God Sees (With) the Heart

Psalm 51:10-14

As you read last week with Jody… Samuel was called by God to be a prophet, to speak to and lead the people of Israel.  As a matter of fact, Samuel was last of the leaders in Israel we call judges

The Judges were a series of leaders who came after Joshua, who led after Moses. God used these women and men to unify the people, get them to repent, deal with the spiritual problems of the nation, and also deal with the physical threat.

They are sometimes military leaders who know how to mobilize the nation for war against an enemy, but their real power lies in their knowledge of the Torah and ability to adjudicate Jewish law. Like Deborah and Samson before him, Samuel was a combination of prophet, judge and warrior.

In his early years, Samuel would travel the land, adjudicating the law, and giving people advice. But as happens as we humans age, there came a time he just couldn’t do it all any more. His two sons, who were meant to take over for Samuel, they were corrupt and not surprisingly -unpopular with the people.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel realized that the series of wars they were engaged in with the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land weren’t going to end any time soon.  They thought maybe things would go better if they had the same kind of political ruler that the nations around them had.

So a delegation was dispatched to ask Samuel to anoint a king instead:
And the the people said [to Samuel] “Behold, you have grown old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations. And the thing was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel …” (1 Samuel, 8:5-7)

Samuel doesn’t want to do it, but God tells him to go ahead and find a king for the people.  I always imagine God saying to Samuel, something like “Yep. Bad idea. You know it, I know it, but they clearly need to see it for themselves…Let’s do it”

And so the  Time of Judges comes to a close.

Samuel functioned as a leader for 13 years, the last two of them co-leading with the first king of the Jewish people. That first king – whom Samuel grudgingly anointed- was named Saul. Saul was indeed a great warrior. And he unified the people. Saul made mostly good – but sometimes problematic – decisions.

Then he usurped Samuel’s priestly role. And he helped himself to some of the spoils of war, essentially disqualifying himself from the job. Samuel told Saul as much, but he wasn’t happy about it. So things are more than a little tense.

So to recap as we head into our passage for today (1 Samuel 16:1-13):
Israel wanted a king. God gave them one. Along with their king, Israel now has palace intrigue and a brewing violent conflict over succession.

When Saul became King there was an interesting mixed reaction. Saul himself tried to hide from all the attention, but Samuel was having none of that.  (1 Samuel 10:23-24; 26-27).

By all appearances Saul would be a great king – and he did have a good start. But those who knew him best – those who really knew him – they didn’t think so highly of him.

Yet, even when Saul failed miserably due to a lack of integrity and faithfulness, Samuel mourned the loss of his reign. But God knew it was time to move on and told Samuel as much.  God chose a new king and Samuel was sent to anoint him.

Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “I have provided for myself” Is more directly read as “I have seen” for myself a king. God has seen, has a close eye on, the King that God wants Samuel to anoint. And now Samuel must listen closely, because his human vision stops at the surface.

Kind of like our vision can be lacking as we look around us… I ran across an interesting story along these lines. It’s about a woman named Rita Belle and a man-  Richard Walters.  They met at a senior center, a mission in downtown Phoenix for the poor and homeless where Rita worked.

Richard was more reserved, but Rita was outgoing. She spent time talking with him, and they became friends. He had never married, didn’t have children, and was estranged from his brother. He told her he had no home and slept on the grounds of the senior center. Richard ate at the hospital and used a telephone there when needed.

What Rita couldn’t see when she looked at Richard… What Rita didn’t know… was that he was a retired engineer; an honors graduate of Purdue with a Masters degree; and a Marine. In time, Richard became ill.  Rita became his nurse and ultimately the executor of his estate.

Here’s the thing… it turns out that Richard Walters was wealthy.
Very Wealthy.

He left behind 4 million dollars, which was given to places like the senior center.

Among his few possessions was a radio. If you listen to NPR, you may have heard an announcement like this:
“Support for NPR comes from the estate of Richard Leroy Walters, whose life was enriched by NPR, and whose bequest seeks to encourage others to discover public radio.”

See, Mr. Walters left close to half a million dollars to NPR. But no-one, not even Rita, would have imagined it. The way someone appears doesn’t tell the whole story. We are sometimes taken in by the appearances of others.  

As author Agatha Christie once wrote, “The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask.”

When we judge by appearance, we can give credit to those who don’t deserve it, and we can fail to acknowledge those who deserve to be encouraged. Deciding who is worthy of our love and friendship based on outward appearances is an all-too-common problem for humans.

Pre-judging someone has a name – prejudice. We often think of prejudice as primarily about race, but we can find ourselves discriminating or facing exclusion based on gender, primary language or an accent, jewelry or headgear that expresses religious beliefs differing from ours, or body shape, age, or even the way we dress.

We know not it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but I do it anyway…
Anyone else in that boat with me?

Sometimes, we get to know someone just a little… and after learning one fact or hearing one story….we paint an entire picture of who we think they are…Never really seeing, much less getting to know, the real person within.

That’s not the way that God sees you.
That’s not the way that God sees me.
And that is very good news.

That’s also not the way that God saw David

God looks on the heart.
And God being a God of relationships, looks
with the heart.

God saw in David’s heart the makings of a king:
He was not the oldest
He was not the tallest or strongest
He was young and ruddy and the last person Samuel would have chosen, even if David had come through earlier in the parade of sons.

This is why God needed Samuel to stop mourning Saul and listen closely.

It was time to stop looking backwards, to the past…
God was ready to do a new thing. Again.

For Samuel to get this right, he was going to need to connect with God’s heart.
To hear God’s voice over his own internal dialogue

This required the prophet to do the same work we must do in our hearts.
To connect to our hearts to God’s and hear God’s voice more clearly,
We must cultivate the habits of confession…
Of confessing our awareness of our own habits and sin
Of confessing our earnest desire to clear away the clutter that threatens to separate us from God.

We must cultivate an attitude of prayer that comes from faith, not fear

We must cultivate a life of prayer that flows out of a deep trust in the God who created us, and who loves us best.

Because when we can open our hearts to God, leaving them fully open to God’s love and grace, then we can live fully into the people God made us to be

Our work is offering God open and honest confession, seeking to be free
God’s work is beautifully described in our Psalm reading for today

God creates in each of us a new heart
God puts in us a new and right Spirit
God does the work of renewal, renovation and restoration.
God brings us into relationship and brings us back… over and over again.  

We see this more clearly… more tangibly… in the descriptions we have been given in the gospels of the way Jesus lived and moved among people. Even after his reputation grew and crowds began to follow him or to come out to meet him in the villages and towns he visited, Jesus’ ministry was all about powerful encounters with individual men and women.

He would see or hear someone
He would call them out of the crowd
He would look them in the eye

Jesus could be so aggressively personal as to be invasive.  And… his personal interaction was never restricted by human societal expectations of which people a good Jewish rabbi should be around

He saw people.  

I’m sure the fully human side saw the lepers’ sores, the twisted forms of the paralytics and epileptics, the hard lines of pain etching into the faces of the women forced into difficult labor or selling their bodies to survive.

And, I would imagine, there was a part of him that recoiled, a fully human part of him that wanted to look away or pull back and look at the crowd as a sea of indistinguishable faces.

But the divine in him?
No, the divine in Jesus always looked beyond the outward appearance
Beyond the human reasons to turn away, to exclude and to deny

The divine heart that beat within Jesus Christ looked to each of their faces and then looked at their hearts, and he saw in every single one of them the heart of a beautiful and beloved child of his own father God.

He ate with them
Drank with them
Mourned and partied with them

Jesus saw their sorrows, their pain, their needs
He heard their desires
He gave them hope
He restored and renewed those broken hearts
He made a way for each of them to rejoin the community

He loved them.
In the same ineffable, undeniable, indefatigable way that you and I are loved.  

And then he commanded us to do likewise.
Doggone that Jesus.
He commanded us to do that very same thing.
That very hard, very personal thing.

To LOVE

Not theoretically, but tangibly
And profligately…
Regardless of what our neighbors look or smell or sound like.

But remember, it’s more than just the outward appearance…

What we think we know about someone can shape the way we see them, too. An article circulated a while back about an experiment that Canon – the camera manufacturers – conducted.

They wanted to explore the  power of perspective in portrait photography. So they enlisted the help of 6 photographers and asked them each to independently shoot portraits of a man named Michael.

But as in every experiment, there was a variable.  A twist: each photographer was told something different about Michael’s background.  The photographers were told that Michael was: a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, or a recovering alcoholic.

Meanwhile, Michael, an actor, did his best to take on some of  the personality of each character. Enough to make it believable.

They shot their photos in the same studio with the same props, but the six sittings produced radically different results.  The choices made by the photographers – poses, angles, lighting, even their interaction with Michael –  had at least as much impact on the images as the actor and his physical being.

They thought they knew who they were seeing in front of them, but that knowledge was incomplete. The photographers had just enough information to put Michael into a category or stereotype. Their decisions were based on a surface understanding of who he was, almost like a label.   

In a culture that would break us into demographic segments competing for resources and attention, power and influence, we are called to look beyond those outward labels, beyond the markers that separate US and THEM

We are called to look beyond
Left and Right
Blue and Red
Old and Young
Traditional and Emergent
North and South
Black and White
Right and Wrong

We who call ourselves Christians must live into this truth:
We are made in the image of God, who looked past the outward appearance to the heart.

We are made in the image of God in Christ, who humbled himself, setting aside a comfortable seat in power, and taking on the form of an infant, became vulnerable:
Became the target of ethnic cleansing
Became a refugee
Became a poor carpenter in a minority enclave

And he obediently modeled and taught the way of love that eventually meant his death at the hands of the Empire.

We are made in the image of God…
And we are made in the very human image of the Son of God…
Who felt the tug of a hand at the edge of his robe even while the crowd pressed in all around him
Who saw Zacchaeus up in the trees and joined the little tax collector for dinner
Who told the woman at the well every little detail about her life because he knew her heart was thirsty for living water

We are – each of us- image-bearers.
And we are – together as the church – the embodiment of Christ- the ultimate image of God.

