Finding Our Sabbath

June 3, 2018              2nd Sunday of Pentecost

1 Samuel 3:1-20          
2 Corinthians 4:5-12        Mark 2:23-3:6

Pharisees were sticklers for the rules. But you know, this was a group of people created to make sure that Jewish laws and customs didn’t get drowned in a sea of Greek and Roman occupation. Like many people their intentions were good, but their humanitarian practices left a lot to be desired.

As Jesus and his disciples were traveling they went through or by a big field of grain. Being hungry, they plucked off some grain-heads and ate them as they were walking. This was not illegal. They were practicing something called gleaning. By Jewish Law it was permitted for people who were poor or who were travelers. Farmers allowed this because they considered it to be an act of charity and a blessing on those less fortunate then they were.   Of course it was expected that the people doing the gleaning would not harvest — they would simply take a little something to eat as they were walking through.

Apparently some Pharisees saw this and confronted Jesus. The issue was not taking the grain; the issue was that they took the grain on the Sabbath, which meant that they engaged in an act of working. You are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. No farming, no cooking, no cleaning – this prohibition even extends to tying and untying knots – all that is supposed to be done the day before. The Sabbath is supposed to be devoted to worship and only worship.

Jesus’ answer was very clever because he doesn’t try to directly defend his disciples. Instead he points back to a historic event of the great king David. The story is that David, before he was king, was on the run from Saul, who wanted to kill him. David and his soldiers were hungry when they came across the house of God.

Now you need to remember that this was before the First Temple was built. The house of God in this case was a big tent that traveled from town to town in the territory of the newly found country of Israel. There were two interiors to the tent.   The interior when you walked in had a table on which bread and wine were placed, and there was another tent inside the larger tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant. David gleaned the bread and the wine and shared it with his companions before moving on.

Historically this was not seen as sacrilege. Yes the bread and wine were dedicated offerings, but in this case the taking of them was seen as a necessity to keeping David and his men alive. They were very hungry and they needed something to eat and this was all that was available to them at the time. And it wasn’t a feast it was simply a small amount shared between people to keep them going.

Then Jesus says: The Sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the Sabbath. I am sure the Pharisees were a little tweeked by this. To them humans were created solely for the purpose of worshiping God, and to follow God’s Laws, therefore it would follow that we were created for the Sabbath. But Jesus understood that God is God. God is all powerful, God is almighty, God doesn’t need to be worshiped by us in order to exist. We are the ones who need worship in our lives in order to maintain our connection to God. That is the purpose of the Sabbath.

However I do sympathize with one little point with the Pharisees. It is too easy for us to neglect that time that we set aside to connect to God. From the moment we wake up there are so many things pulling us in so many different directions that very often we don’t give ourselves five minutes to just say a little prayer in the morning. How many of us start our morning by saying: God, I am open to what you give me today. I ask you to help me out during the difficult parts, and I’m going to try to serve you as best I can. I am open to whatever sign you want to give me to day that will lead me forward to do your work in the world. As a minister I try to do that but sometimes in the morning I start to look at my e-mail, I watch the news for a bit. And the next thing you know I’m doing this, that, and the other thing, and I get to the end of the day and realize that I’ve forgotten to give myself a little time to be with God.

So I get the idea of vigilance, and respect, and necessity of the Sabbath that the Pharisees were trying to instill.

I am conscious of the deficiency in my prayer life and after talking with a friend of mine, who is also a minister, I decided to try to figure out how to give myself a daily reminder to connected to God more. I came up with the idea of using the reminder app on my phone. I have set an alarm for 7:15 a.m. and at this time my phone goes DING and a message pops up on my screen. It says: What is God calling you to do today? It’s a reminder to stop and say: God, I am open to what you give me today. I ask you to help me out during the difficult parts, and I’m going to try to serve you as best I can. I am open to whatever sign you want to give me to day that will lead me forward to do your work in the world. It gives me a moment to think, not just about my to do list, but about how to make maybe some of my actions more in connection with God.

After Jesus talks to the Pharisees he walked into the synagogue and sees a man with a withered hand. He challenges them by asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Now this is a sticky theological point, because if there is an emergency you can rescue someone on the Sabbath, because of course life is sacred, and by rescuing someone you are serving God. A lot of people would probably say that healing this man’s hand is a life saving moment.

And what could be a greater act of serving God then healing someone? Although I think that every day would be a good day to heal someone, what better offering could you give to God then the healing of someone, on the Sabbath, in His name? I’m sure people in that synagogue, like we do in our congregation, prayed for their friends and neighbors to be healed of their illnesses or infirmities.

Sadly the Pharisees have hard hearts. Jesus goes ahead and does God’s healing work but they decide that he’s causing too much of commotion and challenging the laws that that they consider to be sacred, and they decide to speak to Herod about him.

Rules can be helpful. Rules give us boundaries so that we don’t hurt people. But rules aren’t God. Rules are how we try to act with dignity and respect as God would want us to do. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the rule and making sure that we follow them that we can end up hurting people by them, instead of healing people with them.

So there are two parts of the story. The first is to be aware of creating a time for yourself to connect with God. Worshiping God in church is a time apart that we all need. But we need to also look for time that we can worship God with service in God’s name. That is also a form of worship. The time apart, even if it’s only a few minutes today, gets our mind ready to recognize the moments when we can be healers for God. If you don’t want to use the reminder app on your phone try a post-it note somewhere in your house. It doesn’t matter what you use, just as long as you give yourself a reminder to connect with God.

