Eternal Possibilities

April 16, 2017           Easter Sunday

Romans: 6:3-11           Matthew: 28:1-10

There is a wonderfully crazy movie, called Big Fish. It tells the life story of Edward Bloom, who puts himself into strange and unusual situations, which result in marvelous, improbable adventures.   His life of adventure starts in Alabama, when he is a ten-year old boy, and he goes with his two friends one night to a spooky old mansion, which is supposedly inhabited by an old woman who is a witch. The local legend says that she has a glass eye and that if you look into it you will see how you are going to die. Edward goes inside the house, finds the old woman, who is wearing an eye patch, and asks her to politely come outside. Outside the other two boys demand that she show them her glass eye. She pulls up her eye patch and both of them look into it, see their deaths, and promptly run away in fear. Edward then says to the woman, “I was thinking about death and all. About how seeing how you’re gonna die. I mean on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up. But it could kind of help you, couldn’t it? Because you’d know that everything else you can survive.”  She then allows him to look in her eye, to which he says, “So, that’s how it’s supposed to happen.” From then on when he does something that’s too dangerous and people warn him that he might get killed he says, “I know how I’m going to die. This is not how it’s going to happen.”

The main character ends up living a full life of love and adventure without fear – all because he knew what his own ending was going to be.

I think that was, in some measure, what Jesus experienced during his ministry. Several times in the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen to him – that he is going to be falsely accused, put on trial, be put to death, and then rise on the third day. The disciples were pretty much in denial about this. Peter, the guy who is always in denial, openly contradicts Jesus and says, “This never shall happen to you.” But Jesus knows where he is going to end up, so until then he openly walks all over the Roman-Palestine territory and fearlessly preaches and heals in God’s name. I am not saying that Jesus was without fear. We can see that in the Garden of Gethsemane he is terribly afraid of what is coming.   But he still, despite this fear, puts his trust in God to get him through it. And his trust was rested on the fact that even though he was going to have a horrible death, he also knew that, on the other side of it, he had life eternal.

On the other side of that horrible death was Christ’s resurrection. The final proof of the assurances that we have from God: The assurance that God reaches down and participates in this world that we live in; the assurance that we are forgiven for our sins; the assurance that there is eternal life that stretches beyond our death; the assurance that we participate now in that eternal life; the assurance that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

That’s a lot of assurance, and a lot to celebrate.

Unlike the movie Big Fish we are not told how we are going to die. After I saw the movie, I wondered if I would be like Edward and live without fear if I knew what my ending was. But then I realized that knowing how I am going to die is not the only way to take away the fear of dying. Having faith and certainty in the Christian Knowing that you really aren’t going to die, and that you are guaranteed to continue on into another life is actually a more powerful knowledge to live fearlessly.

Edward in Big Fish had a lot of adventures, touched a lot of people, and made a lot of friends along the way. But a lot of the good that came out of his life was incidental to the story. Although he made the most of his opportunities, a lot of them were simply chance encounters.

What would our lives be like if we lived a fearless intentionality in the Grace of God’s Assurances that we receive through Christ’s resurrection?

Let’s start with the assurance that God reaches into and participates in this world. This means that there is an active connection between all of us and God, and that you are also allowed to participate in that connection. When you intentionally decide what you want to do, and decide that you are going to be the best person you can be while doing it, you can ask God to help you in your process. You can say in prayer: God, I want to be a better parent, or a better co-worker, or a better student, or teacher, or nurse, or doctor. This is my objective, this is how I’m planning to do it, but give me guidance to chart my course; help me to see my errors and correct them; and show me how to use my work to further your love in the world.

God is a great partner to work with in life because He isn’t a control-freak manager. God is the type of manager who says: Hey, you got talent, you got skills, if this is a project that you’re interested in doing, go ahead and see how it works. If you need help I’m here for you – just ask. As long as you’re working on Building the Kingdom then go for it.

But of course, though we often start with good intentions, we can get caught up in our doubts and say: Well, what if I do something wrong? What if I really mess up? Well, that’s when the second assurance kicks in – that we are forgiven for our sins, those Systemic or Spontaneous Inflictions of Negativity.

Because of Jesus we have the assurance that God is with us now and forever, and that our mess-ups are forgiven now and forever, as long as we stay connected to God and try to work to correct them. You know those actions in your life that you don’t want other people to know about because you’re afraid that they’ll stop liking or loving you?  Well, God isn’t one of those people. You can go to God and admit your mistakes, and He’s not going to sit there and lecture you for an hour on what you already know you did wrong. Instead what He’s going to tell you is: I still love you and I will give you the strength to live with this, and the guidance to show you how to make it right. God is not interested in fixing things by wiping the slate clean so that everything returns to the past – God is interested in making things right so that we can live with what has happened to us in the future.

But you know sometimes we really get discouraged and wonder if all this effort is really worth it. We can feel like: we’re born, we live, we die. I’m just one person living up here in the Northwest corner of Connecticut.  What does anything I do matter?

Remember that assurance of eternal life that stretches beyond our death? This is where the resurrection is proof to your faith that there is SOMETHING beyond what we do here and now. We are not given to know exactly what it is.   But I think we are not given to know that because it would completely short out all the circuits in our psyches. Think about it – if you took a person from the first century and put them in the middle of Times Square they would freak out and immediately go insane – they just wouldn’t be ready for it, or able to process it. It would be the same for us if we knew everything on the other-side. It would be too much information and we would freak out completely.

