall to find such a wonderful gift from a family he didn’t even know. He played with that train set all day long. The next day, Kendall came into his father’s study with his hands full of coins and plopped them down on the desk, saying, "Dad, give this to God." Rev. Millard was surprised by his son’s spontaneous offering and so he asked him, "Why are you giving this money to God?" The child answered, "Just to say thanks."1

Kendall had received a generous gift from a kind pastor and he was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he wanted to give an offering back to God, just to say thanks. Young Kendall Millard was grounded in gratitude.

The truth is that all of us have received abundant gifts from the hands of our generous God. God has filled us with the blessings of life and love, family and friends, a community and congregation, relationships and resources. We are calling today "Gratitude Sunday" as we kick-off our GENERATIONS OF GENEROSITY Capital Campaign for much-needed maintenance and upgrades to this grand old building. The question before us this morning is, How do we tell God "thank you?" When we consider all the generous gifts God has given us, how will we respond? How will our lives reflect that we too are grounded in gratitude?

As we ponder those questions, there is no better place to turn than to the story of Jesus and the Ten Lepers, our gospel reading today. Scholars tell us that leprosy in the Bible was not the same as modern leprosy, which is known as Hanson’s Disease. Biblical leprosy was a variety of different skin conditions for which there was no treatment and little hope. Leprosy ate away at people’s bodies and left them maimed and disfigured. It left people unable to work or marry or enjoy even the simplest pleasures of life.

The worst thing about leprosy, though, was not the disease itself but the ostracism.2 They believed the disease was highly contagious, and the scriptures commanded Israelites to put lepers out of the camp (Numbers 5:2). Lepers were not supposed to get within 50 yards of a clean person, and everywhere they went they heard the familiar words, "Leper! Unclean!" It’s clear in the Gospel story that as the ten lepers approached Jesus, they made sure to stay at a distance. Their life was a hell of isolation and loneliness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, we know just how those lepers felt. We don’t; we can’t. But some of us know something about isolation. Maybe you live far from family or don’t get along with family. Maybe you’ve never quite fit in, been excluded because people found you ‘different’ or ‘difficult.’ Maybe your spouse has died or your marriage has ended, or perhaps you isolate yourself due to depression or circumstances. Few of us are lepers, but many of us know something about isolation.

Well, here’s what Jesus did when the ten lepers came to him crying for mercy. He sent them to the priest, who had authority to declare them clean. He didn’t even cure them first; he just told them to go to the priest, and they were cured along the way. Nine of the lepers apparently did what Jesus told them to do—they went to the priest and got declared clean. Only one of the lepers, a Samaritan, did not do what Jesus told them to. Instead, when he discovered that he was cured, he came busting back to Jesus, praising God, throwing himself on the ground and loving Jesus with all his heart.

And Jesus says to this grateful Samaritan former leper a surprising thing. Jesus does not say, "Why are you here? Why didn’t you go do what I told you to do?" Instead Jesus told him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Your faith, Jesus says, has "made you well." Earlier, when it says that all ten were "healed" on their way to the priest, the Greek word is iaomai. It’s a medical term meaning "cured." But when Jesus speaks to the one who came back to say thanks, he uses a different Greek word, sōzō, which means to be saved, not just cured but fully healed. In the language of our God-Centered Wellbeing team, sōzō means to have not just wellness but wellbeing.

The story reveals that there is a difference between being cured and being well. Ten were cured, only one was made well. Being cured is a physical thing; being well requires being grounded in gratitude.

Barbara Taylor puts it like this: The nine, she says, were obedient and behaved like good lepers, good religious people; only one "behaved like a man in love."3 Then she becomes confessional. She says, what is apparent in my own life is that I know how to be obedient; I don’t always know how to be in love. I read my Bible, say my prayers, pay my pledge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, she says. It’s kept the church going for years. But our hearts long for something else, for something more than obedience. We want to come busting back to Jesus, praising God and loving Jesus with all our hearts. We long not just to be good religious people; we long to be in love, to be grounded in gratitude.

Taylor concludes by turning Jesus’ question around. Jesus asked the grateful Samaritan former leper, "Where are the nine?" Where are the ones who didn’t come busting back? But our question is, "Where is the tenth?" Where is the one who does come busting back to Jesus, grounded in gratitude? Well, I’ll tell you where that one is:

  • That one came busting into my office several weeks ago, and with tears in her eyes she said, "Thank God, there’s been an unexpected change in my financial situation and I can make a pledge to the capital campaign of $ _______ . The number was so large that I was taken aback; I had to call her later that day to make sure I’d heard her right. And she continues to tell me, "I feel joy, I am privileged to be able to do this for the church that has changed my life." She is grounded in gratitude.
  • A couple of weeks ago Maple Grove member Sandy Freer told folks, "Brian and I always do what we can to support the ministries here, the annual budget.  But when I first heard about a capital campaign, I knew I wanted to be part of it.  We are blessed to worship in a beautiful sanctuary and enjoy classes and meals here because people we’ve never met made gifts to build this building.  Now I’m excited to be able to make a gift so that people in the future can continue to gather here to love God and serve others." Sandy is not giving grudgingly or dutifully. She’s excited to give. It’s her way of busting back to Jesus with a heart full of love, of being grounded in gratitude.
  • And you saw how our children are grounded in gratitude. They enthusiastically love this church because of cookies and plays and fun, because of cookies, and because of TMI and serving others and welcoming people with open arms. And did I mention cookies? They’re not afraid to come busting back to Jesus with hearts full of love. They’re grounded in gratitude.

Now it’s our turn. The ushers are going to distribute Gratitude Cards to everyone here. There are just two simple questions on each card: What I am thankful for… and What I love most about Maple Grove is… Find a pencil, borrow a pen. If there are people who need help writing, someone give them a hand. You can put your name on it if you want—just remember these will be displayed for all to see. At the end of the service there will be people at each exit with baskets to collect your cards. I’ve got my own card, and a pencil here some place.

Where is the tenth? Where’s the one who will come busting back to Jesus with a heart full of love, the one grounded in gratitude? Here we are. Let’s all be that one!

 

1 Today’s sermon draws heavily from "Sermon 1: Grounded in Gratitude," http://www.horizonsstewardship.com/client-files/.

2 Justo González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 204.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 110-12.

 

 

Revelation 22:1-2

Tree of Life: Healing of the Nations

October 2, 2016 World Communion Sunday Maple Grove UMC

Today we conclude this series on trees in the Bible. "Why trees?" some of you have asked. The name of our church was the inspiration. When you’re called Maple Grove, you really ought to know about trees in the Bible! But trees have always been at the heart of religion and deep in the human psyche. The epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to at least 2500 BC, has a tree of life that gets snatched away by a serpent. Our own book of Genesis has a serpent and a tree. The Buddha reached enlightenment sitting under the Bo Tree of Wisdom. In psychodynamic theory, Freud thought trees stood for . . . well, I’ll leave it to your imagination what Freud thought about trees. Perhaps more helpfully, Karl Jung found trees to be archetypes of the self--a union of earth, heaven and water. Why trees? Because trees reach deep into the human spirit.

And then there’s this: just as the first story of the first book of the Bible contains a tree (the tree from which Adam and Eve took and ate), the last vision of the last book of the Bible contains a tree: on either side of the river that flows from the throne of God, says Revelation, is the tree of life, and the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations.