Each and all of us are called to see more than skin deep, to look beyond the labels
We are called to see and restore and defend the dignity and humanity of each of God’s beloved children

And we are called to trust that sometimes, God will surprise us,
Pointing us to people we least expect
Speaking through those we would choose to ignore
Leading through those we would prefer not to follow

We are called to look beyond the outward appearance and using the hearts that God graciously, consistently and patiently cleans restores and renews within us,

We are commanded to follow in Christ’s way of love.

 

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One

Now – before we jump into the reading this morning, I want to back up just for a moment or two…  A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the work of the Jerusalem council as Luke recorded it in Acts.  

If you remember, the reason for that meeting was to gain consensus around how to fold in the new believers among them who were Gentiles.

There were some among the Jewish Christ-followers who believed that in order to become part of the community, Gentiles needed to be law-observant, even to the point of circumcising new converts.

Others, including Paul and Peter, argued that God was clearly at work in the Gentile churches, as evidenced by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The same kinds of signs and wonders that the Jewish bodies of believers were seeing and experiencing were happening in Antioch and other gatherings where few or no Jewish members were present.

The conclusion of this difficult conversation was clear – as God expanded the welcome of all nations into the family, the apostles would not require any rituals that were specific to the Jewish tradition. Going and making disciples was to be about teaching the ways of Jesus, seeking the gifts of the Spirit and bearing fruit as they bore witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah for all people.

It is within this context that we need to read the letter from Paul to the Galatians.  He had started this mostly-Gentile church, spent time teaching among them, assuring that they understood the source of their salvation – their faith in the work of Jesus Christ.

Now, they have been visited by some teachers who have told them they must observe the law. Paul writes this letter to remind them who they are – members of God’s household.
And to remind them how they got there -by faith.  

We are entering mid-stream, so the greetings and salutations are done.  After recalling for the Galatians his own struggles to keep the law, as well as a conversation with Peter about how keeping the law was not a means of creating belonging for most Jews, Paul is getting pretty fired up.          

Just before our reading for today starts he describes how he came to understand the difference between faith in the law and faith in Christ. I want to read a portion of chapter 2 for you.. from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, so you can hear it in a more contemporary language…

We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.”

We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen!

Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.

Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?)

And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous.  If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.

What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man.

Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.

Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.

See, to Paul, the idea of salvation, of belonging to God, is entirely wrapped up in trusting that Christ has already made that possible.

Not the law.
Not how well we understand and follow the law.
But the very fact that the Word became flesh and walked among us, making clear that God wants to us to be reconciled and in relationship with God and one another.

That is the transforming work of grace.

No longer focused on the law, Paul is able to focus on loving God and loving others, inviting them to know that same freedom.  The self-giving love of Jesus has changed Paul so radically that he lives as if he were newly resurrected- powered by the Christ who indwells him.   

So… when he hears that the Galatians have been taught that they must observe the law, so that people will see their faithfulness and know that they belong to the Way…  

Well, he has some words for them.  Strong words.

I can just imagine the Galatians, gathered at their synagogue around the leader for the day, the person who would read the letter… and it sounds just like the Paul they knew and loved…   

Listen for the Word of the Lord to them and to us…

3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!  2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing? —if it really was for nothing.

5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

6 Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”

9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Paul goes into a little more depth here, but we’ll jump forward to verse 23

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,heirs according to the promise.

This is the Word of God for the people of God…Thanks be to God
Thanks be to God, indeed.
I mean that.
Sincerely.

Even in his frustration, Paul is offering to the church in Galatia,  to us and to all who would follow Jesus, a reminder of the grace that allows us to claim our places as children of God.

All of us.

Not because we do a great job of rule-following.  In fact, we ignore the vast majority of the requirements set out for those who would worship the God we have come to know as Father.

Paul is reminding the Galatians that the Spirit’s work among them is all the testament the world needs to know that the crucified Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!

Which leads Paul to ask the obvious question: Is any of what they are experiencing…
any of the transformation…
Are any of the healings…
any of the signs of God’s resurrection power…

Is any of that a direct result of their efforts to keep the law?

The question actually implies the answer for them:  NO.  Of course not.

It all comes back to faith.  That is, hearing and believing the truth about who Jesus was, how he lived and died, and trusting that the God whose promises are true raised this Jesus from the dead.

They were justified by faith.
Trust.
Belief.
All of which were being eroded by false teaching. Teaching that points back to Abraham’s circumcision as the beginning of the relationship between God and the Hebrew people.  

If we look back to Genesis 17, we understand where this tradition begins. This is the moment in which God makes these promises:
Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations
Kings will be among his descendants
The land of Canaan will belong to his offspring in perpetuity
They will be God’s people.   Always.

And the sign- the seal of this covenant between God and Abram, now Abraham, is circumcision.  For all the generations since, the Hebrew men have been marked.
Literally.
This is how they indicate that they are part of the family.
That they belong to God through their connection to Abraham.
They are physically set apart.

And so, for them, it makes sense to ask the Gentiles to do just as Abraham and his family and all of their descendants did. And then to observe the laws given to Moses.

There is a beautiful continuity in these traditions.
A continuity that points to the faithfulness of God.
And to the efforts at faithfulness – however imperfect – of the people God has claimed.

This continuity is actually what makes Paul’s argument all the more powerful.  Because Paul reaches back even farther into Genesis…  even earlier in Abram’s story.

Abram and Sarai have faithfully followed God’s call out of Ur to who knows where… trusting God to lead them to some land they have been promised.  And They continue to wait for a child, though that promise seems more laughable by the day.  They cry out to God along the way, and finally God responds to Abram’s despair…

God brings Abram outside his tent and saying, Look up… count the stars in the heavens if you are able. That is how numerous your descendants will be.

Abram looked up, but he wasn’t really counting.
He was trusting that the number was uncountable.  

Once again Abram believed the Lord. And scripture tells us that the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

And it was then God that made the first covenant with Abram.  It was a different kind of ceremony, one with visions and fire pots and carcasses of animals cut in half.  

All made possible by Abram’s trust.
By Abram’s faith that God’s promise was real that God’s word was true.  

It was at that moment that God claimed Abram and that Abram claimed God

And all those nations… all those descendants promised to Abraham?
All of them are equally God’s

Jew or Gentile
Male or Female
Slave or Free
All of them are have equal access to God’s grace

No hierarchies
No multi-tiered comparisons
No bonus points for circumcision
No demerits for eating pork or drinking wine.
In Christ, All of them are equally beloved

In Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Galatia…
In Judea, Samaria and to the end of the world.

Paul expects the Galatians to be wise enough and mature enough to claim their place in the family, and not to be distracted by this call to observe the law.

There are too many people around them who need to hear the good news and to experience the new life that Paul and his friends are living. There are people in need of healing and visiting and feeding and clothing… in need of the body of Christ.

Now, before we go any further, I have a word of caution.
I want us to be careful though about where we situate ourselves in this story.

There are voices – prominent voices – in the American Christian millieu, who would have us believe that the church is being persecuted.  That we are under attack and that the true gospel is being watered down

They espouse a list of beliefs and behaviors that are definitely not a perfect match for those laid out in the Old Testament… but the list is long and is equally unlikely to bring life.

And that list is used to measure and judge, then label and stigmatize other beloved children of God.

Friends, I hope you hear this wrapped in all the love I have for you:

We are not called to bring judgment and shame upon one another
We are not called to segment the world into those we deem worthy and those who are not
We are not called to place spiritual disciplines onto anyone but ourselves

We are called to offer the peace of Christ, the love of Christ, the transformative presence of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit

We are called to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them the ways of Jesus.  This commission remains true for all time.

As does the message Paul has for all who become part of the Body:  

In Christ, all of us are equally God’s

Jew or Gentile
Male or Female or Genderqueer
Slave or Free
Republican or Democrat or Independent
Socialist, Capitalist or Anarchist
Gay or Straight, Pansexual or Asexual
Black, Brown, Caramel, Pink or White
Presbyterian, Baptist or Episcopalian
Young, Old and everything in between.

In Christ, ALL of us have equal access to God’s grace

No hierarchies
No multi-tiered comparisons
No bonus points for dressing more sharply
No demerits for taking decades to find the courage to walk through the doors of a church

All of us are equally beloved
Because it is our trust in God’s promises that make us righteous.

It is our belief that God truly is more powerful than sin
More powerful than our fears and our prejudices
More powerful than our capacity for hatred and war

Our belief that God is more powerful than death…
That is what grafts us into the family of God

The proof of which is the work of Holy Spirit in and among us

Because it is only the Holy Spirit at work among us that moves us
To go beyond rote prayers of confession to repentance of sin
To set aside division and unite in the work of worship and justice

It is the Holy Spirit at work among us that moves us
to set aside our fears and long-held prejudices
and welcome the alien and the stranger,
t
o choose love over hatred and to pursue the harder work of peace-making

All of which bring life and light into a world that reeks of death

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, but I feel like I have been commemorating the holiday for a week.  I visited all kinds of memorials last weekend.  

We walked around at the National Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg.  We didn’t go in, but we drove past the Arlington National Cemetery and happened to catch sight of some 800 marines at the Iwo Jima Memorial, commemorating the day that the flag was raised.

We were surrounded by Honor Flight soldiers getting off busses near the WWII Memorial, each wearing yellow jackets or shirts indicating whether they had fought in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.

As we headed to the Vietnam memorial, I called my friend Kathy in Minnesota. She hasn’t been able to visit the wall in DC, but she help me find her brother’s name using FaceTime.  We wept together from half a continent away as she recalled the brother’s whose death in war changed her family forever.

There was even a Blue Mile on the Half Marathon route- every few yards for an entire mile there was a poster with the photo and story or person holding a flag with the name of a marine who was killed on duty from WW1 right on up to current deployments in the middle east.  