The second is to not let ourselves get so caught up in the rules that we miss the moment when we can be healers for God. If you are having trouble trying to figure out if this is a time that you should step out of a rule or stay inside a rule just ask yourself this: Is what you are going to do an action of grace? Is it going to be a generous renewing action? Is there compassion involved in it? And does it help you and the other person to get closer to the eternal God? If on the other hand staying inside the rule promotes a systemic inflection of negativity then you have to think of how to step outside of the rule with Grace.

Sometimes our decisions are difficult to make, but that’s okay. Some actions take time to figure out the best way to do them. God doesn’t expect you to not think about what the right path is. He gave us our intelligence for a reason and we should constantly be trying to hone it and use it to the best of our abilities.

The Sabbath, our time to connect with God, happens in both our stillness of prayer, and in our movement of being out in the world and loving our neighbors. Each of us needs to find both of those times so that we can reach the full potential of our connection with God. Let’s see if we can find the Sabbath every day by cultivating the holy habits of His love in our lives, so that we can move farther down the Methodist road to perfection, which we walk in Jesus’s name. Amen

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Working with Threes

May 27, 2018       Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8     
 Romans 8:12-17       John 3:1-17

I sometimes go online to the Methodist website to see the commentaries that they have on the Scriptures for the week.   It was very interesting to read one commentary on this particular Sunday from a pastor who confessed that when there were more associate pastors at churches it was tradition for the regular pastor to take this week off and leave the associate to preach. Apparently this was done because Trinity Sunday is not an easy thing to preach on.

You see there’s really no one scripture in the Bible that points to the doctrine of the Trinity. We have very definite scripture that point to God as father & mother, or as John Wesley put it, the Divine Parent. We have lots of scriptures about Jesus as the incarnated son. We have lots of scriptures both in the Old Testament and New Testament referring to the Holy Spirit. But there isn’t one single scripture that says that God is a triune God. We sing and pray about three-in-one and one-in-three. But the concept of the Trinity didn’t get solidified until 400 years after the death of Christ.

And it can still be hard and confusing to explain, even if you’ve been to seminary and have taken a number of theological classes, which all try to tackle it from various approaches. And still, all those ordained ministers, who had years of preaching experience, would happily hand their Trinity sermon time to their associates because they just didn’t want to deal with it!

But I think, the key to this idea of God as a trinity is that it is first and foremost a relationship. We don’t need to worry about how God relates to himself, but God is so big that we need to figure out how to grasp his relationship with us and the Trinity allows us to break God down, in our mind, into manageable pieces.

I think if you’re going to be a faithful Christian you have to work through your faith yourself. You can’t just parrot what you’ve been taught in Sunday school, what your parents taught you, and what your minister preaches every week. Although all those things will hopefully point you in the right direction, you need to work through who God is for you and how you’re going to work with him: who Christ is for you and how you’re going to work with him: and how you encounter the Holy Spirit in your life and how you’re going to work with her.

Opps! I used the female pronoun for the Holy Spirit! Actually the Greek pronoun that was used in the early Greek texts is a neutral pronoun that can be either male or female depending on the context that you read it. If you’re comfortable using the male pronoun for the Holy Spirit go ahead and do it.

I prefer to use the female pronoun, because as I was wrestling with my relationships with God Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I came to see God as my Divine Parent and creator, Jesus as my older brother – the person I can take all of my troubles to, has a lot of experience, and I can tell him everything and he’ll help me out without judging me – and I see the Holy Spirit as my wise older sister who is keeping a lookout for me and is guiding me to where I need to go.

For me Trinity is a family relationship.   I have a very understanding parent and two older siblings who are willing to help me get through life and realize my spiritual potential.

This is not how everybody sees God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in their lives. And that’s okay because your relationship to God is built on your experiences. It’s built on your successes and your failures: it’s built on your sorrow and your joy; it’s built on the mystical experiences that you might have had in life, whether they be big or small. Your relationship with God is intensely personal; as it should be!

This is another reason why I think ministers avoid preaching on the Holy Trinity because they know that the different relationships with God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, are going to number the amount of people sitting in the pews on any given Sunday.

We get a clue as to what this relationship should be from the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus. Jesus says that no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they have been born from above. Nicodemus is confused by this. He acknowledges that we are all born into flesh but how can we be reborn into a new being? It helps to understand Nicodemus’ confusion if you recognize that a lot of Jewish people in the first century did not believe in a continuation of life into an afterlife.

Jesus is trying to explain that while we have a relationship with our body and this physical world, we also have a relationship with our souls and the world of God’s Kingdom.   Now these are two Trinitarian relationships right here. My conscious-self relates to my body, which relates to the outside material world. But I have another Trinitarian relationship: My conscious-self relates to my soul, which relates to God’s Kingdom.

Trinitarian relationships are built into the very fabric of our existence. The child relates to two parents. I relate to my coworkers, and the work in my job.   Any relationship that you call up in your life is going to have a relationship of three.   Even when I meet one-on-one with someone it’s a Trinitarian relationship because God is present in that relationship.

The problem is that often in our daily life we can forget that God is there. When the parent relates to the child, God is present. When I relate to my coworkers, God is present. When I relate to the work I have, God can still be present.

The challenge of Trinity Sunday is not to understand the heavy theological concepts of the God that is three-and-one and one-in-three, the challenge is to ask ourselves: When are we finally going to start acknowledging that God is present in our lives on a regular daily basis, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second?

