Lost and Found

A sermon based on Psalm 95 1:7  and Luke 15:1-32

This week, we get three parables.

Three stories in response to the way that the Pharisees and scribes – who had ostensibly come out to hear Jesus teach and preach – were, in fact, mostly complaining.  Honestly, They had been grumbling for some time now about Jesus  and the company he was keeping.

If we turn back to chapter 5, we see that when Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, a large crowd of tax collectors were at table… which caused the Pharisees and their scribes to complain to the disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  (5:30)

And later, in chapter 7, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of their saying that John the Baptist had a demon because he abstained from  bread and wine, even as they called Jesus a glutton and drunkard and friend of tax collectors and sinners.  (7:33-34)

Obviously, there was a pattern developing…

The question keeps coming up… though rarely as a question from those struggling with Jesus’ obvious answer to their concerns…..

Who should be included?
Who should be included at table?
Who should be included in community…  in the people I count as family… ?
Who is included in the Kingdom of God?

And the unspoken flip side of the question… who may I exclude?
Because that gets us to the real question behind “Who is my neighbor?”

Who isn’t my neighbor?
Who
isn’t in?

See…  once I can identify THOSE people, the ones who aren’t my neighbors, then I need not do the work of loving them, nor feel guilty about treating them unjustly.

Tax collectors, Gentiles, and sinners of all ilk… those people had been excluded for a long time.  They were not among God’s people. Though some might have been, if not for the ways they had broken the laws or associated with others who had.

Those people were not among the righteous… like the Pharisees and scribes… and those who agreed with them, ate like them, lived like them… And so it seemed odd that Jesus, a prophet and potentially the messiah, Would be so willing to welcome and associate with those people.

What I didn’t read earlier as we turned to scripture was the verse immediately preceding this trio of parables…

At the end of a series of sayings about discipleship, what it means to follow and live in the way that God commands, Jesus talks about salt… he says
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away.

Then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  (Luke 14:34-35)

The very next sentence – verse 1 in today’s reading, tells us who does have ears to listen…
Luke writes “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

And then he continues, telling us… And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

As it turns out, Jesus has heard this refrain about tax collectors and sinners often enough, has responded to them often enough, that you almost get the feeling they aren’t listening to what he has said… At least not in any meaningful way.  

Hearing, in Luke’s gospel, is as critical to serving God as seeing.  

When your eyes are opened,  when your ears are opened, when you really really see people, when you really really hear the good news, then there is the potential for a reorientation of the heart… that recalculation and repentance we’ve talked about for the last several weeks.  

Jesus is more than happy to hang out with the ones who are listening – because he knows that they will hear the truth that God’s Kingdom is here….  In here…  in us… whenever we open our hearts and minds to God’s direction and then become the ones who make the Kingdom visible… for everyone.  

And so in the same way that God in Jesus refused to exclude those who had been pushed to the edges, Jesus cannot leave those who have been at the center, the ones pushing others out to the margins, Jesus will not leave them without the opportunity to hear – again – what Jesus has come to do…  

It was time again to engage their hearts and minds with a story. Or three.

There’s a beautiful pattern in these stories…  did you catch it?

The sheep that was lost – is found – and the shepherd gathers his friends to celebrate!!
The coin that was lost – is found – and the woman gathers her friends to celebrate with her!!
The son that was lost to the father – he returns from the far country – and the father throws a massive party!!

The people in the story – the ones meant to represent God – seem almost foolish at points, don’t they?

I mean, what kind of shepherd would really leave an entire flock of sheep alone… in the wilderness… to go get one stray?
A foolish one…

I mean, come on!  The fleece alone on 99 sheep had to be worth a fortune.  Keeping them together and safe and fed and watered is the priority of any shepherd with common sense.  

Pray for the wayward sheep to return?  Sure.
Herd the other sheep in the direction you think it went… maybe.
Leave them? Nope.

But that’s exactly what he does.  Just like the woman steps away from any chores or work or plans that she has for the day… as soon as she realizes her coin is lost. Whatever it takes to search every nook and corner of her house… that is what she’ll do.    

Which actually reminds me of my friend Brad.

The other day, I ran across a photo he posted. It was talking about how he and his wife had matching keyrings that had been gifts. How much the keyrings meant to them. And then he said: this is her set of keys.  Mine have gone missing…  

After a day of being distracted by thoughts of where the key might be, how much time, trouble and money it would take to replace them, Brad had the whole family looking that evening.  

They tore up the whole house…. Dinner was delayed, extracurricular activities were canceled… 

And finally, after the whole house had been torn apart and  put back together, Brad knew it was time…  the last place any of us want to look. But knowing it was trash day eve, Brad dug through the trash can…

And sure enough, there it was – his key ring with all the keys intact.

But in the meantime, life came screeching to a halt.
No one was going anywhere.
No one was watching TV…
No one was on the internet after that first  “has anyone we visited in the last 24 hours seen this…” post.

Not until the – slightly messy and sticky – keys were finally found.  And then… there was much rejoicing.  A new photo announced their return to the safety of the key rack.

Friends joined in the jubilant chorus of alleluias! We didn’t all rush to Cincinnati, of course, but comments and likes and Yay’s appeared from friends all across the country!

Because when the thing that was lost… the thing of great value that was lost… is found… there is always celebration upon its return! Even if the actual market value – the cost to replace the lost item –  isn’t all that high.

Like when the lost thing is a teddy bear  – missing an eye and half the fur on its backside.

Or when the lost thing is just a scrap of paper….containing a note from a dear friend that you’ve managed to keep up with across several states and a couple of decades.

Because the value of an object isn’t really just about the object, is it?

Their value comes from a relationship…
the connection between the lost sheep or coin
The connection between the key or teddy bear or scrap of paper….
And the one who is missing it.
The one who longs to be reunited with it.

Which is very very good news, indeed. Why?  

Because this means my value is not based on my merits – my skills or my ability to be good…
My value is not tied to my ability to follow rules or live up to expectations.

This is very good news because I know I wouldn’t be worth a whole lot after 50 years of making messes of all manner of things.

And I am not an anomaly.
Nope.

There is not a person on this earth who could claim to be worthy of standing in the presence of God. Not based on their own merit.

And yet, we are worthy, and we have great value in God’s eyes.
Because God loves us
Because God loves you.  

Did you hear that as good news…?
Let all who have ears to hear, listen.
God loves you.  God loves you.

Just as against all odds, God loves me…
God loves the world….

Which means…
There is not a single person in the world unworthy of invitation into the Kingdom of God.
There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy
of hearing the call of the prophet to repent,
of hearing the call to open their eyes and see the pain and injustice around them

There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy of hearing the call to reorient their hearts to the work of bringing healing to their little corner of the world.
Not a single one.
Not even that person you are trying to imagine right now.
Or that second one.  

Oh, there are plenty of people who have wandered off… like sheep, we all can go astray.