Most people think the visions in Revelation are of the "End," that is, how things are going to be some day in the future. But New Testament scholar Eugene Boring teaches that "All Revelation’s statements about the ‘End’ are really statements about God."1 That is, Revelation’s visions about the "End" are really visions of life the way God wants it to be, now and forever. The completion of the visions may indeed take place some time in the future, but the reality of these visions exists already in the will of God and in the hearts and minds of God’s people. The tree of life, then, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, this tree may not yet be thoroughly visible right now, but it is as real as God’s longing for peace, and it will become as visible as God’s people dare to make it. Oh, how we need, and Oh, how we are those leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

As I hear those words, "for the healing of the nations," I’m reminded of the ending of a poem that Dottie Trax shared with me a few weeks ago:

later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the

whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere2

I met with the Maple Grove youth last Sunday evening, asking them to think and pray with me about this vision from Revelation. They used arts and crafts (glitter was the key ingredient) to make artistic leaves, to represent the leaves that are for the healing of the nations. And as they cut and pasted, we talked about places in the world today in need of healing. The conversation got around to Syria, and one of the youth asked, "What exactly is the fighting in Syria about?" I waited, hoping that someone, anyone else would speak up. But when no one did, I gave it a try: "Well, Syria’s ruler, Hafez Assad, is a brutal dictator who has committed atrocities against his own people, so various groups tried to rebel against him, and the US kind of supported them. But Assad also has lots of American weapons, so they weren’t able to drive him out. And then ISIS got involved and teamed up with some of our allies, so we couldn’t be allies with them any more. And Turkey is our friend, kind of, unless we support the Kurds too much. And Russia came in and pretended to be our friend, but wasn’t."

"So who do we want to win?" he asked.

"I don’t know," I had to admit. "I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as ‘winning’ any more, only killing."

We’re going to put some of our youth’s leaves here by the table of Communion with Christ. May they be for the healing of Syria.

It’s hard not to lose sleep over the violence of Islamic extremism in so many places. Boko Haram kidnapped school girls in Nigeria, killed 20,000 people and displaced 2 million people from their homes. Iraq is torn apart, Yemen has civil war, and there are bombings and shootings in the West as well. But here’s something else. Late last year in Kenya members of the jihadist group al-Shabaab hijacked a bus and asked the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians so they could kill them. The Muslims refused, telling the terrorists to kill everyone or leave. Thank God, they left. These our Muslim brothers and sisters were being the leaves of that tree, bringing healing to the nations. And in gratitude for their courage we place these leaves by the table of our Communion with Christ.

On Wednesday Cathy Davis, Nancy Watson and I attended a United Methodist district event about ministry with immigrants and refugees. Did you know that there are 65,000 Somalis in the Columbus area who have fled the violence in their homeland? There are 25,000 Nepalese here who were forced from their homes in Bhutan. We heard from a man who escaped from Iraq. His life was threatened by Al Qaeda because he translated for the Americans. Members of Worthington United Methodist Church sponsored his family and helped them get settled here, and his gratitude is overflowing. We don’t have to go anywhere to be leaves for the healing of the nations. The nations are right here, waiting for us to extend the hand of peace. Let’s place these leaves by our Communion table, in anticipation of our own ministry with refugees.

When I met with our church youth, they were concerned mainly about violence and injustice here in the US. One of them actually knew Tyre King, killed recently on the East side. And they know about Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York. And there’s Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—all African-Americans who were shot by police or died in police custody. When our youth say that Black Lives Matter they don’t mean that white or brown lives don’t matter. They mean, Can’t we do something to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Can’t we eliminate racist talk from our politics? And can’t we change the fact that black men are seven times more likely than whites to die in encounters with police?3 This is not to blame anyone in particular, but just to acknowledge a truth about our country. Our youth created many leaves to heal racism in our nation; I want to join them.

At the same time, can’t we support our police officers who on a daily basis risk their lives to protect and rescue people of every color and culture? Being a police officer has been ranked one of the 15 most dangerous jobs in our country and the 4th most stressful. Let’s offer them some of our leaves for the healing of our nation, for the healing of the tension between police and community.

The last vision of the Bible is of the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We pray for that vision, for that will of God, to be ever more visible in the world. And on this World Communion Sunday, let’s commit ourselves to be those leaves, for the healing of the nations and of our own nation.

1 M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 215.

2 Warsan Shire, "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon," http://amberjkeyser.com/2015/11/warsan-shire/.

3 "Police Gunfire: Unarmed Black Men 7 Times More Likely to Die Than Whites" The Chicago Tribune, August 9, 2015.

 

Isaiah 55:12-13

The Trees Clap Their Hands

September 25, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, for one, the Psalms tell about joy:

The pastures of the wilderness overflow,

The hills gird themselves with joy,

They shout and sing together with joy. (Psalm 65:11-13)

O come, let us sing to the Lord;

Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

(Psalm 95:1)

May those who sow in tears

Reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

Bearing the seed of sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:4-6)

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, the poets know about joy. There’s Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; . . .

What is all this juice and all this joy?1

There e.e. cummings:

I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.2

And there’s my favorite poet, Mary Oliver:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There [is] . . .

much that can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. . .

It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. . .

Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.3

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, if I get a vote, the one who knows joy best is Isaiah, the prophet who got to tell the exiles they were going home. Today’s tree scripture is also today’s joy scripture and also today’s anthem:

For you shall go out with joy,

be led forth with peace,

the mountains and the hills

shall break forth before you into singing

and all the trees, the trees shall clap their hands.

Pine trees shall shoot up in place of the camel thorn,

myrtles instead of briars.

All this shall win the Lord a great name,

a sign for all time.

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, maybe, with Isaiah, it’s best not to tell you at all, but to show you: Clap my hands! Or better yet to join with you and the trees in clapping our hands for joy: All of us clap our hands!

I want specifically this morning to think with you about three aspects, or three kinds, of joy: joy as a response to circumstances, joy that comes from inside, and finally expectant joy, or anticipatory joy.

Joy as a Response to Circumstances

In Exodus 15 Moses’ sister, Miriam, pulls out her tambourine and leads the people in song and dance. Why? Because the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. In 2 Samuel 6 King David danced before the Lord with all his might. Why? Because at long last the ark of the covenant had been brought to Jerusalem. In Matthew 28 the women ran from the tomb quickly and with great joy. Why? Because the angel said that Jesus was raised. There is a joy that is our natural and heart-felt response to circumstances.

Periodically our church’s prayer team sends out what they call their "Rejoice List." The prayer team’s work is confidential but here, without names, are samples from a recent Rejoice List. They’d been praying for a Maple Grove member who’d receiving an emergency pacemaker. All had gone well. They’d been praying for a member’s daughter and son-in-law who’d been separated, but now had reconciled. One couple’s grand-daughter had been born and all were well after a high-risk pregnancy. Do you see why they call it the Rejoice List? Joy is our natural and heart-felt response to answered prayer.

I wrote this poem many years ago, a true story about our daughter Rachel’s response to first seeing the beach:

She toddled down the dune to that first sight

Of sea, for which there is no grown-up speech,

Much less for two year-olds. She took it in

Silence, just beach far as her eyes could reach.

Who knew the universe could be so blue?

Who knew the world would be this wide? Who knew?

She looked, she laughed, and then she clapped her hands.

It was, she knew, the only thing to do.

Will you join Rachel and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?

Joy From the Inside

Sometimes, however, there aren’t any circumstances to prompt our joy. And yet . . . ultimately joy does not come to us from the outside; joy is something that arises from the inside. In the church we call this "the joy of the Lord." It’s joy that comes not from getting a job or from the Buckeye’s beating Oklahoma, but from the presence and promise of God in our lives.

In the first church I served I visited a woman in a nursing home. I got to know her story. She was legally blind. She’d lost most of one leg to diabetes. Her husband had died when they were still young, and two of her three children had succumbed to cancer. And yet every time I visited, she had a smile on her face and was eager to sing hymns with me. I asked her one time, "Mary, with everything that’s happened to you, you have every right to be sad and angry. How is it that you’re always filled with joy?" More than twenty years later, I still remember what she told me. "Pastor, joy isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something God gives you. All you have to do is receive it." Amen.

Here’s how the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk put it:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Because joy is something that comes from the inside, will you join Habakkuk and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?

Expectant Joy

There is joy that a response to circumstances. There is joy that comes from the inside. And finally there is expectant joy, the joy of anticipation. In Columbus, Ohio, we call this ‘tailgating.’ The game won’t start for hours, but already fans are rejoicing. It’s expectant joy.

Our family took a beach vacation the first week of August. Already in June I was shopping for beach chairs and travel size toiletries. Part of me was already on Pawley's Island. It’s expectant joy.

In the flow of Maple Grove’s capital campaign this fall, Celebration Sunday--when we’ll have special music and decorations and grand refreshments--comes before most of us fill out our pledge cards. Some might call this wishful thinking. I call it expectant joy.