That might seem to be a little exhausting. I love my parents, but I know that if my parents watched me every single minute of every single day I would get paranoid, tired, and really stressed out. Thinking that God is watching you or is with you all the time can seem like a stressful thing. We want to be good people and we don’t want to disappoint God, but we fall down. But you know what? That’s okay, because that was purpose of God incarnated in Christ. So when you fall down pick yourselves up and ask His forgiveness, hook in the Holy Spirit to guide you, so you won’t do it again, and get back out there! You’ve all been baptized – the door is open for you to do that. And if any of you haven’t been baptized come see me later on and we will straighten that one out.

But actually it’s very interesting that those people who make a conscious choice to invite God into their lives as much as they can, do not end up stressed out, mostly they end up being very happy.

I would like to read to you a message from Brother Lawrence, a monk of the 17th century: The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I achieve as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.

And now I would like to recommend to you a book called The Book of Joy. This book is a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, and essentially they talk about how to let God into your life so that you can be more joyful. In the book Desmond Tutu states: I’ve sometimes joked and said that God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others it should be that you are subtracting it from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way – you give and it then seems like in fact you’re making space for more to be given to you.

This is what Jesus is trying to convey to Nicodemus: When we give our attention to God we invite God into our lives. The more we invite God into our lives, the more we will be connected with God and his Kingdom. And we will be reborn daily into the love of God through our connection with God.

So my challenge to you this summer, because technically this is where our summer programming starts is on Trinity Sunday, is to figure out a way to daily bring God into your life.   Not just in your prayer time, or a moment when you get up or fall asleep, but in a moment of talking with a friend, in a moment of doing your work.   Just ask yourself the question: How can I invite God into this space?

Maybe you won’t get an answer right away but God is listening, Jesus is listening, and the Holy Spirit is listening. They will answer because they want to be a part of your life and for you to be part of theirs. And when they answer and you respond you will begin to be born in the Spirit and start to enter the Kingdom of God.

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Speaking in Tongues

May 20, 2018             Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21     Romans 8:22-27         John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

When I was teaching essay writing I used a book called Sin Boldly.   It was written by a professor who wrote it in desperation because his students couldn’t use proper grammar, and because he couldn’t find a good book on how to apply grammar to essay writing. I loved this book because not only did it explain how to use grammar effectively, but it had a lot of great antidotal stories about his time in the classroom and his philosophy of teaching.

In one chapter he explained why he felt writing well was important. You see a lot of kids that he taught were from lower-class families, on scholarships, and he found that their preparation in high school was not that great. They had never been taught how to write well. And, especially in the early 80s, he also had to contend with a remnant 1960s attitude that education was how people in power brainwashed and kept people down. But he contended that language, and speaking and writing well in particular, were the basic tools of all revolution and change.   If you could learn how to express your outrage well, and you could get other people to agree with it; the fact that something needed to be done, and how it could be done; then you could accomplish great change in the world. The only way to do this is through language. You can try to start a revolution, but if you don’t have the thoughts and feelings of people behind you, you’re simply going to be a voice howling in the wilderness.

Many people think that this Pentecost story about people speaking in tongues is about people speaking in gibberish. We can see very clearly from the scriptures that the event on Pentecost of speaking in tongues was not speaking in gibberish. The crowd was amazed that these Galileans, who probably only spoke a distinctive dialect of Aramaic, were fluently speaking languages from all the known world. If the disciples had only been speaking in gibberish the movement that Jesus had started would have simply remained a small, but weird, community of an interesting Jewish sect. But the Holy Spirit sent a wind to clear the disciples mind and then poured into them the knowledge of languages.

Now I have a confession to make about me and foreign languages.  Foreign languages are not one of my gifts and graces. I barely got by with a passing grade in Spanish, which is the closest language to English on the planet, and then I struggled mightily for 16 years with Japanese, which is the farthest language to English on the planet. But in my studies of those two languages, especially Japanese, I did learn that language is a psychological map of a culture. How a culture uses words, the images it associates with words, and the importance that it attaches to words, gets you deeper into the culture then if you’re just experiencing it like a tourist.

For instance, in Korea to call a man a pig, in a certain context, is actually a compliment.   Why? If we call a person a pig that means they’re greedy, self-centered, and uncaring – this comes from the fact that we think pigs are unclean animals. But to the Koreans a pig was an expensive animal that you only had if you were wealthy and prosperous. And pigs are considered to be very lucky and content animals. If you’re born in the year of the pig, that’s an indication that you will be a good businessman, hence the pig as a complementary animal.

Pentecost is about the moment the church was born. It is about what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  It is about the Holy Spirit bringing people together as one in spite of their differences: different cultures, different languages, different traditions, different beliefs, different interpretations, different theologies. Pentecost is about proclaiming salvation for all people, like Peter did in his speech when he was explaining to the surrounding crowd that: No this group isn’t drunk, they are filled with the Holy Spirit. And they can be filled with the Holy Spirit because their beings and lives have been open to the Grace of God by the knowledge and experience of the love of Jesus Christ.

Right then and there God gave the disciples the valuable tool of language that they needed to bridge differences and to start the revolution by proclaiming the good news: The good news that God loves everyone. God loves each and everyone of you even though you’re not perfect. God gets that you are not perfect because Christ lived with us and experienced that imperfection. So God understands and forgives our imperfections. And, if we are willing to dedicate our life to connecting with him, by loving our neighbors and treating them with the dignity and respect that a sacred soul should be treated with, then God’s love will be revealed to us; our purpose in this life that is connected to his kingdom will be revealed to us; and we are assured of eternal life with him starting right now.

However, as much as I would like it to happen, I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is going to descend on me and give me the gift of a foreign language. On the other hand that’s probably not the gift that I need, or maybe that any of us need, right here and now, for our church in this time and place.

