Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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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.

 

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.

 

Luke 10:25-37

Jazz Sunday Conversation

July 10, 2016 Maple Grove

This is Jazz Sunday, and one of the ways jazz works is that you have the same theme and the same progression of chords, but first the saxophone will play with that melody, and then bass will riff on it a while, and then the piano will improvise on that same tune. A jazz piece is always rooted in the same theme and chords, but you never know exactly where it’s going to go.

So today we’re going to try a jazz sermon, or rather, a jazz conversation on the theme of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. First the priest and the Levite will take it for a while, then the Samaritan will play a few bars, and finally the beaten man will take us home. We’ll all be rooted in the same story, but who knows exactly where your conversations are going to go. And in between each conversation, the band will do its thing.

The Priest and Levite

The priest and Levite have taken a lot of criticism over the years—and for good reason. They were looked up to in their community, they had the opportunity to help a man in need, and they simply didn’t do it. I’d like to humanize them a bit, however. Even though they did not stop to help, they may well have had several very good reasons. Some scholars suggest that if the beaten man were bloody or worse yet, dead, touching him could have rendered them ritually unclean and unable for a time to do their priestly duties. Whether that is true or not, there are other reasons not to stop and help a man along the road. Maybe they were busy, running late to help an aged parent or on some crucial errand for God. Maybe they were scared that the beaten man was a set-up, and once they stopped robbers would jump out and beat them too. Maybe they’d already stopped to help three others that day and were just worn out. Maybe, even though they wouldn’t want to admit it, they just didn’t want to get involved.

The priest and the Levite didn’t stop to help a man in need, right in front of them. I’m not saying I approve of the way they acted. I’m just saying, they may have had their reasons. So here’s your first question for discussion around your tables: What reasons have you had for not helping someone in need?

The Samaritan

The last words Jesus says about this story are, "Go and do likewise." Go and do what the Samaritan did. And what did the Samaritan do? He had compassion for the man, he bandaged his wounds, he took him in his own car to a place where he could recover, he paid for his care, and he promised to come back in person and check on him. In other words, he didn’t just help the man from afar. The Samaritan spent time with the man, touched him, formed a healing relationship with him. Maple Grove’s mission statement includes three words: Invite, Grow and Transform. And the description for Transform says to form life-changing relationships while serving others. That’s what the Samaritan did.

Jesus says first that the Samaritan had compassion for the beaten man. Many of us feel compassion for others. Fewer of us go ahead and do what the Samaritan did: form life-changing relationships while serving those in need. "Which one," Jesus asks the lawyer, "was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" And only one answer is possible. It’s not about emotion or knowledge, it’s not about being liberal or conservative, it’s not about religious doctrine or having a good reputation. The one who was a neighbor was the one who did something, who took the time and the resources and the risk to form a life-changing relationship with someone in need.

We know the right answer, don’t we? It’s the doing that’s hard. And we do neither God nor ourselves any favors if we read this story today and talk about this story today, and don’t change our lives. So here’s your question: What is one concrete way that you can go and do likewise? What is one specific way you reach out and form a life-changing relationship with someone in need?

The Beaten Man

I once read that you can tell the main character in any parable by who is mentioned first. Read some parables and see what you think. Even though we call this the Parable of the Good Samaritan, listen to how it begins: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. . ." Sure, Jesus is inviting us to ponder how we are like the priest and the Levite. And sure, he’s challenging us to go and do as the Samaritan did. But the main character is the beaten man. Could it be that who we really are in this story isn’t the priest, and not even the Samaritan, but the beaten and helpless man, forced to rely on the compassion of a despised Samaritan?

I suppose you know something of the feelings Jews in Jesus’ time had about Samaritans. Their hatred of Samaritans was part ethnic, part historical, part religious. They hated Samaritans. So here’s how it might have been: the beaten man looked up from the ditch only to think, "I’d rather die than let that dirty Samaritan be my neighbor." Could it be that Jesus was suggesting that we are in no position to decide who is and isn’t our neighbor, because sooner or later, we need them all.