It has been a week of remembering and grieving.
A week of facing the truth of just how many lives have been given…
All in the hope that we might know freedom.

On this last Sunday of the Easter season, we gather to remember
We gather to remember, but not to grieve
We gather to remember and to celebrate

One life, given for all time, so that we might know a different kind of freedom.
A deep, spiritual and eternal freedom.

We gather, as One Church, called by One Spirit, empowering us for One mission –
To build the kingdom of God in which no one is hungry,
no one thirsts,
and no one must go it alone

When we are one body, one church, all going after that one mission… Christ is risen.  

When we are one body, one church, all going after that one mission… He is risen, indeed.

The Road Goes On

Psalm 30

This psalm is one of Thanksgiving, one that expresses the kind of hope and gratitude that has been earned and developed over time.

A psalm that reveals not only the depth of pain we humans experience in life, but the joy that comes when we find our way beyond illness, beyond grief, beyond separation.
When we find ourselves blinking and adjusting to the light of a new day, a new opportunity.
When we can’t help but give glory to God as we begin the next portion of our journey. Because the reality is that the road of life goes on.   

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was on the road for much of his life…

Of course we know he traveled with Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem to Egypt and from Nazareth to Jerusalem on multiple trips to the Temple. For most of the years he spent teaching and healing, he and his followers walked all over the region around the sea of Galilee.

During Lent, we followed them on the road to Jerusalem, where he spent his final week before being crucified. He was placed in a borrowed tomb nearby, and that was the final place anyone expected to see him.

And now, just hours after the women discovered the empty tomb, were reminded that he would be raised back to life, and then told their story to the others. Just hours after Peter ran to the tomb to confirm their story.  Just hours afterward, Luke tells this story about Cleopas and his traveling companion, listen…

Luke 24:13-35

Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect these two companions left Jerusalem around mid-morning. After all, they were discussing the mysterious events of the early morning.  And, they were clearly still unsettled by them.  

I can’t speak for you, but I can relate to this story more than I can to many others told about Jesus’ followers.  This story resonates with me because Cleopas and his friend are doing exactly what I do with my friends when something leaves me (or all of us) confused and unsettled.

We spend time talking it out.
We go back over the things we can wrap our heads around.  The verifiable details.
We recount the things that were most unbelievable.  The most difficult to reconcile with those verifiable facts.
We struggle out loud with the things that cause us pain, that leave us unable to go forward emotionally.

So when Jesus joins them on the road, they assume he would want to be folded into their conversation. And because this is the biggest, craziest news these friends have ever had to process, it’s stunning to them that Jesus has no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, they don’t know who they’ve just invited into the conversation.  Luke tells us that – for reasons we don’t ever get – they were kept from seeing who he was.

But surely anyone walking away from Jerusalem, any Jew in particular, would have been talking and thinking about the events of the past week.  You might say it was the talk of the town.

But apparently not this man.
And it stops them in their tracks.
Literally.

They stop and look at him. Dumbfounded.
Dude- seriously?
You must be the only person in Jerusalem for the Passover feast that didn’t hear about it…
Or maybe you just don’t remember… ??
How many glasses of wine did you drink during that passover meal?
Huh.  Really. Ok… well… where do we start?

Perhaps they took it in turns to fill in some of the details that Luke leaves out. I mean the conversation went on for 7 miles!

But the gist of it was this…
Jesus was as important to the children of Israel at this moment as Moses was in his.
He was an amazing prophet, wise, powerful, before God and in front of all the people.
He was a liberator.
He was our hope.
And they took him away – the chief priests and the leaders.
They took away the one who would save the people.
And they had him killed.
They didn’t do it themselves, but they handed him over in a way that made clear what they hoped was going to happen.
It was awful. Everything about that trial and crucifixion.  Awful.
What were we supposed to do… he was the one we just KNEW was going to turn the world upside down.
We had hoped at the very least…

Well, now where are we left after all this?
Do we continue on his path?
Following his teaching?
We’ve spent the last couple of days wondering exactly how we could do that without getting ourselves nailed to a cross.

And now – today – on the third day since all of this got started, things got even weirder… maybe a good weird. But definitely more confusing.

So it just seemed like a really good time to leave.
Get some space between us and Jerusalem;
between us and the danger.
Between us and the sorrow.
Between us and what might have been…
What might still be… ?

Jesus- incognito as he was – must have been enjoying this a little.  Pulling the story out of them with nods and mm-hmmms.  Even as he smiled knowingly on the inside.  

There was so much they hadn’t quite understood, that they hadn’t quite managed to connect between his teachings and their current situation.

And so eventually, he can’t help himself.  

Even as he remains hidden from their recognition, he takes them back to Scripture and begins to teach.
Starting with Moses and moving through all the prophets.
He reminds them of all they’d heard – from the time they were children in synagogues to the times he was with them on the plain and in the various synagogues of the region and even in the temple courts.

They continued on down the road, talking, walking, teaching and learning until they finally arrived in Emmaus.

Now, I do a lot of walking, and when I get deep into a conversation with someone, it takes a lot longer than usual to get where I’m going.  So it doesn’t surprise me that a walk that could have been completed in a matter of 2-3 hours (even faster if you’re in a hurry), took the better part of the day.

And because they had been talking for so long, it makes sense that they would ask this stranger to stay, to eat, for sure, and perhaps to continue the conversation.

Doesn’t it just seem right that Jesus would say “yes” and join them at table?
After all, so much of his ministry happened around tables…
So much of his ministry was about making sure that everyone had a place at the table.

And doesn’t it seem right that it is at the moment Jesus breaks the bread…
When Jesus is doing the thing that is most HIM,
When Jesus is reversing the roles of guest and host,
When Jesus offers hospitality and sustenance through the blessing and breaking of the bread…
THAT is is the moment when it becomes clear who is at the table.

It wasn’t while he was walking and teaching… though he was surely reinforcing all that he’d said about himself over the years.  And certainly the teaching would have felt at least a little familiar.

No- it was at the table.

Perhaps it was his unique way of blessing the bread
Or the way he held it and looked at it.
Or perhaps the fact that this guest so humbly had taken the role of host to serve them

Regardless, in that moment, their eyes were opened.
They saw him
They knew that all he had said, on the road that day and on all the roads they’d walked together before,
they knew – deep in their hearts- that it was true.
They understood that he had been with them all along.
And then, he was gone.

Yes, it was baffling and unexpected.
And yet, it was so HIM.

Of course, they had to go and tell the others:
We have seen the risen and living Lord.  Thanks be to God!

You know, every time we gather at the table – every time we gather at the font, for that matter – there is a long prayer. The prayer of thanksgiving we call it.

And I know that it is annoying sometimes to listen to a prayer that long because I’ve felt antsy plenty of times myself. After all, we ministers seem to enjoy the sound of our own voices… And mercy, but we can make worship inefficient with long sermons and longer prayers.

But that prayer does what Jesus was doing on the road that day.
It is meant to remind us of just how far back we can travel and still not find the beginning of God’s love and care for us.

The prayer is meant to help us to rehearse and retell the story of our liberation from slavery, of God’s promises kept, of our salvation in Christ and through Christ, who is not only a great prophet, but is also the Messiah.

That long prayer is meant to remind us that we are at the table of the host who knows and loves us best.

Many of you wondered, some of you aloud and in my hearing, why we would add communion in today, when we we shared the bread and the cup on Maundy Thursday and again at Easter.  And it will be the first of the month in a couple of weeks.

Why add in one more round of communion?
The truth is, we need to be at the table.  

We need to be nourished, spiritually nourished, if we hope to live faithfully in this world of ours.

In our noisy, fast-paced, efficiency-focused culture, we are taught or at least convinced to ignore our spiritual hunger pangs – those longings for communion with God and one another- that ought to lead us to the table more often, rather than waiting for our regularly scheduled meal.

Coming together in fellowship at this table is crucial, because It is around the table that we reveal the body of Christ, in all of its human, flawed but forgiven glory.

It is at the table we experience the presence of Christ,
where we experience the grace that abounds as it extends to sinners and tax collectors,
And as grace extends to preachers and retirees, to teachers and business owners, and everyone else who hears and responds to his invitation to come, eat, and remember.

Preparing the table, whether once a month, or three times in two weeks, is an act that embodies faith,

Preparing the table in an act that embodies hope and embodies love.
Gathering the bread and the juice, setting the table, offering an invitation…
Each step of the way we are re-membering, re-enacting the hospitality of these bewildered disciples and their beloved Jesus
our beloved Jesus.   

Their hospitality opened the door, literally and figuratively, to the opportunity to encounter Jesus at this meal.

They welcomed the stranger on the road,  and he opened the scriptures in new ways
They welcomed the stranger at the table, and he offered a revelation of his care for them.

Luke’s telling of this encounter with the Messiah tells us that an encounter with the risen Lord requires two parties.
There is Christ’s divine act to come and reveal himself.
But we have a part to play.
Without an openness and vulnerability on our part,
Without a spiritual willingness to risk and a physical willingness to welcome,
we may as well just close the door.

For our eyes will not see and our ears will not hear,
And our hearts will not burn in the telling of this very good news:
Christ is risen.
He is risen, indeed.

Image is Everything

Last week, we left the people of Israel in Egypt, awaiting the 14th of the month, when the plague on the first born was to be visited on the people of Egypt. They had their instructions, and on that night, they wore their traveling clothes and goin’ shoes as they ate lamb and unleavened bread for dinner.  They painted the lintels and sills of their doors with the lambs’ blood, marking their homes as Hebrew homes, keeping their oldest male children and animals safe.  As God told Moses to expect, this was the last straw for Pharaoh.  He finally let Moses and the children of Abraham go.