That’s what’s going on in Isaiah 55. When Isaiah wrote these words to the exiles in Babylon about going out with joy, no one had gone anywhere yet. The people of Israel were still slogging it out in Babylon, with no way home in sight. There was nothing obvious to rejoice about, no clear reason for the trees to clap their leafy hands. Here’s how Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "before there can be any geographical departure from [Babylon], there must be a liturgical, emotional, imaginative departure. Israel in exile must be able to think and feel and imagine its life out beyond Babylonian administration."4 In other words, expectant joy doesn’t just take place chronologically prior to a joyful event, our expectant joy is part of what makes that event happen. Nancy Gay calls this "visioning prayer." Before it happens, already she sees it and rejoices for it.

The truth is, not every Jewish exile in Babylon wanted to go back to Israel. Some had cushy jobs in Babylon. Some didn’t have it so well but were more afraid of change than of staying put. None of them knew what the journey would be like. As Brueggemann points out, Isaiah’s call to go out with joy is not an imperative. God doesn’t nag those who fear what’s new. It is an invitation; it’s permission to clap your hands on your way to a new and joyful life.5 So why don’t we? With the exiles let’s envision, let’s rejoice and clap a new life into existence.

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, channeling Brueggeman, let me say to you this way: O my Maple Grove friends, when you go out today, go out with joy and peace, not in anxiety and anger. Go out with your life transformed from brier to myrtles, from camel thorn to towering pine. Go out from tired old fears that divide us, go out from old quarrels unresolved. Go out from sin unforgiven. Go out from old decisions that have scarred and wounded. Go out from old memories that have become weights around your neck. Go out into God’s promised future, which our rejoicing helps make happen. And once more with two year-old Rachel, and once more with the prophet Habakkuk, and once more all the trees, will you clap your hands with joy?6

1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring," https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51002.

2 e.e. cummings, "I thank you God for most this amazing," https://thepoetryplace.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/i-thank-you-god-for-most-this-amazing/

3 Mary Oliver, "Don’t Hesitate," Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 42.

4 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 162.

5 See Walter Brueggemann, "Sabbaticals for Rats?" The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),132.

6 The ending is adapted from Walter Brueggemann, "Power to Remember, Freedom to Forget," The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 62.

 

Luke 13:1-9

Fruitless Trees—Grace and Manure

September 18, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Like a tree planted by the water—or as we learned, like a tree transplanted by the water—that was our first Tree scripture, from Psalm 1. We can be strong and stable and fruitful because of our relationship with God. Last Sunday Charles Hill shared with us about the tiny mustard seed that becomes a tree. Little, he told us, is much when God is in it.1 Next Sunday we’ll hear about trees that clap their hands for joy, and we’ll conclude this series with a tree in the book of Revelation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Narrowing down all the tree stories in the Bible for just five sermons was difficult. There are so many we won’t get to. There is that tree in the Garden of Eden from which they were not to eat . . . and you know how that turned out. In the Old Testament trees can be symbols of idolatry--they worshiped Baal, Jeremiah says, "on every high hill and under every green tree" (Jeremiah 2:20) . But trees could also stand for safety and prosperity—Micah promises, "but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (4:4). There is the stump of Jesse in Isaiah from which the Messiah grew. Good trees, Jesus said, bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit. And the cross itself is referred to as a tree. In fact, the word ‘tree’ occurs 393 times in the translation I use; how did I decide to include today’s parable about a tree that gets spared the axe?

Well, for one thing this parable contains the word ‘manure.’ And the junior high boy in me has always wanted to say ‘manure,’--or some synonym for manure--in a sermon. So there, I’ll say it: ‘manure.’ It’s in the Bible.

But really this scripture addresses two of the biggest questions human beings have:

  • Why do such bad things happen to people?
  • And why do good things happen to undeserving people?

So, why do such bad things happen to people? Well, you may have noticed that Jesus raises this question, and then he doesn’t answer it. He tells us that one common answer to the question is wrong, and then he tells people to reflect on their own lives instead of asking why the world works the way it does. Jesus asks, "Do you think that the folks Pilate murdered died because they were worse than everyone else?" "No," he says, "but why don’t you repent?

"And how about the 18 poor souls that had that tower collapse on them? Did that happen to them because of something they’d done wrong?" Again he says, "No, but why don’t you repent?"

Why do such bad things happen to people? Why did a drunk driver hit my cousin’s car? Why did our friends’ little girl get cancer and die? Why were certain people in the Twin Towers on 9-11 and not others? Oh, I know, people like Pat Robertson think they know the reason for AIDS and why Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The fact he thinks he knows those things reveals that he hasn’t listened to Jesus. Why do bad things happen to people? No one knows. If even Jesus knew, he didn’t say. Jesus was not given to judgmental pronouncements or idle speculation. Instead, he invited people to examine their own lives, to see if while we’re here, we might live and love more faithfully.

There simply isn’t any clear, straight-line correlation between our failings and our suffering. The next part of the scripture will suggest that there’s also no clear, straight-line correlation between our goodness and our flourishing. Now, we might not like that. I have several ideas about how the universe might work better, but so far God hasn’t consulted me on those things. It’s just the way it is. Stuff happens. My part is not to know why others suffer or prosper; my part is to say, with the old spiritual, it’s not my brother and not my sister, it’s not my father and not my mother, it’s not the preacher and not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

Which brings us to the parable of the tree that bore no fruit. The owner was ready to chop it down, calling it a waste of soil. But the gardener begged, "Sir, give it another year. Let me coddle it and fertilize it and give it some TLC. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then we can let it go."

Some people have suffered and some have even been cut down. What does it mean that some of us are still standing? New Testament scholar, Justo González, sums the parable up this way: "those of us who survive, those Galileans who were not killed by Herod, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who were not in the Twin Towers on September 11, are living only by the grace of God, and . . . our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit."2 Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians: "If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall."

We trees sometimes get pretty proud of our lovely branches and green leaves. We get to thinking that we have grown all by our own power. Even if we’re not bearing fruit, still, look at our leaves and branches. But Jesus’ parable pokes a hole in all that pride. If we’re standing at all, it’s by the mercy and grace of the gardener.

Years ago I came across a poem by Scott Cairns that says this well and isn’t far from my own experience. The poem is called "Imperative," and it’s not very long:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.3

Just don’t go thinking you deserve any of it. That’s what Jesus is saying to the trees that are still standing. The Christian Century magazine recently asked people to submit short articles about mistakes they had made. A pastor from Indiana shared how as a brand new 25 year-old minister he was sent to a church that had been torn apart by conflict.4 He did his best, preaching healing messages, visiting people in their homes. But then anonymous notes and phone calls begin. The letters revealed personal knowledge about the pastor and some infor-mation about the letter-writer. He looked for patterns and details, and finally decided that the source had to be the wife of a certain farmer in the church. During the conflict her husband had stopped attending services. He writes, I called Betty and asked if I could come visit. We sat at her kitchen table and made small talk for a few minutes. Then I told her I knew she had been making the anonymous phone calls and writing the letters.

And as those words came out of my mouth, the pastor writes, I suddenly saw another piece of the puzzle that made it impossible for Betty to have been the caller and letter-writer. But my words had been spoken; they sat there on the kitchen table between us. He says, "I braced for a storm. I waited for Betty to promise that she would never again darken the doors of the church. But there was no storm. Betty looked at me across the table and I saw disappointment in her eyes. "No, pastor," she said, "I didn’t make those calls or write any letters." And then she said simply, "Pastor, would you like some sweet tea?"

"Yes, Ma’am," he said. We talked about the family, the farm, weather and the church. She let me pray. She shook my hand and said she’d see me on Sunday. . . Sometimes we pastors are privileged to flourish in the ministry like a great maple tree. But when we do, it’s only ever by the grace of people like Betty and the amazing mercy of God. I suspect the same might be true in your line of work.