You see back then the disciples needed to go out into the world. Jesus had told them to go out and make disciples of all nations, so it would follow that the big gift the needed was the gift of language. Evangelism begins with us making personal relationships with people, and sharing with them our story of how Christ influences us and makes us better people. But evangelism goes farther when you show people that understand and care about their lives.

Evangelism is healthcare kits. Evangelism is reading stories to children. Evangelism is helping veterans to heal with a horse care ministry. Evangelism is helping people out in nursing homes. Evangelism is sorting through stuff that is going to be use for Habitat for Humanity.

Evangelism is meeting people where they are. I think that’s another reason why the Holy Spirit gave people this gift of foreign languages. They weren’t supposed to stay in Israel – they were supposed to go to those countries, learn about their cultures, understand them and show those cultures how the love of God through Jesus Christ could strengthen and improve those cultures. We need to remember that at first Christianity wasn’t so much a take over of a culture as it was an assimilation. It was only later, during the Crusades and the colonization of the world by the Europeans, that Christianity became the religion of conquerors rather than the religion of simple people who were trying to bring love and peace.

These days I think we need a little more of that assimilation of the Spirit rather then the spirit of conquering in our evangelism fields.   It has been proven that the most effective form of evangelism is when people get onto the ground, live within a culture, and do good that is needed inside that culture in the name of Christ. You can do evangelism within your own community or you can walk into the foreign culture of a homeless shelter and do your work there. Remember: any place that is not your comfort zone is a foreign land.

What gift has God given you and where is Christ calling you to go? For the disciples it was easy. The people who learned Greek went to Greece. Supposedly the disciple Thomas learned an Indian dialect and went to India. Most of us won’t go that far. But we can all open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, notice the tools that we have been given, go into unknown territory, and use our tools to teach others about Christ in the world. And when we do, everyday will be Pentecost for us.

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Understanding with Our Hearts

May 13, 2018       7th Sunday of Easter       Day of Ascension       Mother’s Day

Acts 1:1-11     Ephesians 1:15-23     Luke 24:44-53

In the ancient world there was minimum separation between the head and the heart. The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was where you stored all the important memories, because they believed that important memories were emotionally linked.   Even the ancient Greeks, the most cerebral of cultures, who were very proud of their philosophical achievements, believed that the heart was an essential component to thinking and understanding.

But beginning with the Age of Enlightenment up until today the emotions and the intellect have became more and more separated. And I guess you could say that the head and the heart reached absolute separation under the 20th century age of psychological evaluation. Emotions are seen as messy, uncontrollable and debilitating. Emotions need to be thought through; to be analyzed; that’s how we get a handle on them. In psychology by taking emotions apart we controlled them and elevate them into a logical progression of causes and effects.

But to Jesus, his disciples, and all the people of the first century, emotional reactions were just as much a part of intelligence as the thought process. Wisdom came through discernment of the emotional reaction, which someone had with an event. Emotions were key indicators of the value of something. And to disregard them was to deprive yourself of a valuable tool that could help you make decisions.

Paul talks about this when he says: so that enlightened, with the eyes of your heart, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. In other words look with your eyes at a situation, gather the evidence that’s before you, but also pay attention to the emotions involved so that you can reach a greater understanding of it, and act holistically on it.

Jesus, when he opened his disciple’s minds to understand the Scriptures, said to them, Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.   Can you imagine a more emotional situation then seeing your beloved spiritual leader die on a cross because of a terribly unjust judgment? Can you imagine how horrified the disciples were? Can you imagine how upset and sad they were, and then can you imagine the immense confusion when the women told them that Jesus was raised from the dead? Can you imagine the relief and exhilaration when they realized that Jesus was actually alive? Can you imagine the joy that coursed through their veins when they realized that Jesus had paid the price and had relieved them of the constant worry of atoning for sin, and had given them proof of eternal life?

Faith is not just an intellectual exercise.   Faith is tied to our experiences and our emotions.

Now although Freud and company wanted to elevate us above our emotions, and for a while our culture fell for that, our science has advanced to the point where we can actually start to get into this amazing computer that we have between our ears.   Basically the brain is divided into three sections.   The first one back at the base of your skull is sometimes called the lizard or reactive brain, because its job is simply to react. If I took a peace-ball and threw it at you hopefully you would try to catch it or duck. Simple reaction. This is where all babies start, when they are hungry they react by crying.

The second part of the brain is located in the middle and is called the mammal or emotional part of the brain.   It’s also where language is mostly located and starts. And very early on we make connections to that emotional part of the brain. The baby soon learns that his parents love him. The baby learns that if he smiles he’ll get a happy emotion back; if he expresses a sad emotion he’ll be fed or changed. If I throw this ball at you, depending on who you are, you’ll have a happy, sad, or threatened emotion depending on how throwing a ball at you is tied to your experiences.

Finally we have the third part of the brain: The neo-cortex or the logic part.   We are developing our connections to this part of the brain from the time we are young. But still, as adults, all of our day-to-day relating to other people and the world is done reactively. We see someone and we decide in the lizard brain if they’re friend or foe. We listen and interact with them, and while we’re doing that our thoughts are bouncing back and forth between logic-emotion, logic-emotion, logic-emotion.

So it turns out that the ancient people were right! The heart is connected to the intellect.   Of course the ancient people thought it was literally located in the heart because the heart region is where you’ll have those physical body manifestations of your emotions.   We know emotions begin in the brain, but they thought they began in the heart region.