And there are certainly people who have chosen to walk away, to separate themselves from God for a variety of reasons

And there are people who have – without even being completely aware of it – allowed their work for God to replace their relationship with God.  People who look or sound righteous, but are every bit as lost as those who have left the fold.

People like the older brother.
He’s a good son.
He’s a hard worker.
He’s a rule follower.
All excellent traits.  

I mean, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a faithful person who keeps plugging away.  But there is nothing inherently better about being that person, either.

Because sometimes, as we keep our heads down and do the work,
even when others get distracted or leave,
even when times get difficult…
When we keep our heads down, the work ceases to be about gratitude or love and becomes a duty.

We can begin to forget about the grace that drew us into God’s family,
We can forget about the provision that reveals God’s faithfulness to us,
We can lose sight of the privilege that already being “in” has afforded
We can forget the joy of our own return to the fold and become jealous of the depth and breadth of God’s love, resentful of the joyful welcome offered to others.
We can begin to grumble and complain and refuse to be part of the party.

Which means, for all intents and purposes, we are lost…

Kind of like when the hubby and I would drive without a map (pre GPS, of course) because he knew right where he was going… Sometimes, I’d get the feeling maybe we were a little off course and I’d ask, “Are we lost?”

“Oh no,” he’d say, “I know exactly where I am”

It only took me a couple of misadventures early in our marriage to realize that knowing “exactly where we are” did not necessarily mean he knew where we were relative to where we hoped to be in the end.  

In other words… yes, we were lost. Or at the very least not found

The younger brother in our story… as soon as he headed out the door, he was lost to the father.
Not because he was living wildly – at least until the money ran out.
And not because he was impoverished and doing about as bad a job as any Jew could get assigned…  what with the Levitical restrictions about pork and pigs.

The son was lost because the relationship between father and son was broken.

And yet… the father watched and waited.  

Oh, he went on with the day to day, as you must.  But he must have been watching.. 

Because one day the father sees him, while he was still far off, he sees him
and in that moment, the father was filled with compassion;

Remember that word we talked about- when Jesus saw -really saw –  the widow mourning her dead son – and he was moved in his GUTS – his splangknoi  – to do something…  to act out of love and empathy and mercy…  Jesus was moved with compassion and raised the boy from the dead…

In the same way, Luke tells us, the father was moved by compassion –  and he ran and put his arms around his son and kissed him.

He welcomed him home with compassion that was rooted in very core of his being

And what did he say about this son?

Well, before the young man could even finish the proposal he must have rehearsed a thousand times on that long journey home…

I know I’m not worthy to be your son… would you let me live here as a hired hand…

Before the young man could get all the words out of his mouth…
The father was calling for a party to end all parties…

Because  this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

And here’s the thing, guys…
When the older son stood there arms crossed, brows furrowed, refusing to join the celebration, what he revealed was another broken relationship.  

The years of resentment and frustration over who knows what… maybe the kid brother leaving him to more than his share of work…for sure he felt like his hard work was never rewarded…just slaving away for Dad.

While his was not nearly so dramatic as his brother’s departure, the fracturing of the relationship between the older son and his father was no less real and no less tragic in terms of lost time,

And its revelation – in the midst of celebration –  was no less heartbreaking for the father.   

And yet, the father still went out to meet him, to comfort him, to remind him of just how much he was loved, and to offer the same invitation to rejoice in the reunion…

Looking at my own life, I can certainly relate to the younger brother… I spent time in a far country, I have believed myself totally unworthy, and I have been welcomed back home by grace

Grace that extends far beyond my wildest imaginings.

I can also relate to the father, having lost many people I love, having been put in the position of helping my own child leave home before I was ready to do so, not knowing if there would be a reunion or any reconciliation.

And if I am really honest with myself, I can also relate to the older brother… wanting to control just how far that grace extends, control who else gets to hear the welcome I enjoy every day.

That circle is extended beyond where it used to be..  but yeah… I have issues.

I still wrestle and argue with God about stuff like this.

But here’s the thing… Even as I argue and fuss, I know for a fact that God weeps

Every time we make it hard for any beloved child, old or young, alone or part of a family, to experience sanctuary from this broken and hurtful world.  

Every time I choose my comfort over taking a risk and meeting the needs of another human being, our God weeps.  

This is why we need each other…
to push and prod and challenge each other to know better and do better
to read scriptures and ask each other…

Are we there yet?
Are we listening for the call of the prophet to repent?
Are we listening for the voices, watching for the far off shapes  of those who have wandered to far countries, wondering if they might be ready to be welcomed home?
Are we keeping our hearts tender and open to God?
Are we opening our doors widely enough?

We need each other to ask…
Are we willing to answer these questions with honesty and integrity?

We need each other…
Because otherwise we may never take the time to look within, to confess and to repent of the ways that we have been lost without even knowing it.  

And the truth about confession – real, vulnerable, hard to say out loud confession – is this:
God, who is merciful and just, full of compassion, is faithful to forgive,
And God longs to know that we are ready to come home…

Would you Join your hearts with mine in prayer…
Gracious, compassionate God,
Today my prayer is simple…
Would you give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to love, feet to run and arms to embrace?
Would you send your Spirit to fill us, so that we might  lift our voices along with yours – loudly and joyfully-boisterously with abandon every time the lost ones are found, no matter who they are?
Because we can’t do this alone.  We need you.
Always and forever.
Amen.  

Good news from bad news 

Actually, the news wasn’t bad… it was awful. And shocking.  My brother-in-law had taken ill and was on the edge of death within 2 days when I put my husband on a plane headed for Providence.  It was hard to take in the idea that he might not make it in time to say goodbye. 

And he didn’t.  The good news was that there would not be a long battle for life. The bad news was the truth that he was gone. And every one of us who knew him and loved him was left to wonder how we would navigate a world without his laugh, his encouragement, his counsel, his teasing… his presence. 

The good news was that my church folk knew I needed to go, even though I had just missed worship last week to lead a retreat.  And a RevGal who lived close by stepped up to offer to cover as soon as I asked for prayers.  The bad news was that I needed to be ready to be wife and sister-in-law and pastor-presiding-over-the-service all at once. 

The good news is that the service went well.  It was the first time my by-marriage family has seen me being a minister. And for many of them, the first time a minister did a service that wasn’t just “by the book”.   It was hard, but important, for me to be able to honor his life and our relationship by presiding.  And it was hard to do so in a way that was unabashedly Christian without preaching (per the family’s wishes). 

The bad news is that I still have grieving to do and big emotions to feel… and it will be way too easy for me to set them aside to get back to work when I get home tonight. 

Perhaps the best of the good news (and yes, I have buried the lede) is that we got to spend a good 36 or so hours with the kid.  Beautiful, hope-filled hours, filled with conversations about all manner of things.  The kind of ranging conversations I have missed something awful.  We shared a few moments of sorrow and laughter that I will treasure until the next time we can be together in person.   And I will replay those goodbye hugs as many times as it takes to embed them in my memory at the cellular level. 