Stephen Hawking begins his book, A Brief History of Time, with this story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "And what is the tortoise standing on?" "You’re very clever, young man,’ very clever," said the old lady, "But it’s turtles all the way down!"5

Here’s what I’m trying to say: We may think we’ve caused our own growth. We may think we’ve made our own breaks and watered our own successes. But it’s grace all the way down. There’s nowhere to sink our roots but the soil God provides, and there’s nowhere to get water but the rain that God sends. It’s grace all the way down.

So this scripture is just a few reflections about tragedy, just a little story about a tree. But as is often the case with little things, if God is in them, they can become big things. Here are three ways this little story might change your life:

    • You don’t have to prove anything, my friends; you get to bear fruit. That could change your life.
    • Rather than worry about other people’s faults, I can choose to work on my own. That too could change your life.
    • And if ever I’m blessed to flourish and grow, thank God. Just thank God. And that will most assuredly change your life.

1 Song title by Kittie L. Suffield. In the public domain. http://library.timelesstruths.org/music /Little_Is_Much_When_God_Is_in_It/.

2Justo L. González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 172.

3 Scott Cairns, "Imperative," The Christian Century (November 6-19, 2002), 21.

4 Mark Owen Fenstermacher, "Mistakes," The Christian Century (July 6, 2016), 25-26.

5 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 1.

 

Psalm 1

Like Trees Planted by the Water

September 4, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The first word in the book of Psalms is "happy." Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . The very first word in the Bible’s prayer book is "happy." And just one verse later it says that "their delight is in the law of the Lord." So there’s not just happiness, but delight is in this psalm. These words are so different from the ones we usually use about prayer that I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to bask in those words: happy are those . . . their delight is in the law of the Lord. So often prayer is portrayed as a religious chore, a time of struggling to keep our attention on God, something we do not so much because we enjoy it as because we feel guilty if we don’t do it. But the Psalms begin by asserting that the righteous are happy and that meditating on God’s Word is a delight. What a refreshing way to begin!

At the start, let me acknowledge my reservations about Psalm 1 and part of its worldview. Like so much of the Bible, Psalm 1 divides people into two clearly distinct groups: the righteous on the one hand and the wicked on the other. Now I’ve met a few people—my grandma, for example—who seem simply righteous, almost all good all the time. And I understand that there are a few people who are so broken that we’re tempted to categorize them as just wicked. But that way of thinking can lead us to an unattractive self-righteousness (we’re good/you’re bad), and it can allow us simply to write some people off as beyond redemption. The truth is, most of us don’t fit neatly into just one category or the other. Just when I think I’m at my most righteous, others seem to notice in me signs of wickedness. And even some of the most hardened criminals have impulses of goodness that put the rest of us to shame. I agree with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, "The line between good and evil cuts through every human heart."1

So life is not as black-and-white as Psalm 1 presents it. But that said, there are ways of living, there are attitudes and habits, that tend towards righteousness and others that tend toward wickedness. And Psalm 1 is reminding us that the ways that tend toward righteousness result in happiness and delight. Happiness, the Psalm says, results from not following the advice of the wicked, from not taking the path that sinners take, from not sitting in the seat of scoffers, which means, I believe, not being proud and arrogant, not quick to judge and find fault with others.2 Happiness is a result of delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. In Hebrew "Law" (or Torah) doesn’t mean rules and regulations the way it does in English; it means teaching or instruction, a way of life. Old Testament scholar, James Mays, says that Psalm 1 "teaches that life is a journey through time;" and that "the way life is lived is decisive for how it turns out."3 In the Psalms the wicked, Mays says, are those who afflict the lowly, accuse the innocent, undermine the trust of the faithful, don’t listen for God, and threaten the good of the community. Happiness, in contrast, is the result of a life lived inquiring with all our heart who God is, what God wants, and what God wants to do through us.

Which brings us to Psalm 1’s image of the tree: "the righteous are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season." Don’t you want to be like a tree, planted by streams of water? Well, you are. Or you can be, any time you’ll let God plant you there. I won’t pretend to speak for you, but let me share with you how I long and need to know that I’m a tree planted by the water.

  • Perhaps you are not, but I am so easily shaken. On a bad day all it takes is one word of thoughtless criticism to send me spiraling down. All it takes is one more bit of bad news and I feel like everything’s coming apart. With my brother still doing poorly, and my daughters moving away, and more on my plate than I know how to get to, it can feel sometimes like I’m slip-sliding away. But here’s what the righteous are: they’re like trees, planted by the water. In Christ, as Ephesians puts it, we are rooted and grounded in love. And so we sing, "I shall not be moved." For someone as shaky as myself, that’s good to know. Actually, it’s necessary, it life-changing, to have the stability of knowing God.
  • Again, maybe it’s not so for you, but for me life can grow parched and dry. Whether caring for a baby day and night and night and day, or going to the same job week after week, or dealing with ongoing family conflict and stress, or coping with illness or depression—one can just get weary. And in my experience, meditating on the law of the Lord doesn’t always change these outward circumstances. But it does change my spirit, the way I reflect on and experiences these circumstances. When I remember to open myself to God, when I open my eyes to see God’s blessings, it may not change the world around me, but it changes me. We are like trees, but not the dry tinder-like trees out West, we are like trees, planted by streams of water, green and lush and fruitful. It’s good to know.
  • Finally, probably not you, but I can get to rushing around, busy here and busy there, worried and distracted. A prayer from India in our hymnal begins, "Like an ant on a stick both ends of which are burning, I go to and from without knowing what to do . . ."4 The wicked, Psalm 1 says, are like chaff that the wind drives away—endless, pointless motion. Life can feel that way. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The righteous are those who can be still, like a tree, and reflect on timeless things.5 Trees have nowhere they have to go. They’re never in a hurry. Everything they need is within reach of their roots. It is good to know

One last thing about these trees in Psalm 1. Although it doesn’t come across in most translations, scholars tell us that the Hebrew says the righteous are like trees not just planted, but actually transplanted by the water. God not only blesses people, but God takes us from the places where we’ve been scattered, and transplants us to a place where we can thrive and grow together.6 Say, for example, to Maple Grove Church. Only a handful of the people here are native to this place--baptized and confirmed in this church. Most of us are transplants—trees that have grown, and sometimes withered, in other places, only by the grace of God to find ourselves transplanted in this well-watered space. Where have you been transplanted from? Don’t you delight, aren’t you happy, to sink your roots in here? And the tree that is Maple Grove grows strong and tall, offering shade and fruit for our community, and truly we will not be moved.

So just one thing remains: won’t you, all you righteous, all you who delight in the law of Lord, won’t you be with me a tree? Stretch out your mighty limbs. Feel your toes, your roots sink down into rich soil. Know that you are unshakable, immovable. Soak into your dryness the glad streams of God. And just be still, with all the time you need to reflect on timeless things. Happy are you, begins Psalm 1. Happy are you.

1 The Gulag Archipelago, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/ 10420.Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn

2 See A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, Vol 1, Psalms 1-72, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980), 59.

3 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 43, 41.

4 "A Refuge amid Distraction," The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 535.

5 See William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 56.

6 See Brown, 77.

 

Mark 8:1-21

Jesus Feeds People Again . . . and Again

August 28, 2016 Feed the World Sunday August 28, 2016

You may have thought Rick made a mistake in reading the gospel when he said that Jesus fed "about 4000 people." You were too polite to interrupt, but you wanted to say, "No, that’s 5000. Jesus fed the 5000, not the 4000." How many of you knew that Jesus did both? In Mark 6 there’s the famous story of Jesus feeding the 5000, but just two chapters later he does it again, this time for a crowd of 4000 people. Oh, there are a few differences: 4000 instead of 5000, seven loaves instead of 5, "a few fish: instead of 2. But essentially it’s the same story. Why, I wonder, did Jesus do the same thing twice? And with only 16 chapters to work with, why did Mark take time to tell the same story twice? Well, let me give you three answers to those questions.

