Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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John 1:35-46

INVITE:  Come and See

January 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The church leadership has been reviewing our mission and vision statements.  I know—I hear from folks who do this kind of thing at work and many would rather have a root canal than work on mission and vision statements.  But I’m not one of those people.  It is empowering, it unleashes our gifts to have clarity of mission and vision. 

The mission, in a few words, is your purpose, above all else what God has called you to do.  Maple Grove’s mission statement is fourteen words long—it’s on the front of the bulletin and many of you know it by heart.  Say it with me:  We are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  That’s our mission.

The vision, then, is where we’re going with that mission.  The vision is what it will look like when we faithfully live out our mission.  The mission pretty much stays the same year after year.  Ten years ago Maple Grove was an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors, and years from now we’ll still be an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  But the vision changes as circumstances change; as we achieve goals, we get to cast new ones.  The vision is what we most need to do right now to be faithful to our mission. 

The vision arises out of the mission.  The mission says: We are an open community of Christians . . .  Yes, we are.  We are friendly, tolerant, welcoming.  The next step, where we’re going, is to be invitational—to cultivate a culture of invitation to Christian community.  How will people know we’re an open community unless we invite them?  More on that in a minute.

The mission statement goes on:  Who love God.  Yes, we do.  And the vision is to always be growing in that love—to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.  More on that next Sunday. 

And the mission statement concludes:  and serve our neighbors.  Again, yes we do, with 75 ministry teams.  The vision, then, is for that service to be transformational, for it to change our lives and the lives of the people we serve.  More on that in two weeks.

The best Bible story about invitation is today’s Gospel reading from John 1.  Two of John’s disciples start following Jesus.  When Jesus sees them he asks, "What are you looking for?"  It’s a deep question:  In following Jesus, when you pray, in coming to church, in the secret places of your heart, what are you looking for?

They reply, "Rabbi, where are you staying?’’ It sounds like an odd response until your realize that the word "staying" can also be translated "to abide."  Not just "Stay with me, Jesus," but "Lord, with me abide."  They’re not asking Jesus what his address is.  They’re asking, "Jesus, what is your life like?  Where are you grounded?  Where is your heart’s home?"

"What are you looking for?" Jesus asks.

"Where are you abiding?" they ask in return.
And then Jesus says it:  "Come and see."  Come and see, he invited.  And they came, and they liked what they saw.

The next day Jesus called Philip to follow him.  Philip in turn found his friend Nathaniel and told him about Jesus.  Nathaniel was skeptical.  He asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip didn’t argue with him or scold him for his prejudice.  He just said, "Come and see."  And Nathaniel came and saw, and he became a disciple too.  "Come and see" are the first and most important words for a culture of invitation.

For two years in a row, Administrative Council has set goals around invitation.  Last year we worked to make our events more invitational, and we did a good job with that.  This year the goal is more personal.  For all of us--you and me, personally--actually to invite people to Maple Grove.  Here’s the way it’s stated:  for everyone to invite at least one person to a church event in 2016.  It’s that simple, or perhaps, that hard.  In support of that goal, Administrative Council has formed a new Invitation Team, led by Cliff Wiltshire, to track our progress and equip and inspire us to invite.  Some ideas are:

  • Having Maple Grove members tell their stories of how someone invited them or how they in turn invited someone else
  • Offering a training event to give us confidence in talking about faith and church
  • Sharing ideas about various ways of making invitations—personal conversation, a hand-written note, Facebook, etc.
  • And of course surrounding all these efforts with prayer.

When a church makes it a goal to reach out and invite others, there are always objections on the one hand and barriers on the other.  For example, you’ll hear objections like this:  Before we go inviting other people to church, first we ought to take care of the people who are already here.  Or this:  Instead of inviting others, we ought to be focusing on fixing up the building, or having more Bible studies or, well, you fill in the blank.  The reason I know all these objections get made is that I have made them all myself!  I can answer those objections, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from making them.  If we focus only on caring for people who are already here, of course eventually we will be the best cared-for eight or ten people in town.  And if we focus only on fixing up the building, we’ll have the fanciest empty building in town.  And what about all those people out there who desperately need the support, the friendship, the encouragement, of this church and our God?  So yeah, I make those objections.  But deep inside I know we need to care for one another, tend to our building and invite others into the loving community we all long for.

So what are the barriers to inviting others?  What makes it hard for us1?

    1. For one thing, there are so many bad examples out there of how to invite people to faith.  We don’t want to come across as pushy or judgmental.  And the way not to come across as pushy or judgmental is . . . not to be pushy or judgmental.  Let’s take our cue from John 1.  Jesus doesn’t warn people what will happen if they don’t follow him—he just invites them to come and see what it’s like to be with him.  Philip doesn’t imply there’s anything wrong with Nathaniel—he just invites him to come and see what Jesus is like.  None of them try to persuade others to believe anything—the invitation is to an experience, a relationship.  "The first word" of invitation, David Bartlett says, "is not ‘The Bible says . . .’ but ‘Come and see.’"1

 

  1. Second, people are often afraid to talk about God and church for fear of offending someone or making a relationship uncomfortable.  I feel that myself.  But on the one hand, everything that matters involves some risk.  If you were in need of love and support, wouldn’t you hope someone would take the risk of reaching out to you?  But on the other hand, if you know someone is not ready to hear about God and church, pray and wait till they are ready.  And if you know you’re not the person they’ll listen to, pray and think about who they might listen to.  The goal is not confrontation but invitation.
  2. Finally, people don’t feel qualified to invite others.  People think, "How can I invite someone else to church?  I’ve only been here a few times myself.  or  I don’t have any Bible verses memorized.  or  I wouldn’t know how to answer their questions.  But an invitation is not a lecture.  You don’t have to be an expert--Philip had only just met Jesus when he invited Nathaniel.  It only takes three words—Come and see.

A pastor in North Carolina tells this story: "I was leaving the church one evening as the AA meeting was breaking up.  I noticed a man [in the parking lot] and introduced myself.  He sighed and told me how long he had intended to ‘get back to church.’  I invited him to worship, and he launched into the story of his life, a familiar string of regrets and loss and addiction.  As I was walking to my car, he called after me, ‘Did you mean what you said?’  ‘About what?’ I asked.  ‘Did you mean I could come to this church?’  Driving home," the pastor says, "it occurred to me that he felt he wasn’t [worthy] enough to come to church.

"I never saw him again," the pastor concludes.  "I wish my response to his question had been more direct.  I wish I had simply repeated the words of Christ.  I wish I had said, ‘Come and see.’"2

I expect this dynamic happens a lot.  People are wondering, do you really mean that I can come to this church--that my kid with special needs can come here?  Well, come and see.

Even though I’m not sure what I believe, or if I believe anything at all, I can still come to this church?  Come and see.

Even though my gender identity or my sexual orientation is judged by other churches, I will be welcome here?  Come and see. 

Even though my life is a wreck, even though I don’t know Jesus from Genghis Khan, I can come to this church?  All you’ve got to say is, Come and see.

In your bulletin is a card with some things to reflect on and write down.  First, think of someone who invited you to church, or to a support group, or to be part of a sports team, or anything that became important in your life.  Think about how glad you are that person took the time to invite you.

Second, think of one person you might consider inviting to Maple Grove.  You don’t have to promise to invite them or anything.  Just write down the name of one person you might, at the right time, think about inviting here.

And then write down just one sentence about each of these questions:

    • What difference does God/Jesus make in your life?
    • How has church been important to you?

I’m going to give you a few moments to write and reflect.  No one’s going to collect these.  They’re just to help you get started in this culture of invitation.

The vision is not just to welcome, but to invite.  And soon there will be new people all over this sanctuary.  And people will wonder, "How did all these people come to be here?"  And you know what the answer will be:  We invited them, of course.

And the invitation takes only three words.  Say them with me:  Come and see.  And again:  Come and see.  And one more time:  Come and see.