We have been given what we need to know. And what we know from Christ’s resurrection is that there is continuance of life after death, and that our faith is going to enable us to make the crossing into that life, and what we do here is not wasted but continues on in this life after we are gone, and is probably carried over by us into the life eternal. But we are actually participating in that eternal life right now.   Eternal life means: Life all through time. Our past is eternal life, our present is eternal life, and death is only a point between the continuance of life in this place, to the continuance of eternal life in the next place.

But also, the fact that Jesus came back and walked with his disciples for another 40 days means that the current flows both ways. And if the current flows both ways with Christ: The final assurance is that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven: Meaning that while we are moving from earth to heaven, God is moving from heaven to earth.

You are given endless possibilities in this life: Many different ways to be in life, many different ways to live in life, many different ways to take action in life. But remember they are all of them eternal possibilities, because you are living a life eternal right here, right now, with Jesus Christ’s love, God’s Glory, and the untiring and joyful working of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection doesn’t happen just at Easter. The resurrection happens to you everyday when you wake up and say: I will intentionally live the eternal life that God gave to me. God forth and live it fearlessly with the eternal love that Christ gave to you in your heart. Go forth and live in fearlessly in the eternal glory of God.

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Healing Our Separation from Eternal Life

April 2, 2017              5th Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1–14         Romans 8:6–11           John 11:1–45

This Lent we have been talking about repairing the brokenness in our lives and today finally we come to our separation from Eternal Life. I think it is the hardest to preach on because it involves something that we don’t usually like to talk about in our 20th century – the subject of death.

There is something interesting that I’ve noticed about the subject of death: Younger people today seem to have more despair attached to this subject. Separation from our loved ones through death is always hard but I think that since our average life span has increased this has resulted in many people not facing death at an early age. Today, if death is faced when you are young, it is usually as a tragic accident, rather than as something that is attached to all of us that we go through as part of the natural process of living. I have talked to a lot of people in their late 20’s and early 30’s, who have lost someone who is significant to them for the first time, and they just don’t know how to think of it or handle it. When you come face-to-face with another person’s mortality your own mortality becomes real. And you start to question: What is the purpose of all this life if it is just going to go away?

I think that death is especially hard if you have no religious background or upbringing.

No matter what the atheists argue about the lack of proof of God and the afterlife; the worthlessness of the concept of God and the afterlife; or even the political argument that religion, God, and the promise of the afterlife, are just political tools to placate the masses; if you believe that there is something beyond your physical life then you have a stronger hope of a meaning in your life and less despair that your life will amount to nothing. The people I’ve talked to, who don’t think there is anything, have less hope and more despair for themselves when they come up against the heavy loss of someone they love.

In Jesus’ time, death was a heavy, daily fact of life. Half of all children born didn’t live to be past 5; 50% of adult males died before they were 35; 50% of adult women died in childbirth; the rest, male and female, could expect to live into their 60’s, if they stayed healthy. Life as a state of being was far more precarious than it is now – and as a result I think much more precious and more concentrated an experience.

Lazarus’ death is probably the most famous story of Christ’s reviving someone from the dead. Not just because it’s the longest and most descriptive of these stories but also because it is the most intimate of them. The Bethany family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus appears many times in the Gospel. Their home was a place where Jesus stayed often, and we know from Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ interactions with the siblings that he truly cared for all of them, as if they were his family.

Martha’s conversation with Jesus about her brother’s death reveals some of this intimacy.   It is very apparent that Martha is familiar with Jesus’ power and ability to work miracles when she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” From this phrase we don’t know what Martha wants Jesus to do for Lazarus. Does she want Jesus to resurrect Lazarus or does she want the assurance that Lazarus will be a part of God’s Kingdom?

Jesus replies: “Your brother will rise again,” and Martha replies: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Readers in the 1st century would have understood that Martha believed in a prominent philosophy about the afterlife: That if you were a good person and you really tried to do your best, that when you died your soul would hang out in a stasis mode, and when God remade the world into a more perfect place, then you would be reborn and live again.   Another belief was that we don’t live on in an afterlife. You get one shot and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things.   And yet another school stipulated that there was an afterlife for really righteous people, but, as I have mentioned before, no one could really decide when good enough was good enough.

But Jesus came to bring a different viewpoint. No more of only this life, or never knowing if you are the best, or waiting until God is ready. Jesus came to connect us to God’s eternal life that is happening right now. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Martha answers yes, and Jesus goes to the tomb, where he prays: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” It is interesting to note that before Jesus even arrived at Bethany he had commented to his disciples: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

            The operating word here is BELIEVE. In the Gospel of John he is continually asking and telling his disciples to believe in Eternal Life: Not the fact that our souls stop living, or that only some selected souls will continue to live; or that eventually we will be able to live again – but that: We don’t stop living. In the belief system of Christ, “death” is not final. It is only a point between giving up the bodies that we inhabit for the conditions of the next life that is waiting for us. But we need to believe in order to participate in this new phenomenon of Eternal Life that Christ is offering to us. If we do not believe that Jesus is who he is, and has come to teach us about God’s love and the promise of Eternal Life, then it is just not going to happen to us.

Once an atheist pooh-poohed my beliefs about life after death. I told him that at least I was prepared. If I die and there is nothing, I won’t have any worries because I won’t even be there to know that I was wrong. But if he dies and finds out that I’m right – well, he’s going to have a lot of adjusting to do.

But what does Eternal Life get us? What is so important about it that Jesus is constantly preaching about it and proving its existence by bringing other people back to life and finally by bringing himself back to life? And why was it so important that it be available to everyone who believes?

First of all, it qualifies that life has meaning beyond just what we do within the inhabitation of this body.  Remember the philosophy that you only live once, get one shot, and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things? Well, this takes away the importance of proving that you are good person by acquiring good things. It takes away the importance of physical perfection and puts the emphasis on working towards a strong spiritual perfection of belief.