Now how does this heart-mind connection relate to our faith? Well, this helps us to understand that each of us has emotional reactions to ideas connected with our faith, and why those emotional ideas might be different for each person. A person who has had problems with addiction and found healing of herself through Christ might have an associative emotion of relief and joy because her faith helps her cope with her recovery and keeping clean. Unfortunately another child who is the odd one out in Sunday school and who was never accepted by their peers might see God and Christ as a waste of time and not worth getting involved in. A young adult might come into a church looking for a place to be with their faith in fellowship with others and yet no one tells them that they are welcome, so they decide that church isn’t worth their time. A person might have an idea for a ministry but then everyone says we’ve never done that before and they become discouraged in their possibility of acting on their faith and finding their mission in life.

Everyone has an emotional faith-story, everyone has any emotional faith-need. Jesus didn’t just heal people’s bodies Jesus also healed their emotions. Jesus took the outcast who felt alone and worthless and brought them in making them feel that they had value, and that they had dignity. That is the essence of mission – to make people feel that they have value and dignity.

I read a story about a church that has something called a peanut butter ministry.   This church is near an area where homeless people hung out. One woman from the church would, every Sunday, see homeless people asking parishioners for money.   She didn’t feel right or comfortable giving them money but she thought, “I can give them food.” So one Sunday she made 12 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And after church she took her sandwiches outside and distributed them to the homeless people there. The people in the church started to notice that she was doing this and two people thought: you know we could make some extra coffee at coffee hour and distribute it to people while she gives them sandwiches. Soon this ministry grew to have more than just three people involved.

Then as the homeless people started to trust the people who were giving them sandwiches and coffee they started to open up and talk to the church people. The church people started to learn names and stories, and they started to recognize where they could help. Not always, some people didn’t want to be helped, they just wanted the sandwiches. But some people actually got curious about Christ because they asked the Church people why they were you doing this?   And the church people replied, “I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in following his path. And part of that past is to help others who are in need.” What the Peanut Butter Ministry was doing was giving these people value and dignity to their lives, but also showing them where that value and dignity came from – the love of God. Then some of the homeless started to accept the help of the church, got back on their feet, and in turn joined the peanut butter ministry from the other side.

That is what faith should do. It should change the value of our lives from no-value, to value. But the value has to be connected not only with the head but also with the heart.

How can we connect the emotions of our faith to the knowledge of our faith? Like Christ we need to listen to where people are emotionally, as well as where they are physically and mentally.   That only comes through practicing withhold judgment a little, and getting out there and listening to people’s stories. Sometimes it is obvious what people need, sometimes we need to listen to their stories to find that out. But all of us can approach the process with understanding hearts that are willing to listen and learn.

And when we listen and learn we will become witnesses of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in this world for everyone.

 

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Following the Commandment’s Path

May 6, 2018               6th Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48             1 John 5:1-6                John 15:9-17

The child-parent relationship is one of love, frustration, wonder, disbelief, joy and sorrow. In fact, take any emotion-noun and you can apply it to the child-parent relationship at sometime in its existence. Those of you have been parents have probably been proud of your child, disappointed with your child, upset with your child, and happy with your child; to name four emotions that come to mind.

But if we all think back to when we were children, we realize that as a child we also ran through all of the emotions with our parents. We have all been proud of our parents, disappointed with our parents, upset with our parents, and happy with our parents – you can pull any emotion out of a hat and probably find a time during your childhood when you felt that emotion toward your parent.

You know, I remember I once told a friend that my job as a parent was to teach my children how to survive in this often confusing world without me, and to do that I had to lay down a whole bunch of rules for my kids to follow. That is one of the foundations of good parenthood: laying down reasonable boundaries that your child can stay in for their protection and to teach them how to live with others. Some of the rules were for their protection, like don’t cross the street without looking. Some were for social interaction, like the polite way to address people. We also had play date rules: we would spend 10 minutes cleaning up the toys before we left a friend’s house. And some were house rules: we washed our hands when we came home and before eating.

I imposed those rules because I love my children and I wanted to keep them safe and to prosper in life. And I believe that my children mostly followed the rules because they saw that I loved them and wanted to keep them safe. They of course pushed boundaries, and then of course we had explanations and consequences.   And often when they pushed the boundaries they found out – Hmm, Mom was right, that didn’t turn out very well.

So if we think about this child-parent relationship and we think about our relationship with God, it is not at all surprising that the most common metaphor in the Bible for our relationship with God is the parent-child relationship. God is the creator, like our parents created us; God is the person who loves us, like our parents love us; we accept rules that we feel are divinely given by God in order to be safe and prosper in life.   And our relationship with God goes through all the emotions in our lives. There are times when we are happy with God, thankful with God, frustrated with God, upset or even angry with God.

Now I want to side-bar here on bringing your bad emotions to God. People have come to me and they have said, “I feel terrible because I’m angry with God.” Now most people don’t feel angry with God unless something really awful has happened in their lives. So not only do they feel terrible and angry about the life-mess-up, but on top of that they feel terrible about being angry with God for what has happened, which doubles the terrible & angry feelings, causing a lot more stress. This happens because they’ve been taught to look at God as a pure deity to only be worshipped in all glory and thanked for everything. I do believe that we should worship God’s glory and give thanks, I do believe that God is pure love, but there are numerous instances in the Bible of people getting angry with God – read the book of Job – and in all those instances God listens and answers. God is a great listener. It’s true, we might not get the answer we want, but that’s more our problem than His.

But back to boundaries. Just as a parent needs to lay down rules for a child. God gave the Hebrew nation 10 rules, which define the boundaries of their society and also our society. They are titled: The 10 Commandments.