1 David L. Bartlett, "Come and See," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (January 2-9, 1991), 11.

2 Mark Ralls, "The Other ‘H’ Word," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (January 11, 2005), 16.

 

Wellbeing: Being at Home with God

John 15:4-9 and 10:10

Sunday January 10, 2016

When I met Charles, he was a man in his early 50s.  An engineer at the university.  He had Type 2 diabetes and was enrolled in a research study at my practice site.  I served as his coach - although I am not sure he really needed one.  His blood sugars were always exactly in the middle of his goal range.  And his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were always on target.  Accept for one autumn day in 2003.  We downloaded his blood sugar numbers for the past month from his meter and there was one single spike in his levels recorded on a Saturday evening.  He asked me, "Do you know when that was?  It was the night of the Wisconsin/Ohio State football game (which we lost).

Charles, like many of the people I know who have conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, taught me there is more to living with chronic diseases than tracking numbers, more than knowing all the right things to do and not to do, and how a label like diabetes, heart disease or cancer can change the way you experience life.  They taught me that being healthy and being well are not necessarily the same thing and that we all can have wellbeing no matter what the circumstances.

Just like peace is much more than the absence of conflict, wellness is

much more than the absence of disease.  A person can be healthy –that

is be absent of disease – but they may not be well or have wellbeing. 

Likewise a person may not be healthy – that is they may suffer from

disease – but they may have wellbeing. 

According to Dr. Scott Morris 1, founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis,

 "Wellness embraces the joy of living,  then acts in a way that allows for thriving in happiness, love, and closeness to God."

We live in a world that tends to separate the care of our mind and body from the care of our souls. We seek healthcare to manage disease and we seek the church to nurture our faith.  But much of what impacts our wellbeing lies somewhere in between – things like our emotions, our relationships, our finances, our careers, the neighborhoods we live in.  And often we feel that neither the church nor our healthcare system acknowledges or embraces how important the integration of all aspects of our lives is on both our health and our wellbeing.

Our God-centered Wellbeing Team has wrestled with what an integrated model for God-centered Wellbeing would look like.  After much reflection on healthy living and wellbeing models that already exist, our team has drafted the model for God–centered Wellbeing on the front cover of your bulletin.   We see four overlapping wellbeing spheres: Personal, Relationships, Calling, and Community.

Our personal sphere is impacted by many things including our spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing.  Each can separate us or bring us closer to God. Each can consume us or guide us to abundant living. 

The relationship sphere focuses on our relationships with God and all those around us - rather that be family or the cashier at the grocery store – and focuses on how all relationships have the power to influence our overall wellbeing.  Relationships shape our expectations, desires, and goals. This sphere focuses on having love in our lives. 

The Calling sphere looks at what we do each day. Studies show that our work has one of the highest impacts on our wellbeing.  We chose "calling" for this sphere since for many, our personal mission within or outside of our career may be where our wellbeing rests.  A child at play, a student in the classroom, people at work, and all those following their passion influence the world we live in. Think what that world would look like if that influence became more God-centered.

And we learn through the fourth sphere that we cannot be well unless the community in which we live is well.  That may mean safe streets for walking and playing, healthy food sources, and good drinking water or it may mean strong schools for every child and opportunities for work for every person and freedom from hate or it may simply mean a safe community of support in which each one of us can connect with at least one person to share, to grieve, and to celebrate together.

In the book Wellbeing: Five Essential Elements 2Tom Rath and Jim Harter share

"Wellbeing is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.  Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact." 

As part of their research they found that 66% of people are doing well in at least one of these areas with only 7% thriving in all.  Since they all interact or overlap with each other, we are limiting what we receive from our lives when we over emphasize one area and dismiss another.

Rath and Harter also state

"Although these elements are universal across faiths, cultures, and nationalities, people take different paths to increase their individual wellbeing.  For many people spirituality drives them in all these areas.  Their faith is the most important facet of their lives, and it is the foundation of their daily efforts."

That is the foundation – the center of our Wellbeing model. 

Jesus said "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me."……

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love." Or as other translations say "remain or stay in my love". Or my favorite "make yourself at home in my love".

Jesus is telling us, we can’t bear fruit – we can’t be well – unless we abide in him.  Unless we make ourselves at home in his love.   The transforming love of God is what permeates all four spheres of our model and brings wellbeing to all aspects of our lives and to the lives of those around us. 

As Jesus said in John 10:10  "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  Jesus brings healing and wholeness to our minds, bodies, spirits and relationships.  For Jesus, salvation is about this life as much as it is about eternal life.  It is about the power of grace in every corner of the broken and wounded places in our lives.  Salvation is about integrating God’s transforming love into our personal lives, our relationships, our calling and our communities.  It is about us all having wellbeing  in this life as well as the next.

So what are you looking for in 2016?  Where would you like to feel more at home with God?  Where are you seeking God-centered abundant living?  Is it in one of the four spheres on the wellbeing diagram? 

Or perhaps it is in finding a way to re-center and integrate God more fully into all aspects of your life. 

Or is it simply coming home to God.  Being present in each moment of God’s grace.  Letting go of all the "oughts and shoulds".  Removing the emotional clutter and just resting in the arms of His love.

In Matthew  Chapter 6 Jesus said "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on…. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."  Jesus is telling us we do not need to face this world on our own.  Seeking God as our center – Making God our home – will bring the abundant life God planned for us.

I believe part of that plan is the opportunity to make human connections to walk with us on our journey.  When we asked you last November where Maple Grove and God had helped you make changes in your life during 2015, many of you answered -  through the support of  church friends and the acceptance they find in the Maple Grove family, through worship and study groups and by experiencing the power of prayer and the vastness of God’s love.   Companions on the journey are a reflection of God’s light on our lives.  We would like to think of Maple Grove as that safe, secure place where people come and feel they belong, feel they can make that holy connection.

In your bulletin our 2 covenant cards that are exactly the same.  One is for you to keep.  One is for you to bring forward at the end of the service today.  In a moment, you will have the opportunity to write on your cards.  This is your opportunity to commit to a covenant with God to seek more God-centered wellbeing in your life. 

And you may also check a box on the back of the card to be contacted to learn more about a human connection opportunity for your journey.  Some of these human connections meet as groups periodically to share.  Others gather around education.  Some are designed to connect people with similar experiences.  You may also suggest a new group or a new process.  We invite you to integrate relationship and belonging into your covenant.

The God-Centered Wellbeing Team has created a mission statement which is also on the front cover of your bulletin.

It states: We are committed to creating a faith community where together we support one another on our journeys toward God-centered wellbeing for all of God’s people.

As part of our commitment to God-centered wellbeing we want to

  • move beyond wellness towards wellbeing
  • move beyond isolating our faith towards integrating it into all aspects of our lives
  • move beyond our personal health towards the wellbeing and unity of our community

We invite you to join us on this journey.

 

  • Dust and Breath

 

    1. by Kendra G Hotz and Matthew T Mathews
  • Wellbeing:

Five Essential Elements

 

    1. Tom Rath and Jim Harter

 

 

 

Hebrews 10:19-25

Holding Fast

January 3, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a spiritual genius in the 1700s.  He was a practical theologian—a people’s theologian; he and his brother Charles invented a whole new kind of church music; and he started what today we call small-group ministry, bringing people together outside o worship for Bible study, prayer  and support—that’s where lives are changed.  Wesley realized that the spiritual life ebbs and flows, and that if we are not mindful, our relationship with God, like any relationship, grows strained and distant. 

One of the things Wesley did to counter that was to have annual Covenant Renewal Services.  Typically held around the New Year, this service was an opportunity for people to take stock of their life, to reflect on their relationship with God, and recommit themselves to following Jesus Christ. 