As we move forward through the story I want you to listen closely and make note of the ways God is described.  What do the people of Israel see and hear when God was present?   It might help us later if you to scribble down some notes…

God led the people out of Egypt, not in the most direct way possible, but toward the Red Sea.  They were prepared for battle, of course, but God was worried that if they actually faced war, they might choose to return to Egypt. So the Lord led them out along the edge of the wilderness, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Then, when it seemed that Pharaoh’s army had them surrounded on the shore, God provided a way through the Red Sea.

Time and again, the strength of the Lord was on display, revealing the difference between the rulers of human kingdoms and the power of the Creator,  revealing the faithfulness of the God who makes and keeps Promises.

Time and again, the generosity of the Lord was on display, revealing the care of the God who Provides. Manna and quail, water and safe passage. Whatever the people needed- even rest – was offered in love.  

They continued on, following the Lord in the cloud and fire, grumbling a bit, bringing their complaints to the judges and Moses, gathering their daily bread, resting every seventh day…  until they reached Mt. Sinai. The whole of Israel set up camp there, facing the mountain.

3-6 As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’  “This is what I want you to tell the People of Israel.”

7 Moses came back and called the elders of Israel together and set before them all these words which God had commanded him. 8 The people were unanimous in their response: “Everything God says, we will do.”

Moses took the people’s answer back to God. 9 God said to Moses, “Get ready. I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud so that the people can listen in and trust you completely when I speak with you.”  (Exodus 19:3-9 The Message)

God did exactly that… after a three-day ritual, the people were consecrated. They were warned not to touch or come near the holy mountain.  

And then…  at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear.

17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain.

18-20 Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms.

The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up.  (Exodus 19:16-20 The Message)

God sent him back down to remind the people not to come up, and to bring Aaron back with him.   God continued to speak to Moses from the cloud, and to the people it was like Moses was in conversation  with a horrible storm…  The cloud flashed with lightning and echoed with thunder and blasts from a horn like a storm siren.

God provided the rules that the people were to follow, like “Terms of Agreement” for the covenant between God’s chosen people and their Lord. Moses and Aaron returned to the people with those terms.

Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it as the people listened. They said, “Everything God said, we’ll do. Yes, we’ll obey.” (Exodus 24:3, The Message)

Then God told Moses to climb up the mountain again.  

Moses told the elders of Israel, “Wait for us here until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems, go to them.”

15-17 Then Moses climbed the mountain. The Cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of God settled over Mount Sinai. The Cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called out of the Cloud to Moses. In the view of the Israelites below, the Glory of God looked like a raging fire at the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:14-18, The Message)

Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This time God gave Moses all the instructions for creating and outfitting the Tent of Meeting, for selecting and ordaining the priests who would lead the people in worship, as well as a strong reminder that the people are to keep the Sabbath. Then God gave Moses two tablets of Testimony, slabs of stone, written with the finger of God.

It was at some point during this forty days and nights that the events in our assigned passage for today take place.  

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  

3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.  (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSV)

FIrst, I have to confess that the conversation between God and Moses sounds to me like two parents, who have heard about their children’s misdeeds via the babysitter, as they linguistically disown the the Israelites.

“Your people,” God says to Moses, “whom You brought up out of the land of Egypt….  They are out. of. Control.”

“Oh no, God,” Moses says, “Remember you brought them out of Egypt with your strong and mighty hand!  Those are Your people”

I’m just going to claim that as scriptural evidence that we truly are made in the image of God… at the very least in terms of a universal conversation pattern.

But seriously… what were they thinking?  What got into those people?
And how did Aaron get suckered into aiding and abetting them?

Granted, “forty days” isn’t necessarily a precise counting of 40.  The number 40 is often used symbolically in the ancient Hebrew culture, denoting “a long time.” So it might have been 40 days, or six months….  Or a long weekend.

We all know that time can be slippery… Especially when you are anxious.

Like when you’re in the middle of a lot of change and transition, and your leader seems to have forgotten that he was taking you someplace better than Egypt, better than the wilderness.
Like when you’ve already been waiting for a while to get to some sort of “normal” life again.
Time might just mess with your mind a bit.
It gets slippery

The truth is, Moses was coming back.
The bigger truth is that God remained with and for them…

But it’s human nature to lose sight of the truth when we’re stressed. Am I right?

The proof was  was there… How many ways was the presence of God made visible, just in the trek from Egypt to Mount Sinai? Depending on how you count them… between 6-10…

What did you write down?  Yeah- God has been present in many ways…  and even incarnationally – in leaders like Moses, Aaron and Hur.

But now, in this moment of fear and anxiety, when Moses and God seem to be in an eternal side conversation without them, the people decide they need something tangible.  

The problem isn’t so much that they want to get rid of Yahweh, the Promising God who has delivered them out of Egypt and led them to this place.  The problem is their incomplete understanding of their God.

Their vision is blurry.  And thus, the golden calf is less the image of a false god than a false image of the true God.

But God is outraged.
They have created a graven image of God.
And this is not to be tolerated.  
It says so in those Terms of Agreement.
Multiple times.
Multiple ways.  

Even if they had created an accurate image, it would have been a breach of their covenant, their part of the promise to be in relationship with God.

I can only imagine how the God who Created Everything would be less than thrilled to seem confined to the form of a calf.  To be re-imaged into the form of one of the many local gods…  Those Ba-als and other gods are fickle and unfaithful, manipulative and even manipulated by the actions of those who worship them.

It’s no wonder God was ready to rip into the Israelites.  

But Moses reminds God that the promise made to Abraham and Sarah all those generations ago was still in effect.  And that even the Egyptians had seen God’s true nature.  After all, it really was God, not Moses who had brought the people up out of Egypt.  

In this pivotal moment,  Moses stands in the breach- turning away God’s wrath to make way for God’s mercy.  This was radical advocacy, as Moses stood against God on the people’s behalf.

He must have believed that even in rebellion, God would be faithful to the people.
And God was.
God is.  

Over and over again.
Present and faithful.
Even now.

It’s all still there in the Terms of Agreement pages. Archived for us in the scriptural records.

The original version in the chapters of Exodus I kind of fast-forwarded through, and a slightly updated version in the life and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospels. When we read them again, with fresh eyes in search of the true God, we see with fresh eyes who we are in relation to God.

We are God’s people, blessed to be a blessing.
Honored to be part of recognizing and naming God’s creative and merciful work in each beloved child we meet- whether or not they know or believe that God loves them..

We are God’s people, the Body of Christ, blessed to be a blessing.
Following in the way of Jesus, Watching for the signal from God to stay or go. Trusting the Holy Spirit to empower and encourage, to provide us the gifts we need.

Oh it’s easy for us to lose hope, to lose sight of God.
Way too easy.

We’ve got even more distractions at the ready than those stiff-necked people Moses was responsible for leading. And we’re still plenty stubborn.

We may not have altars and golden calfs, but we manage to erect plenty of sacred cows.  And should anyone come, even in cover of darkness, to do some sacred-cow-tipping, you can be sure that someone else will set it right back up.

Traditions, preferences, habits, memorials, procedures…  all of them can become idols that distract us from our worship and work as the people of God. The very people and things meant to help us express our love for God become human-made images of false gods.

And certainly there are sacred cows in our broader culture… exceptionalism, nationalism, capitalism, individualism… that can lead us to worship secular idols of our own making – those tangible proofs of success…
a new car, the right style or brand of clothing, or a lovely house in the right neighborhood,
a respected career or one more advanced degree.
There are the idols of busyness or importance.
The idols of economic security and social standing.    

I’m pretty sure we could go on all day with a list if we wanted, but I suspect I’ve stepped on most everyone’s toes at least once already.  I know my toes hurt.  

I’ll be honest here… The other night, before we knew that Hurricane Matthew was going to make that wobble out into the ocean as it approached Cape Canaveral, our home was within the range of hurricane force winds…  the 100-120 mph range. I wasn’t scared of being hurt or even killed. But I was worried about my stuff. What if I lost all my stuff?   Yeah.  I know.

John Calvin was likely right when he said  “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from [our] mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

But you know, in addition to creating images of false gods that distract us from our Saving and Promising God, we can also become a false image of the true god.  

Together, we are God’s plan for the world as we bear God’s image, reflect God’s image in the world. Or as the apostle Paul would say, we are the Body of Christ, knit together and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s ministry of reconciliation

When I was at the Rosh Hashanah service the other day, celebrating the Jewish New Year with our friends, one of the songs we sang described 13 qualities of character that help us to reflect the image of God in our daily lives. Since the service was for children, they included an English translation in simplified language that I want to share with you:

Adonai Adonai God is apart from us and a part of us
Ayl God gives us strength when we are…
Rahum: Compassionate
V’Hanun: Accepting
Erekh apayeem: Patient
V’rav Hesed kind
Ve-Emet and honest
Mozayr Hesed extending kindness to people we know
La-alafeem even to those we don’t know
NoSay Avon by not letting petty people upset us
Va-Fesha by not letting mean people upset us
V’ha-Ta-A by not getting upset by people who just want to make us mad
V’Na-Kay and by forgiving those who are truly sorry.

I like that list a lot. I need those reminders of who God is, and what it looks like to reflect God’s image day by day.  But this isn’t a list just for me or for you, at least not alone.  This is a list by which we are all accountable to one another as we  bear God’s image into the world.

If people can see us being compassionate, accepting and patient, kind and honest, whether or not we know the people to whom we extend those kindnesses.  

If people can see us letting things go- the pettiness and button pushing, the ways that mean people treat us.  

If people can see us forgiving anyone who truly seeks forgiveness…

Then people can see and experience God.
In us.
Through us.

As I read that list, I thought… yeah, the Apostle Paul, he made good use of his knowledge of the Hebrew law.  He enfolded all of this as he described the fruit of the Spirit… the evidence that people are living according to God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And he described it again as he taught the church at Corinth what love was meant to look like in community. Not just for his fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles like us, who were being folded into family of God via adoption.

On the days that God seems far away for us, in this time between called pastors as our vision team and session pray and listen for the mission God has for this congregation, time might get a little slippery, it’s already been more than 40 days!