Now a command is different from a rule. A rule is a steadfast guideline for what to do in a situation. Its true that some rules are stricter than others and we understand that we must often adhere to rules to live with each other, but there is a sense that we can bend rules on occasion to fit different circumstances. And society will tolerate those bendings if they feel that when we bend the rule that we are correcting or making right a problem that needs to be solved.

Commandments on the other hand, are rules that cannot be broken. The supposition is that if the commandment is broken then there is going to be a lot of hurt, and the whole of society is going to be put out of whack. And we follow the commandments like a child follows the parental rules. First, because, as we love and trust our parents, we love and trust God. And second, because we have learned that there are consequences to breaking the commandments – breaking them leads to hurt for ourselves and society.

But the operating emotion to use when the following God’s commandments is to do it in a spirit of love. Jesus says to his disciples: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

I am sure that just as we find parents or authority figures today who set down rules that are more grounded in control rather than safety and nurture, Jesus also was dealing with followers who had been oppressed by rules, regulations, and commandments that were used to gain control and keep control. He knew that some people would react with the idea of following God’s commandments as a trigger to rebellion because all they knew of rules was that it hurt or oppressed them.

This is why he starts by telling people that keeping His and His Father’s Commandments should always be Acts of Love. Also he is reminding his disciples of his own example in their lives.

I am always amazed at people who tell me that Jesus was a megalomaniac who was only interested in his own glory. My challenge to them is, “Have you ever read one of the Gospels?” Nowhere in any of the Gospels does Jesus threaten one of his followers. Nowhere does he have an unkind word for someone who is unkind to him. Nowhere does he refuse to heal anyone. (Okay there was the Syro-Phonecian woman, but he healed her daughter after she rebuked him – and I have actually wondered if Jesus didn’t set up the situation to show the disciples how narrow minded and xenophobic they were being.) Nowhere do you ever feel that Jesus hasn’t given a choice to people to follow or not follow him. (Unlike the infamous Jim Jones who poisoned EVERYONE when it was apparent that a large group of his followers wanted to leave.) Nowhere does he allow class to dictate how he relates to people – Jesus treated beggars, lepers, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees, Rabbis, women, and children with the same loving consideration.

That’s another thing about rules. Kids will rebel against rules that parents lay down for them if they don’t see the parents following them. Did you ever see a case in the Gospels when Jesus didn’t follow his own rules? Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite. He told his disciples to pray, because he prayed. He told his disciples to heal, because he healed. And he told us to love one other because he loved everybody. And he loved everybody because His Father loved everybody. Jesus followed God’s Commandments of love and that’s why people followed him then and why we follow him now.

But in that is an essential component about following the commandments. Have you ever seen a grumpy kid who doesn’t want to follow a rule? No, I don’t wanna go to bed might be exasperating and cute in a five-year-old, but listening to an adult moan and complain about a rule because it happens to be inconvenient for them is not enjoyable for the rest of us. And we all do it. (Unjust rules are different, and a whole other sermon.)

But what if instead we dedicated our following of the rules as an act of love and compassion? What if we decided to work within the rules to make the world a better place? What if our actions of compliance were actions of showing how people could live better lives by diligently following the commandments of God to ensure that all people lived in dignity and with respect?

I think that if we chose to live God’s commandments with love and joy that we will bear fruit, which will last for a long time. And then we will find that we are living and abiding in God’s love.

 

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Rooted in Jesus

29 April, 2018            John 15: 1-8

Sharon Methodist Church Guest Preacher Alexis Dorf:  Ms. Dorf preached this week and has graciously allowed me to post her sermon.  

This morning’s Gospel reading is another of the many “I am” sayings that we find in John’s Gospel. “I am…the good shepherd…I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the gate…I am the door…I am the Way, the truth and the Life… I am the vine….

What are all these sayings, these metaphors, about? Jesus certainly isn’t a literal loaf of bread, or a candle, or a door! We begin with the context of John’s Gospel- why and to whom it was addressed. Knowing some of the background will help us better understand it. This Gospel was written, scholars tell us, around the year 100, well after the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. At that time, the Middle East was part of the Roman Empire. That Empire, of course, included the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, believed by the Jewish people to be God’s home on earth. It was the center of Jewish life.

Worship at the Temple was only possible because Romans admired anything ancient, and Judaism was indeed a very ancient religion. However, its survival in Jerusalem was tenuous at best. As long as there were no disturbances, the Roman governor allowed the Jews access to the Temple for worship and sacrifice.  Roman troops were stationed throughout the region; there were garrisons in Sephoris, near Jesus hometown of Nazareth, as well as in the Galilee and Judea. No place was free of the watchful eye of Rome. By every possible measure, the Jewish community lived under the thumb of Rome.

Adding to the political misery, there was economic misery – exorbitantly high taxes paid to the local authorities to maintain their life style, and to the “ home office” of the Empire in Rome. Further, there was, of course, the obligatory tithe – 10% of one’s income – to the Temple. As a result, the combination of economic taxation and political oppression was tearing apart many families and communities. If you colluded with Rome as did the Jewish authorities, life was great. If you were a peasant, or an artisan, not so much.

It was to this community that Jesus came, proclaiming the good news of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness for all. After the death and resurrection of Jesus around the year 33, his disciples, as well as other followers, began to share their experiences of their life with him. As Jesus, the disciples and Paul were all Jewish, their teachings and proclamations logically began in the synagogue, where the Jewish community gathered for worship. Some Jews as well as Gentiles began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, or the Anointed One, sent by God to liberate God’s people, and these believers joined the Followers of the Way.