Centuries earlier, the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament was also a spiritual genius.  Though called an epistle (or letter), Hebrews is more like an extended sermon, a message of hope and encouragement to Christians grown weary of serving and suffering.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that there are things in Hebrews I find unhelpful.  For example, its emphasis on animal sacrifices doesn’t do much for us in the 21st century.  And its idea that God sends suffering to test our faith is not one I accept.  But the spiritual confidence of Hebrews and its description of Jesus as our friend and guide—those are words I need to hear.  "Therefore," Hebrews says, "lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees."  That’s what the Covenant Renewal Service is all about.

The original readers of Hebrews were worn down by persecution, not just unkind words or a lack of respect but actual violence against Christians.  We don’t experience that here, but it’s easy anywhere to grow weary in our faith.  In his commentary on Hebrews, Tom Long admits that we get tired both in worship and tired of worship.  It’s not only, he says, that the sermon may ramble on for a tad too long [though that has been known to happen]; . . . the weariness . . . is deeper, a jaded sense that nothing of real significance happens here.  movies, he says, have better drama; the pool club has people just as friendly; the park has a nicer view; and sleeping in on Sunday is more restful.  What’s more, he goes on, nobody at the movies or the park is going to hand you a pledge card or ask you to teach the junior high Sunday school class.1  It may not be these exact things that get to you.  But everybody gets tired of something in living out this Christian faith. 

The question is what to do about that.  Where does renewal come from?  Well, here are four things that Hebrews 10 suggests:

    1. First, we renew our faith together.  The scripture begins, "Therefore, my friends . . ."  But it might more accurately be translated "Therefore, my brothers and sisters."  I have to have my relationship with God and you have to have yours and we can’t do it for each another.  But neither do we have to do it alone.  When we isolate ourselves, that’s when faith burns out.  Faith is meant to be lived in community.
    2. Second our faith is renewed when we claim our baptism and feel deeply God’s mercy and forgiveness.  "Let us approach" God, Hebrews says, "with a true heart in full assurance."  "Sprinkled clean," it calls us. That God loves us fully no matter what is freeing and energizing.  I invite you to revel in God’s love and forgiveness today!
    3. Third, Hebrews says that renewal involves deeds of compassion and mercy to others--not because we have to prove ourselves or earn God’s love, but because we have been so blessed that we cannot help passing the blessings on.  We are most alive spiritually when we are serving others.
    4. And finally our faith is renewed, Hebrews says, when we "hold fast to the confession of our hope" in God.  In other words, the answer to spiritual apathy is not some new style worship or reorganizing the church, and the answer is not to knuckle down and try harder.  The answer is God--holding fast to the hope we have in God.2

 

That’s what Hebrews would have you do when your faith grows weary and you feel distant from God.  And what Wesley had people do was Covenant Renewal.  Covenant is one of the Bible’s primary words for our relationship with God.  God made a covenant with Noah never again to unleash the waters of chaos, and the sign was a rainbow.  God made a covenant with Abraham to give him countless descendants and some day the Promised Land, and the sign was circumcision.  God made a covenant with Moses—God would be their God and they were to keep the commandments.  And finally in Jesus, God made a new covenant with all people, a covenant of salvation and forgiveness, and the signs are baptism and Holy Communion.

The word covenant comes from an Assyrian word for "shackle," like handcuffs or chains.  It is a binding relationship, which can feel harsh and oppressive.  But what we find out, when our faith needs renewal, is that only in being bound to God are we truly free.  Only in being able to count on God being there for us no matter what, can we pick ourselves up and do the next thing.  In the words of the late David Lowes Watson, in renewing the covenant "we willingly agree to be bound in a moment of strength, so that in a moment of weakness we cannot be unbound."

So thanks to Hebrews and thanks to John Wesley, you’re in for a treat today!  Today is the opportunity to lift your drooping hands and strengthen the weak knees of your faith.  Today is the day to renew your relationship with God.  Hold fast to your hope, my friends, and let yourselves be bound to God here this morning so that when hard times come you will not and cannot be unbound.

1 Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 108.

2 For all of this, see Long, 3 and 104-8.              

3 David Lowes Watson, Disciple: Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study, video 34.                                                      

 

John 1:1-5

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Eve 2015 Maple Grove UMC

I was standing outside a restaurant one time waiting for a friend, when a guy came up to me and I heard him say, "Do you have the light?"

Hmmm, I thought, do I have the light?  I’m not sure.  Is that a philosophical question?  Was there something on the menu there called ‘the light?’  Was this some new slang phrase I didn’t know?  I was about to ask him what he meant, when I saw him pull out a cigarette, and I realized he hadn’t asked me if I had the light; he was just asking for a light. 

But it’s a great question:  Do you have the light?  Let me tell you a story. 

Yeas ago—before cell phones—two boys drove to a high school basketball game one cold January night in rural Kansas, where I grew up.  On their way, they encountered a detour on the state highway—bridge work, the sign said.  The detour took them by way of other state routes more than twenty miles out of their way.  So on the way home, they decided to make their own, hopefully much shorter way around that bridge.  They knew that roads in Kansas are laid out in a grid pattern, a road every mile on the mile.  So they ignored the detour signs and turned onto a side road just before the bridge, figuring to take the next road parallel to the highway, cut back over, and shave twenty minutes off the trip home.

What the boys hadn’t reckoned on was that meandering creek.  The bridge on that state highway was the only bridge over the creek for miles around.  Once off the highway, they were on an unlit gravel road that wound along the creek for mile after dark mile.  After fifteen or twenty minutes, they decided they should turn around and take the detour after all.  Which was when the car ran out of gas.

The boys knew enough to understand that at this hour, they would likely sit there all night without another car passing by on that God-forsaken road.  They dreaded the thought of walking all the way back to the highway where someone might find them—in this cold they may well be frostbitten by the time they got there.  But there was nothing else to do, so off they trudged, in the dark, in the cold, and not a little afraid.

At the first crossroads, though, one of them spotted light from a farm, it looked to be a half-mile or so away.  They debated.  What if no one’s home?  Then we’ve added another mile to get back to the highway.  But a light that close was too much to resist.  As they walked, the light loomed larger and brighter until it led them—no, not to Bethlehem, but it might as well have been, as far as they were concerned.

The old farmer and his wife were in bed, but came to the door.  She turned the furnace up to warm the boys and gave them sandwiches and cocoa, while he filled a five gallon can with gas and got the keys to his pickup.  On the drive back to their car, he asked, "Trying to make your own detour, were you?"

They mumbled, "Yes, sir."

"Ain’t no quicker way than just follow them signs," he said.  "You’re lucky we left the light on.  You’d have froze solid by the time you got back to the highway."  The old man wrote his phone number on a slip of paper, and handed it to them along with two quarter for the pay phone.  "Now you boys call your folks when you get to the Four Corners store," he said.  "Then call me, so’s I know you made it all right."

"But it’ll be midnight by then," they protested.

"Just call," he told them.  "We won’t sleep till you do anyhow."

In the darkness, a light is hope.  In the cold, a light is saving warmth.  And when you are lost and sore afraid, a light can be the difference between life and death.

To a people who sat in darkness, the prophet Isaiah dared to speak of light.  To a people dispersed by warfare, exiled to Babylon, broken of heart and weary of spirit, Isaiah said, "Arise, shine, for your light has come."  And as one writer put it, "If it happened once, it can happen again."1

And happen it did.  In introducing Jesus, John’s gospel says, "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  This word ‘shines’ is the first present tense verb in John’s gospel.2  The light of Christ is not something that shone once upon a time, and the light of Christ is not something that will shine some day in the future.  The light of Christ is shining, right now and always and forever, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

This does not mean, of course, that the darkness isn’t real.  Isaiah acknowledges the rod of the oppressor and garments rolled in blood, and John’s gospel was written under the brutal Roman occupation and in the context of a bitter division among believers.  And Jesus himself noted that some people prefer the darkness, so their evil deeds aren’t exposed" (John 3:20).  Neither are we naïve about darkness—we know all too well its power in our world.  Which is why we look and long for the light.  The poet Wendell Berry summed it up:  "It gets darker and darker," he says, "and then Jesus is born."3

The light of Christ of Christ means many things in our lives. 