It also expands the inclusion of an afterlife from really righteous people into all people who are trying their best to be righteous. Remember one of Christ’s stipulations is not that you are righteous in rules, but that you are righteous in trying to live as a person who is healing yourself and others in kindness and love. No one is ever “good enough” but rather we are forgiven for not being “good enough” if we try to live as Christ wishes us to live.

Finally if you are a good person then your reward of eternal life is assured – you don’t have to wait in some sort of stasis mode. You are going to continue to participate in God’s love, the creation of God’s kingdom, and the renewing of the world.

And finally there is no separation from our loved ones. If Lazarus, the widow’s son, and the official’s daughter, and Jesus can come back from the other side, then the line between this world and the eternal one is pretty thin and the connections pretty strong.

The miracles of those resurrections were the proof positive that Jesus gave to us to allow us to begin to believe. We believe that the impossible can become possible. When we believe in eternal life, we believe in eternal hope and endless possibilities within God’s working love.

We believe that we are actually participating in eternal life with the life we are living in now, because this life is going to continue into eternity. So never feel that you are separated from your loved ones who are living the life eternal, because our lives are all one with Jesus Christ.

 

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Healing Our Unbelief

March 26, 2017                      4th Sunday in Easter

1 Samuel 16:1–13        Ephesians 5:8–14        John 9:1–41

Jesus and his disciples are walking along outside the walls of Jerusalem when they see a man who has been blind from birth and they ask Jesus if the man was born blind because of his own sin or because of his parent’s sin.

When I first started to read the Bible, as opposed to Bible stories, I would be trotting along in the narrative and all of a sudden I would read something that would make me go, “SAY WHAT?” I mean, to me the question doesn’t make sense. I get how someone might think that God would punish a couple who had been bad by giving them a blind baby – I don’t agree with it, but I get the logic. But how could a baby be born blind because of something the baby did? The baby wasn’t even born – he didn’t have a chance to do anything wrong.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that while the Jewish tradition doesn’t believe in reincarnation, that apparently it was an eastern concept and a theology about eternal life that was being debated in the 1st century. So this question is probably alluding to that. But Jesus doesn’t get into the reincarnation debate, in fact he doesn’t even get into the debate about the parent’s sins, he just says that the man was born so that God’s work might be revealed in him.         

Wow! That is a profound testimony to lay on anyone: That a person was born with the purpose of revealing God’s glory. And the blind man does reveal God’s glory. Jesus takes him to one side, spits on some dirt, rubs it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Now apparently many pilgrims used to wash themselves in the pool as a way of cleansing themselves before they stepped into what was considered to be their Holy City. So the blind man is actually preforming an act of ritual cleansing. And the scripture tells us that the man was then able to see.

Pretty much like every other miracle healing in our Gospels. But unlike the other healing stories where the person is healed and we move onto the next adventure of Jesus, this is when the drama really starts.

Now it doesn’t mention this in the story, but I can imagine that the ex-blind man was elated and that he meant to go straight home and tell his parents what had happened to him. But I am sure that he was wondering around in a sensory overload daze looking at everything, and of course he is going to encounter his neighbors.

Now the neighbors have, what I consider to be, a typical reaction: Oh, my God. You’re the kid who was blind what happened to you?  And then other neighbors, who maybe didn’t know him as well said: No, that’s not him. Because of course, this kid has been blind from birth, and now he can see, and this doesn’t normally happen. So let’s give the neighbors their moment of denial because I know that I would have questioned it: Is that him? It looks like him, but he was born blind. So it can’t be him, because these things don’t happen. But it looks like him. Are you him?

This is the first type of unbelief that happens in this story. When we encounter something that is so outside our realm of experience that we just can’t grasp it, and we are torn between denying that it actually happened, and accepting that it is true. And that’s what the neighbor’s do – they don’t believe it happened but they do ask him: How did you get your sight?

The problems is, not only is the event outside the realm of experience and hard to grasp, but so is the answer. The ex-blind man says that Jesus made mud, put it on his eyes, told him to wash in the pool, and now he could see.

The neighbors have gotten an explanation, but they don’t understand the explanation; they need some more concrete proof so they ask the ex-blind man: Where’s this guy who did this to you? And he answers quite truthfully: I don’t know!

Well, that isn’t going to help them understand, so they take the ex-blind man to the wisest authorities that they know – the local Pharisees. Unbelief reaction number two: I don’t understand something so I’m going to ask an authority and find out what’s really happening. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do. Other times, as our unfolding story illustrates, it’s not a good thing to do.

The Pharisee’s question the ex-blind man, who tells them his story. Immediately they start a debate as to whether this is a bad miracle, because it was performed on the Sabbath (Even Holy men aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath) or a good miracle, because the man was healed and evil people can’t perform miracles of healing. Unbelief reaction number three: instead of accepting that something has happened, even if it is a good thing, debate the validity of it; because if you can disprove it, then it’s not real. The Pharisees tried to disprove the validity or that it had even happened by questioning the ex-blind man, and then calling in his parents.

How do you think his parents felt? They were probably overjoyed that their son was healed but they were probably terrified that he was going to be stoned or banished because he’s someone who has been healed by a possible evil prophet. Unbelief reaction number four: make people afraid of the unusual thing that has happened, that you can’t explain or control, even if it’s a good thing. Then you don’t have to deal with it.

In the end the ex-blind man sticks to what HE knows. He was blind, Jesus healed him, this is a good thing, bad prophets can’t heal, so Jesus must be a good prophet sent by God. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.