I’ve got a photo from The Columbus Dispatch, November 30, 2014, of OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett writhing on the ground with a freshly broken ankle, and kneeling over him, gently touching him in prayer, is Devon Gardner, the quarterback from that team up north. Quite possibly J.T. Barrett thought, "I’d rather lie here and suffer alone than be prayed for by someone from Michigan." But in Jesus’ story, we don’t get to decide who our neighbors are.

So here’s your last question: If you were in trouble who is the last person in the world you’d want to have stop and help you?

That’s your neighbor.

 

 

2 Kings 5:1-14

Healing Is the Answer

July 3, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

1. In the Old Testament, a prophet is someone who:

  1. Leads prayers in the temple
  2. Reminds people how God wants us to live
  3. Predicts the future

2. Elijah got the best of the prophets of the god Baal by:

  1. Bringing fire from heaven to light a sacrificial fire
  2. Walking on hot coals without being harmed
  3. Making a bush burn without being burned up

3. Elijah fed a poor widow and her son

  1. By turning stones into bread and serpents into fish
  2. By giving them a miraculous catch of fish
  3. By making their flour and oil not run out

4. Elijah confronted these rulers because they had a man killed in order to take his vineyard:

  1. David and Bathsheba
  2. Ananias and Sapphira
  3. Ahab and Jezebel

5. Elijah heard God’s voice in

  1. A powerful wind
  2. Silence
  3. An earthquake

6. As Elijah was being taken to heaven, his successor Elisha asked for this:

  1. Access to Elijah’s hidden fortune
  2. Elijah’s sword and shield
  3. A double share of Elijah’s spirit (Answers at the end.)

You could preach any number of sermons on today’s Old Testament story. I shared with the children how in a story about generals and kings, it’s a little slave girl who sets things in motion. That would preach. There’s also a message in this story about healing and ego. Naaman was offended that Elisha didn’t come out to meet him in person. He was offended by the trivial thing Elisha asked him to do. He almost let his pride prevent him from accepting the healing that was at hand. And so it is with our salvation. You can’t earn it or pay for it; there’s nothing hard to do for it. Will your ego allow you accept a salvation that you cannot deserve and that any fool can have? That would preach too.

But the message I want to give this morning has to do with the sort of person it is that Elisha healed. I can just hear the conversation. Elisha tells people that by the power of God he was able to heal a man of leprosy.

"Oh, who was it?"

"Naaman."

"You mean Naaman, the Syrian general? Naaman, public enemy #1 who has defeated us in battle and killed our fellow citizens?"

"Yeah, that’s the one."

"Do you mean that dirty dog was right here in Israel, and you could have killed him, or held him for ransom, or tortured him for information?"

"I suppose I could have, but I healed him. I sent him home with all his money and fresh clean skin." Probably not the most popular thing Elisha ever did. Jesus ran into the same trouble. He started his healing ministry in Capernaum, which was said to have a large non-Jewish population,1 and when he got back home to Nazareth they wanted him to do some miracles for his own people for a change. But Jesus told them, "There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." And talk about offended--the people tried to throw him off a cliff. Being kind to foreigners and loving our enemies has never been popular; still isn’t, if you watch the news.

So why did Elisha do it? Why heal the enemy’s #1 general? Well, he says, it’s so the foreigner would know there was a prophet in Israel. And after he’s healed, Naaman come to believe in the God of Israel. In other words, Elisha heals this foreigner to establish God’s reputation, to show the world that God’s healing is the answer.

At the end of WWII the United States did a surprising thing, perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world. In the European Recovery Program—usually called the Marshall Plan after the Secretary of State—the US spent today’s equivalent of $120 billion to rebuild not our own country, but the devastated economies of other countries, including the equivalent of $13 billion to help Germany. What an astonishing thing to do—to spend billions of dollars to help rebuild a country that just tried to destroy us. It would be unthinkable in today’s political climate. But it gained the US international goodwill for decades to come, a lasting reputation for healing.

I once served an inner-city church where we faced frequent vandalism and graffiti. Almost every week someone would break a window or paint vile words on our sign. We tried a kind of neighborhood watch, we called the police, but nothing helped.