  • The light of Christ helps us see the world through eyes of justice and love.  A rabbi asked his students, "How do we know that the night is over and the dawn is coming?"  The first student says, "When it is light enough to tell the difference between a dog and a sheep?"  The old rabbi shakes his head.  The second student says, "When you can distinguish between a grape vine and a sycamore tree?"  The old man shakes his head again.  Finally the rabbi says, "It is when you can look into the face of a stranger and see a member of your own family.  At that moment the dawn that is coming."4  For Christians, that is the light of Christ in our eyes.
  • The light of Christ shining in the darkness keeps our fears at bay. Right now our nation’s fears are focused on terrorism and mass shootings.  Those are serious things, to be sure—our hearts go out to all those affected by such atrocities.  But the truth is, there’s always something to be afraid of.  And fear drives our worst, our most divisive responses.  How many times does the Bible say, "Fear not!"  The darkness of fear is dispelled by the light of Christ.

"Darkness," wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., "cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.5  King was right, of course.  O come, light and love of Christ.

The light of Christ helps us see the world with eyes of justice and love.  The light of Christ dispels our fear and anxiety.  And finally, the light of Christ is something to gather around.  You know, a light in the darkness is almost irresistible.  In the middle of the night, someone turns the kitchen light on, and before long half the family is gathered there, sleepless but not alone.  And just try staying away from a bonfire in the darkness of a campsite.  We may not be able to generate our own light, but we can sure rally around it when we see it.

A friend of mine once compared Christians gathering around Jesus to moths fluttering around a porchlight.  It’s an interesting image but in my pessimistic way I said, "Yes, but those moths wind up dead the next day."  To which my friend replied, without skipping a beat, "Yes, but what a way to go!"  Fluttering, gathering, rejoicing around the light of Christ—what a way to go!.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

There are, I know, Christmas skeptics—people who come to church on Christmas Eve because it’s lovely, because it’s a tradition, or just because grandma makes them.  But the birth of God’s son to a virgin in a manger seems, well, far-fetched, a made-up story for the sentimental or irrational.  "Who knows," asks Frederick Buechner, "what the facts of Jesus’ birth actually were?  As for myself," he says, "the longer I live, the more inclined I am to believe in miracles. . .  But of course," he adds, "that is not the point, because the Gospel writers are not really interested primarily in the facts of the birth but in the significance, the meaning of that birth, just as the people who love us are not really interested primarily in the facts of our births but in what it meant to them when we were born and how for them the world was never the same again."  Could it be that the light of Christ started shining in just this way, with a virgin birth in a manger in Bethlehem?  You know, I want to say, "Sure, why not?"  And I encourage you to open your heart to that possibility.  But however it came about, the light is shining in the darkness.  So come and gather ‘round.

"How do we find out for ourselves," asks Buechner, "whether in this child born so long ago there really is the power to give us a new kind of life in which both suffering and joy are immeasurably deepened, a new kind of life in which little by little we begin to be able to love even our friends, at moments maybe even our enemies, maybe at last even ourselves, and God?"  Well, he says, "Adeste fidelis."  That is the only answer there is.  If you want to see if it’s really ture, O Come to the manger, all ye faithful.  And O come to the manger, all ye who would like to be faithful if only you knew how.  O come to the manger, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light.6  O come and gather ‘round its light.

So the lighting of our candles here this night is not just a ritual; it is an act of faith and hope, a defiance of the power of darkness, a gathering together ‘round the light of Christ.  When we light these candles from the light of Christ, we are saying to the darkness: "We beg to differ."7

For years now I’ve been looking for that smoker who spoke to me outside the restaurant.  And what I want to say is this:  "Yes, I have a light.  In fact, I have the light, the light of Christ which shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it."

O come, my friends.  O won’t you come and gather ‘round the light that is Christ.

 

1 Kathleen Norris, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (January 15, 2008), 23.

2 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 23.

3 Quoted in Ann Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 39.

4 Quoted in Agnes W. Norfleet, "John 1:1-9," Interpretation (October 1997), 406.

5 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (1963),

http://www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/mlkquotes.htm, accessed 12/11/15.

6 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 52-55

7 Quoted in Margaret Silf, 2011: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press, 2010).

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Home: Gathering the Outcast

December 20, 2015

What are you looking for this Christmas?  Jeremiah offered hope--a long rope, one end tied securely around the promises of God, something to hang onto when you’re afraid.  Malachi offered God’s refining fire—painful perhaps, but a way to be your very best self.  Like the guy on the bulletin, when you sit on the bench, lean back in the semi-darkness and stare into the distance, with that star shining in the sky like a sign from God, what will you be looking for?

Well, here’s where the prophet Zephaniah was looking for:

The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness,

  And exult over you with loud singing!

At that time, says the Lord, I will bring you home,

  At that time I will gather you.

What are you looking for?  How about a gathering of the scattered?  How about a place, a state of mind, a way of living, called home?

What is home, exactly?  This past week I drove to Kansas to get my daughter from college.  And I got to thinking—and there’s plenty of time to think on an 1800 mile trip: here I am driving to a state I still call "home" but haven’t lived in for 30 years.  And I’m bringing my daughter "home" to Ohio, a place she visits now, but doesn’t really live.  What is home, exactly? 

It’s peculiar that Zephaniah of all prophets should write about homecoming, since Zephaniah lived before the Babylonian exile.  Before 587 BC, the people of Israel hadn’t gone anywhere.  Where was there to come home from?  So Bible scholars propose that later writers added verses 19-20, the bit about homecoming.  They took his earlier words about salvation and joy and applied them to their own later situation, the return from exile.  And that’s okay—because God doesn’t bring people home just one time or in only one way.  As the great preacher Charles Spurgeon put it:  "The fulfillment of a divine promise is not the exhaustion of it.  When a [person] gives you a promise, and . . . keeps it, there is an end of the promise; but it is not so with God. . .  God is prepared to keep it, and keep it, and keep it."1  So Zephaniah’s promise of homecoming is for all time—for you and me, this Christmas and every Christmas.

The longing for home is deep and universal.  Odysseus took ten years to get back from the Trojan War to Ithaca and Penelope.  Dorothy clicked her ruby heels together and chanted, "There’s no place like home."  The sadness of words like "homesick" and "homeless" tell us how vital home is.  The Bible’s primary experience of homesickness was that Babylonian exile, being 500 miles from home.  But there is a little exile in all of us—things are not the way they used to be, our losses are many and deep, and even if we haven’t moved, the places we live feel threatened and precarious. 

Thus we resonate when Zephaniah calls out:

At that time, says the Lord, I will bring you home,

  At that time I will gather you.

But what does home mean?  Pastor Joanna Adams says, "Every once in a while, a member of [my] church . . . will say something like this:  ‘I’m sorry you haven’t seen me in church for a while, but I’ve gotten to where I just can’t come any more.’

"‘Why?’ I ask.  ‘I don’t know what happens,’ they say, ‘but I will come in . . . and the choir will start singing, or you will read a . . . scripture, and the floodgates open.  I am in tears.  It is embarrassing.’  [But] why be embarrassed?" Adams asks.  "Worship is homecoming.  It’s putting ourselves in the place where it’s safe to tell the truth, safe to be who we really are in the presence of the holy and loving God.  We come with broken places and unanswered questions, and God takes us in, and sometimes it feels so good that we weep from sheer relief."2  Worship is homecoming. 

What does home mean?  I have spent so much of my life away from home.  I don’t mean I’ve traveled all that much.  I mean I’ve lived apart from my own true self.  I’ve tried to be somebody I’m not—or tried to convince others I’m that person.  I’ve tried to impress people and have all the answers and look strong, knowing all the while I’m just Glenn, full of fear and needy as the next guy.  And ultimately that’s good enough, because it’s who I am.  "Come on home, son," says the Lord.  "Come on home and be who you are, because there’s no need to be anything more and no reason to be anything less."