In the end the ex-blind man was condemned by the Pharisees. Unbelief reaction number five: Completely condemn that which you do not know, understand, or can control.

But afterwards the ex-blind man goes to Jesus and accepts that Jesus is the Messiah. Probably a lot of people condemned or avoided him from that point on, but he believes, because he knows what he experienced. He is not swayed by the improbability of the experience, the unconventionality of the experience, the validity of it, or of the possibility that he will ostracized because of his beliefs. He knows what he knows.

But I get the unbelief of the crowd, the Pharisees, and his parents. I carry unbelief with me everyday both in things I learn, but more importantly in my personal belief in how God is working in my life. Because really that’s what the denial in the story is about – the unbelief that God can actually work miracles in our lives.

The underlying condition of the blind man is not that he is blind but that he is unaware and blind to the fact that he has been born so that God’s work might be revealed in him. The underlying condition of all of us is that we have been born so that God’s work might be revealed in us, and we are blind to it because of our unbelief.

How many times, when I have been shown my potential of doing good in God’s name have I not believed that I was capable because I just can’t grasp the notion of my potential and I don’t want to try to verify and accept that I can be an instrument of God’s glory? How many times have I hid behind trying to verify what I can do rather than just doing it?   How many times when I do verify that could possibly do something do I hide behind authority – I can’t do that – I’m not qualified.   How many times have I made myself afraid and not moved forward by scaring myself with all the things that could go wrong, and all the ways I could mess up? How many times have I condemned the possibility that God could work in me by saying: It just can’t be possible, or I am not worthy enough.

I am like the boy’s father, whose son was possessed by a demon, and he begs Jesus to heal his son, if Jesus is able to. And Jesus says, All things can be done for those who believe. And the father says: I believe. Help my unbelief.

Unbelief comes to us as denial, the uncertainty of validity, the authority that says otherwise, the trap of over debating the existence, and the condemning what we do not understand. We keep ourselves blind, but still Jesus is telling us to wash our eyes with the Holy Spirit and see how God’s will is being done in this world. Jesus is inviting us to participate in that will. All of us can when we say, like the ex-blind man, Lord, I believe.

When we open our hearts to the belief in God’s power and Holy Spirit then we will fulfill the destiny that we are all born with, and God’s glory, through our love, will be revealed in each of us, in His world. And then we will become children of light, walking in Christ’s love

 

 

 

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Healing our Broken Relationships

March 19, 2017          3rd Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:1–7            Romans 5:1–11           John 4:5–42

Relationships are key in Judeo-Christianity. From Judaism the first commandment is to love God with all our being and the second is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Although the Hebrews believed those two commandments to be the cornerstone of their faith, they weren’t very good about honoring them when it came to people outside of their faith.

After Jesus has a discussion with Nicodemus about being born again in the spirit Jesus hit the road with his disciples and started bringing his ministry into the wider world.

The first place that he takes his message to is Samaria. Now I am sure that Jesus’ disciples thought he was nuts to go through Samaria since respectable Jewish people did not set foot in Samaria. The Samarians were descendants of the people who had been left behind when the Babylonians took over the Judea-Israel territory and shipped off all the middle and upper class people to Babylon and transplanted people from other nations into the territory. Many of the remaining Jewish people intermarried with those other people. When the elite returned a few generations later they were horrified that those lower-class uneducated people had disrupted the purity of the Jewish bloodline. Basically they exiled them to the area that was Samaria.

If you look at the map of Israel you have the river Jordon to the East, with the Sea of Galilee at the north end of the river and the Dead Sea at the south end. Between those two seas, imagine the area between the Jordon River and the Mediterranean. In the middle of that is rocky mountainous terrain, with some valleys. That is Samaria. The people who wouldn’t follow the purity laws were basically shipped off to the reservation and told that they had to survive in that very difficult environment.

I spoke a few months ago about the fact that Jesus was from Galilee and that many Jews looked down their noses at them because they felt that Galileans were uneducated and provincial. Well, the Samarians were even lower on the social scale. Most Jews didn’t even consider them to be Jewish even though the Samarians took great pride in following the Laws of Moses and believed that they were descendants of Jacob and Abraham.

I can imagine that the disciples must have voiced some opinions at Jesus’ travel plans: Hey, Jesus, you know we are upright Jewish men and we don’t want to travel through THOSE people’s land.   And I’m sure Jesus was like: Hey, you don’t want to come, don’t come. But that’s where I’m going.

            And the first person he talks to is a woman. Men aren’t supposed to talk to women, but he talks to her anyway. Not only that but she is a sinful woman who is living out of wedlock with someone, and she’s had five previous husbands. Not only that but he has asked her to give him a drink of water. This doesn’t sound like much, but a Jewish person would consider this to be a breaking of the kosher food laws – tantamount to accepting food from a Gentile.

This is the first demonstration of Jesus breaking the boundaries of who an acceptable human being is and expanding the idea of who our neighbor is. Not only that but this is the first relational-healing story in this Gospel.

It is significant that there is a three level healing of the Samaritan woman. First of all, Jesus gives affirmation to the woman about herself and her goodness in relationship to God. When he tells her that he is offering her the water of eternal life, he is telling her that she is connected to God and worthy of that connection. But when she says: I want to drink that water, Jesus then tells her to bring her husband.

Now can you imagine what a shameful blow it must have been to her to have to tell Jesus that she had been married five times and was living with a sixth man. Here she was having this nice conversation, with a holy man, just like a “good” person, and she has to reveal that she is a “bad” woman. All she manages to say is, “I have no husband.”