The truth remains  that God is with us and for us and that God has a wonderful plan for this body…

I just might become harder to hold tight to that truth, too.  

I’m here to say – keep your gold jewelry, unless God tells you to give it away or sell it to help the poor. I’m not going into the statuary business any time soon.

But do something for me…  in the coming weeks and months, make note of the things you feel most protective of, most concerned about losing.
As you run across them, ask yourself….
Are they more precious to you than relationships with others?
Are they more precious than your connection to the God who brought you out of your own Egypt, whatever that bondage may have been?
Are the things that prod you into conflict or frustration, or even the temptation to head back to Egypt or some other, easier place to dwell, are those things truly of God?  

When God calls us and empowers us to get moving… literally or figuratively… it is easy for seeds of doubt, fear and hatred to be sown This is why Paul reminded us for all generations that Faith, Hope and Love must abide.

In you, in me, in all of us together.

Then and only then are we true image bearers of the true God.

Long and Winding Road

Narrative Lectionary Texts (embedded below): Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

This fall, we are trekking through the Old Testament again, this time watching for the recurring theme of promise.  There was a promising start in the garden, the promise of paradise and purpose as the first humans tended the garden.

But this was followed by the broken understanding, the people choosing to believe that God would somehow hold back from them, not offering them the best, choosing to go against God’s wishes. And then facing the consequences.

Even in their exile, in their struggle to produce their own food in the reality of the same world we inhabit, Adam and Eve experienced God’s grace.  God’s presence was a bit more distant, but the promise of care and provision remained.

They were still known and watched over, they were still beloved.  Just as we are beloved in our still-not-as-it-should-be,  still-not-as-it-will-be world.

Abraham’s relationship with God also reminds us that God is a keeper of promises.  To be sure, we can never predict exactly how those promises will play out Or when.  But as we consider the millions – maybe billions – of people who have walked this earth and who trace could their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise of heirs as countless as the stars in that ancient, unpolluted night sky is a promise kept.  

In spite of Abraham’s faltering obedience, he ultimately displayed great faith, and was rewarded. And, as the apostle Paul writes, that faith was his righteousness.

Fast-forward now, from Abraham to Isaac, the child of promise. The long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, fathered by Abraham when Sarah – not unlike Adam and Eve – chose to act on her doubt that God would come through, could come through.

She chose to believe that God might somehow hold back, that she would never bear children. And so she offered up her bond-servant, Hagar. What could have been a lovely gift of surrogacy  from one woman to another was marred by jealousy. And when God caused Sarah to conceive and give birth to Isaac, things went from bad to worse.

Abraham agreed to release Hagar and Ishmael from their bond, but only after God extended the promise to Ishmael, that as a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael would also be the father of a nation. We also see a prophecy that Ishmael would often be in conflict and others would be in conflict with him. His people would live in the east.  

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael once they go to the wilderness, because the narrative focus shifts to Isaac and then Jacob. But we do see evidence of his descendants and their interactions with the Israelites.

Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second son of Isaac… (though not by much, as he and Esau were twins). Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau when he  gains his father’s blessing through deception.

He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Eventually, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, and between his wives and their handmaidens  he has twelve sons, the ancestors and namesakes of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel.  Just as a side note, they also had a daughter, Dinah..

Of those 12 sons, Joseph was the youngest.
And we’ll pick up our reading there…

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Now – you would think that Israel – Jacob – would have learned something from the conflict and drama of his youth. But as we see in many of our own households, people tend to carry the good and the bad of their family’s ways of being into the households we create through marriage.

That dysfunction that made you mental as a teenager will most likely play out in some way as you relate to your spouse or co-workers, room mates or children.  Or all of the above!  

Sometimes you fall into the same patterns without even noticing or at least not until it’s too late. Sometimes you fall of the ledge on the opposite side – overcompensating in hopes of avoiding the same trap.

My mom’s brother was just charming enough that he got away with more than she did.  Mom found that really annoying. But she also began to suspect that because her parents seemed not to see or respond to his antics (and always cracked down on her)… they must have loved him more.

So it came as no surprise when my sisters and I were gathered here in Florida for Christmas a few years back, we all got identical t-shirts.  We all opened them at the same time, along with my brother opening his while on the phone from Texas.  

All four of the shirts said “Mom loves me best”

She thought it was clever. But I’m not sure it had the desired effect. More than one conversation with more than one sibling has raised concerns that not all the shirts were given with the identical levels of sincerity,.. or irony… Either way, that strange rivalry that exists between siblings had been awakened from hibernation.

That same dynamic had been simmering among Joseph and his brothers for several years. The robe didn’t help.  Neither did the dream. After all, the symbolism clearly  suggests that they will become subservient to him.  Really,  it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.”

It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires… poking the bear. Honestly, He was a jerk.
So they decided to do something about it.

17b So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

Ok – not even jerks deserve to to be thrown into a pit to die.
And those jerks you’re thinking of right now? No – not even those jerks…

And if even if he did think Joseph deserved that kind of death, Reuben probably had no desire to be the one responsible for causing his father that much pain. I mean, what kind of wrath might Israel unleash at that point?   

Plus, there is the possibility of looking like a hero if Reuben is Joseph’s rescuer.
Then Judah pipes up… clever boy, this one…

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.

28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

And thus a Schmidt family tradition awaited… lying dormant for thousands of years, until the twins were born.  

I’m not sure who made the threat first- mom, dad, my brother or me.  But at some point in the juggling of all the diapers, bottles and crying jags that accompanied the first several months of life with twins, someone asked if we might be able to sell them to a passing band of Ishmaelites.

I’m pretty sure that all four of us kids, and perhaps my dad, only escaped our own times in exile because there were no Ishmaelites roaming Central Texas in the 70s or 80s.

But I digress. Let’s go on

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.

32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”

33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

Reuben was the first to mourn.  

Perhaps he mourned his brother. Perhaps he mourned his opportunity to be the hero. Perhaps it was the recognition that his relationship with Jacob was in the balance as well.   

Listen to his words when he realizes Joseph is gone: When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?   In the Hebrew, his repetition of the “I” is even more emphatic than it appears in the English translation.

Then, Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals

Ultimately, Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Through a series of twists and turns, he finds himself in a seat of great power and influence. His prophecies make it possible for Egypt to survive a famine that was so severe people from neighboring countries came seeking aid.

Eventually, that included Joseph’s brothers. They made a couple of trips to Egypt, the first time not knowing they had been in the presence of their long-lost brother.

Joseph sets them up, a bit, so that he might see Benjamin, and so that his family might be saved from starvation. Eventually, even Jacob comes to Egypt and meets the Pharaoh.  He blesses Joseph’s children before finally dying.

Let’s take a look at the last portion of the reading…

50:15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

It’s hard to know who we are meant to identify with in this story.  Certainly, we want to be like Joseph, lucky and skillful enough, faithful and gifted enough to overcome adversity.  And we are eager to look past his faults and failings, just as we prefer to look past our own.

We like being the hero of the story, whose choices are helped along by fate (and a promise-keeping God).
We like the idea of being in the right place at the right time to see God’s purposes worked out in our own long and winding roads.

The truth is, we are also a bit like the other brothers. Jealous, plotting… and dangerous when we feel cheated. And Rueben, not a bad guy, but not really all that good, either. Definitely interested in looking good.  We are certainly a bit like Jacob, wrestling with God, unable to love as unfailingly and fairly as God. 

But as we think about the promises of God, we need to look beyond the people with whom we relate… What is God up to in the midst of all this human messiness, this messy human-ness?

Certainly, God does not will that Jacob’s sons would hate one another, especially to the degree that is leads to violence…  (what kind of a God does that?)

We’ve talked before about the tension caused by the fact that God has given us agency, intellect, and free will, even as we believe that God can and does intervene and direct us.

In other words, the spirit of God is at work in a world that is shaped by human actions.
God is present in this story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion.

And so, generations before God steps into time and takes on flesh, there is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in this long and complicated narrative of creation, separation and eventually – reconciliation – between God and humankind.

When we were commissioned to the work of making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, we were commissioned into that same work, becoming the Body, God’s incarnational plan for for reconciling the peoples of the world to one another and to God.

So what does that mean, precisely? Or as Paul might ask.. how then shall we live?

For one thing, we don’t get to throw people into pits. Physically or metaphorically.   Yes, there are a bunch of people I would love to walk right up to a pit, distract and then gently push while they aren’t looking.   I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to do likewise with me.

I suspect that if we were to dig enough pits for everyone to dispose of the people they would just as soon not attempt to get along with… well, the world would be awfully hard to navigate.

But that isn’t who we are called to be. That isn’t what we are called to do. We are made in the image of the God who Reconciles, the God who Loves, the God who Rescues and Redeems. We are made in the image of the One the psalmist thanks for raising him out of the pit. The One to whom I have given thanks for not leaving me where I have have been pushed, or where I have fallen.

Thus, we are to listen for the cries of those who have been rejected or set aside, those who have been put down and held down, those with whom we would rather not associate because they are not to our liking for one of eleventy-hundred reasons…. and when we hear their cries, we are to walk over to the pit from which they call out, put out a hand, and raise them up.

And we are to be about the work of filling in the holes that we have dug, teaching others to fill in theirs.  We are to be about the business of speaking up and showing up, wherever those cries are heard, learning about the bigger picture and seeking real change, real healing, real wholeness.

Because the long and winding road that Joseph walked may have started with a pit, but it ended with a family reunited and made whole. Isn’t that worth getting a little dirty for?

Prayer for Class of 2016

A prayer for the Baccalaureate Ceremony for the 2016 graduates of Apopka High School

Gracious and loving God,
We praise you for who you are…

The artist who paints sunsets, birds, planets, and fish in vibrant, unforgettable colors.
The healer of bodies and minds.
The parent who nurtures us, sings over us and quiets us with love.
The one who laid down his divinity to become one of us, living among us.
The rabbi who taught fishermen and tax collectors.
The leader who washed the feet of his followers.
The Spirit who enlightens and inspires.
The one who is three – always in community, bound only by love.