God is forever bringing us home.  God brought the people of Israel home to a Promised Land they’d never seen before.  God brought the exiles home from Babylon to a new temple.  And God sent Zephaniah to sing a homecoming song for all the ages. 

So great is God’s hospitality that John’s gospel says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Greek word translated "dwelt" means literally "to pitch a tent."  In Jesus, God came and pitched a tent among us.  God didn’t even wait for us to make our own way home.  God came and made a home where we are, so that wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever the world is like, it’s home.  What a sacrifice God made; what a risk God took to make this world our home!

So what does home mean?  We see pictures of refugees streaming by the tens of thousands out of Syria and Iraq, people made homeless by the horrors of war.  We saw the photograph of that toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish shore.  I don’t know what the answer is to ISIS and Assad, and frankly I haven’t heard anyone else’s answer that sounds persuasive.  But I do know this:  everyone needs a home.  And if God’s Son made that kind of sacrifice and took that kind of risk to make a home with us, shouldn’t we be willing to make a sacrifice and take a risk to extend that home to others?  What could it mean to have a home and not practice hospitality?

What does home mean?  Frederick Buechner tells about living one winter in New York City, trying to write a book which refused to come to life.  Next door to where I lived, he writes, was a church whose preacher was a man named George Buttrick, and depressed as I was, I started going to hear him preach.  "It was toward the middle of December," Buechner relates, " . . . that [Buttrick] said something that has always stayed with me.  He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving church to go home, he overheard somebody asking someone else, "Are you going home for Christmas?" and I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people and asked it again—"Are you going home for Christmas?"—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even oxen kneel.3 Home is where Christ is.

In the spring of 2000 my daddy had wasted away to almost nothing.  I made one last trip to Kansas to see him.  On the last day of my visit, daddy pulled me close to say something, since by that time he could barely whisper.  He looked intently and said, "Home." 

But you are home, Daddy.  We didn’t take you to the hospital.  But he shook his head.  Do you mean when do I have to go back to Ohio?  Tomorrow, Daddy.  But again he shook his head.  He drew a breath as best he could and spoke again.  "I want," he said, "to go home."  And I said, "Daddy, you go ahead, whenever you’re ready."  And the next day, he did.

What does home mean?  Well, God does call us home when we die, it is true.  But before that God calls us home to live here, to be truly alive in Christ.  And then, as for Zephaniah, God rejoices over us in gladness; God does a happy dance in our presence.

So when you sit on the bench, in the semi-darkness, and stare off into the distance with that star shining like a sign from God, what will you be looking for this Christmas?  Well, how about home?  Just to be who you really are, for there’s no need to be anything else and no reason to be anything less.  How about home?  For in Jesus, God has pitched a tent with us, so that whoever you’re with this year or whoever you’re not with,  home is where Christ is.  So today, don’t just go home.  Come home.  Be at home with Christ.  And while you’re at home, welcome others in and watch God’s happy dance together.

Merry Christmas, Maple Grove.

 

1 Quoted in Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 86-87.

2 Joanna M. Adams, "Toward Home," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (December 12, 2006).

3 Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections  (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1996), 24-25. 

 

 

Malachi 3:1-4

My Best Self:  Spiritual Soap

December 6, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

What are you looking for this Christmas season?  Last Sunday Jeremiah offered us hope--a long rope, one end tied securely around the promises of God, something to hang onto in the midst of discouragement and fear.  Like the guy on the bulletin, when you sit on the bench, lean back in the semi-darkness and stare into the distance, with that star shining like a sign from God, what will you be looking for this Christmas season?

Well, today, with Malachi, how about looking to be your very best self?  Scholars believe Malachi was written after the exile, as the Israelites were trying to recover from their crushing defeat and the destruction of the temple in 587 BC.  About seventy years later, the exiles miraculously returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple.  So you might assume these would be glorious days for the Jewish people.  But it was not that simple.  The ordeal had done something to their souls.  Trust and love were not as easy to rebuild as bricks and mortar.  Old Testament professor Elizabeth Achtemeier says it’s not that they were living holy lives and so were wondering, "Why are we suffering?"  They were living indifferent lives and didn’t think it mattered, because God seemed absent.  It’s not that they didn’t believe in God; it’s that God felt irrelevant, their relationship with God broken and estranged.1  I wonder if that sounds like anyone you know?

To those who were not expecting any word from the Lord, came this message from Malachi:  "Surprise!," says God.  "Here I come.  I’m sending my messenger (which is what Malachi means in Hebrew) to prepare the way before me.  And the Lord whom you seek (or for that matter, the Lord whom you’ve given up seeking) is coming to you."

And again, you might assume this would be great news.  But then, as now, for a lot of people the coming of the Lord was not a happy thought.  The "Day of the Lord," as it came to be called, was feared as a time of awful judgment.  But in Malachi, surprise again!  Though the Lord comes with fire, it is not a consuming fire but a refining fire.  And though the Lord comes with power, it is power to cleanse, not to destroy.  The surprise is that on the "Day of the Lord," God comes to save and not to punish.

So sure, this refiner’s fire is painful no doubt, but it’s a good and healing hurt.  And yes, this fuller’s soap feels harsh, but makes us pure and clean.  Do you remember when your mom used to scrub you in the tub?  "Not so hard, Mom!  Owww!  You’re gonna rub my skin off!"  Yes, it hurts.  But it’s a mother’s rough love, making you shiny and clean.

Our daughter Emily had nose bleeds when she was little.  They got worse and worse, and then one time it wouldn’t stop.  After trying all the home remedies, we took her to the ER.  The doctor pulled out a long wooden stick.  We asked what it was for.  She said it was treated with a chemical that when inserted in Emily’s nose would essentially burn the blood vessels and cauterize the bleeding.  It was horrible to watch, uncomfortable and painful for Emily.  Sickeningly, it did smell like burning.  But it stopped the nose bleeds for a long time.  It was a healing fire.

The purpose of God’s fire and soap is not to harm but to purify.  And Jesus, we might add, came not to condemn but to forgive and inspire.  Here’s the thing about a refiner’s fire:  it brings out the best of what’s already there, releases the gold that’s hidden inside.  And here’s the thing about fuller’s soap:  it takes what’s already there and makes it shine.  And here’s the thing about the love of God:  it takes who you already are, and brings out the gold; it takes who you are and makes it shine.

So the images of fire and soap may seem harsh for Advent.  But as Rev. Scott Johnston put it:  "God is not saying: ‘I refuse to let you come in for a visit until you clean up.’ . . .  Instead, God is saying:  ‘I am going to help you clean up. I will assist you to throw off the tarnish that prohibits you from truly experiencing the joy [of] this season.’"Again, Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to forgive and inspire.  So will you let God burn away your foolish pride and your lingering shame?  Will you let God scrub away your anger and anxiety?  Will you say to Jesus this Christmas:

Refiner's fire
My heart's one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for, Lord, for You.3

Once again, this Advent season, I invite you to spend some time on the park bench.  Quite literally—come sit here after church. Just be still.  And I mean it figuratively—take this bench with you in your imagination, into your prayer time.  And when you lean back, in the semi-dark, with that star shining like a sign from God, what will YOU be looking for?  Well, how about this:  to be your very best self.  To let God’s fire burn away all that’s not gold.  To let God’s soap make you shine.  This Christmas, I want to be my very bet self.  What are YOU looking for?

1 See Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 184; and Eileen M. Schuller, "The Book of Malachi: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 868.

2 Scott Black Johnston, "Fire and Soap,"

http://day1.org/1020-fire_and_soap, accessed 12/2/15.