But instead of brushing her away or dismissing her Jesus tells her: Yeah, I already knew that. In fact I know about all the other men.   Now she knows that Jesus is a prophet – but he is still talking to her – as if she’s a person of worth. In fact, he knew who she was BEFORE he stared talking to her and still he talked to her. This is the second way Jesus heals her – by giving her validation to herself.

Then Jesus says that soon everyone will be able to worship God anywhere, and that God will accept anyone who worships him in the Spirit of truth. The woman runs and tells her neighbors to come and meet Jesus. Now we might not think that is a big deal – but a woman of her reputation would not have been accepted by the general population of the town. The fact that the people of the town listen to her when she says that this Holy Man Jesus, might be the Messiah, and go to check him out, shows that there is a third healing taking place between this woman and her neighbors.

In this story this socially outcast woman is restored to a relationship with God, a relationship with herself, and to relationships with her neighbors.

But that’s what we all need: To be healed in our relationship with God, or our relationship with ourselves, or we need healing in our relationships with our neighbors.

I would venture to guess that the majority of the gaps and rents in our souls have to do with our relationship with God, ourselves, or the people we relate to. It’s difficult when we hurt ourselves or others to get beyond the pain and guilt to healing and restoration. Often we feel so badly that we think that we can’t repair our relationships enough to bring about healing.   But in this story there are a few clues that can help us begin that healing, and it centers on the third commandment that Christ gave to us which is: Love each other as I have loved you.

When you feel the pain of your hurt, whether it is a hurt from another person or a hurt from your own feelings of guilt and worthlessness, the first thing to remember is that Jesus came to and for you, and is available to talk to you, no matter who you are. The Samaritan woman needed to validate her own worth. Jesus gave that to her by treating to her with dignity and respect. Yes, he acknowledged that she hadn’t led a perfect life, but that didn’t take away her worth as a child of God. Jesus spoke directly to her soul, not to her circumstances.

It’s hard to when someone has hurt you to speak to their soul and not to the circumstances that hurt you, but that is what we need to try to do, and the way to do that is to invite Christ into the process with us. We can ask Christ to help us seek the understanding of the other person’s pain and then forgive the circumstances that drive them to do what they do. This doesn’t mean that we excuse or allow destructive or negative behavior. But it does mean that we seek to understand so that we can prevent destructive or negative behavior in the future.

Also we need to speak honestly to our own souls about our pain and circumstances. We need to speak the truth to Christ of what our pain is and how it affects us, because that honesty allows us to open up all our pain and allows complete healing. Christ demonstrated that he already knew the completeness of the Samaritan woman’s shame, and yet he still offered her salvation. Because she was willing to live in the truth he was able to heal her completely.   Christ knows the completeness of your pain, and if you offer it to him in honesty and truth he can help to heal you.

The Samaritan Woman is so transformed by her new validity and healing that she becomes a witness to Christ. She brings the other people of the town to meet him, declaring that Jesus could be the Messiah. After two days of staying in the town the people say to her: It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.  You have to wonder how many other relationships Jesus healed while he was there. But we know that many people at the end of those two days were relating to the Samaritan Woman’s soul and not her circumstances. For her the healing was complete and I am sure that she went on to do great things in her town because of her healing.

All of us can transform if we are willing to open ourselves up to Christ in the Spirit of truth. Christ already knows who you are – He just wants to have an honest conversation with you about your pain. Go ahead tell him about what needs to be healed in your relationships. He’s waiting by the well to fill you with the living water of His spirit.

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Healing Our Brokenness in Spirit

March 12, 2017          2nd Sunday in Lent

Gen 12:1–4a               Romans 4:1–5, 13–17             John 3:1–17

People really like rules. I know sometimes we say we don’t, but actually people are really good at making up rules for themselves and other people to live by. It’s not really a bad thing because it’s how we live together and get things done effectively. But sometimes rules can get sticky, especially when we deal with things that we aren’t sure of, like what happens after we die.

In the first century there were several schools of life, death, and life after death, and they all had their own rules. One school said that we are born, live, and die, but that we don’t live on in an afterlife. Instead, God rewards you if you are a good person in this life.   You can see that this would be a huge motivation for someone to live a righteous life because it meant that you were going to have your reward during your life. However, even if someone lived a righteous life but they were unlucky and had their house burn down, or got a deadly disease, it meant that in reality they were a bad person because God must be punishing them.

Another school stipulated that there was an afterlife for really righteous people. If you kept as many of the Hebrew laws as you could, didn’t commit any horrible sins, and followed the rituals of sacrifice for whatever sins you committed, then you would go and live with God and the prophets in heaven. The problem was no one could really decide when good enough was good enough. I can imagine that the Pharisees, who were some of the main followers of this philosophy, must have been very stressed at times trying to get everything right and never knowing if it was right enough. And most poor people couldn’t follow all the rules perfectly – so where did that leave them?

Yet another school said that if you were a good person and you really tried to do the best you could, that when you died your soul would sort hang out in a stasis mode, and when God remade the world into a more perfect place, then you would be reborn and live again. This was more inclusive but a bit discouraging because no one knew when the world was going to be remade.

The debate was raging in the 1st century: Is there life after death, and if there is – what are the qualifications to get to it, and how does it happen?