About that time a guy from the Catholic church around the corner asked if he could do an after-school basketball program in our church’s little gym. Nothing formal, just let kids drop in and shoot around for a while. When I took the request to the Trustees, most of them wanted to say ‘no.’ One woman asked, "Do you really want to take those kids who are vandalizing the outside of our building and let them ruin the inside too?"

"No," I said. "I just want to let kids have a place to play basketball. . . In the name of Jesus." Reluctantly, they voted 6-3 to allow it.

And I’m here to tell you, that we did not have any more graffiti or vandalism for two years after that. Why? Because we had a new reputation among neighborhood teenagers. Healing is the answer.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. There were times when Israel had to go to war against Naaman and his Syrian forces. Elisha healed him when Naaman came and asked for healing, not while he was waving his sword. And the United States didn’t offer the Marshall Plan while Germany was still fighting, and we didn’t hand spray paint to the kids on their way into the gym. Healing is not the only answer that’s ever needed. But it is the answer that’s needed most, and the one we often seem most reluctant to give to foreigners and to enemies. Elisha wanted Israel’s God to have a reputation, and healing was the answer. It still is.

  1. See Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 63.

1)B 2)A 3)C 4)C 5)B 6)C

 

2 Kings 2:1-14

Change Is Hard But Possible

June 26, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The chariot and horses of fire come between Elijah and Elisha, and by the time Elisha can see again, Elijah has been spirited to heaven in a whirlwind (thus the song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). Elijah’s mantle, symbol of prophetic authority, falls to earth and Elisha picks it up. And whatever it was that had made Elijah so special, Elisha receives a double share.

For two reasons, I have a soft spot in my heart for this story. One has to do with the way retiring pastors are recognized at annual conference every year. One of the—usually older—retiring pastors faces one of the—usually younger—newly ordained pastors. A stole, representing Elijah’s mantle, is placed on the new pastor’s shoulders, as the retiring pastor says,

I transfer this mantle from our generation to the young

indicating thereby

that the responsibilities and dedication of the older generation

will be caught up and carried on by the young,

and the spirit of today’s Elijahs will rest upon today’s Elishas.

The young pastor replies, often tearfully:

We who come after you take up the mantle which falls upon us.

May we inherit a double share of your spirit. 1

It is a beautiful and moving moment, the transfer of responsibility and authority from one generation of leaders to the next. It seem so perfect and so easy up there on the stage—some gracefully bowing out while others respectfully take their place.

The only thing is, the next day you have to get up and go home, back to your church, where you discover that it is not quite that easy, that the transition of authority doesn’t happen that quickly or gracefully. All of a sudden district superintendents get all these calls from Elishas because the old Elijahs keep coming back for weddings and funerals. And they get calls from church members because the new prophet isn’t what they were looking for and, besides, can’t begin to fill old Elijah’s shoes.

There’s the old joke: how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? 13—one to change the light bulb and at least a dozen to stand in the parking lot and remember how good the old bulb was. Transition is not easy, is it? That’s what this story is about. Transition is messy and disruptive and heart-wrenching . . . and inevitable. This is true not only for pastors and churches, but in all of life. A aunt or uncle or parent dies and suddenly, ready or not, you are matriarch or patriarch of the family. Your boss moves or gets promoted, and now your job is different, precarious. One of our daughters had bad dreams for weeks when we changed babysitters. Change is hard.

And yet the Bible is shot through with transitions in leadership. Abraham gives the blessing to Isaac, who passes it on to Jacob. No one could live up to Moses, but Joshua still had to lead the people into the Promised Land. It takes very nearly a civil war, but King David is succeeded by his son Solomon. And Jesus spent his earthly ministry preparing a group—the church—to do for the world what he had done for them. This transition from Jesus to church was, and remains, a rocky one.

Elijahs bow out and Elishas rise up. The message is that change is hard but possible. Change is hard but by the grace of God, it is possible.

From this story we can see three places where the transition from one leader to the next can get blocked:

 

    1. The transition gets blocked if the old prophet won’t let go of the mantle. Elisha could not have picked up the mantle unless Elijah had let go of it. This is why there is a rule that when pastors leave a church, they don’t visit that church for at least a year, and they don’t go back to do weddings and funerals. The new pastor can’t pick up the mantle unless the old pastor lets it go.