For traditional Jews, the idea that someone crucified under charges of treason could be the Messiah was a “bridge too far”. And so by the year 100, when the community that had gathered around John was writing his Gospel, the Jewish Christians had splintered off. They followed the traditional Jewish liturgical practices and the Jewish liturgical year. To that base they added celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus during the practice of” Eucharista”, a Greek word meaning thanksgiving. Today we also know the Eucharist as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

Excommunicated by the Temple authorities and no longer under the protection of Judaism, the new Christians were now out on their own. With the powers of Rome watching them closely, the members of the fledgling Jesus communities were anxious. Wouldn’t you be? Wouldn’t I be? No matter how sure we are that our belief or commitment to a new way of life is the right thing to do, it is always scary to break away from the “tried and true” traditions of our culture. Will we be okay? Will we even survive? Those were the issues faced around the year 100, when John’s community reflected on the life of Jesus, and what it meant.

No wonder this Gospel seeks to reassure the little flock. It sets words of comfort and reassurance in the context of speeches by Jesus . It is now towards the end of Jesus’s life. John tells us that Lazarus has been raised. The Jewish authorities are plotting to dispose of this Jesus, this troublemaker who has aroused such a following, a threat to their power. Jesus has been anointed by Mary. Everyone knows that his death is imminent. Everyone is anxious; will they, as followers of Jesus, also be persecuted and put to death?

Our Gospel reading is a speech to the disciples after the Last Supper. The Christian communities are assured that they will not be abandoned, but that the Holy Spirit will companion and support them. They are not to be afraid. They will find the peace that Jesus offers, not peace as the world sees it, but the peace of God. They are not to fear the rulers of this world, the Romans and the Jewish authorities. Speaking in the voice of Jesus, John tells the community  “Hang in there! Rome will not prevail!”

Staying “rooted” in the story and teachings of Jesus, our writer tells the Christian community, is the way to both inner peace and fruitfulness in spreading the Gospel. Our reading uses grapevines and branches as an example. We know, as did Jesus’ hearers, that when a vineyard is planted, it needs to be the right type of vine in the right type of soil that provides the right kind of nutrients. Water, sun, and elevation are also important. In fact, modern vintners identify the “terroir” – or what we non-vintners call “dirt” – as being vital to the success of the vintage. Jesus is the “terroir” in which we plant ourselves. When we root ourselves deeply in his teachings of love of God and love of neighbor, as well as compassion, mercy and forgiveness, we become successful branches that in turn yield much fruit. We are nourished by the right soil and so become productive disciples.

What about pruning? Well, yes. In a vineyard, branches are pruned back in the hope that the pruning will encourage successful growth. We do that in our own gardening. We prune suckers out of rose bushes, for instance. They do not bear flowers and take vital nutrients from those branches that do. Likewise, deadwood is discarded before it can infect the healthy branches. And John, in the name of Jesus, directed that type of cutting out be done as well, lest the community suffer.

We “prune” ourselves when we get a haircut or trim nails before they become too long and break. Sometimes we need to do mental pruning as well. That might happen when we realize that the “bright shiny object” to which we are attracted is not conducive to our healthy growth, and we must turn from that path back to the one that Jesus show us. Having achievement, appearance and acquisition of things sometimes become our goal in life. These ends are not healthy and not productive for the Kingdom of God. And so we prune ourselves – turn away – from these things and seek a new, more satisfying, productive life under the reign of God.

Let’s return briefly to our first reading this morning as an example of the fruitfulness of which John speaks. We initially meet Philip when Jesus calls him as a disciple, along with Andrew and Peter. Philip invites Nathanael to meet Jesus, and later we hear that Philip brings “some Greeks” to meet Jesus. Even early on, Philip is bearing fruit! In today’s Epistle reading, Philip is on a lonely road when he comes upon the Secretary of the Treasury, so to speak, of the Ethiopian queen, Candace. The man is reading the prophet Isaiah, but having trouble interpreting the meaning of the passage. Philip takes advantage of the moment to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.

As a eunuch, the man would have been excluded from admission to the inner courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem. But he is not excluded from being a follower of The Way because of his mutilation. Strangely, they come upon some water in this arid land, and Philip baptizes the man. For followers of Jesus, there are no folks who are “in” while the rest are “out.” Good news indeed!

How are you rooted? How am I rooted? Are we rooted in the consumer culture of our country or, like Philip, are we rooted in the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth? Let’s observe our thoughts and actions this week and, where, necessary, do some pruning so that we might bear much fruit, proving ourselves as disciples of Jesus. And don’t forget to look as well for the fruit that we bear – sometimes in unexpected places! Let it be so. AMEN.

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Evidence ⇒ Love ⇒ Action

April 22, 2018            4th Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12     
1 John 3:16-24           John 10:11-18

I love a good detective story. There is nothing that I like better than to sit down with a book about a crime that needs to be solved. Maybe I like them because they are three-dimensional puzzles. You know that something has happened, and then you go on a journey with the detective to find out the who, what, why, and how; or the means, motive, and opportunities.

But the answer is never right in front of you. The detective asks questions and looks at the forensic evidence in front of him or her, and tests one piece against another to see how they all fit together. And of course some pieces are “red-herrings” which look like they might have to do with the crime, but don’t. But that is the reason why detectives have to test the forensic evidence, against eye-witness evidence, and secondary witness evidence. You have to keep on gathering clues until you have enough evidence that supports a conclusion.

Three weeks ago I said that at some point we declare what our belief is. It could be as general as, “I believe that God exists,” or it could be as specific as, “I know that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” But when we declare what we believe, we move forward from that point and we see evidence of whether our belief is real. And last week I challenged you to look for evidence of God in your life.