3 Song lyrics by Brian Doerksen, "Refiner’s Fire,"

http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/brian_doerksen/refiners_fire.html, accessed 12/3/15.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

HOPE: Something to Hang Onto

November 29, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

Again this year our Advent worship series is called:  "What are YOU looking for?"  The guy on the front of the bulletin—"Advent Guy," I call him--is sitting on a park bench, in the semi-darkness, staring into the distance, and you know he’s looking for something.  Don’t know what it is.  Don’t know when he might find it. But the star in the sky is shining like a sign from God.  That’s Advent in a nutshell.

So what are YOU looking for this Christmas season?  For a way not to be so fearful and worried?  For the ability to forgive?  For peace in Syria or peace between police officers and minority populations or maybe peace just in your own home?  Are you looking for a new and different life? 

Well, let’s start our looking, as the lectionary reading from Jeremiah does, with HOPE.  Now, maybe you’re not especially looking for hope today.  When you’re young and have the world by the tail, maybe hope isn’t at the top of your list.  That’s okay.  In fact, that’s more than okay.  But someday you will need hope, so let’s listen to Jeremiah anyway. 

When I was a kid a house just a block or so from ours burned to the ground.  It happened after I’d gone to bed, but from inside our house we could smell the smoke and hear the roar of the fire.  We couldn’t sleep anyway, so we got up and watched for a while.  It was a frightening thing for a kid.  After that I started having bad dreams of our house being on fire in the middle of the night.  And in my dreams, the fire was always in the stairway, so I couldn’t go down to get out of the house.  I had this dream several times and sometimes woke up screaming. 

So one day at bedtime my parents brought into my bedroom a long rope.  They tied one end of it firmly around the bedpost, tucked it under my bed, and told me that if there ever was a fire, all I had to do was open the window, throw the rope out and climb down.  And I never had that nightmare again.  (By the way, if you parents out there are wondering about the wisdom of giving a kid a way to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night--I grew up in Bushton, Kansas, population about 400.  Even if you sneaked out, where would you go?)  What my parents did was to give me something to hang onto, literally yes, but most of all emotionally.  In the middle of the night, when anxieties rise and monsters emerge from the corners, I had something to hang onto. 

In a different way, that’s what Jeremiah did for the people of Israel.  Jeremiah lived and prophesied during the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC, a pivotal and tragic time in Jewish history.  Early in Jeremiah’s life, there was great optimism in Judah.  Assyrian control over their country had declined, and the Jews dreamed of independence.  But almost immediately those dreams were crushed.  A new world power, Babylon, moved in.  Disaster followed disaster, until in 587 BC Jerusalem was overrun, the Temple was destroyed, and the leading people were forced into exile in Babylon, 500 miles away. 

All along the way Jeremiah had been a prophet of doom and gloom, telling his people not to resist the Babylonians, that defeat was inevitable.  But suddenly, once disaster had struck, Jeremiah changed his tune.  In the worst of times, Jeremiah reassured his people of God’s faithfulness, of eventual return from exile, of a new covenant, written this time on their hearts.  The passage we heard today from chapter 33 is part of this surprising message of hope:  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and Judah—a righteous Branch to bring justice and righteousness.  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. 

To his people in darkness and exile, to his people having nightmares of fire and loss, Jeremiah spoke a message of hope.  He took a rope and tied one end around the promises of God and tucked it under their beds.  In sorrow and fear, he gave them something to hang onto.

It was not so different when an angel came to a virgin named Mary and said, You will conceive a son and he will reign over Jacob forever.  For nothing will be impossible with God.  John the Baptist cried out, Prepare the way of the Lord.  Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.  And in a barn in an out of the way town, Jesus was born, and he took a rope and tied one end around the mercy and all-inclusive love of God and tucked it under all our beds.  So that in our sin and fear and sorrow, there is hope, something to hang onto. 

People often mistake hope for optimism.  Optimism is the belief that every day everthing is getting better and better—that the next person I date will be the one, that the medicine is going to cure that cancer, that the stock market is turning around, that the Browns will make the playoffs.  Sometimes optimism is based on evidence—some things really are getting better.  Sometimes it’s just wishful thinking.  But it’s all about things getting better today or tomorrow.  And optimism is crushed one the cancer isn’t cured and the stock market just keeps doing down.

Hope, on the other hand, is deeper and longer-term.  Hope is based neither on evidence nor on wishful thinking, but on the promises and faithfulness of God.  Hope trusts that even if the cancer isn’t cured, God will never let us go.  Hope knows that if the stock market bottoms out, we’ll be okay some other way.  One commentator puts it like this:  Jeremiah’s hope is no longer the short-lived possibility of averting disaster, but a discovery that no disaster can take away a hope founded on God.2   Hope, in other words, isn’t everything getting better, exactly; hope is something to hang onto when everything isn’t better yet.

Hope is closely tied up with faith.  Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler said, "Faith is a word that connects hope and God."3  Faith is a word that connect hope and God--in other words, hope isn’t only something to hang onto, it’s also the act of hanging on.  When everything is hopeless on the human scene, hope trusts that God still has a plan for the future.  When we stand beside the grave of a loved one, and all the pain floods over us, hope trusts that God isn’t done with us yet.  When everything lovely and gracious and pure in our world seems to fall victim to corruption and evil, hope believes that God will find a way.  And when fear threatens to overwhelm our compassion, when there seems to be no answer to prayer, when the news is bad for weeks in a row, hope is hanging onto a God who will not let us go.4

And as this is true for each of us personally and individually, we remember that Jeremiah was giving something to hang onto to everyone, to his whole nation.  And they desperately needed it.  And the truth is, if you look at the news, there’s plenty for us to worry and be concerned about.  But neither fear nor anger are likely to make things any better.

Back in1968, when our country was torn apart by the Viet Nam War and by racial unrest, on April 3, the day before he was shot and killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what has become one of his most famous speeches.  At the very end, almost as an afterthought, King paused and said:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"5

Before he died, King gave our country the greatest of all gifts—hope, something to hang onto in the midst of the struggle.

Again this year I invite you to spend some time during Advent on the park bench.  I mean that literally—come sit right here for a while after worship.  And I mean it figuratively—take this bench with you in your imagination, in your heart, in your prayer time.  When you take a moment to lean back, in the semi-dark, and stare into the distance, with that star shining in the sky like a sign from God, what will YOU be looking for?  Well, how about hope--the promises of God, Jeremiah’s righteous Branch.   How about a rope, a lifeline, one end tied around the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let me tuck it under your bed, so that come fire or flood, come sorrow or sickness, when you don’t know what to do next—you’ll always have something to hang onto.

1 See R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 1-12.

2 Clements, 195.

3 Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1986), 39.

4 See Elizabeth Achtemeier, Jeremiah, Knox Preaching Guides (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 98

5 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm, accessed 11/21/15

Habakkuk 3:17-19

I Have Decided to Give Thanks

November 22, 2015

Here’s what it was like for the prophet Habakkuk:

  • No blossoms on the fig tree
  • No food in the fields
  • The sheep are lost
  • And the cattle have died.

And here’s what Habakkuk decides to do.  He says:

  • Yet I will rejoice in the Lord
  • And I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Which just goes to show that thanksgiving doesn’t come from the outside, by what happens to us.  It comes from the inside; it’s an attitude we bring to whatever happens.  Thanksgiving is a decision we make based on faith and a relationship with God.

In a moment I’ll explore with you a theology of Thanksgiving.  But first this story, which I’m sure you’ve sat through before, because I tell it every Thanksgiving.  When I was in grad school at Illinois, I had a friend at church named Chris.  I liked Chris a lot, but he had one habit that annoyed me.  At the end of our student worship service, we’d all join hands and pray in a circle.  And Chris always, every time, started his prayer the same way.  He’d say, "Lord, I just want to thank you for this day."  After a while I came to think to myself, "Lord, I just wish he’d say something else for a change."  It seemed so repetitive, so rote, like he wasn’t really thinking about what he was saying.