And You made humankind in your image…
Creative, passionate, compassionate, intelligent, focused, humble, loving, fun…

You create us to pursue passions and call us to work that can change lives and transform the world…
Musicians, teachers, leaders of cities and nations, doctors, nurses, parents, chefs, lawyers, ministers, farmers, software developers, architects, grocers, soldiers, pilots, artists

We give thanks for the gifts that you have begun to reveal in the Class of 2016.  As you call them into particular vocations and professions, we trust that you will continue to equip and empower them to serve not only in this community, but wherever you send them.

Bless the village that has raised each of these precious young people –
Parents and extended families,
Teachers and coaches,
Faith communities,
Neighbors
Employers and mentors

On the way to this moment, this evening, this week, that in many ways marks the end of childhood, many tears have been shed – in joy and in sorrow – by these students and all who stand behind them.

Hours have been spent at desks, in locker rooms and rehearsal halls, in gyms and on fields, on stages and in classrooms

Many more hours have been spent on couches, in libraries and study halls, heads in books, eyes on the prize.

There have been lectures, and lessons
There have been awards and trophies
There have been failures and fears

There have been goodbyes that ripped hearts wide open
There have been new friendships forged, relationships that blossomed, love unrequited and passions overstated

There have been car pools, bike rides, bus rides, and missed rides

And you were there for all of it.

Before pop quizzes and AP exams, prom invitations and cheerleader tryouts…
You heard every “please…“ ,
every “I promise…”
every “Just this once…”

You heard and answered those cries for help..
Sometimes that meant miraculous success,
Other times, the lessons that follow a spectacular failure.

Thank you for the ways that you have made and continue to make your presence known, whether we are looking for you or not.

Thank you for making good out of our messes, for working in us and through us in every circumstance.

Thank you that even now, as we face the consequences of our choices –good, bad, and in between – you are with us and for us.

Trusting in your lovingkindness,
Trusting in your faithfulness,
We give these graduates to you, dear Lord,
knowing that this commencement week marks a beginning,
a new season of life with new horizons of opportunity.

Give them eyes to see just how much this world needs their tenacity and joy and empathy
Give them hearts that beat with yours
Give them feet that walk steadily on the path you have set before them
Give them hands that reach out to lift up the discarded and arms that embrace the lonely
Give them voices that speak on behalf those who have been silenced   

Above all, give them ears to hear just how deeply and fiercely you love them and the faith to believe it is true, now and to the very end of the age

In the name of Jesus the Christ, the one who came to heal, feed, love, and set us free from all manner of bondage, then taught and commanded us to do likewise, we pray.
Amen

Holy Spirit!

Sometimes, the Spirit points us to work done by other members of the body to weave into a sermon that is way more powerful than anything we preachers can do on our own. That might look like collaboration and conversation or borrowing and crediting. Where I have borrowed text (direct quotes or adaptation), I have linked back to the source.

3 years.  Well, close to it, anyway.

They had spent 3 years with Jesus. They had walked most of the region, spent countless hours at his feet – in the synagogue, on hillsides, in boats, in people’s houses… you name it.

They ate together – ordinary meals and miraculous ones. Passover seders.  And that last passover meal.  The one that was the beginning of the end, when they knew things were about to well and truly change.

They next three days they spent together as well.
Without Jesus.
Scared. Anxious.
Unable to fully understand what they had seen. Unsure about what should come next.

And then there he was.
Alive.
Among them, at least part of the time.

Another 40 days to get their heads around the power Jesus had shown. The power God had shown through his resurrection.

Another 40 days to get their feet under them and begin to follow him again. Not just going where he was, but going where he wanted them to go. Doing and saying the things that reflected all that they’d been taught.

And then he was gone again.
One last lesson, one last command… and off he went

You will be my witnesses, he said.
Wait in Jerusalem.
And when the time is right, you will receive power. And then you will bear witness to who I am, what I’ve done and what God has in store for all people.

You will be my witnesses, not just here in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and to the very ends of the earth.

So they waited in Jerusalem.
Together.

Peter, John and James, Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alpheus, Simon the Zealot and Judas son of James were there. Several women were there, as well, just as they had been from the beginning. Jesus’ mother Mary was with them, along with his brothers.

They waited and prayed. And they took time to discern who should replace Judas as overseer, choosing Matthias from among the many men who had also been following Jesus from the very beginning, just not among the twelve closest.

In all, there were about 120 Jesus followers in Jerusalem.
All waiting.

Maybe the days began to run together a bit as they fell into comfortable rhythms and rituals of life. Praying to start the day, making sure there was food enough for everyone, going to market, watching out for the little ones, keeping the rooms clean. Praying at the close of the day. Preparing for sabbath. Starting a new week again.

It had been 50 days since passover. The time for Shavuot had come, and people were gathered for the Feast of Weeks. The Pentecost feast would mark the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was something a little different to prepare for. Something to look forward to as they waited.

Here is how Luke describes the arrival of this particular Pentecost in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

If Easter was God’s Ta-Dah!!! Moment, this would have to be the Holy Cats! Moment.
Or, well, God’s Holy Spirit! Moment…
And maybe a bit of Oh Yeah… I did that…

The looks on their faces must have been priceless.

Wind – the element that shares its name with the Spirit…
rushing and filling the house…

Fire- that barely controllable element with the power to destroy…
burning but not consuming…

And by the way, It’s one thing to work hard and learn enough of a language to speak clearly and freely with a native speaker. To just open your mouth and speak?  

Ho.Ly. Cats!   I mean… Holy Spirit!

Don’t you just wonder now if Jesus knew – had a picture of this day in his mind of what was coming – when he said those seemingly innocuous words
You will receive power.

He wasn’t talking about Power Bars that would provide the nutritional energy they would need to keep moving outward from Jerusalem.

He wasn’t talking about political power that would make it easier to get along with the Romans.  Or the sort of power needed to navigate Temple politics.

Whether or not they knew it at the time, Jesus promised his followers access to the very same power that overpowered the temptations offered in the wilderness, changed water to wine, healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, taught the leaders of the temple, calmed the storm, and yes – raised Jesus from the dead.

Now that I think about that list of people who were waiting, one of them probably knew. In fact, that might be why Mary stayed, and kept her other sons with her.
Because she knew.
She had experienced the Spirit’s power as a young girl, and she had recognized it over and over again. I suspect she was ready to have a second helping, trusting her son to draw her closer than ever to his heavenly father.

On that festival day, it arrived.  The power had come and the witnessing had begun.

Men and women from many lands and cultures heard them speaking in all those languages… enough that each onlooker could hear and understand them, as they told the stories of God’s power.  

There’s a song at Passover sung during the Seder. It is called Dayenu, and it tells the story of the Exodus, one detail at a time, and after every detail, the people sing: Dayenu! It would have been enough!

If God had brought us out from Egypt,
and had not carried out judgments against them
Dayenu! It would have been enough.

If God had given us the Torah,
and had not brought us into the land of Israel
Dayenu! It would have been enough!

It would have been enough.

It would have been enough if Jesus had died on a cross.

Dayenu!  It would have been enough if he was raised from the dead!
Dayenu! It would have been enough for him to be lifted into the sky!
Dayenu!  It would have been enough if the Holy Spirit had come!
Dayenu! It would have been enough to form a church.

But it didn’t stop there.

The Holy Spirit came, but she didn’t stop with the rush of wind.
She didn’t stop with tongues of fire.
She didn’t stop with the people understanding the story in their own language.
Dayenu! It would have been enough.  (thanks Lia Scholl)

But instead, the Holy Spirit gives us each gifts, as Paul described for the believers in Corinth  (1 Cor 12:1-13)

Dayenu! It would have been enough to empower each of us…
But there is so much more going on here.
So much more power to be shared here.

Paul describes nine gifts, nine services, nine manifestations of God’s Spirit in the Body. Nine ways that the One source, the Holy Spirit, is on miraculous beautiful display in the community.

But this diversity is not the point. Nor is the manifestation of God’s power in and of itself the priority in Paul’s estimation. Paul’s focus is what he believes to be God’s purpose – unity.
Oneness.
Community.

By empowering each of us, and then uniting us to bear witness to the power at work in us, God’s power and plan to reconcile all of Creation is demonstrated and made known.

Let me come at that a different way.
The diversity of our gifts used for a common purpose is what draws the world together.

The many languages being spoken by the disciples as the Holy Spirit came upon them might have been written off as yet another group of people gathered and sharing a house in a busy city on a festival weekend. Kind of like listening in on breakfast at a boarding house for international travelers.

But in this case, all of them were speaking about and pointing to the same thing:  the power of God to enter the world, to heal and teach, to overcome death, to turn fishermen and sinners, gentiles and women into bold and powerful witnesses! That got people’s attention.

They were publicly proclaiming the gospel.
It was disruptive.
It was weird, if we’re honest.

But it moved people outside the community – outside of the 120 or so who had stayed there, waiting, and had indeed received power  – people who were not part of that group were moved to pay attention.  

This cacophony of multilingual storytelling drew their unsuspecting gazes, piqued their curiosity, and astonished them. They were locked in. One or two may even have let loose with the Hebrew equivalent of  “Holy Cats!”

Yes, Some of those onlookers accused them of being drunk, but others welcomed the message and joined in the community’s shared life of communion, fellowship, worship, belief, and action.

That Pentecost Sunday is often called the birthday of the church.

If this was not its birth, the Spirit certainly breathed new life into a body that had been in a sort of hibernation. This band of frightened, if well-intentioned, followers could no longer sit still. The power they received drove them out of the room and into the streets where they would grab and keep the attention of everyone around them.

That day transformed each of them – Peter probably never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would stand and preach. He was a fisherman, not a rabbi!