    1. Scholars say that the places mentioned in each story suggest that the 5000 was a Jewish crowd, while the 4000 were Gentiles. Jesus is making the still controversial point that all of God’s children deserve to eat—Jews and Gentiles, citizens and immigrants, employed and unemployed. In the boat with Jesus later on, Mark says the disciples had only "one loaf" with them. Jesus’ intention is that we don’t need one loaf for Jews and another for Gentiles, one for "us" and another for "them." One loaf is all that’s needed.1

Fuad Bahnan, an Arab born in Jerusalem, was the pastor of a small Christian church in predominantly Muslim West Beirut.2 In 1983 the Israeli army pushed north into Lebanon. Leaders of Pastor Bahnan’s church were worried that the Israelis would take Beirut and try to starve out any Palestinian fighters who remained. So they decided to buy vast amounts of canned goods and store them at the church, just in case.

And their fears came to pass. West Beirut was entirely cut off. No one could enter or leave. No food was allowed in. The leaders of Pastor Bahnan’s church met again, to make arrangements to distribute the food they’d stockpiled Two proposals were put on the table. One was to distribute the food first to church members, then as supplies permitted, to other Christians, and finally, if any was left over, to the Muslims. The second proposal was just the opposite: to distribute food first to their Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, and finally, if any was left, to members of their church. The meeting lasted six hours. It ended when one elderly woman, well-respected, stood up and cried out, "If we don’t demonstrate the love of Christ in this place, who will?" The food was distributed first to Muslims, then to other Christians, and finally to themselves. In the end, there was enough for everyone. Jesus feeds both Jews and Gentiles, both Muslims and Christians. We need only one loaf; he wants us all to eat together.

2. That’s one reason Jesus did the feeding thing twice—Jews and Gentiles. Here’s another reason: we disciples are such forgetful people. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus makes it known that he wants to feed the crowd, but the disciples ask, "How can we feed all these people with bread here in the desert?" Hello! Just two chapters ago they’d fed an even bigger crowd with even less food. Have they completely forgotten?

Later, when they were alone, Jesus asked them, "Why are you talking about not having any bread? . . . When I broke the five loaves for the 5000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?"

"Twelve," they mumble, looking down at their feet.

"And the seven loaves for the 4000, how many baskets of broken pieces did you collect?

"Seven," they whispered.

"Don’t you understand?" he asked them. And the truth is: when it comes to sharing and remembering how Jesus always makes it enough, no, we don’t seem to understand. We disciples are such forgetful people! So Jesus just keeps reminding us, and asking us to feed hungry people.

3. So that’s two reasons why Jesus fed the crowds not just once, but twice: once for Jews and again for Gentiles, he wants everyone to eat together; and because we are so forgetful—he’s got to do it again and again so we will remember. Here is one last reason why Jesus has to feed the crowds again: because they need to eat again. Feeding people for Jesus is not a one-off miracle; it’s a way of life.

When I was in grade school I often visited the home of a friend whose grandma from Germany lived with them. And whenever it was meal time, or just snack time, he’d go to her and say, "Grandma, we’re hungry."

And she would always respond the same way. She’d always say, "You vant to eat again?"

"Yes, Grandma."

"Vell, all right, let’s go see vat ve’ve got." And she’d put mountains of delicious food in front of us. And the answer is still yes—yes, Grandma, ve vant to eat again. And so do all our neighbors. Again and again.

Here’s the thing about Jesus feeding the crowds of people: so far as I can tell, never once in the Bible does Jesus himself ever give people food. Rather as Suzanne Henderson has noted, "Though Jesus presides over the miracle, he does so by empowering his companions."3 The disciples have the food, and the disciples give the food to the people. What Jesus does is remind them to share their food and bless it along the way. When those things take place, the miracle of everybody eating always happens.

I saw in the news last week about a tiny Baptist church outside Shreveport that happened to be on a ridge higher than the surrounding land. And during the flood and recovery there that church has fed thousands of people, not just once but day after day. They have fed many times more people than there are members of their church. It would seem impossible, but that’s what Jesus does.

Here at Maple Grove we’ve got quite a few food-related ministries:

  • Pastor’s Pantry makes bag lunches for homeless neighbors who come to CRC
  • Feed My Sheep makes sandwiches for the Faith on 8th homeless shelter and takes canned goods to food pantries
  • A group of woman serves lunch every month at NNEMAP, sometimes a hundred people more
  • Another team serves children’s summer lunches up at Broad Meadows
  • As you’ve heard every August Feed the World Sunday feeds up to 8500 people in one day.
  • And our newest venture is that dinner every first Thursday at CRC. When we started it, there was some anxiety. Is it too much? Can we get enough food? Will there be enough volunteers? (That was my anxiety, by the way.) We only ask those questions because we’re such forgetful disciples. We forget that the miracle is this: if we will only share what we’ve got, Jesus will bless it and make it enough. Because we all need to eat again . . . and again.

1 See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 225-26.

2 Michael L. Lindvall, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001), 125-26.

3 Suzanne Watts Henderson, Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 70-71.

 

Luke 2:22-40

Lifting Our Children to God

August 21, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

What’s going on when we bring our children for a blessing? What are we doing here on Back-to-School Blessing Sunday? I want to begin to by showing a couple of movie clips. The first is from Roots, the TV series from the 1970s based on Alex Haley’s novel. The second is from The Lion King. Watch for gestures of the blessing of children.

As a dad, I find these scenes deeply moving, even though my own children are neither African nor a lion. And as a Christian, I resonate with that gesture of blessing, even though neither film has a Christian context. What are we doing when we bring our children for a blessing? We are lifting them to God. Unlike the movie scenes, we may attach certain words to the gesture, or certain ideas or traditions or emotions. But to me it’s the gesture that is most powerful. When we bring our children for a blessing, we are doing nothing more, and nothing less, than lifting them to God.

That’s more or less what Mary and Joseph did. They brought Jesus to the temple a certain number of days after his birth to make sacrifice to God. Following the Passover story in Exodus, every first-born son in Israel belonged to God and had to be redeemed our bought back by a payment of money to the priest. But there’s no indication Mary and Joseph made such a payment, meaning that, like Samuel in the Old Testament, Jesus truly and forever "belonged to God." It’s rich and symbolic, and here’s what we know: not just Jesus, and not just first-born, but every child belongs to God. We raise them. We get to know and love and guide and worry about them. But they are never ours, exactly. Every child belongs to God. And in acknowledgement of that, we lift them back to God.

And as Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God in the temple, and as parents brought little children to Jesus, so today we lift our children to God for a blessing. We don’t literally lift all of them the way Kunta Kinte lifted his baby—some of them might cry and others are far to big for us to lift in that way. But as I put a hand on each one of their shoulders and as I said the words of blessing, in my heart and mind, that’s what I was doing: just lifting them to God.

That’s a part of what we do when we bring our children for baptism. Oh I know, there’s water and liturgy. It’s a spiritual washing, an initiation into Christ’s holy church, a sealing with the Holy Spirit. Baptism is all that and more. But at its core, baptism is this human impulse to lift our children to God. When we bring our children for baptism, we parents, guardians or family members promise to nurture them in Christ’s holy church, help them profess their faith openly and lead a Christian life. I strongly suspect that some parents who bring their children for baptism have no such grand intentions. They just want to keep grandma happy or create a cute photo-op. And I used to be a lot more strict about that. I wanted to make sure parents were coming to baptism with the right intentions and commitments. I’ve mellowed in my old age. Not that commitment and right intentions are unimportant. But for whatever reasons parents may bring their children, let’s lift them to God. Every child needs it. And so does every parent.

It’s not just little children that we lift to God. Carolyn and I took our younger daughter Rachel off to college in Cincinnati this past week. And next weekend we’ll take our older daughter Emily to the airport to study in Senegal in West Africa for the next four months. You can’t even imagine how often I’ve been lifting them both to God, and don’t think I’m going to stop any time soon! May the Lord bless them and keep them, at every age and season of life.

The truth is, not even death prevents us from lifting our children to God. Two weeks ago I gathered with Stew and Jane Rantz and their family to scatter the ashes of their son Jacob in Maple Grove’s new memorial scatter garden. We read scripture, we shared memories, we said a prayer, and we returned Jakes ashes to the ground. What were we doing but lifting their precious son to God, one more time and forever? And as we gathered on one side of the lawn, on the playground other children laughed and played with their parents. As it should be. We lift them all to God.