Walking my @$$ off

Literally.
Now that I have lost about 25% of myself by weight, people are starting to notice and feel comfortable asking… how are you doing it?  

The answer is simple. I’ve been walking my ass off. Literally. I started out with about a mile a day and adding steps to my daily routine by parking farther out, taking the stairs, that kind of thing. Now I average 3 miles a day, with at least one long (6+ miles) walk each week. 

And because I am me- a recovering athlete with a competition problem- I’m not talking leisurely strolls… I have dropped my pace from 20min miles last May to an average of 15min.  

I have done a handful of 5Ks and a 10K, with several others on the calendar. But the big goal is completing a timed half marathon in May.  

In fact, I’ll be walking those 13.1 miles almost a year to the day after I decided it was time to get up off the couch and get healthy.  

So, yeah… All that walking has helped me reshape my body and rediscover muscles and confidence that had been buried for far too long.

After the exercise routine felt pretty well established, I started tracking what I eat. But not obsessively. And not because I am avoiding particular foods. Except tomatoes, flan and brussel sprouts… those are nasty. 

Really, I just wanted to get to a place where I was making decisions about food, being aware and intentional. And in the same way those first weeks of tracking steps let me see the reality of how sedentary my life was, a food log let me see how chaotic my relationship with food had become. 

So – I have a goal for what goes in relative to what goes out via exercise. Some days I am over, some days I am under, but every day I am thinking about how what goes in will fuel me.  
It’s not like I didn’t know… but like I tell my people at church, knowing and doing are two very different things.  

I have a ways to go yet, before I hit the number/range that would be a good weight to maintain as I wander deeper into my 50’s. I am hopeful that the habits I am building on the way are sustainable, because they are helping me re-learn the foundational habit of loving myself and believing I am worth keeping around for a good long time. 

Dust Settles

A poem for this Ash Wednesday.  In memory of Jesse. 

Dust and wind are not usually friends.
Fine particles are easily overwhelmed and scattered
Unless the wind is spirit
Unless the wind
is gathering dust
is breathing life.
Held together by water and love that claims each particle and proclaims it good,
dust and wind breathe together.
For a while
Until the work is done
And dust must settle again

More Than a Little

Primary Scripture Luke 7:36-50

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is one of the stories that appears in all four gospels… but is told slightly differently by each of the writers.  

It might feel a little early for us to approach this text- we most often associate it with Holy Week, and thus speak about the way that the woman was preparing Jesus for burial.Her anointing is a bit of of an ironic coronation for the rightful King of the Jews, even as it echoes Samuel’s anointing of King David.  

But Luke’s placement is much earlier.  And the setting has other implications.

Luke has Jesus invited to the home of a Pharisee, Simon, to dine.  The woman – un-named, but not unknown to those at the table, enters uninvited. Without speaking, she weeps, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears.  She wipes them with her hair and kisses them.  Then she anoints his feet with perfumed oil.

It would make sense, based on Jesus’ response to Simon, to spend some time contrasting the woman’s lavish act of hospitality with Simon’s lack of hospitality.  Perhaps even to heap shame of Simon and his household for lacking this virtue, as well as lacking the faith and faithfulness the woman displays.

We might also talk about how this interaction mimics the Greek or Hellenistic symposium, in which a host invites guests to his home to dialogue about abstract matters like love, friendship or wisdom.  Her interruption brings an interesting wrinkle and a depth of reality to an evening that might have been steeped in words and navel-gazing.  

Of course, Jesus is never about navel gazing or words just for the sake of words.  His ministry happens in the space where words and actions overlap…where words and actions collide.   

Which may explain why the juxtaposition of the silent actions of the woman and the silent judgement of Simon moves Jesus to speak.

Did you catch that little detail?  It’s easy to miss…Let’s Look again at verse 39…

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is  who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

“…he said to himself…”

This is not Mark’s gospel, in which the onlookers object among themselves… not directly to Jesus, though probably out loud (14:4).  Nor is this like the disciples objecting openly in Matthew (26:28) or even John recalling Judas as the one who spoke his concerns aloud (John 1:4-5).

Here, Luke – and only Luke – uses what is called internal monologue. He narrates for us what Simon is thinking.  This is important for a couple of reasons.  

First, if we think back to the Holy family’s visit to the temple with the infant Jesus, we recall Simeon’s prophecy:  “Because of him (Jesus – the Messiah) the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). Luke uses this interaction with Simon to reinforce the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the messiah.

It’s also important to understand that Luke is using a device that is rare in ancient writings. We see internal monologue all the time in current fiction and even some non-fiction writing. Even in movies as voiceovers take us inside a person’s thoughts and motives.  

Ancient writers typically reserved this device for moments of crisis – a time when the protagonist or hero is dealing with intense internal conflict. If we look at works by authors like Homer, Ovid or Virgil, we would find a pattern that looks something like this: first, the inner speech itself, then a time of taking stock of the problem, and then the hero’s chosen solution.

Luke takes a slightly different approach.  The examples of interior monologue in his gospel do come at a times of crisis, when the thinker wrestles with a difficult decision.  But Luke’s thinkers – they are not the heroes.  Or THE hero.   We never see Jesus thinking to himself.

Luke uses internal monologue for people who are NOT heroic, NOT noble. In fact, these people embody self-centeredness.  You see, in ancient Jewish literature, what one says to oneself indicates wisdom or foolishness. And Simon’s thought was clearly the latter. 

Commentator Michal Beth Dinker of Yale Divinity School describes Simon’s moment of decision this way:
Like other ancient thinking characters, Simon faces a choice; he is deciding between two opposing views of Jesus’ identity — either Jesus is a prophet or he isn’t. The question itself demonstrates that Simon lacks love, hospitality, and true discernment. Furthermore, he clearly does not want to dialogue with Jesus; he simply “thinks to himself.”

Now… When Jesus addresses Simon, he proves exactly what Simon was questioning.  Of course he knows what kind of person is touching him, honoring him. And of course Jesus knows the kind of person judging the woman,as well as questioning his welcoming of her.

Simon’s unspoken thought reveals foolishness – which is immediately contrasted with the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, his correcting, and his forgiving.

The whole situation was more than a little disconcerting for Simon.
The woman was a sinner and everyone knew it… and they recognized her as she came in the door. 

The end of last week’s reading saw Jesus acknowledging what people were saying about him… The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

That was part of why Simon invited him over to talk. See, Simon and the Pharisees were more than a little like many of us…They were leaders in the church… not unlike those of us who have said yes to serving as elders or deacons… or leading committees…They cared – as we do – about the life and health of the community of faith

They were looking for signs that Jesus was really who he claimed to be, or signs that he was at least a prophet – if not the messiah. And the best way to do that was to compare his actions and teachings to the best tools they had… the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus looked more than a little like a prophet. He was wise and could heal.  He fulfilled many of the older prophets’ sayings about what the messiah would do.

But then there were those people.
The tax collectors and the sinners.
The lepers.