One day I was talking to Chris before church, and he told me he’d had an unbelievably horrible day.  His mom had called to tell him a relative was in the hospital with cancer; Chris and his wife had got in a huge fight which they hadn’t even started to resolve; and a fire broke out in the lab where he worked and destroyed weeks worth of work.

When it came time for us to join hands and pray in a circle, I looked over at Chris, thinking he might change his prayer this time.  Surely he wouldn’t give God thanks for that horrible day.  Around the circle the praying went.  When the person next to Chris finished, there was a pause.  And finally Chris said, "Lord, I just want to thank you for this day . . ."

I couldn’t believe it!  Afterwards I cornered him and asked, "Chris, did you even mean what you prayed this evening, or is it just something you say?  How could you stand there and thank God for this day?"

Chris looked at me and said, "I have made a decision to thank God for every day.  That way I don’t have to figure out when God deserves to be thanked and when he doesn’t.  I just always thank him."

For Chris, as for Habakkuk, thanksgiving did not come from the outside, by what happened to him; it came from the inside, an attitude he brought to what happened, every day.  Thanksgiving was a decision he had made based on his faith and his relationship with God.

There are many ways of reflecting on this theologically.  Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says:  "Whatever we practice we will become."1  Whatever we give our attention to, whatever we decide to do, that’s what we will become.  So how might your life become filled with joy and praise?  Well, like Habakkuk, by thinking about joy and being committed to praise.  How might you become more thankful?  Maybe by giving thanks, every day.  We become more thankful when thanksgiving isn’t just one day a year, but when it’s is an attitude we bring to every day, a decision we make based on our faith and our relationship with God. I just want to thank you for this day.

Episcopalian preacher, Fleming Rutledge, became responsible for the care of an elderly widow, the wife of a colleague who passed away.2  She says, I knew I was supposed to do this—but I rather dreaded it at first.  I was very busy with many things, and it took a lot of time.  I’d never really known her well.  But I did it—for her remaining years, I visited her and managed her affairs.  And to my surprise, Rutledge says, it became a pleasure and a joy, for this reason:  she was incredibly grateful.  Instead of complaining that I did not come often enough, she thanked me profusely for coming at all.  She appreciated the little favors I did for her as though they had been lavish gifts.  And here’s the point Rutledge is making:  the woman’s thankfulness created a new situation.  Gratitude is soul-enlarging.  Gratitude calls forth a response of loving reciprocity.  Gratitude doesn’t come from outside, by what happens to us; it’s a decision we make based on our faith and our relationship with God.  And it creates a whole new world in the midst of sorrow and stress. 

Now I don’t want to push this too far.  I don’t mean that all you can ever be is thankful.  I don’t mean you can’t be angry, or sad, or upset in any number of ways.  If you deny and tamp down your negative feelings, they will come out somehow, somewhere.  Maybe you’ll get sick.  Maybe your gratitude will come to feel fake.  Maybe you’ll explode at someone for no apparent reason.  No, no—it’s okay to express sadness and anger and all manner of feelings. 

What I mean is that when there are no blossoms on the fig tree and no food in the fields, when the sheep are lost and the herd is gone, along with any crying and fretting we might do, let us also rejoice in the Lord.  Let us also exult in the God of our salvation.  Because gratitude doesn’t come from outside us, by what happens to us.  Gratitude comes from inside us, from our faith and our relationship with God. 

The alternative to thanksgiving, ultimately, is bitterness and complaining.  I know what bitterness and complaining do to other people, how they make them come across.  And I’m sure other people know what bitterness and complaining do to me.  So with a nod to my friend Chris, by the grace of God and to the best of my ability, I have decided to  say, "I just want to thank you, Lord, for this day, and every day.

I heard about a man back in Kansas—he and his brother inherited their father’s farmland, equal portions side by side.  They struck oil on his brother’s land and he made a lot of money.  But though they drilled several wells on his own land, they all came up empty.  And for the rest of his life, he said things like this over and over:  "If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, I’d be able to help the church more. . .  If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, I could afford to go to Hawaii. . . If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, my kids could go to a private college. . . "  Someone said of this man:  He’s only got one card to play, and he just keeps playing it everywhere he goes.

That got me thinking—what if all of us had only one card to play, but instead of it being a card of bitterness and complaining, it was a card of thanksgiving?  And we just kept playing the Thanksgiving card everywhere we went.

In our family, we try to have that card with us at meal time.  For years we were a table for four with giggles and spilled milk and sometimes tears at the table.  And we always began by giving thanks.  Now we’re a table for three and all of us coming and going like crazy.  But we always begin by giving thanks.  And soon enough, Carolyn and I will be a table for two.  And I know that we will always begin by giving thanks.  Dinner time is a good time to play the Thanksgiving card.

I remember visiting a woman named Sue in the hospital.  She’d had a mild heart attack and the recovery was slow.  And we got to talking about her life.  Recently her appendix had burst and she was sick for months.  She’d been a widow for years.  She’d lost two children to death.  And there was so much more.  After a while, Sue paused and dabbed her eyes.  And then she said, "But you know, I have been blessed.  It’s been a good life, and I give thanks for it all."  I picked up that card that she’d played and put it in my pocket.

Many of you know Maple Grove member Judy Thompson, and that her mom passed away not long ago.  Judy and I met so she could tell me about her mom and plan the service.  It will be a funeral, of course—there will be tears and sadness, I expect.  But Judy said, "She lived a great life and now she’s in an even better place.  I want this to be a celebration.  I want us to give thanks for her life."  So we’re going to play that Thanksgiving card for Kay Pierece here on Tuesday morning.

I’ve got one of those Thanksgiving cards, of course.  But I’m forever setting it down, losing track of it.  And when I need it most is when it can be hardest to find.  I am a person prone to discouragement and anxiety.  I easily get down on myself.  When the church budget doesn’t balance, I fret.  And when the church isn’t growing, I feel inadequate.  And whenever there’s conflict, I just want to hide.  And right then, of course, is when I most need to find my card, and play it like the ace of trump.  Because gratitude doesn’t come from the outside, by what happens to us; it comes from the inside, a decision we make to give thanks for this day, and every day.

On your way out today, I’m going to have people give you something.  It’s a card.  It may not be the only card you’ll ever need, but if you could have only one card, it’s the one you’d want.  And you can just keep playing it, everywhere you go.  It says: Thanksgiving.

1 Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 209.

2 Fleming Rutledge, "The Thankful Life," The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 23-24.

 

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

It’s Complicated

November 8, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

In some ways Facebook is just too simplistic to capture the nuances of life.  Once a friend posted that his brother had been in a terrible car accident and was being rushed to the hospital.  And by the time I saw that post, twelve people had "liked" it.  Now I know—they were just acknowledging that they’d seen his post and were concerned about his brother.  But I couldn’t bring myself to "like" what happened to his brother.  It’s too simplistic.

But in at least one way, Facebook does capture some of the nuances of life.  When you create your profile, it asks you to select your "relationship status."  You can choose from among single, in a relationship, engaged, married, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, separated, divorced and widowed.  And if those aren’t enough, you can choose "It’s complicated."  As a pastor, I’ve listened to enough people’s stories to know that it’s always complicated.  Even if your family looks pretty buttoned-down from the outside, from the inside it’s always complicated. 

I wonder what "relationship status" Ruth would have picked if Facebook had been around in 1100 B.C.?  "Widowed," certainly.  But also "in a relationship" with her mother-in-law, since she’d promised to live and lodge and even die with her.  But at the same time, Naomi is trying to get Ruth married to her relative, Boaz, who first has to give the option to marry Ruth to an older relative.  Now that’s complicated!

And it’s not just Ruth’s "relationship status" that’s complicated.  All of life is complicated, including even salvation.  For in Ruth—and this is true generally in the Bible—salvation is not only about the state of one’s soul; it’s also about whether people have food to eat, and whether people are kind and to one another, and whether the vulnerable are protected and cared for. 