Then in the middle of all of this comes Jesus and starts to preach about God’s Kingdom and our connection to God. After a while the religious authorities start hearing about him, and I am sure that Nicodemus might have been sent to check out Jesus and his theology. It’s interesting that Nicodemus kind of eases himself into the conversation when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

But Jesus just cuts to the chase and right away talks about being born again. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Jesus is definitely in the rebirth camp – but he’s quantifying it as being born from above, so that the presence of God is involved. And although Nicodemus tries to qualify being born as only happening as a flesh and blood event, Jesus puts the rebirth of the spirit as a pre-requisite for participating in the kingdom of God. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Jesus is putting in a new step into the process of a person being able to participate in heaven, the event of having their Spirit being reborn. And he connects the process to believing and accepting the Messiah: so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

This pretty radical if you consider that all the other philosophies centered on people obeying the Hebrew Laws for the soul to have eternal life. Jesus is saying that it is the conscious waking of the person’s soul into the awareness of their condition with God that is the beginning of their new life into eternity.

Jesus put an emphasis on this awakening for the same reason that the traditionalists put their emphasis on following the Hebrew Laws: The fact that we are separated from God and that somehow we must repair that relationship and get back to a fuller relationship with God. The traditionalists felt that if we could only act correctly then we would be rewarded by God, and maintain our connection to Him, maybe to the point of obtaining eternal life. But Jesus says that we connect to God by becoming aware of our own soul that resides in God’s Spirit. Following the Law helps as a road map, but to travel the road to eternal life you need to be aware of your soul’s relationship to God. Once you have your relationship with God you begin to step into eternal life.

The problem main problem with our soul connection to God is that it can be broken. But what does brokenness mean? If I take a pencil and break it in half, or I break a dish or a glass, I separate different parts of it from each other so that it is no longer whole and functioning.

And our spirit, or our souls, can be broken or separated from God in many ways.

First of all we live in a material existence and it’s sometimes really hard to break out of the material and be aware of the spiritual of any situation that we are in. We are after all flesh and blood beings subject to the demands of our bodies. Often tiredness, for example, makes us short tempered and we say or do things that are hurtful to others. Or perhaps our tiredness is created by us pushing ourselves too hard and causing us to get sick in the process.

But often our physical being is tied to our emotions. We desire to feel good and avoid pain both physically and mentally. When we have been hurt it isn’t unusual for us to want to spend money, or do something that will make us feel good. But if we hurt ourselves or others instead of nurturing ourselves and others, or cause or participate in destruction rather than building up and renewal, then we have to live with the pain of knowing that we have caused heartache to others.

The brokenness of a person’s soul is often not a complete break, but many of us walk around with gaps or slashes in our souls of past hurts done to us, or guilt of pain that we have caused others. How do we mend those broken pieces or tears so that we feel repaired and we can get back into a healthier relationship with ourselves and God?

Well, first of all recognize that you ARE in a relationship with God. You might feel that you have a couple of pieces missing in your soul, but your soul, battered though it is, is still in that relationship with the divine. Look, if I get mad at my friend we are still in a relationship. It might be off the rails, we might need repair, but we are still in a relationship, and we can still affect repairs. It’s the same with God.

There is nothing wrong with going to God and saying: Excuse me Jesus, but I have a really nasty gash in my soul that needs repairing. This is what has happened and I need some soul repairing. Please show me how I can be repaired and help me through this. I am giving all my pain up to you so that you can help me heal and I can feel whole again.

Praying and giving your soul’s pain to God is the first step to repair. The second step is listening to what He tells you to do and then doing it. I remember personally carrying around a lot of resentment about my Japanese husband when our marriage fell apart. I couldn’t think about him without resentment, which didn’t help because we had two kids so we had to communicate. Finally, I decided that I needed to repair this nasty part of my soul. I prayed about it and the message I got, from various points of the universe, was that I had to forgive him. I didn’t want to do that, but the next Sunday I went to church and the scripture was the one that says you have to forgive someone seven times seventy times, or 490 times. (Ouch! Talk about God wacking you right between the eyes.) I bit the bullet and wrote down 49 times all the things that I was willing to forgive him for. Do you know what? I forgave him and all the resentment went away.

I’ve got other injuries that I’m working on but at least that part is mended. Is my soul completely mended and functioning? Nope, but I know that I’m connected to God, and working on being aware of God and what He’s doing in my life.

And that’s all Jesus and God really require us to do – work on our souls with them. They know that we are not perfect, they know that our souls have pieces of pain, frustration, and agony. But Jesus came here to help us mend all that. And as we work on the mending we will keep on with the process of being born into a new life. A life that’s eternal because it is always connected with God.

So give to God and Jesus the brokenness of your Spirit and let them work in you their Holy Spirit of Grace. Let them work in you, and show you, how you can touch eternity.

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Healing the Brokenness of our Lives

March 5, 2017            1st Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7          Romans 5:12–19         Matthew 4:1–11

There is an interesting show on the Weather Channel called Fat Guys in the Woods. On the show the host, survival expert Creek Stewart (Yes, that’s his real name) takes three overweight guys, who basically lead couch-potato existences in their free time, out into the woods for a week, and trains them to survive with nothing but a knife. During that time they learn how to build a shelter, start a fire, and hunt and forage for food and water. On the final day they have to spend twenty-four hours alone in the woods doing all the things they have learned. Of course, Creek checks up on them to make sure that they are doing all right. Then they debrief about how the experience has changed them.

I started watching this show because I like camping. I grew up in a family that camped regularly; I was a first class girl scout (the equivalent of Eagle Scout); and I’ve read a couple of manuals on surviving in the wilderness. Plus I’ve listened to my father’s stories of his survival training in the military. I’d LIKE to think that if I was dropped down into the woods that I would be able to figure out how to make it through a week.

But as I watched the show a couple of times I realized that there was another common thread among the three guys who were trying to survive. All of them had lives that were somehow broken. Some of them had lost jobs and had given up trying to find work. Some of them had lost family members that were dear to them. Some of them had gotten caught up in the rat race to the point were all they did was work, eat, watch some TV, and then sleep. But all of them were unhappy with the way their lives had turned out and they were looking for a way to reconnect into a healthier state of being.