And the fact that he sat at table and shared a meal with any of them.
All of them.  

Table fellowship was a big deal. If you offered a place at the table to someone, you were saying they had standing with you.  They were worthy of being in your company.  And the better the seat (the closer to the host) the more honored the guest.

So, when Jesus filled the seats around a table. Or even sat at a table that included those people….   

Well…  What did he EXPECT people to think about him?
Only drunkards and sinners hang out with drunkards and sinners.

Since they were at Simon’s table that night. He had placed people just so, based on who they were and their role in the community. Or who HE wanted to honor, or converse with…

And Simon had questions for Jesus.
Theological, ethical…. Mostly in the theoretical realm

So the woman was more than a little disruptive
She was a sinner

There are all kinds of assumptions made about what her sins were. Because she is a woman, and because for generations, the majority of biblical scholars were men, most of those assumptions lean toward sexual sins…
Perhaps she was a “loose” woman.
Perhaps she, like the woman at the well, had many husbands.
Perhaps she was a prostitute.

Luke doesn’t say any of that.  He leaves a great gaping hole…

His ambiguity in the midst of all those details may actually help us.  Because it means that no matter what her sin was, her faith was more than enough to save her.

It means that no matter what your sin is.
No matter what my sin is.
No matter what sins we are part of together as a body, as a nation.
No matter what mercy we’ve chosen not to offer
No matter what injustices we’ve benefitted from
No matter what oppressive systems we’ve chosen not to be part of changing.

If we humble ourselves,
if we weep for our sins,
If we seek out the one who can and will save us from ourselves…

God’s grace and mercy are more than enough.

But It takes more than a little honesty…
with yourself, your deepest, truest self, to put words to the sins that have weighed you down.

It takes more than a little courage…
to approach yourself, your community, and your God with the truth of who you are and what you need.

And it takes more than a little faith…
not in knowing the law, the rituals, the traditions…but faith in the One who established those laws and traditions.

Because there, in God’s presence, is all the grace you and I and this broken sinful messy world could ever need.

And when we approach confession and repentance with hearts willing to receive forgiveness and compassion, those same hearts are filled to overflowing with love…
Love that must act
Love that expresses deep gratitude.

The sinful woman’s humble act is exactly what that kind of love looks like.
Just as we know that Jesus’ humility and obedience, even to death, even to a criminal’s death on a cross… is what the greatest love looks like….

Her faith has saved her.  Even before Jesus goes to the Cross.
In this instance – salvation looks like forgiveness
And forgiveness looks more than a little like healing
Jesus has seen and addressed her deepest need.

48 …he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Luke doesn’t give us any more details about this woman and the rest of her story.
Will she be embraced by the community?
Will she be welcomed as forgiven and given opportunities to start fresh?
Will they see her differently?  

I don’t know about you, but the forgiven sinner in me, the one who has worked hard not to wear the labels of my own past, wants desperately for the woman to be known for something different… for her generosity, for her kindness, for her hospitality.  

I want her to tell her story of love and forgiveness to all the other women and men in her circles…  so that they, too, might have faith, leave behind their burdens and labels and live in loving gratitude.

When I read the next few verses – in Luke 8, I can begin to imagine this is true of her and many others…

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Can you begin to imagine a world – our world –
in which everyone experienced being seen and known and welcomed all the same?
In which everyone experiences forgiveness?
In which everyone has that overwhelming urge to do good for the one who saw and welcomed them?  

Can you imagine a world in which love has so great a place?
It would be more than a little wonderful.
Way, way more like the Kingdom of God.

I know I’m not the only one who has dreamed of this world…
It is the hope of all who experience being seen and known and loved.
It is the dream, the vision put into the hearts of all who are forgiven.

And descriptions of that world pop up in all kinds of places…  Actor Mahershala Ali, was recently honored by the Screen Actors Guild for his work in ‘Moonlight.” 

Listen for that hope in this excerpt from his acceptance speech:
What I’ve learned from working on “Moonlight” is, we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was, playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was O.K. and accept him and, uh — I hope that we do a better job of that.

Like all of us, Ali had experienced the ways that life (and sometimes the people around us) can cause us to fold inward…. to lose sight of how valued and valuable we are.  

He had also experienced the life-giving, hope-giving love of a person who saw him, understood him, and lifted him up and out and back into the world.  Someone had been love and forgiveness for him.  

The beauty of his story is yes – how he carries that love and gratitude into his work as an actor. But even more importantly, and beautiful, is how he has become a person who sees people, speaks hope and offers love to them in his day-to-day life.

Oh that this might be true of each of us today…. and every day

The One

A Sermon on Boy Scout Sunday

Luke brings John the Baptist into his telling of Jesus’ story very early on.  In fact, the first time they meet is when Mary visits Elizabeth while both women are pregnant.  John leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice and Jesus’ presence nearby.

The next time we meet John, he is a man living at the edge of the wilderness, preaching about repentance and baptizing all who confessed their sins and professed their faith in God.  

He spoke of the one who would come after him.  The one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. John made clear that he was not the messiah himself, but that the messiah was coming.

Jesus went out to the Jordan to be baptized, but we don’t know if John knew he was there.  We do know that following his baptism, Jesus went on into the wilderness where he endured many temptations.

And we know that at some point, Herod took exception to being told by John that he needed to repent as well. That he was taking part in a regime that was not God’s.  And eventually John found himself imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Jesus is causing quite a stir in the region. He has been teaching and healing, and even raising the dead son of a widow to life.  And that is where we pick up the action in Luke 7, starting at verse 18.   

We’ve had annual passes to DisneyWorld for almost as long as we’ve lived here in Orlando. It was a great place for our kiddo to grow up, even with the crowds.  It was a great place to practice some life skills – like what to do if you get lost or separated from your group.  How do you know who to ask for help?   

We talked about what a cast member looks like  –  what kind of costumes or name tags to look for. And we did the same thing when we would run into a police officer or deputy around town….

Yeah – I know – it’s not foolproof.
Bad people do bad things in uniforms, too.
But… the uniforms and other signifiers can at least be a helpful start in finding the person you are looking for.

That’s one reason I wear one of my collared shirts when I am representing the church at a public function, or leading a funeral or a service like today  – when we have more visitors around. If someone who doesn’t know me is looking for the pastor, I’m much easier to find when I am “in uniform”

That’s why our Scouts and their leaders are in uniform today.  So that we can easily see and greet them as our special guests.

I suspect there were more than a few people in Jesus’ day who would have appreciated some kind of uniform to tell them he was The One.

You see, the prophets had been talking about the Messiah to come for generations.  Including John.In fact, John had been proclaiming for years that the Messiah would come and the Jews would no longer be captives…  And here he was… sending messengers out to talk to Jesus, while he was in prison.

The truth is that the political situation in which John and Jesus fund themselves… well, it’s complicated.

Their region of northern Palestine where you would find Galilee –  was under occupation by the Roman Empire. Herod Antipas was the Jewish “King” as his father Herod the Great had been before him.  