And letting go of the mantle can be hard. Could that be why Elijah leads Elisha on that wild goose chase from Gilbal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan—because he wasn’t ready to let go? When I left Maynard Avenue Church after a dozen years, they just about had to pry the office keys out of my tight, clenched hand. Long-time leaders often say they want the younger folks to take over, that they’re tired of wearing the mantle all the time. Only when the younger folks do pick up the mantle, they often get told, "That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!" I talked to an elderly man recently and for the first time he was letting his kids plan the annual family reunion. I asked how things were going. "I’m biting my tongue, pastor," he said, "biting my tongue." It is hard to let go of the mantle, and that can block a healthy transition. Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.

 

    1. Another thing that blocks transition is when people won’t follow the new prophet. Even though Elijah is gone and Elisha has already picked up the mantle and parted the water, the people still want to look for Elijah. "Maybe he’s still around here somewhere," they say wistfully. "Maybe he’ll come back and help us one more time." Elisha tries to tell them: "Don’t bother looking for him; he’s gone." But they insist on looking. They need some time to grieve for the old prophet, and they’re not quite ready to listen to this whipper-snapper Elisha.

Oh, they warm up to him eventually. But he has to earn his stripes. And they have to learn that change is hard but possible. Transition is blocked until the people are willing to follow the new prophet.

Rev. Cean Wilson, who was once a pastor here at Maple Grove, told how when she started at one new church, an elderly woman looked at her and said, "But who will do our funerals?" She just couldn’t envision anyone but the old pastor leading their funerals. Cean stayed at the church for several years and loved the people, and when it was time for her to move, that same woman looked at her and said, "But when you leave, who will do our funerals?" We’ve got to learn to follow the new prophet. Change is hard but possible.

 

  1. Finally, th transition of leadership is blocked if no one picks up the mantle. What would have happened to God’s people if Elisha had decided not to pick up Elijah’s mantle? What if he’d said, "You know, that mantle looks a little heavy, kind of burdensome. Let’s see if someone else might pick it up." As a pastor, this always worries me, even though God has never let me down. In the first church I served, the long-time secretary retired and moved out of town. And when she set her mantle down, I could have cried. All right, I did cry. She had held that church together through several pastors and I didn’t see how we could make it without her. But do you know what God did? God provided someone, a new member, who said, "Why, I’ll pick up that mantle. I called her Elisha for a while. And the truth is, there were things Elisha did better even than the old Elijah.

Bob Skinner was Finance Chair here through some difficult years. He was dedicated, skilled and positive. When Bob had to rotate off Finance Committee, I lost sleep. I worried, what if no one will pick up that mantle? But do you know what God did? I made one phone call, and Brad Hughes is an amazing chair of finance.

Soon Barb Harrison will step down as Chair of Trustees after getting us through three roof projects, a couple of sanctuary updates, countless electrical and HVAC problems, and now a capital campaign. It’s a big mantle. I worry about what will happen when Barb sets it down. But what do you supposed God will do?

There are always mantles lying around a church—mantles for teaching children’s Sunday school and leading youth ministry, mantles for doing maintenance and repairs, mantles for visiting the sick and for inviting new folks to come. The mantles are many. One may have your name on it. Healthy transition is blocked when the old prophet won’t let go, it’s blocked when people won’t follow the new prophet, and it is blocked when no one will pick up the mantle. Change is hard, but with enough Elishas around, it is possible.

A while ago I mentioned that I have a soft spot in my heart for this story for two reasons. One is its place in the service for retiring pastors. The other is this: at my father’s funeral, now sixteen years ago, I rose to say that as far as I was concerned my father’s defining characteristic was his soft heart. He had compassion on the poor and rejected, he apologized well and forgave easily, he almost never raised his voice or held a grudge. My father’s mantle seemed heavy, his shoes too big to fill. And ever since, my prayer has been: "Oh, my father, my father. May I inherit a double share of your soft, soft heart."

Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.

1 "A Retirement Recognition Service," The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 736.

 

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