All of us have parts of our own lives that are broken. Now this doesn’t mean that we can’t live and work and have productive lives. But if we participate in life we are going to make mistakes. We are going to end up hurting people or we are going to end up being hurt. We all of us have free will without total knowledge – and that leads to us making choices that might not be the best one, no matter how well intentioned we might be. And that’s just on a personal level.

Sometimes I do not want to watch the news because I don’t want to see a broken world around me. On the news I see people whose world has been broken by natural disasters. I see people in the middle of war whose world has been broken by people who want power and control. I see people who are struggling economically who are broken by a lack of hope. I see people stricken suddenly by disease whose world is broken by future uncertainty.

Although I don’t personally participate in alcohol or substance abuse there is a part of me that understands why people get caught up in it – sometimes life is just so overwhelming, and broken, and hurtful that you feel you need to do something to feel better about it. It makes some sort of sense to give yourself a good feeling buzz with a drink, or a video game, or food (like chocolate cake) or just closing yourself up in your house and watching TV all day.

Or maybe you’re like the fat guys in the woods, who just participate in life enough to live, but not enough to keep healthy and end up being couch potatoes. If you stay on your couch nothing will happen to you, right? Well, they found themselves to be miserable anyway and ended up in a survival course on a TV show looking for a way out of that existence.

If you think about it, those fat guys put themselves through a modern day journey in the wilderness in search of a connection to themselves and something bigger than they were. Even though they probably wouldn’t call it that – they were living a Lenten journey.

Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and fasted during that time. This reflected the journey that the Israelites took when they fled from Egypt and traveled in the wilderness for 40 years. So it became a tradition for Jewish people who were following a religious path to go into the wilderness and fast for 40 days and nights.

Like the guys who go into the woods, the purpose of those who traveled 40 days in the wilderness was to simplify your life to your basic components. You got rid of the distractions of work, family, society and it’s expectations. The only thing you can’t get away from is yourself and your mistakes because the only person there is yourself and your mistakes. Out there in the wilderness you have no one to talk to but yourself and God. And the idea is to examine your life and ask God where you are going with it.

But Jesus, of all people, must have already had a spiritual discipline before he was baptized by John. I suspect that some of the reason why he went into the wilderness was to satisfy the social expectation that people had of a holy man. But that wasn’t Jesus’ reason for going into the wilderness. The Spirit drove him, not social expectations.

Jesus, unlike the fat guys in the woods, wasn’t broken. But he lived in a broken world.

He lived in an occupied country. He lived along side a population that was 80% in poverty with no way of changing their circumstances. There was intense discrimination of class, and race. Life expectancy was low and there were diseases that could come out of nowhere and kill you. The religious politics of the time had intense fractions that were in conflict with each other. Life was very uncertain, in many ways more uncertain than our lives now.

And Jesus was sent to the middle of it all to save the world. How on earth do you save all that? How do you heal the brokenness? You do it by healing one soul at a time. But first Jesus had to go and find the breaking points in himself before he could save us.

Jesus couldn’t have gone out and helped all those people with his teaching and his miracles unless he had truly understood what we needed. He needed to take himself to the edge in order to understand what it was to be human and to struggle with temptation on the most basic level.

His first temptation is starvation. In our community we do have hunger, but perhaps not starvation – but when people are facing starvation, or what they perceive as starvation, they can do hurtful things to feed themselves. Jesus had to remind himself that there was more to life than the physical – If he lived or died it was always in the spirit of God.

His second temptation was invincibility – something I’m sure it would be great for us to be. (I call this the superhero temptation) If we can throw ourselves off a building without being hurt then we never have to worry about the world hurting us. I’ve known a lot of people who have structured their lives so that they won’t be hurt – if tried it a few times myself – but the world doesn’t work like that. We’re not invincible, and we shouldn’t expect that somehow we are so special and that God is going to keep us from being hurt.

The final temptation was unlimited power. But power doesn’t insure against brokenness. In fact I think that giving someone too much power insures that we are going to end up creating some brokenness. Also there is a serious implication in this scripture that the only way to get unlimited power and control is by abandoning God. A person who is worshipping God doesn’t want unlimited power – they want to teach people how to connect with their own personal power and soul so that they can be strong in the world no matter what sort of brokenness happens to them.

Jesus came to show us how living with God in our lives can repair our brokenness. But first he had to understand how we get broken in the first place: Through hunger, our fear of being hurt, and our desire for power and control.   Once he understood how we get broken he could go out and heal our brokenness. If you think about it – most of Jesus’ teaching is how we can give our brokenness over to God, because we trust that God understands our brokenness, and accept God’s healing of our brokenness in our lives, through our salvation in Christ.

We don’t have to spend a week in the woods or 40 days in the wilderness to do that. But Lent is the perfect time to look at the brokenness of our lives and give it over to God and invite God’s healing into our lives. What is the brokenness that you want to repair?   Give it to God and he will mend it with you and show you how to get to a better state of being.

 

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The Invitation to Live Your Divinity

February 26, 2017                 Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12–18        2 Peter 1:16–21         Matthew 17:1–9

In the last month we’ve been working our way through the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. But now, the week before Lent begins, we are going to skip to the Transfiguration of Jesus. Transfiguration basically means that the figure or form of Jesus was changed.

The story is told in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 2 Peter, and is referred to in the Gospel of John. We read it before Lent because this is the middle and turning point of Jesus’ ministry in the three Gospels. Before this point Jesus is walking around preaching, but after this point he moves toward Jerusalem where he will end up being crucified and then resurrected.