And like his father, Herod had a reputation for assuring that his interests were served first and foremost. The Jewish people might or might not benefit from any decisions he might make, especially in relation to their imperial colonizers.

As we can trace over and over throughout the history of empires and occupied territories, the Jewish people find themselves dealing with horrible social inequity.  There was a very small number of Jews with tremendous wealth and stature, while the vast majority were beyond poor. They were destitute.  

Their standing as a nation was even more tenuous given the reality that they represented such a tiny and politically inconsequential group among many peoples folded into the Roman empire. Plus, their unique culture and customs were puzzling at best, in the eyes of those who ruled over them.

And like many groups who find themselves in a complex political situation, the Jewish people found themselves divided on what to do… how to respond to the Roman rule and to the Herods as they established a dynasty within the Roman structures.  

Not everyone agreed on what it meant to be Jewish, how Jews were to move through the world in light of their oppression, how they were to worship God and even what the Messiah would look like. In other words, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time represented a diversity of beliefs, practices and political views.

We might be able to relate –

If we gathered up someone from all the different churches and places of worship in Apopka, we would likely have a group with a wide variety of beliefs, practices and political views… even as we claimed one common connection- Jesus.  We Christians are a diverse bunch.

John, along with many Jews of his time, was waiting and watching for a Jewish Messiah who would redeem Israel from Roman oppression. Someone who would launch a Messianic Era, bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

All these healing miracles Jesus has done,  they’re great, but is that it?  Is there more to come?

Because – from John’s vantage point, it still pretty much looked like the Kingdom of Herod.
And beyond Herod, they still had Rome to contend with.

So he wants to know… Are you the one?  Or is there someone else to come?

It’s tempting to dig in right there, to assume that John is doubting or backing down. But there is something about John’s willingness to even ask that makes me think it’s not doubt And there is something intriguing about the way Jesus responds to this query.  

As is his custom, Jesus answers without answering the question.  He gives them a job.
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.
Go and tell him about the ways God’s power is being unleashed in the world.
Go and tell him how the people are experiencing Good News.

And then, when the messengers for John left, he turned to the crowd and began to teach again on the idea of WHO.

Who was John?  Not just a prophet, but the forerunner, the one God tasked with preparing the way for the Messiah… for Jesus.  Jesus is saying, if you can see John for who he is, then my identity becomes clear, as well.

Who recognized him?  The tax collectors, the undesirables, the ones who knew they needed grace, release, healing, wholeness, forgiveness.

Who rejected John’s ministry, thus rejecting God’s purposes?  Those who believed they already had what they needed  – those with comfort, status, and privilege among the Jews.

This is why I think John’s question may very well have been one of hopeful anticipation….  I am pretty sure you’re the one…  Tell me  I’ve got this right… Tell me that we are on the cusp of the age for which so many are longing.

The miracles John’s messengers witnessed and then bore witness to – by going and telling – they were the beginning of the Messianic age!

And whenever we see evidence of God’s work in the world – we too are witnessing God’s promises unfolding.
Yes – there were and are still corrupt politicians in the world.
Yes- there were and are church leaders who disappoint us
Yes – the gap between rich and poor continues to be alarminging
So yes – the world is still very very much in need of a savior.

The question is, what does the Messiah look like today? What should we expect when we go looking?

Jesus words to the people were a helpful warning against mis-placed expectations about what the Messiah would be and do.

If we hope that the messiah will sweep in and use the same kind of power and might that we humans have built into our power structures, we will be disappointed…

Jesus came with humility, keeping company with the outcasts instead of the powerful.

And he would be rewarded with a crown of thorns and a criminal’s death, rather than the comfort of a palace and the majesty of a throne.

We must look for a messiah who enters into the pain and suffering of the world,
Who understands that salvation for the hungry sometimes look like bread and water, and not the metaphircal sort.
A messiah who knows that oppression ends where relationships are not hindered by exclusion and fear.

And we must, as the Body of Christ – the ones who represent him in this present age – do likewise. So that any who come looking in hopeful expectation can know God answers prayers and keeps promises.

We don’t have to wear crosses or collars or any sort of uniform to advertise that we belong to Jesus,
Not if we are continuing his work…
not if we make ourselves available… if we willingingly enter into the suffering and pain of others and carry with us the compassionate, healing love of Christ.

That is how they will know us… by our love.
By the fruit born of living in the power of the Holy Spirit

And they will know us by the stories to go and tell as witnesses to the power of God at work in and among us.

Let us pray…

In a world where power and influence reign,
Embolden us to set aside power, set aside wealth.

In a world where we look for quick fixes with little thought for consequences and ripple effects…
Give us the patience and persistence and wisdom

In a world where the pain of others is cause for laughter and derision…
Give us hearts that ooze compassion for the broken hearted and suffering,
hearts that seek to learn about those who are not like us,
hearts that seek community with the very ones you would eat and drink and pray with.

May we be the ones for whom the world has been waiting,
May we be the church for which you have been praying,
Today and every day.  Amen.

A Matter of Life & Death

Last week, we looked at two encounters Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, both of which involved choosing to break the Sabbath rules.  He then spent some time in the mountains praying before naming the 12 closest of his followers as those who would be apostles… the leaders among the learners.

The next portion of Luke’s gospel is what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain”.  It is the companion to the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount.   He joins the people down on the plain, healing and teaching.  But we are picking up today’s passage after this sermon.  Listen for the Word of God for you today from Luke 7:1-17.

Early in the week, as I planned this week’s worship, I was pretty excited about the chance to dig into this passage.  These two interactions are fascinating, especially in juxtaposition to one another.

One involved a man of power and influence, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman army.   The other, a widow who was left with no standing, no support, much less influence, after the loss of her son.

One conversation started with the assumption of healing.  The other with the resignation with which we are too well-acquainted as we have had our own dealings with death.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me.  Some crazy bug attacked our household, picking us off one by one. I felt like death warmed over from about Tuesday afternoon onward, and so I spent more time with my eyes closed than open this week.  I had no energy for the kind of brainwork it takes to write a sermon, and I was not entirely sure whether I would have the energy or voice to deliver one.

So today, you’re a little more of a glimpse at what I’m wrestling with than usual.

As we think about what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, these two stories point to two very important characteristics.

The Centurion has heard of Jesus and sends the Jewish elders to ask for him to come heal one of his slaves. We don’t know why the Roman didn’t come himself… perhaps he didn’t think Jesus would come for him?  Perhaps he was busy.   There really is no telling…

But I find it intriguing that the elders  seem to take it upon themselves to let Jesus know how generous this Centurion was…. Luke doesn’t indicate that he included his love for the Jewish people in his message to Jesus. In fact, as Jesus approaches, as second message arrives, saying not to come.  “I am not worthy to be your host”.

Here is a man who could have demanded Jesus come, could have demanded that he see the slave. For that matter, he could have just replaced the slave, should the servant have died. But instead, he describes Jesus’ authority and power to heal and he trusts in that authority and power, even from afar.