The healings and miracles that they each experienced, the incredible growth of the community, the way that resources were shared so that all had enough -none of these were attributed to one person’s faith or cleverness… but to the power of the Spirit at work among all of them.

I just want to stop for a moment to think about the power the disciples experienced, this power we invoke in our prayers. I think we can all agree to these two statements as a starting point…

  1. People don’t like change.
  2. People don’t change.  

This is true right here and right now.
This was true in Jerusalem all those centuries ago.

But people were changed.  Transformed.
Not one or two people. Hundreds, even thousands at a clip.
Ho. Ly. Spirit!

And yes – the Spirit is still holy.
And still more powerful than we can imagine.
And people are still being changed.

We sing songs around this day, inviting the Spirit to come, dwell among us, to come fill us. I wonder sometimes if we really mean it? If we really know what we asking… Much like we have sanitized and beautified the ugliness and terror of the cross, we’ve tried to tame the Holy Spirit, using a calendar that allows for certain days and feasts when we break out our reds and symbolic doves and flames.

Maybe we more honestly would invite the Spirit over for a short visit- long enough to be polite and sip a little iced tea on the porch, but not long enough to disrupt our routines.

Even that might open the doors to our hearts and lives more than we imagine…
Open the doors to this sanctuary wider than we’re comfortable considering…   

Annie Dillard once wrote… On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Invoking the power of the Holy Spirit is a lot like playing with fire…
You see, the manifestations of the Spirit transform people and communities into spaces that ignite conviction and change people’s life directions.

The Spirit’s purpose is to embolden a community – Like this community – to look beyond our own preservation or prestige, as a body or as individual members.

The significance and relevance of the life of the Body – of this faith community, right here and right now –  is utterly and completely wrapped up in how deeply we are changed. And in how we respond to the twin challenges of uniting in our differences and of leaving this place empowered by God to do great things together in the world.

We aren’t just blessed to be a blessing. We are compelled to bear witness to that blessing, to reveal God’s power to others around us in a way that invites them to experience transformation.

The power that transforms, empowers, gifts and unites us, lives within us. It has invaded us and is making us more and more like the Christ we follow. More and more like the Creator who shaped us to begin with.

The truth is that we humans are meant to be in relationship. All of us. That is what draws us into friendships and partnerships. Into clubs and cliques. Into families and church families.

The indwelling of the Spirit of the triune God simply amps that up to 11.  Maybe 12.

If we let the Spirit in, the danger is that you and I – all of us together – might become an incredible source: of good, of justice, of truth and beauty, of everything that the Lord wants of his creation.

Let’s play with God’s fire.

For our benediction today, I’d like to share these words from the poet Jan Richardson

This Grace That Scorches Us
A Blessing for Pentecost Day

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.

It is stubborn
about this;
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.

To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,

a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.

Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.

I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.

But in the place
where you have gathered,
wait.
Watch.
Listen.
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.

See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom

or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you

this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,

for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.

AMEN

For the National Day of Prayer

Many people have gathered for Prayer Breakfasts, others will meet for afternoon prayer huddles or evening prayer services.

Some of us are at offices and other places of work, at school, volunteering, or caring for others in myriad ways. Our calendars are full, too full to make it to a formal prayer gathering.

Know this… Wherever you are today, you can join in prayer for our church, the larger Body of Christ, for our community, the nation and the world.

God already knows that we are overwhelmed with the pain and difficulties in our own lives and in all of those widening circles.  And God knows the many things that bring us joy, which we sometimes forget to include in our Thank You’s.  But when we take a moment to engage our hearts with our Creator’s heart, we are choosing to return the love which God has poured into us.
When you have a moment, step away from your task list and try this breath prayer:
Breathe in deeply, aware of the Spirit filling your heart as the air fills your lungs.
Breathe out slowly, making space for still more.
Breathe in the goodness of God’s grace.  Then breathe out a prayer of gratitude.
Breathe in the wideness of God’s love; breathe out a prayer for the people and places in need of healing.
Breathe in the steadfastness of God’s presence; breathe out a prayer of awe and wonder.
Breathe in, breathe out, and know that you are a beloved Child of God
Breathe in, breathe out, and let the words fall away.
Amen.

Beautiful Things Await

Primary Scripture Acts 3:1-10, also Acts 1:8  (quoted below from NRSV, as read by liturgist during the sermon)

As we opened our time in the book of Acts last week, we saw Jesus give his followers the last of his instructions on this earth: He told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait.  He said to them:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,  in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

They would bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ teaching, to the truth of his resurrection, and to the reality that the Kingdom of God had indeed drawn near. That God was and is at work in tangible ways, even after Jesus was gone.

In chapter two, the spirit arrives, Peter preaches, and a fellowship of believers  – a new community of faith – is born. They are led by Peter, James, John and the other disciples, but their work wasn’t about building an organization or starting a new religion.  

They were focused on being witnesses, right there in Jerusalem. As Luke describes these early days, the growing numbers of Jesus followers were worshiping, teaching, preaching, and looking after the needs of others. They met together regularly, in the temple and in people’s homes. And many signs and wonders were being done.

By the apostles.

I will confess – and I suspect I am not alone in this – I had a harder time with the idea of these followers being responsible for signs and wonders than with the idea that Peter could stand in front of a crowd and preach.

Truly, I struggled for quite a while with this.

Seriously, these men and women are a lot like me. By that I mean, they are the goobers written about in the gospels as needing Jesus to teach and reteach and reteach pretty much everything. They were rebuked and told they lacked faith. They are uncomfortably similar to me.  

And the truth is, I don’t see me (or people that much like me) performing miracles today. Or being part of signs and wonders on a regular basis. How is it that Peter and John, Thomas and Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Marys and others were about the business of healing and such?

One commentary I read pointed to the timing.  At that particular moment, this nascent movement of faith was given a particular communal vocation. Together, they answered Jesus’ call to bear witness to the resurrection. Their actions were critical pieces of God’s plan to continue to reveal the kind of Kingdom that will one day come to fruition. Their steps of faith were part of revealing God’s power – in relationship with humanity – to bring healing, wholeness and shalom.

And so, as we read about the Acts of the Apostles, as Luke called them, we get a glimpse of what resurrection power looks like.  We see a much less filtered, much less tempered version of the power that we, even here, today,  have access to.  Because we, too, have been baptized in water and have been empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God longs to work in, among and through us in this community, in our country, and in the world. We too, will be his witnesses. And we all have stories to tell, stories that bear witness to God’s power to change our own lives,  just like the man Peter and John meet in our reading today.

Listen for the Word of the Lord in scripture and in the story of this un-named man as both bear witness to God’s glory.  

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.  

That day started out pretty normal. I woke up, did my morning thing while I waited for my friends. They would come by every day, about the same time, and take me to the temple.

I didn’t have a lot of friends. And the ones I did have? Well, they weren’t exactly the kinds of people my parents dreamed their son would call friends. Let’s just say they knew how to work a crowd.

My parents did what they could for me, back in the day. Even when I was very young, my legs were not strong enough to hold me. I could drag myself about, but never very far. Certainly not beyond the confines of the house.

Over the years, a few people took pity on me. There were a handful of “healers” who came through  Jerusalem. I never met any of them. I had my share of people pray for me; maybe more than my share.

But I guess my faith was too weak, or my sins were too great. I don’t know.

When you can’t stand, can’t walk, and can’t explain your weakness away with an injury, people assume that you must have done something to bring forth God’s punishment in such a tangible way.  Some of them can’t help staring at you, but others can’t look away quickly enough. I guess they don’t want to imagine themselves in my condition. Or worse, to imagine their children crippled and begging.

Honestly, that’s part of what made the temple a good place to beg. People go there to seek their own healing or forgiveness from sins.  And of course the priests teach that it is good in the eyes of God to give alms to the poor.  

So, my friends helped me get to the temple every day, where I could sit and wait for people to drop their alms on my blanket. My spot was at the gate called Beautiful. Not that the other temple gates weren’t quite impressive, but this one was especially beautiful. It was adorned with such artistry and such fine materials – the master craftsmen had clearly put in their very best work.

You can imagine the juxtaposition between those stunning doors and my twisted, useless legs. It made for a profitable location, relatively speaking.  People were reminded how generous God was, how God would provide for them if they were to help provide for this poor, pitiful man on the blanket…

All I had to do was ask, to call out, reach out. And if people made eye contact, they would usually give.

When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.  Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.

I was not quite to my spot that day, still being carried, when I spotted the men. Something about them made me call out, even before I was settled.

Talk about eye contact. The one I came to know was Peter looked at me.  I mean LOOKED at me.  Not searching me with suspicion, but looking at me with something I’d rarely seen.

I looked over at the other man and saw the same thing. It was true compassion.
Not pity or sorrow.
Compassion.

By the time he said “Look at us” I was already looking, hard. Trying to figure out if I ought to know them. Trying to imagine why they would have any real concern for me when no one else ever had. Or at least not in a long time.

I don’t remember the guys putting me down or backing away. I just remember looking into those eyes.  And I know there was a crowd there, like always, but I don’t remember hearing another sound. Just this crazy command.  

But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”

Stand up and walk. Really?  Stand up on legs that hadn’t ever been able to hold me?

And in whose name? My mind went searching.

Jesus… Jesus of Nazareth…  Jesus of Nazareth??
The one that had been making so much trouble in the temple around passover?
The one they killed?

That Jesus?

But before I could protest, Peter was right there in front of me. Closer than any of the people that tossed coins at me would ever dare to come. As close as my friends who would come and lift me up to go home.

And Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

I had heard some of the stories about this Jesus being raised from the dead.

I don’t know how, but this Peter raised me up – in the name of that Jesus – and my legs came to life.

I held his hand for a few steps, just in case, but before long it was clear that I had been healed. Well and truly healed.

Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

Honestly, I had given up on being part of worship long ago. I had never imagined being part of a family or the community again.  I had mostly given up on the idea that my life mattered to God at all.  