Jesus took the disciples Peter, James, John on a journey up to the top of a high mountain. When they arrived at the top, Jesus suddenly began shining like the sun. Not only was Jesus shining, but his clothes became a dazzling white color. And then, Moses and Elijah appeared alongside him.

Peter apparently decided that the best way to cope with the situation was to initiate a conversation. “Um, Jesus, I’m really honored to be here for this momentous occasion. I’m sure you three have a lot to talk about. If you’d like, we could put together three tents for you guys so you could camp out here on the mountainside for a few days and catch up!”

I want you to realize that Peter wasn’t being flippant – he was being traditionally courteous. During the harvest festival of Sukkot people build booths or tents to live in during that time, and they always make a place in their tent for the ancient prophets. So Peter was extending his hospitality to these two great prophets.

But then, a cloud came over the entire gathering and a voice began speaking out of the cloud which said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Matthew tells us that when the voice spoke from the cloud, Peter, James and John were scared out of their wits. I think it was just one sensation too many. First Jesus starts to turn into something beyond human, then two ancient prophets appear, and then they hear a voice from God. One event I might be able to process, but three at once? I would throw myself on the ground too, because the next thing that comes is going to be a real thunder-bolt and I’m going to be the one getting hit.

But then, after the three disciples hit the deck and hide, Jesus tapped them on the shoulder and said, gently, “Hey there. It’s okay. Get up. You don’t need to be afraid.” When they looked up, all the fantastic weird stuff had gone away and only Jesus was standing there.

Things were back to normal – sort of.   I say, “sort of” because you can’t un-remember an experience like that. Maybe you can’t process it all at first – but that sort of encounter leaves a lasting impression on a person.

That’s the thing about coming up against God’s glory – it’s overwhelming. Often it is just too much information for us to handle all at once. It is wonderful, and awe-full, and tremendous, and earth shattering, and scary, and your breath gets taken away, but it is transformative, and you don’t look at life the same way again.

Jesus was transfigured. His form was changed. For the first time despite all the miracles, and preaching to crowds, and the private teachings that Jesus was giving to his disciples, for the first time Peter, James, and John saw Jesus’ divinity. They saw what he truly was that was beyond his humanity. They saw the soul beyond the shell of the body that he was in. And it was strong, and powerful, and glorious.

But the disciples were transformed in how they looked at Jesus. Before them was the glorious divinity of God that they were participating in, not just in that moment, but everyday when they traveled with Jesus. Can you imagine what they were thinking of when they had a few moments to breathe and think about what they had seen? Jesus had become divine but now he was human again. He was eating, drinking, walking, talking, laughing, and sleeping with them. He was normal – except for the part about the miracles – but he was just like them.

And if he looked just like them; and he had been assuring them all this time that they too had souls; and that they too had the ability to work miracles, and that they too were in contact with their Father in Heaven; then was it possible that they also had a connection to all that powerful divinity and glory that they had seen? Wasn’t Jesus telling them that if they only had a little bit of faith that they could move mountains? Wow! What could they do with all that faith? What could they accomplish in the name of all that divine, pure, love that had come pouring out of Jesus on top of the mountain?

I am sure that in many ways Peter, James, and John couldn’t comprehend the magnificence of the divine presence. The entire experience was a mystery way beyond their ability to understand. But that inability to understand doesn’t negate it when it happens to you.

The last few weeks my sermons have had the word INVITATION in their titles, because invitation is what the story of Christ offers to us.   We have been invited to remember that we are connected to God; we are invited to come and see what God does in our lives; we are invited to join God and Jesus on our journey; we are invited to participate in God’s blessing no matter who we are; God invites us to be in mission in our lives; and we are invited to forgive and reconcile, and to be radical with our love. God doesn’t push, God invites us, because he loves us and wants us to come and participate with Him freely.

Jesus invited those disciples up to that mountain-top. He wouldn’t have invited them unless he thought that they could in some way handle the revealing of his divinity and power and learn from it.  But it was not only His divinity that He revealed but the potential of theirs as well. All through the Gospel Jesus invites people to participate in God’s love and glory and kingdom by being, acting, and living in God’s love. And when we do that, we encounter our own divine eternal souls that rest within us.

When you encounter the potential of your soul, and what it can accomplish, that can be overwhelming because you recognize that it is not just you doing the operating, but that you are operating with the power of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, who are so much bigger and so much more than you are. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed when you encounter God’s glory. But remember, Jesus said something to the disciples after it was all over. He said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

And that’s a really good strategy for us to carry forward in life: To get up, keep going, and don’t be afraid of the power that God’s love brings into our lives.

Sometimes the invitation to step outside of the box and work with the transforming power of God is scary. We never really know where it will lead us. We never really know what’s going to be created from it – because we know that Christ is making all things new, and all-things-new can sometimes be really scary because we won’t know how to handle it. But we have the assurance from Jesus that even when it seems to be too much to handle we can get up, keep going, and not be afraid of where it will lead to. And remember – Jesus came down off of the mountain with his disciples. So he’s going to be with you too.

Jesus showed his disciples that he was divine, but he also showed them that they could participate in that divinity, and that there was no need to be afraid. Jesus is inviting us to participate as well. When we see that God’s glory truly exists we can recognize and believe our worth with God, and recognize and believe that with God’s love we can do anything.

Jesus is inviting you to live with his divinity, the glory of God, and God’s love. Let his divinity touch your sacred soul so that you will be transformed into His instrument of love on this earth. Open your heart, and do not be afraid.

 

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