He had Faith -just as it would be described in the letter to the Hebrews…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  

He articulated that faith in very practical, very human terms – because as a man who worked within a chain of command, he understood power and authority in very practical, tangible ways. And that understanding allowed him to believe that all he needed was a word from Jesus.  Just a word would heal the slave that he valued so highly.

But don’t you just wonder how much of the Jewish way of trusting in the authority of Yahweh  – Jehovah God – had rubbed off on this man?  How many of the stories he might have overheard as they were building the synagogue that he’d helped pay for?   

Jesus heard faith in the man’s message -no matter its origins.  He healed the slave and he bore witness to the Centurion’s faith.

Once again, we are reminded that as the son of God, Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth to do the work of healing, of reconciling, of setting captives free, of bringing jubilee to the land.

And we are reminded that his mission field was not confined to the Jews.

Now it seems like we just turn the corner in Capernaum and run into the funeral procession, but Jesus and his followers have moved on to Nain. And it’s almost as if we have two parades happening, and their routes happen to intersect.  

If they were a parade, Jesus and his large crowd of followers would be carrying signs and riding floats that represent life, joy, hope. They are hyped up after a series of miraculous healings and brilliant teachings .  

It must have been sobering for them to realize that the procession they meet near the city gate is comprised of a widow, her dead son and a crowd of mourners.

This time, no one approaches Jesus, no one makes any requests.
This time, Jesus sees what is happening, and he is moved to respond.

He is moved by compassion… Compassion that was sparked as life met death, as hope collided with suffering.

True compassion is not an intellectual exercise. The kind of compassion Jesus experienced is as fully human as it is fully divine. Compassion is one of those “feel it in your gut” emotions.  

In fact, the greek root for the word translated as compassion in this passage is splagchna – literally intestines.

When Jesus sees what is happening, he experiences that same  deep, gut-wrenching compassion that moves people today to act when they see suffering.  It’s that twist in your belly when you hear that music and see the sad faces of the dogs in the commercials for the humane society

He saw the woman and knew what was happening.
There was no husband, no son, no male kin there to console and mourn with her.   

He saw the woman and knew this meant she was now among the most vulnerable, given the patriarchal structure of the Jewish people.

He saw the woman and knew that he had the power and the authority to change what he knew in his gut was not good.

He told her not to weep.  And he told the young man to rise. And thus Luke reveals to his readers (like the people of Judea) that Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise the dead to life.  

Jesus is powerful.
This much is abundantly clear.
And logical, if he is who he claims to be, right?
The son of God should be all powerful if God is all powerful.

But this combination of stories also presents us with a deity who wields that power in such a way that  his actions affirm and give life.

Think about that – and compare it to the ways we experience people who have power – perhaps in the form of leadership, wealth, influence, control.

How often do we see the truth in the aphorism about power corrupting people… and the more power they gain, the more corrupt they become?  

But rather than amassing power for himself, Jesus starts at the bottom. And he stays among those on the lowest rungs. That is the kind of leader he is.

Luke started his telling of Jesus’ story with people preparing us for a messiah who would turn things upside down.  Who would bring down the mighty and lift up those who had been made low.  

The teaching we see in his initial sermon in Luke 4 and the sermon on the plain reinforce that idea.  And we begin to see Jesus acting in ways that reverse fortunes in this portion of Chapter 7.

When Jesus sees the widow and his gut twists, he liberates her from a dire situation by bringing her son back to life.

And when Jesus hears the faith of the Centurion, he heals a slave. Not nearly as satisfying, really.

I want the story to end with a captive set free from slavery.  

Yes – it’s great that this man is healed. And I’m hopeful that a man who seems humble and values this slave highly treats the man well. But even after the miracle, Jesus’ work seems unfinished.  

Perhaps at some point the Centurion finishes the work, releasing the slave.  After all, he had faith.  

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he kept up with Jesus, heard more of his teaching and offered release to a man he valued as a person, no longer as property.

Yes- that’s a very optimistic possibility, but I believe that compassion moves us fully human people, too… not just messiahs. Maybe that is the point.  

As people who believe in Jesus, as people who trust in God’s power to enter into our world and transform it, and as people who understand that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is yet to come, we must accept that there will always be work for us to engage, to complete.  

The challenge is to see it amidst the distractions of this world.
And then to overcome the cynicism that freezes our guts and blunts our compassion

But here’s the thing.  We don’t have a choice.
That work is part of who we are.

God doesn’t claim us or save us so that we can sit back and wait until it’s time to punch our ticket and hop onto the train that’s bound for glory.

Not any more than God watches and waits for us to slip up and sin so that our tickets are void and our names get moved from the nice to the naughty list.

Dear ones, please hear and believe this truth:

You are loved because God is love.
And not a thing in this world can change that.
You and I are never going to be powerful enough to change that.

You are loved beyond reason by the God who created and claims you.
Not because you made a choice.
Not because you do more good things than bad.
Not because you said the prayer of confession this morning.
You are forgiven because God extends grace.

You are saved because the work of Christ was done in his living, dying and rising.
That is what we will proclaim at table this morning.
That is what we proclaim when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit remembering that, from the moment we say “Yes, thank you” to God’s love – we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

And how can you know this to be true… when you have left this place , this sanctuary?

You’ll feel it in your guts.
You’ll feel it in your guts every time you see someone bowed under the weight of grief…

You’ll experience it in your splagchna, as you hear of injustice carried out and especially when injustice is done in the name of the very One who embodied justice.

That roar of righteous anger and compassion is all the evidence you need that Christ has saved you –  and thus is saving the world –  from a life lived for self, chasing earthly treasures.

That, my dear ones, is my prayer for you and for me today…
That our eyes would be open and our guts be gripped by the depth of need we see in this world. And that the Light of the World would shine brightly in our response.

 

Wrap You All Around

Back in the day, when the kid was only about belly button high on us, that sweet little sing-song voice would describe arms long enough to “wap you all around”  in a hug.  I don’t remember the rest of the rhyme or saying, just the joy with which tiny arms were flung wide in expectation that parent-sized arms would do likewise (which they did).  Followed by wrapping each other all around, and giggling.

I mean seriously, how can you possibly resist an invitation to a hug offered with such sincerity and a disappearing R?

I’ve known a few world-class huggers in my day. And I’ve been wrapped up in some seriously healing embraces over the years.  There’s something about a well-timed hug that makes the world all better.  Or at least as better as it can get in that particular moment.

The Promised Spirit

This week, we turn our attention to yet another prophet. This time, the Lord is speaking to and through Joel. We don’t know a lot about him, and scholars are divided on when to date his life and writings.

What we do know from the book of Joel is that he placed a high value on worship… Unlike many prophets who called the people to step away from worship because they were unable to do it properly. Joel called the people into a place of repentance that was all about worship.  

Listen to these words from Joel, chapter 2.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

We’ll skip down a bit for the next portion of the passage.  Still Ch 2.