Here are a couple of things that lifting children to God is not:

  • First of all, it’s not just sentimental. Here is what the old man, Simeon, in the temple told Mary. After sharing how amazing and special Jesus would be, he said to Mary, "And a sword will pierce your own soul too." There’s nothing sentimental about the cross. And yet through it all, you know that Mary never ceased to lift her son to God.
  • Lifting our children to God for a blessing is also not magic. All around the world parents lift their children for blessings. We ask for protection and guidance, for integrity and joy. And absolutely inevitably, some of those children will be harmed, some will go tragically astray, some will fall ill and worse. So why do it, if it’s not magic, if there’s no guarantee? Well, come good or ill, don’t you want our children to live a little closer to God? No matter what religious sceptics may say or how critics may complain, don’t you want place your children in the lap of Jesus? I’ve got three degrees, but let’s not overthink it; let’s just lift our children to God.

Just a couple more thoughts and I’ll be done. I’ve talked a lot this morning about parents, but I want no one here to feel excluded. It’s not just parents and guardians who lift children to God; it’s the whole community. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, but it’s the old man Simeon and old prophet Anna who do the blessing. I suspect we all pray our children at home, but there’s a reason why we bring them to church for a blessing. All the friends here, all the honorary aunts and uncle and grandmas and grandpas, all the examples and witnesses to the faith, all of today’s Simeons and Annas—we all together lift our children to God.

I read an article one time about a bishop who was asked how he could stand back and not do more to prevent priests from abusing children. And he said, "Well, they’re not my children." To which the author responded, "What he should have said was, ‘They’re all our children.’" Together, as a church, we lift them all to God.

And finally this, it’s not just children that we lift to God, is it? Goodness knows, I need to be lifted to God. It’s so easy to grow broken and discouraged. Somebody please lift me to God for a blessing.

And the aged and the dying in particular we lift to God. This past week I visited Maple Grove member Lloyd Fisher at Kobacker Hospice House. Lloyd is 92, has lived a fruitful and faithful life, and is ready for what comes after this life. As I sat quietly with Lloyd, I didn’t need a lot of words. In my heart and mind, I just lifted him to God. Because of course he was never really ours, but always belonged to God. Sometimes there’s nothing more we can do, but thank God there’s nothing less we can do, than to lift God’s children, back to God.

So will you make the gesture of blessing with me now? What we’re doing when we bring our children, when we bring the aged and dying, when we bring anyone for a blessing, is simply lifting them to God.

 

Hosea 11:1-11

July 31, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

David Kushner

The Bible. Man, it can be a really difficult book to read and make sense of. It is ancient, it uses forms and genres that aren't really familiar to us. The New Testament can be tough enough, but when we include the Old Testament we are often at a real loss. The texts are foreign, they are rife with so many troubling aspects..., and then there are threats of violence, or religious and social intolerance that we have come largely to reject. And yet. And yet, it is the canon, the standard, for our identity as a community. The Bible contains the narrative of our understanding of God's character, God's intentions, and it serves as the guideposts by which we shape our interior life and the outward mission of our community.

I would like to offer a reading that may help us to make a bit more sense out of things.

Hosea is a book of powerful emotions. It is one of the few where we readers can readily sympathize with the emotions of God. Time and again the prophet tells of God's sadness, anger and frustration at Israel, who continually reject the most loving of God's overtures. As if to ensure that we can connect with the Divine character, God is portrayed as a jilted lover, who pours out gifts, only to be cast aside and then have those gifts used to buy other lovers. God is portrayed as a parent, who has loved and blessed their child, only to have the child reject them and use their inheritance, like a Prodigal Son, to buy pleasure and feed their addictions. These are all expressions of profound love and of the deep painful suffering that we all know. And if we have not felt these pains of love and rejection in life yet, surely we can easily imagine them. And so, again and again, Hosea tells us, God is subjected to the wounds that can only be inflicted by those who are loved most. And yet, though turning away would be simpler, less painful, God woos Israel with hopes to coax them back into a right relationship where they can know the goodness God intends for their lives. These are powerful metaphors that connect to the very deepest of human emotions, and they provide us with an empathetic connection to God that few other biblical authors achieve. And while all of us may not have had such faithful parents or lovers, surely we can find ourselves gaining a greater understanding of the depth of God's love and commitment for us. No matter how unfaithful we may be, Hosea tells us that God is deeply committed to seeing humanity have a life of goodness, wholeness, justice, peace—shalom.

And this should be so encouraging to us. Often we feel that we do not deserve or warrant God's love; we believe we have strayed too far, or sinned too much, or have just a bit too much dirt on us, to be desirable among "good church folk", much less a relationship with God. No? All right, well, maybe just me, but I have heard that this is a pretty common feeling. And if and when this is true of you, please hear that you are loved and desired by God—and if you are not welcomed by the church, then you should have been, and that church has failed its calling.

On the other hand, the Bible calls us to imitate God, and through our lives and love be a reflection of God's image to the world. Hosea's story of such passionately committed love is surely helpful for motivating us to show God's love to the world. It seems that if we're supposed to reflect God's love, we would benefit to be tapped into and sharing God's emotional life. Right? Well, what drives those passions? Is it possible for us to sympathize with God? Is it desirable? For when we look closer at Hosea and the Bible, we often run into some real difficulties: Is it simply that God longs for our attentions or affections like some needy, love-sick teenager? Are we called to emulate God's apparent jealousy, possessiveness and intolerance? It seems at times that the prophets portray God to be a trifling moralizer. Is God really sent into rages for our indiscretions? Should we be preaching judgment on the "sinners" down at OSU Oval? While I'm grateful that Hosea hears God relent from punishment, the constant threat of violence and rejection can be rather disconcerting. How do we reflect that and also reflect Christ's love?

So troubling are the emotional expressions of God, that for 1700 years, the church simply declared it a heresy to suppose that God truly has emotions. For good reason we have largely rejected this decision.

What actually causes God to be so angry with Israel in Hosea? Israel is in a covenant relationship with God. While always recalling that they were once poor slaves, Israel was to reject the oppressive and exploitative methods of Empire. They were to be different in their treatment of humans from Egypt, Babylon, Rome. Theirs was to be a society that in its differences reflected and revealed something of God's true character and intentions for humanity. Israel was to be an historical example—a microcosm—of God's care and redemption of humanity as a whole.

Now Hosea sees Israel, in an effort to guarantee their agricultural and financial security, being driven by fear and greed to engage in religious and economic practices of the Canaanites that were deeply offensive. This is no mere religious intolerance. Let me tell you: By turning to the worship of Ba'al, the Israelites were acting out fertility rituals (if you can imagine) to guarantee the fruitfulness of the land. They participated in ritualistic acts that objectified the gods (by thinking they could be controlled by magic), and objectified themselves (as players in this magic); and in all this striving for control and objectifying, they soon enough got to selling their own daughters into sexual slavery under the auspice of the cult. They treat their own daughters as chattel to be sold and used—all in the hopes of gaining economic security and social standing. This is the passion of God; This is what Hosea inveighs against. Human trafficking. Of their daughters, no less. We can understand why the prophet uses the metaphor of sexual infidelity to describe Israel's turning from God—the metaphor brings to one's heart the level of emotion that starts to match God's. But with practices like these, I'm frankly glad that this sort of exploitation makes God furious! This is the passion of God. A God who legitimates the dehumanizing, exploitation of the voiceless is no God that I wish to emulate, much less worship. No longer can we hear this simply as a story of jealousy, and sometimes petty jealousy; no longer is this the picture of a God who is simply intolerant of others receiving the attention owed him; no longer is this the moralizing rant of a prophet hoping to indict us and so control the population through fear and threat; rather we hear the prophet Hosea and God roaring out in distraught love for the horrors that the people are putting upon themselves—the very weakest among them.