Going through the gate, on my own two feet, entering the temple with these people, all of it was more than my heart could hold. I couldn’t help but cry out with joy, leaping and singing praises to God.

I remembered the story my father told me long ago- the story about King David when he brought back the ark.  He went singing and dancing in the streets ahead of the ark, so filled with joy that he didn’t care who saw him in his undergarments.  

That is the kind of elation I felt that day.  And I really didn’t care who saw.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted people to know what happened to me.
And WHO had made it happen.  

Maybe God was going to take all those years of sitting at the gate and put the waiting to use.

When people who had always known me as that guy who was sitting and begging at the Beautiful Gate recognized me, I got to tell my story again.
Yes, my story.
I HAVE a story!  

I have a story that bears witness to the power of God at work in the ones who believe in the Risen Christ.

All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

This man’s story would have been beautiful if one of the thousands of alms-givers before had uttered a prayer that God honored by healing him.    

Or if God had answered one of the many prayers his mother must have prayed over her child.

His story would have been beautiful if he had met and been healed by Jesus on one of the many trips He and the disciples made to the temple.

This man’s story is beautiful – not because of the gate near which he was healed – but because of the grace by which he was healed.

Peter and John saw him, spoke to him, touched him, healed him, and entered the temple alongside him, just as Jesus had done with so many others, so many times before. It was a beautiful thing.  

Then the beauty of this man’s heart was revealed in his worship, in his joyful praises.  

There are beautiful things, beautiful people, beautiful lives, all around us. And even inside each of us. The world would tell us not to look too closely for them, at least not out there at the edges, in those places where we toss broken relationships, where we lump together the hurting and the misunderstood, the situations and people that frighten us or threaten our comfort

The world would tell us that nothing can be done. Well… toss them a few scraps, perhaps, give them a few glances, a mumbled prayer.

Peter and John’s actions were so much more. They offered a tangible manifestation of God’s power
to make broken things whole,
to turn isolation into community,
to make visible those who are overlooked,
to make beautiful those things humanity would ignore or toss aside.

If we are to be witnesses in our Jerusalem, we must be willing to do likewise.

We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to send us,
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to speak healing words through us,
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to heal the ways we are lame and to resurrect our passions, hopes and dreams.
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to bring unexpected people through our doors.
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, our arms, and our hearts to truly welcome them.

You will receive power, Jesus said.
And you will be my witnesses.  

Why?  

Because beautiful things, beautiful people, a beautiful city and world await.

Ta-Dahh!

Primary Scripture Mark 16:1-8

I don’t know how high he was…

The arena we sat in was way bigger than any of the circus tents I’d seen in movies or photos. We were halfway up to the nosebleed section, and I still had to look up to see the top of the ladder the man had climbed. And there he stood on a tiny little platform suspended high above the net… the one that caught the trapeze artists as they had dropped through the air at the close of their act.

Except that, even as he took those first steps out onto the wire, long balancing pole in his hands, the net fell to the ground. He would be walking without the net.

My eight-year-old heart was beating so hard, I wondered how it didn’t shake the high wire. I don’t remember breathing while he walked all the way across and then back out to the middle, this time with a chair.

The music played to match his movement, slowing down and speeding up as he wobbled and straightened then finally sat down. On the chair. On the wire. All to applause and cymbals crashing.

Then he stood up, placed one hand on the back of the chair and one on the front edge of the seat, and then slowly, slowly raised himself into the most unbelievable handstand in the history of handstands. He held himself up there long enough for another round of applause, lowered himself, picked up the chair and walked over the the platform again.

It was at this point that he took a bow and raised his arms in exultation over his heads. The band knew this  was the signal to let loose with a loud and brassy… Ta-daah!  

That is the sound that goes off in my head every time I mark off one of the To-Dos on my list… Ta-dah! And when I get to the end of a big project or a milestone in an event-planning process, I have been known to engage in a little Ta-Dah! Pantomime near my desk.

That’s why it made complete sense to me when my mom told me a story recently about a little girl in the Presbyterian church she attended back in Texas. The pastor had called the children up for the Easter Sunday children’s sermon. He talked a bit about Easter Sunday then asked, “What do you think Jesus did first that day?”

Everyone was quiet. Then a little girl stood up, put her two hands up in the air and said in a sweet little voice, “Ta-daah!!”

To be honest, that’s pretty close to what I’ve always imagined happening sometime in the wee hours of the night. It had to be before dawn, given what we’re told in scriptures.

A breeze kicks up and ruffles the grass near the tomb. And as wind is wont to do, it finds the cracks between the tomb’s opening and its stone covering. The breeze grows stronger once inside, illogically and inexplicably stronger, strong enough to loosen and play with the cloth that bound the body of Jesus in his death.

This wind, this spirit of God that breathed life into dust in those very first days and into dry bones…

This pneuma fills the tomb with a force that overcomes darkness, overcomes hate, and overcomes death.
Once again, the Spirit heals
Once again, it brings wholeness
The Spirit reunites God the Creator with God the Son in the divine dance that had been interrupted for three days, three long days.

Then he stands. He stretches and looks at his hands… scratches his head…stretches again, and then he smiles.

Ta-dahh!!

Christ is Risen (He is risen indeed)

And don’t you even try and tell me this is not a perfect Ta Dahh!!! moment. In fact, up to this point, by my count, there had been three perfect Ta-Dahh! Moments…

When God spoke the universe into existence in that time before time and space before space.
Ta-dahh!

The day God created humans to be the divine image bearers in the world, pronouncing them very good.
Ta-dahh!

And the night that angelic songs echoed off the mountains to announce the arrival of the Christ child, Emmanuel.
Ta-dahh!

The moment at the tomb?  It cranked those perfect 10’s right on up to 11 on the Ta-dah! scale. Angels and archangels whooped with joy as God pointed proudly to the tomb, saying, “That’s my boy… Ta-dahh!”  

Ok… maybe that isn’t exactly how it went down.

In fact, what we read in Mark leads me to believe that the resurrection itself was a quiet event, mysterious and beyond anything most of us will experience this side of our own graves.  

That said, we ought not equate quiet with uneventful. The resurrection event really was a God-sized Ta-Dah! It marked off the biggest cosmic to-Do on the list.

It sealed the deal on our re-connection, the reconciliation of God and humankind. It revealed, in no uncertain terms, the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man.

In the resurrection, the one-man invasion force representing the Kingdom of God has declared once and for all, the power to which we cling in this realm cannot and will not stand against the power of God.

The teachings and rising popularity of Jesus led to what looked like a political uprising on Palm Sunday. When he didn’t back down during his week in the temple, the leaders there were as fearful as Pilate. His was a political death – Nailed to the cross as the King of the Jews.

But those who were alert, awake, open to the work of God around them, for them, God’s earthshaking,veil-tearing, sun-hiding power was revealed. All that Jesus had taught about these final days of his ministry came to pass, and the truth of his identity was made clear, even to the Roman centurion.

You see, as Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote, “The cross is not God’s justice: it’s our injustice, and God’s grace anyway. The cross is not Jesus’ sacrifice to God to pay for our sins. They’re not paid for: they’re forgiven. No payment is needed. Jesus’ sacrifice is not to God: God demands nothing. Jesus’ sacrifice is to us, to show us God’s forgiveness: that even in our evil God loves us and calls us to love. The cross is what it looks like when love meets fear. And it is love that saves us.

By the time Mary, and Mary, and Salome get to the tomb early on Easter morning, Jesus is already gone. They’ve been worried along the way that the large stone blocking the entrance to the tomb may be too much for them, that they might not be able to get in and anoint Jesus.

It turns out that their problem is exactly the opposite: they cannot anoint Jesus because his body is no longer lifeless, nor is it locked away behind a barrier; the stone is removed and he is alive and gone!

As reality sinks in, the empty tomb is both exhilarating and terrifying. And they enter completely foreign territory.

If he is really risen, they can’t – they don’t need to – anoint or mourn him. Instead they need to go, to tell the others. And then they need to go and meet him. Because he’s already on the way to Galilee.

This is SO not the way they expected the morning to go.

And yet, this is SO Jesus, turning expectations inside out and lives upside down.

The way Mark recalls and describes this morning, the emptiness of the tomb is not just evidence for the resurrection. Mark’s Jesus has work to do. Pressing work, the sort of work that means leaving someone else behind to remind his sleepy, forgetful, and frightened disciples that they have work to do as well. Jesus had already told them that after he was raised up, he would go ahead of them to Galilee.

The young man in white reminds the women of this scheduled rendezvous. He reminds them of Jesus’ promise to meet them on the way. On the way back to where this whole story started– Galilee.

Even as they attempt to process the end of the story, which isn’t an end at all, the women are to tell the others it’s time to go back to the beginning. Or at least to the place where it all began, all the healing and teaching, all the confusion and frustration.

But with one difference – this time, they have the advantage we have after reading the story year after year. They know now how it ends…
Not with death, but with life
Not with the cry of the forsaken, but with a Ta-dah! that will reverberate across the ages, reminding us that God’s love is more powerful than death,
that God’s Kingdom is indeed here, and
that God is not finished with our story, any more than God was finished with the women and men who followed Jesus.

They would no longer be spectators or witnesses to the work of someone they loved and trusted.  They would now bear witness to that work, and they would do the work, bringing the Kingdom of God near by serving and loving others, just as Christ had loved and served.

And so they shout Christ is Risen!  (He is risen, indeed)
Our story didn’t end at the cross. Imperfect justice is not the last word on humanity’s capacity for torture and violence.

Christ is risen!  (He is risen, indeed)
Our story didn’t end at the tomb. Perfect love has written a story of grace that fills a grave to overflowing, so that that darkness, hate and fear cannot overcome the light and life of the world.

Christ is Risen!! He is risen, indeed!
Alleluia!!  Amen!!
And all God’s children raise their hands and dance and shout Ta-Dahh!!