28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That first segment may sound a bit familiar from Ash Wednesday.  It is often quoted at the start of Lent, our corporate season of repentance.

Certainly we need to talk of confession and repentance year round. That is a part of why our order of worship contains a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon most weeks. But the liturgical focus is strongest in the weeks leading up to Easter.   

The second segment of our reading generally appears after Easter. It is common to pair Joel’s words with Luke’s description of Pentecost.

Joel speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out among the people… and was it ever!  Especially starting on that particular day…  On men, women. On young, old. Slave, Free… and even the Gentiles, those not really part of the promises spoken by Old Testament prophets.

The Book of Acts is filled with their stories…  The stories of the way the Spirit moved and spread the good news from family to family, city to city, through the words and deeds of ordinary people.

But God’s Spirit wasn’t boxed up someplace in the time between Joel’s prophecy and Peter’s sermon.
The Spirit is active in the waiting, in the continued telling and retelling of the stories of God’s promises, the reading and re-reading of the prophets…
The Spirit is active in the assurances that even in exile, God remains with the people,when they are in the wilderness literally or metaphorically, God is watching over them
The Spirit is active in the promises that God will restore Israel, that God will restore Judah.
And in the reminders that sometimes, in order to experience God’s presence, all the people have to do is look around.
Or turn around.
And return to the Lord.

Joel uses images associated with grieving as he calls upon the people to repent. Yes there is fasting and praying to be done, but also weeping and mourning. But this is not to be a rote completion of the ritual of mourning – an outward sign of sorrow, one that need not go deeper than one’s clothing.

In the Jewish context, the Torah mandates such expressions of grief. On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over someone’s death. But there is much more to the symbolism and the action.

One rabbi describes the deeper significance  of the ritual this way: “Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair.

“But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’—that their loved one hasn’t really gone.

“This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.

“So we tear our garments,” the Rabbi goes on, “This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn.“

“…rend your hearts,” Joel says

I went for a really long walk yesterday, which means I got through a lot of music on my 90s Rock playlist.  Which means I heard a lot of U2.  There’s this little refrain that gets repeated in CedarWood Road that got me to thinking about Joel’s words and the rabbi’s description of torn hearts.

A HEART THAT IS BROKEN IS A HEART THAT IS OPEN

Stay with me here…

When we talk about sin- whether individual decisions we make that pull us away from the will of God or choices that reflect the waywardness of humanity when we are grouped into churches, cities, countries, races, and pretty much any other way we congregate…

When we talk about sin – we are talking about the ways our hearts grab onto things that are not of God.  And instead we allow our hearts to get wrapped up in the things of the world..  The brokenness and ugliness that Paul summed up for the Galatians as…
5:19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives. [They] are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, because Paul’s point was that attempting to live by the law is an exercise in futility.

Know the law.  Yes.
Understand what is expected. Absolutely

But until one’s hearts is aligned with God’s heart, the heart that created the Law, even the work of being a good person of God can become corrupted by all of the things on that list.  

The heart that is broken is a heart that is open…

When we allow God to break open our hearts… when we rend our hearts… we no longer rely on our understanding, we are opening ourselves to the deeper work of transformation that only the Spirit can bring.

Paul goes on to say that… 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

Those who belong to Christ have access to the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh…

There is another prophet whose words are often quoted in the advent season… a prophet who also called for repentance and spoke of the Spirit.  A prophet who was close enough in age and geography and geneology to be Jesus’ cousin. John.

Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[John] is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John is out there on the edge…
in the wilderness…
A place that the people don’t want to be.  

It reminds them of the generations that wandered with Moses
It reminds them of the generations spent in exile, scattered
He reminds them of the people that get pushed out to the edges

But they come…
Because his words are such a clear echo of the prophets that have come before
Because the weight of the empire and the religious leaders and taxes and poverty… it feels like captivity
Because he is speaking so passionately about a deliverer… The Promised One… the Messiah.

And they hear a call to to be immersed…
To confess the ways they have collaborated with the Kingdom of man

They hear a call come clean.
To confess that their hearts have not been with God,

To renounce their allegiance to human structures and to repent, to return to a community that eagerly awaits the coming of the new age.  And with that new age will come a baptism not with water, but with the Spirit

You and I are children of that promise.
You and I are among those men and women, the young and old, the people made of flesh and bone onto and into which the Spirit has been poured.   

And so, in this time of anticipation, in this time of listening and watching and looking for the fulfillment of the promises, I urge you to open your heart…

Grieve the things that we have lost as a community…
The people, the resources that aren’t here…
Really and truly mourn them.

The sounds of children hunting for eggs in the courtyard…
Have you rent your heart for them?

A full nursery and SS rooms bursting at the seams…
Rend your heart…

The youth trips and young adults finding places to go on missions…
Have you rent your heart for them yet?

The emerging leaders who ought to be in the pew and taking on the work so their elders could rest a bit…
Rend your heart for them too…  

Don’t just talk and worry about the church dying…
Yes – I’ve heard those grumblings among us.

That does us no good…
Mourn its death.  Rend your clothes if it helps…
But then rend your hearts.   

And return to God by confessing how we got here.  And have stayed here.
Confess the ways that you… that we  have been closed off
Confess that there are people we have failed to welcome well
Confess the misgivings we have about who might actually show up if we say “everyone is welcome”
Let’s confess our unfair expectations and our unwillingness to bend.
Let’s lay it all out in the open, all on the altar for God to cleanse
To clear out to burn away and refine
To make space for what is to come.

Friends… Rend your hearts…

A heart that is broken is a heart that is open
Open and ready to be filled by the Spirit of God
Open and ready to prophesy…
Open and ready to dream…
Open and ready for visions…
Open and ready for the work of Building the Kingdom of God

Rend your hearts…
And I will pour out my Spirit…
Not I might…

I will pour out my Spirit…
Says the God who blesses us to be a blessing.
Says the God who is able to do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine
Says the God who makes and keeps promises.
Always.
Alleluia.
Amen.

The Promise of Hope

Advent 1 2016 – Daniel 6:1-28 (and Psalm 121)   

A  big tip of the Advent 1 hat to RevGord, whose Ministerial Mutterings re: Psalm 121 and the sorts of lions dens we find and create resonated deeply and helped me find my open and close.

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When I was a sophomore in college (which was more years ago than I care to count), my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  My uncle planned a big reception for them, renting a hall near their home in Mesa, Arizona.  

The rest of my family drove over from Texas, and I made arrangements to fly in from Little Rock.  I had no idea what to do for a gift, being a broke and very busy college student, other than something I could make myself.I didn’t have much by way of crafting supplies, so I decided to make some music.   

I did a little research to find something meaningful, and it turned out that they included Psalm 121 in their wedding –  and that passage remained an important touchstone in their lives well beyond that special occasion.  I didn’t find any guitar-friendly settings that I could sing, so I set out to write something myself.

I spent my spare time over a couple of weeks reading and re-reading the words, feeling their rhythm and making them my own, then I wrote a simple melody that I could play and sing for them.