This is the basis for God's seeming intolerance of foreign cultures and religions. We don't have time to do the full survey today, but I contend that behind the voices of the Prophets we find that God's seeming intolerance is not crass xenophobia, nor trifling moralism—The passion of God is an intolerance for social injustice—a longing for the right treatment of humans. Egypt, Babylon, Rome, all of these empires are based in a system whose success is dependent upon the exploitation of the marginal. The result is that humanity is de-humanized, brutalized, and the Empire becomes a Beast—as with Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, or in the writings of Revelation. God is always yelling at Israel because they are seeking security by the means of Empire, and this invariably results in oppression and various forms of social and economic injustice against the weak and poor among them. But Israel—and we—are called to bear God's image and show a new way to truly be human.

It is upon this consistent rejection of the use of violence, and fear, and exploitation that Jesus' life and death and ministry make sense. Jesus clears the Temple of the money changers because they use their position to exploit the disenfranchised by charging fees to "clean up" money and provide "more acceptable" sacrifices to the poor and foreign worshipers of God. This is no mere moralistic piety—Jesus is incensed that the poor and foreign are being used as tools for gain, when the Temple was supposed to be the very place where such people were tended. This is the passion of God. Jesus heals a leper, outside of the confines of the Temple, and shows us that rather than healing being bound up in the symbol of power, which is the Temple, healing of the very most disenfranchised comes with a hug. It is a simple re-affirmation of the humanity of a person that the system said was a dirty thing—and it was a powerful renunciation of the world's systems that brutalize those who suffer most. This action will get Jesus rejected and killed. But this is the passion of God. The dignity of basic humanity will not be controlled in the halls of the powerful, nor in fear, nor in economic oppression. Not in God's kingdom. Jesus knew the passion of God, and his message of non-violence and solidarity with the poor brought the full power of Empire upon his head. When threats and fear fail, Empire has no greater strength than that of death. But Jesus' resurrection shows that God's kingdom will persist even while the most powerful of the world's Empires will ultimately self-consume.

This is the God of Hosea and of Jesus. This is the God whose passion for humanity will suffer the blows of rejection, even of violence, so that God might stand in solidarity with the weakest and long-suffering of humankind. This is the God who stands in solidarity with the poor and the weak and the voiceless. In so doing, God shows us that the way of being Truly Human is found in giving life to those whom the world rejects. There are no borders or economy to secure in God's kingdom—it is not self-interested—there is only love and the careful keeping of people in the face of injustice and alienation. And it is the passion of this God who displays omnipotence, not in might and judgment and destruction—but in relenting—God shows us an omnipotence in vulnerability, suffering, and extending love toward us, who are broken. This is God's great power; greater than a mother's passion to seek her lost and hurting child.

This is a God whose passions are driven by self-giving love for humanity. And this is the God we are called to emulate. Will you seek to know God's passions, and come to know love, peace, and contentment? Or will you be consumed in empire building, burdened by fear and greed, envy, prejudice and disdain? Would you stand as brothers and sisters in solidarity with the weak and the poor? Or would you be co-opted by a world system (whether from the Left, or the Right) which seeks first power and wealth and influence? Would you give voice to the oppressed, love to the friendless, and comfort to the suffering? Or will you ally to the system that values you for your wealth, your strength, your fleeting beauty? Be on guard: Empire is ever after your heart and it seeks to consume you, and all before it. Or will you be consumed with God's Kingdom and the love and care of others? These are fearful questions I put before us today, when you count out the cost. But we have seen what damage the world does with its promises and threats. Might we not rather seek to know the passions of God and taste and see that they are good, and life giving?

I think most of us here today resonate with a God who is impassioned for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Listen to that voice. Nurture your responsiveness to it. Know that you are sympathizing with God, and as we do, we will know God more; and in bearing God's passions, we will be able to love more than we ever imagined possible—and together we will know God's goodness as we will bring God's life and relationship to people who know too well the darkness of the world.

 

Luke 11:1-13

Teach Us to Pray

July 24, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

I want to begin by asking you to write down your answer to this question: If you could pray for only five things, what would they be? There’s a blank card inside your bulletin for you to write on and there should be pencils in the pews. If you could pray for only five things, what would they be? Take a moment and write down your five.

We’ll come back to that list later. This scripture, though, raises lots of questions about prayer:

  • Doesn’t Jesus promise more than he can deliver? He says, "Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find." Really? I’ve asked for things and not received. Haven’t you? But notice what Jesus actually promises. He says, "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" At least in this scripture Jesus doesn’t promise we’ll get everything we pray for; he promises we’ll get the Holy Spirit--which may be disappointing in some ways but a pretty amazing gift, if you think about it.
  • Lots of people ask, "That’s not the way we say Lord’s Prayer. Why not?" There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible—this shorter version in Luke 11 and a longer one in Matthew 6 that’s closer to what we say in church. The ending of the Lord’s Prayer—"for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever"—is not in the Bible, but was added very early, probably already in the 1st century A.D.1 Contemporary translations of the Bible don’t have the old-fashioned language—the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’—that we say. I’ve often thought about updating the language of the Lord’s Prayer for worship, so it’s not so confusing and especially so kids can understand it better. But the Lord’s Prayer is about the only thing left that most Christians can say together, and I can’t bring myself to change it.
  • And people ask, is it "debts" or "trespasses?" In Luke’s version, it’s both. Jesus says, "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. In Matthew’s version Jesus clearly says "forgive our debts as we have forgive our debtors," and many scholars believe Jesus didn’t have sins in mind at all, but was calling for widespread debt-relief. 2 Think about that next time you pray the Lord Prayer!

But here’s where I want to engage this scripture today: the disciples come and say, "Lord, teach us to pray." The question suggests we don’t just naturally know how to pray; we have to learn to pray. And the way Jesus responds is surprising. He does not teach them a way of praying. He doesn’t teach them an attitude of prayer, or a posture for prayer, or how to express emotions in prayer, or a technique of prayer. What he teaches them is, well, a prayer, some words to repeat . . . and repeat.

This is surprising, I think, to Protestants, if not to Catholics, because we Protestants like prayer to be spontaneous and from the heart. We worry, "If you say the same thing over and over, won’t it become rote and meaningless?" Well, only if you let it. Jesus didn’t seem worried about that. In my experience, the more I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the deeper and more meaningful it becomes. There’s certainly a place for making up our own prayers to God, but to pray the Lord’s Prayer, as Rowan Williams puts it, "is to let Jesus’ prayer happen in you."3 Now that’s powerful, isn’t it—to let Jesus’ prayer happen in us.

Bible professor Justo González says that in Jesus’ time it was common for rabbis to teach their students a prayer to repeat. These prayers became a way to identify which disciples belonged to which rabbi.4 In one sense, then, what it means to a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to be one of the people who pray his prayer.

It’s a powerful thing to have a prayer we can pray together with almost any Christian. I’ve visited hundreds of people in nursing homes, sometimes people I’ve never met before, often with limited ability to speak or remember things. But one thing we can nearly always do together is pray the Lord’s Prayer, and often it brings a tear to the person’s eye.

Maple Grove member Sean Gill was once in the hospital with blood clots. For a while he had a roommate named Darrell, an older guy with some life-threatening condition, raised in the church but not very religious. Because the curtain was drawn between them, Sean never actually saw Darrell, but they said a few words back and forth. In the middle of one night, someone down the hall started screaming that her daughter was dying. There was crying and moaning and nurses rushing around. It was frightening. Hesitantly, Sean said, "Darrell, are you awake?"

"Yeah."

Not knowing what else to do, Sean asked, "Would you like to pray the Lord’s Prayer with me." And they did. And for that time, Sean says, "I wasn’t worried about anything. Most of us," Sean says, "yearn to feel the presence of Christ in our lives, especially those of us who doubt and are skeptical. But praying the Lord’s Prayer with that stranger in the middle of the night," he says, "I felt it." That is the power of "letting Jesus’ prayer happen in us."