And these things are complicated because Ruth lived in an imperfect world.  When we read Ruth with 21st century eyes, we see the brutal patriarchy of her culture.  Women couldn’t own or sell property.  Women couldn’t engage in business.  There were no jobs for women (well, one, but Ruth never got that desperate).  Only in being attached to a man could a woman eat and staying safe.  And only in bearing children, especially male children, did a woman have status.  In chapter 4 (most of which we didn’t read this morning), where Ruth’s future is determined--her marriage arranged and her family’s property bought and sold--she never speaks or even appears.  As feminist scholar Phyllis Trible puts it, "a man’s world tells a woman’s story."1 

And yet even though all of that is true, Ruth and Naomi find a way to work out their own salvation.  They never give up hope.  They keep their eyes open for opportunities.  They work hard.  They find a kind and decent man, and they go after him.  And when Boaz is slower to respond to Ruth’s charms than they like, Ruth seduces him.  They spend a night together on the granary floor.  Maybe not a romantic scene, but effective.  Boaz gets up the next morning and does what the women have maneuvered him to do—he gets their property back and arranges to marry Ruth.  All this leads to salvation not only for Ruth and Naomi, but eventually for all of Israel and in a way even for us too.  The child of Ruth and Boaz becomes the grandfather of King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings and from whose family would come Jesus our Savior. 

Not everything Ruth and Naomi do can be approved of exactly, in a moral sense.  But within the limitations of their world, they do what they have to do.  And in the end God blesses them with a broken family restored, a marginalized foreigner brought into the community, an older woman vindicated, and a precious new life conceived.  It’s salvation, but goodness knows, it’s complicated.

Now here’s what I want to say to you today:  Ruth was not the last one to live in an imperfect world.  We like to think that we’re no longer a sexist culture, but wage statistics and human trafficking tell a different story.  Of course, many things have improved immeasurably between Ruth’s time and ours—modern medicine, relatively abundant food, nondiscrimination laws.  But in our own ways, so many of us still kind of muddle through.  Within the limitations of our circumstances, we do what we have to do, and so often God blesses us with so more than we could ever ask, think or imagine.

I didn’t choose Ruth for today—it’s just the assigned lectionary reading—but Ruth does seem appropriate for Veterans Day, doesn’t it?  Like Ruth, people serving in the military live in a dangerous and morally challenging world.  Not everything they’re called upon to do on our behalf could be approved of in a moral sense, but they do what they have to do.  And when it turns out well, the result is protecting the innocent, turning back aggressors, in a word--security.  And few people I know are more reluctant to use military power, than veterans, because they know it’s always complicated.

Ruth lived, we all live, in an imperfect world—patriarchal, addicted, violent, unfair.  And yet such good things so often come about— broken families work things out, marginalized outsiders are welcomed, the elderly are cared for, and precious new lives are born every day.  It’s complicated, but here’s what the book of Ruth calls it:  restorer of life, nourisher of old age, salvation, the faithfulness of a gracious God.

1 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 166.

2 See Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999),. 67.

 

Ruth 1:6-17

Not Even Death Can Part Us

November 1, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

The story of Ruth is set in a context of sorrow and loss, as are at least parts of all our stories.  Especially on All Saints Sunday, we are mindful of loss.  Of course that’s not all we’re mindful of.  On All Saints Day we remember our loved ones’ faith, we rejoice in eternal life, we anticipate a reunion with all who have faithfully lived and died.  All that’s true.  But as we read the names and light our candles, we are in a context of sorrow and loss.  And the story of Ruth comes and speaks to us there.

Ruth is also a story about faithfulness.  The Hebrew word is ḥesed, which can be translated kindness, lovingkindness, faithfulness, loyalty.  In giving her daughters-in-law permission to return to their own families, Naomi commits them to God’s ḥesed.  But in choosing to stay with Naomi, Ruth makes the most beautiful promise of ḥesed in the entire Bible:

Where you go, I will go;

  Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

  And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

  There will I be buried.

Not even death, Ruth says, will part me from you!

In her commentary on Ruth, Katharine Sakenfeld says that ḥesed in the Bible refers to an action done for another person that meets three criteria: 1

  1. For an ac to be ḥesed, it must be essential to that person’s survival or basic well-being.  (And Ruth promises Naomi companionship and care.  Those are certainly essential things--check.)
  2. The action must be one that only the person it is in a position to provide.  (At this point, Naomi has literally no one else in her life—check.)
  3. And an act of ḥesed takes place within the context of an existing and positive relationship. (Ruth has been part of Naomi’s family for years—check.)

And if that’s the definition of biblical ḥesed or faithfulness, here’s what it looks like in practice:  After Naomi gves her daughters-in-law permission to go back to their own families, one of them, Orpah, kisses Naomi and departs.  And that’s okay.  But the other one, Ruth, it says, "clung to her."  And this clinging to one another is what makes life precious and sometimes what makes life possible. 

In the midst of sorrow and loss we cling to one another—we live and lodge together, we worship and even die together.  The word for "cling" in Ruth is the same word that appears in Genesis where it says: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife."  Marriage is one form of ḥesed, of clinging to one another through life.  But it's not the only one.  Ruth is a younger woman clinging to an older one, hers is a clinging that crosses boundaries of nationality and culture and religion.  We don’t have to be like one another to support each other through the ups and downs of life—we just have to need each other and be there for each other.

In the midst of sorrow and loss, we cling to one another, but we also to God.  One of the verses of "For All the Saints" that we didn’t sing says:

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;

Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. 

The saints clung to God, their captain.  Psalm 46 begins:  "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, thought the earth should change."  We cling to God.

And finally, there is God’s clinging to us, God whose ḥesed is the source of all faithfulness.  Martin Copenhaver has suggested that one reason why the story of Ruth—who was a foreigner, after all—made it into the Hebrew Bible was that she reminded the Jews of something important about their God.2  God does not leave when the going gets tough, when we are as destitute as a poor widow in a far-off land.  God does not love us only when we’re lovable or only to get something back from us.  Rather God loves us because . . . well, because that’s what God promised to do.  Especially in times of sorrow and loss, God clings to us with an everlasting faithfulness.

Not that any of this is easy.  Sometimes we let each other down in our clinging to one another.  And sometimes in our sorrow it’s hard to know, to feel, God’s arms around us.  And just as that’s sometimes true for us, it was true in the story of Ruth.  God is referred to in the book of Ruth and called upon in Ruth, but unlike so much of the Old Testament, never once in the whole book of Ruth does God ever speak or act directly.  Which, to be honest with you, sounds a lot like how God is in my life.  I know God is clinging to me, I know God is always faithful, but usually not too directly or in obvious ways.

In Ruth, in life, God is found in how we treat each other, in the commitments we keep to each other.  God may not speak directly, but when Ruth says to Naomi, "Where you go, I will go," isn’t that the ḥesed of God?  And when we light our candles, when our love is not ended even by death, is that not the faithfulness of God incarnate in our clinging to one another?3

I had a church member one time in Kobacker House, the hospice care facility, obviously in her final hours.  I visited late one evening and met her son who had just flown in from across the country.  I offered to get him some blankets for the sofa in the room, but he declined, saying he’d spend the night next to his mother’s bed.  When I left he was sitting there holding her hand.  And when I came back in the morning, she had just passed, and he was still sitting in the very same place, still holding her hand. 

In the midst of sorrow and loss, that mom and that son clung to one another, and the room was filled with God.  And here’s what it means to be God’s people:  in the midst of sorrow and loss, we cling to one another, we light our holy candles, and this room too is filled with God.

1 Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999), 24.

2 Martin B. Copenhaver, "The Only Thing to Do," The Christian Century (October 19, 1994), 947.

3 See Martha L. Moore-Keish, "Ruth 2," Interpretation 64/2 (April 2010), 174.

 

mg3

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