It was one of many lovely gifts they received that day, though the time I spent reflecting on that psalm was probably an even greater gift for me.  Not surprisingly, it has become a touchstone in my own life, a reminder of God’s steadfast love and care for me – at least as comforting as the 23rd Psalm.

The psalmist reminds me that
My help will always come from the Lord, maker of heaven and Earth.
The Lord watches over me, keeping my feet steady as I walk
And that night or day… nothing under the sun or the moon will harm me
The Lord will watch over all of our comings and goings, now and forevermore.

I’m pretty sure that is why I say with confidence to you that the God who Promises is with and for us. Just as God has been from the very first.

I don’t know what the melody the psalmist originally put with those words, or how it changed as the Hebrew people passed it along from one generation to the next.

And I don’t know what happened in the lion’s den between the moment King Darius sealed it with his signet ring and when he came back and had the stone rolled away again…

But it’s not hard for me to imagine Daniel in the dark,  singing his way through the psalms, especially the songs of lament that turn to praise. In fact, I wonder if Daniel wasn’t more comfortable than Darius that night, resting as he was in the faith that God was with him in that dark cave.  

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Darius was new to the throne when this story takes place… it was early in the time that the Persian Empire dominated the scene. The Persian Empire replaced the Babylonian empire as the superpower of the biblical world beginning in 539 BCE.  If we turned the clock back another 60 or so years, we would see the Babylonians in ascendance, displacing the Assyrian Empire.  

Nebuchadnezzar II annexed Judah, taking Jehoiachin captive.. You remember him, the king that took Jeremiah’s scroll, sliced it up and threw it in the fire, rather than leading the people to repentance? And then Jerusalem was destroyed soon after.

A series of murders and overthrows led to a string of less capable Babylonian rulers, the last of whom was killed just before Darius, who was a Mede, was installed.  

King Darius spread his power out among 120 satraps, sort of like governorships over provinces. These satraps were directly accountable to one the three “presidents” or overseers, of which Daniel was one.

Like Joseph among the Egyptians in the court of Pharaoh, Daniel represented an outsider, a follower of a foreign God, a keeper of unfamiliar rituals.  And because Daniel took his faith seriously, his allegiance truly was to God, not to the empire or its current ruler.  

And like Joseph, this placed Daniel at risk.

There is something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.” Especially when that outsider gains some of the power and influence we would like to keep for ourselves and our own people.

And so, in a move that had to be way more difficult than it sounds  (I mean, how often do 120 powerful people agree unanimously  – about anything?) they all decided that it was time  to do something about Daniel.  

He was above board in all his dealings, so they would never catch him in corruption.  They had nothing on him…. except his unfaltering loyalty to God.

So they come to the king’s court and shout something like “Long live the King!” in unison before a representative walks out in front to say to Darius
All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.

And just to be sure it would have to be implemented, they had the document ready for his signature.
Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.”

All he had to do was sign.
Which he did.
To the delight of all the conspirators.

It’s hard to know why Darius was so open to making the law…  Maybe because he was new to power and easily flattered. But what he clearly hadn’t considered was how this required show of loyalty would affect one of his most effective and trustworthy leaders, and therefore how it would affect him as King.

And so while Darius signed the decree, this was in fact a calculated manipulation by 120-plus leaders with one specific goal in mind-  to produce a written document they could use against Daniel. The conspiracy had set in motion events that would force the king to execute Daniel for his public worship of the Lord.

That darkness in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us” left Daniel in the darkness of the lion’s den.  And it left Darius tossing and turning until the earliest light of day broke through.

Sealed in what could have been his tomb, Daniel remained faithful.  Daniel trusted that the God who makes and keeps promises would also be the God who saves.

Daniel remembered and prayed
To the God who provided a ram to replace Isaac on the altar
To the God who made good from of the evil that the brothers perpetrated on Joseph
To the God who provided enough for the Elijah, the widow and her son until the rains came

Daniel prayed and sang…
I look up toward the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!
May he not allow your foot to slip!
May your protector not sleep!
Look! Israel’s protector does not sleep or slumber!
The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is the shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, or the moon by night.
The LORD will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life.
The LORD will protect you in all you do, now and forevermore.  (NET Bible)

All night he prayed and sang to the Lord
To the God who sent an angel to close the mouths of the lions
To the God who requires justice
To the God who would reveal to a king what it looks like to rule with power

God’s power to save Daniel opened Darius’ eyes and awoke in him the power to rule.
In the light of day, and in light of God’s actions, things had changed
With the light of day, there was freedom
With the light of day, there was truth
With the light of day, there was clarity

Darius had nothing to fear from Daniel, nor from Daniel’s worshipping the Lord.  Instead of condemning an innocent man to execution, Darius commands his men to rescue Daniel. Instead of ceding his leadership to the counsel, Darius puts them to death, as well as their families, for their scheming against Daniel and for manipulating the King.

Darius now embodies a decisive king, condemning the guilty, rescuing the faithful and promoting worship of the Lord throughout the empire.  

His new decree reverses the old:
The people throughout his realm should tremble and fear the Lord,
“For he is the living God; he endures forever.
His kingdom will not be destroyed; his authority is forever.
He rescues and delivers and performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions!”

See, the story of Daniel and the lions isn’t really about the lions, so much as it is about the human heart.
Our capacity for fear and hate
and our capacity for faith
and our capacity for hope.

Which, in the end, is why this story is not as odd a choice for the start of Advent as I first thought.
The hope of Advent is the hope that Daniel held onto as he waited in the darkness
The hope of the people of Israel as they waited in exile.
It is the hope of a heart that bows only to God, trusts only in God.
The hope of a body that rests in faith, even as it prays and works for justice.

The hope of Advent is the very mystery of our faith that we recite in our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving…
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again

And as we wait and hope for his return, the hope for the world is that the church of Jesus Christ would be all that it is called to be
All that we are called to embody.

Because until he comes again,
we are the bearers of light of Christ,
which our world so desperately needs.  

Because there remains something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.”
for those who look or speak different
for those who come from someplace else
for those who challenge our traditions or habits

And being followers of Jesus does not make us immune.
Not from the hatred.
And not from getting caught up in the hating

Because there are always those who would whisper,
those who would stir up fear,
who would use their privilege and power in hurtful, hateful ways.

The truth is… we live in a world where jealousy and nervousness, insecurity and fear all too often drive or at least shape important policy decisions. And important spending decisions.

We live in a world where it sometimes feels like playing it safe is wiser than wholeheartedly being the people that God has formed us to be.

Yes, friends, we live in a world in which we can find a wondrous variety of lion’s dens…

And yet…  there is another truth:
We live in a world where there is hope.
We live in a world where we carry hope.

It is the hope of God’s enduring Kingdom to come.
The hope of the kingdom that will not be destroyed
The hope of a rescuer.
The One who has died. The One who is Risen. The One who will Come Again.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Amen.