"Lord," the disciples asked, "teach us to pray." One way of looking at it is that Jesus taught them not how to pray but, well, a prayer, words to repeat over and over. Another way to look at it is that Jesus taught them not how to pray but what to pray for.5 I wonder: what’s on the list you just made of your Top 5 things to pray for? If your list is anything like mine, if it’s anything like the prayer request cards we get every Sunday, it’s dominated by prayers about health and physical healing for loved ones. That’s what we tend to pray about. And don’t get me wrong--there’s all good. Jesus was a healer, and I will always pray for my own health and yours. But here is Jesus’ list of his Top 5 things to pray for:

  1. Our Father, hallowed by thy name. The Lord’s Prayer begins by praying not for ourselves, but for God, for there to be reverence and respect for God. There are, of course, specifically Jewish concerns about God’s name. But what might it mean for us to pray over and over for there to be reverence and respect for God?
  2. Thy kingdom come. This prayer is partly a confession. We may not know exactly what God’s kingdom is like, but we know this violent, selfish, racist, rude and consumer-driven way we live is not it. When we pray "Thy kingdom come," we are praying for an end to prejudice and retaliation, for a more equal sharing of God’s blessings, for all children to be safe and have excellent schools. And we pray for that kingdom to begin with us, now.
  3. Give us this day our daily bread. So we do get to pray for our own physical needs. But note that it is ‘daily’ bread we pray for—enough, but not very much. And this is a corporate, a community prayer: not give me my daily bread, not even give my family daily bread, but give us—all of us—our daily bread. It’s a big prayer.
  4. Forgive us our sins, it says in Luke’s version, for we forgive everyone indebted to us. Praying Jesus’ prayer is humbling. Every day we need forgiveness. Every time we pray we need forgiveness. And I don’t think it means God won’t forgive us unless we forgive others. God is always forgiving. But how can we receive God’s forgiveness if our hands are full of grudges and bitterness? Forgive us, Lord, for we are letting go of everything that’s not forgiveness.
  5. And finally, the last thing on Jesus’ prayer list is this: Deliver us from the time of trial, or Lead us not into temptation. Again, it’s a humbling prayer. We’re not praying for strength to overcome life’s toughest situations. We’re acknowledging that there are some things we’re just not up to, so please God, don’t even take us there.

Jesus has given us the gift of a prayer, words to pray over and over, so that he can pray in us. And he’s given us a prayer list—not to pray instead of own lists, but things not to skip over:

  • For there to be reverence and respect for God
  • For the world to be the way God wants it to be
  • Not for my eternal security, but for our daily bread
  • For forgiveness and the letting go of others’ debts
  • And to not even get started down the road to trouble.

Shall we pray?

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.

Amen.

1 "The Lord’s Prayer," The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., ed. F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 836.

2 See e.g., Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 65-66, 105-106.

3 Rowan Williams, "In the Place of Jesus: Insights from Origen on Prayer," The Christian Century (August 6, 2014), 20.

4 Justo L. González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 143.

5 See Hendricks, 102.

 

John 1:1-5, 8:12; Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus Is, No Wait, We Are the Light of the World

July 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Today’s gospel readings say that Jesus is . . . no wait, they say that we are the light of the world. Which it is? Is Jesus the light of the world? Or are we the light of the world? And the answer is: Yes. Both!

Let’s start with Vacation Bible School’s theme—Jesus is the light of the world. The kids learned that Jesus gives us courage, hope, direction and power. I can use some of that. How about you?

Now, when we say that Jesus is the light of the world, we are also acknowledging that darkness is real; otherwise we wouldn’t need his light. The theme for Bible School was "Cave Quest." In part, I suspect, that theme was just a good excuse for us to do some really cool decorating (I hope you got to see the cave hallway downstairs and the cave entrance to the chapel). In part, it was an opportunity to learn about some interesting animals that live in caves--such as salamanders, glow worms and bats--and to experience the science of geodes and echoes. But ultimately cave was a metaphor for darkness, because caves really are dark. And so sometimes is our world, and so, sometimes are our lives. The first words of the Bible are: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Darkness, it seems, is not only real but original; light has to be created by God.

Yes, darkness is real. Just turn on the TV--violence and killing only increase in Afghanistan and Iraq despite years of trying to bring order. Police officers live in fear, and African-Americans live in fear, and it’s hard for us even to talk to each other across our divisions, let alone heal them. Darkness is real. Just this past week alone I walked a family through the grief of a funeral, I talked to a man who’d fallen off the wagon after more than a year of sobriety, I visited a woman whose depression is so severe she can’t take care of herself, and my own brother can move and speak in only the most limited of ways. Darkness is not only real, it’s close.

That’s why we need the light. One of the best ways to be reminded that the light is still shining is to spend some time with children. I got to spend time with your children here this past week. And it was marvelous! I have learned about myself that I am constitutionally unable to stop myself from crying when children sing about Jesus. So here I was every night this week, with my own daughter leading the children in singing I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. Just bring me the whole box of Kleenix! Yes, the darkness is real, but I’m here to tell you, as long as children sing about Jesus, the light is still shining.

As I listened in on one Bible School session I overheard a little boy say, "I’m not afraid in my room, because I’ve got bunk beds and God." What more do you need than bunk beds and God? The light is still shining.

I’ve probably shared this poem with you before, but I shamelessly share it again. It’s a true story and it’s called "Jesus Light":

It was a gag gift

or meant to be—

a nightlight in the shape

of Jesus

his sacred heart exposed

like a patient half-way

through a bypass.

But my daughter, two and a half,

laid hold of him and took

him to her room

and there he abides with her

shining heart and all.

And each night her litany

of prayer includes Mommy

and Daddy, and Rachel

and my Jesus light.

He doesn’t give a lot

of light, this four-watt Jesus—

enough to read by in a pinch

and keep the monsters under the bed.

But he’s there

all night

every night

friend to the fearful

sacramental plastic

gift of the Father’s unfailing grace.

O sweet daughter

may it ever be so:

the light shines in the darkness

and the darkness has not overcome it.

You know what? There has been some real darkness in the 19 years since I wrote that poem. And you know what else? The light of Christ has shone through it all.

Otis Moss III is a black pastor in Chicago. Rev. Moss serves a prominent church and was outspoken about racial justice, and early in his ministry there he received death threats and people said they’d bomb his church. The stress made it hard for him to sleep and one night he heard a noise in the house. He got up check it out. "Like a good preacher," he says, "I grabbed my rod and staff to comfort me"--my rod and staff made in Louisville with the name Slugger on it. "I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again. I made my way back upstairs and peaked in my daughter’s room. There was my [six year-old] daughter Makayla dancing in the darkness—just spinning around, saying, ‘Look at me, Daddy.’

I said, ‘Makayla, you need to go to bed. It’s 3 a.m.’

But she said, ‘No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.’

And she was spinning, barrettes going back and forth, pigtails flying. I was getting huffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me. ‘Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it is not in her.’"1

The darkness is real. But so long as children dance in the dark, and so long as we will dance with them, the light is shining still.

We all need light for our darkness. And if you have found light somewhere else or from someone else, I have no need to take that from you. But the light I know is the light of Jesus who gives us hope and courage, the light of Christ who offers direction and power. His light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

All of that, my friends, is good and true, but it’s not all there is. The light of Christ does not shine just for me nor does it shine just for you. The light of Christ is always for us to share with others in their darkness. You remember that Jesus said not only, "I am the light of the world," but also, "You are the light of the world." As Jesus gives us hope and courage and direction and power, he wants us to pass them on to others.

Now, we have to be careful with this idea of being the light of the world because pride so easily sneaks in. We think, Oh, if we’re the light of the world, maybe we should point out where we think other people are wrong. Maybe we should show them the one true way to live, our way. Maybe we should tell them how much better our religion is than theirs. The trouble is, people tend not to experience those things as light! If it’s not a kind word, if it’s not a loving action, if it’s not helpful to others, it’s probably not the light of Christ. Yes, we are the light of the world, but we need always to be careful that the light we share is truly the light of the Christ of love.

Darkness is real, and so are hopelessness and fear, so are feeling lost and helpless. The darkness is all around us, it is true, but not in us. So dance and sing, my friends, love and care for others, feed the hungry and befriend the friendless, so the darkness will not be in them either. Yes, Jesus is . . . no wait, we too are the light of the world. Let it shine!

1 Otis Moss III, "Dancing in the Dark: Preaching the Blue without Despair," The Christian Century 132/24 (November 25, 2015), 22-25.

 

mg3

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