But the next step, once we find the evidence, is to apply it to our lives and to see what that does for us and where that leads us.   What we need to do is commit ourselves to acting on the evidence of God, no matter how meager it might be.

Commitment is a big part of the parable of the good shepherd. Jesus tells his disciples that as the shepherd he lays down his life for his sheep. John later tells new Christians that Jesus laid down his life for us so we need to lay down our life for him.

This is powerfully strong language that verges on the fanatical in our age. But Jesus’ disciples lived in an age of class systems and servitude of people to people, so they would have understood that pledging your life to a job was a commitment of a lifestyle.

When a soldier pledged his service to someone he would remove his sword and place it at the king or commander’s feet. Now notice that the soldier volunteers. As Christ says that He lays down his life for the sheep of his own accord, the soldier also lays his sword down of his own accord. Then the King or commander would pick up the sword and hand it back to him, indicating that he had accepted the soldier’s service. But in that giving and acceptance of service is the acceptance of the lifestyle that the soldier is going to take on in the service to the king. And that service is going to be central point around which the rest of his life rotates.   His time spent, family life, everything centers around his service to the king.

But this sort of pledging happened with other positions. If a person became a steward of a house they would often lay down their cloak or hat, which the master of the house would pick up, and then give keys, or a rod, or even a ring to the person as an indication of their new position and authority. By accepting that object the new steward accepts that he is now going to put his service to the master of the house in the center of his life.

Do you remember when Jesus came into Jerusalem and the people along his route lay their cloaks down on the rode before him? The people were symbolically laying down or pledging their lives to Jesus. This was a public pledge that they would follow them. And that was one of the big reasons why the authorities, both Roman and Jewish got really nervous, and decided to arrest him. They were putting Jesus at the center of their lives, not other authorities.

So first we declare that we believe in God, then we set out to look for evidence for the belief, but then at some point we need to commit to living our lives as a Christian. The paradox of this is that the process is not a straight line. Unlike the detective stories which tend to be very logical with reveals at select intervals, doubling back to check evidence, trying and refining theories, until you arrive at one neat solution which explains everything, the only way we get to really figure out our faith is to live it in the jumbled manner of faith influencing life, which influences action, which influences faith, which influences more life and action.

When John challenges his readers to lay down their lives for Christ he’s saying they need to commit, with free-will, to the lifestyle of being a follower of Christ, by living a life of generous compassion and acting with faith. You can read the Bible to learn about Christ and the elements of faith, something that is very important to do. You can think about your faith, meditate and pray on it, another important thing, which will help you to recognize the power of God within and without you. But to deepen and develop your faith you need to practice it through action and application.

And that is not a linear business. It is usually messy, but it can be an amazing journey and yield interesting results. And strangely enough, often we find the evidence of God in the places where God doesn’t appear to be.

Many of you know the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was no-doubt committed to God and Christ. But she didn’t start out working in the slums. She taught for 20 years at an exclusive private Catholic girls school connected to her convent. But witnessing the poverty around her she felt a calling to do more for the poor. Think about people living in the bleak poverty of India – a place of infinite want, hopelessness, and suffering. Doesn’t that seem to be a place where God isn’t? But she went into that place with her faith and brought the transformation of Christ love to it. She founded a mission and a school with almost nothing and the rest became history. But that journey from teacher in an elite school to a person who gave up everything to go and live with the poor in a mission took 20 years. There was a lot of gathering of ideas about what to do and how to it. She talked to a lot of people, she tested the waters with small moments of service, and then when the time was right she took the step out of the convent and into the slums. Those twenty years weren’t wasted; they got her ready for her next step.

Another story that I came across recently was about a young seminary student named Kenton Lee who took a missionary trip to Africa. One day while out walking with the kids he noticed that the little girl in a white dress next to him had shoes that were way too small for her feet. That led to an idea: “What if there was a shoe that could adjust and expand—so kids always had a pair of shoes that fit?” Shoes are very important in the third world because they protect children from parasites and infections that could kill or cripple them. The lack of those protective shoes was a place that seemed to lack God. Kenton returned home, got a team together and created a few prototypes, which he had some neighborhood kids try out. When he finally got a decent design he took them back to Africa and tried them out there. After five years of trial and error, in between finishing school and working, he got a design that worked. He has now started a company called: Because International, which makes the shoe that grows. This is a shoe that a child can wear up to five years; it will really last that long, and adjust to a child’s foot as they grow. You can look this company up on line – and see the shoes – it’s really cool.

But this wasn’t something that just happened. This was something that Kenton lived and experimented with. As he was following what he felt was his calling – to provide long term footwear to impoverished children – he had successes and failures, and had to constantly be re-evaluating what he was doing. He was working on his faith while his faith was working on him. But he didn’t do it alone. As he worked on his mission a team grew up around him; people who were drawn to the idea on what he was doing and a community has been created that is a dedicated to his mission as he is.

We are all trying to be detectives of our own faith story. We are trying to gather the evidence of God in our lives by living with God in our lives. We should read the Bible; we should meditate on who God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are for us; we should worship to uplift our spirits. But we should also look for the evidence of God in our lives and also where God isn’t in the world around us. Where God isn’t is a place that we can reach into with God’s love and see if we can’t find Him in the people we meet and what they need.

The evidence will be given to us as we act and explore. Go out and look for God’s love. You will find evidence for it – but maybe you will also find where it isn’t. That is a place that you can lay you life down for Christ, by bringing his love into a place that He is needed.

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