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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The Invitation to Be Radical with Your Love

February 19, 2017                 7th Sunday of Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18             I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23              Matthew 5:38-48

This passage from Matthew is one of those scriptures that you would rather not preach on. It is so radical, and impossible, and outrageous that it seems like you just can’t reconcile what Jesus is asking his disciples and us to do with our own feelings, social convention, and even real life.

Up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, everything seems to be reasonable, or accessible and understandable. First Jesus starts out by blessing us, then telling us that we are sacred and of worth to God. Then he advises us to live in a spirit of obeying his commandments with love, and to try to forgive and reconcile with people whom we are having difficulty with.

Then he starts to get into some problematic areas. He says that anyone who looks at a woman with lust is committing adultery. He tells people to cut off their hands or to take out their eyes if they offend them. He says that if a man divorces his wife, except in the case of unchastity that he is forcing her to commit adultery.  He tells people not to swear oaths but to simply live by their answer of Yes or No.

Most of the above we can explain logically because we know about the social conventions and language codes of the time. As far as women, lust, and divorce are concerned, men in those days had all the legal advantages. If a man wanted to divorce a woman and marry a younger woman it wasn’t that difficult to do if you were wealthy enough. But of course the divorced wife was cast out and lost her financial security. Often she would have to remarry just to survive. And the marriage probably wouldn’t have family backing, so she would become vulnerable to abuse.

Hands and eyes often stood for people in what we would call today a “network circle.” People who get you connections to help you get things done. So cutting off the hand or plucking out the eye is code for abruptly removing yourself from people who negatively influence you or put you into a bad situation. And then you never go back – even if those people try to pursue you to keep involving yourself in questionable behavior.

Also people back then, just like today, were notorious for making promises and not keeping them. We all know people who have said things like, “I swear to God I will never drink like that again,” and then they go ahead and do it anyway. Jesus was saying that it is more important to live by our Yes and No with concrete actions rather than with a lot of words.

Knowing these language codes we can handle this stuff, and the audience who were listening to the Sermon on the Mount could relate to it as well. These social-justice situations were happening around them all the time and they could see the unfairness of the behavior. But then Jesus starts to really get radical with the Matthew verses that we read today.

How are we supposed to allow someone to hit us again when they strike us? Or give them more than they have sued us for? Or willingly do more for someone when we are forced to do an unpleasant action? Or give to everyone who begs from us? Logically those are impossibly unreasonable tasks. What is Jesus trying to get us to do and to be?

I think one of the keys to understanding this passage is the first line: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.

The eye for an eye comes from the Hammurabi Code. The Code is a set of 282 social laws from ancient Mesopotamia, that dates to 1754 BC; 700 years before the kingdom of Israel was established by Saul and David. This is not to say that other ancient kingdoms didn’t have laws – but these are the earliest recorded and preserved laws that we have in archeological record. And they promote the concept that to balance out evil it must be met with an equal punitive action for justice to be restored.

But Jesus refutes this idea by using overblown, hyperbolic speech – which was a classical speech technique in that day – to get people to think about this idea. He’s taking the language to the Nth degree to challenge the common idea that the only way that justice can be served, and balance can be restored to the community, is if we use retaliatory justice.   He lists, with this hyper-language, very common forms of abuse that people were subject to during that time.

Turning the other cheek comes from the fact that if a Roman citizen or soldier struck a Jewish person that they could do nothing about it. If they struck back they would be put in jail, or physically punished.

If you couldn’t pay a debt the lender could demand your coat as collateral for payment. That doesn’t seem like much to us – but remember back then people usually only had one or two sets of clothing.

Forcing someone to go one mile refers to the right of the Roman Army to conscript any able-bodied person to carry luggage or supplies for a day, without pay.

And the idea of giving to anyone who begs from you is a reminder of the immense number of poor people that were in the society.

If all of these actions were met with an eye for an eye or violent resistance, or in the case of poor people of no one helping them, the society would quickly disintegrate into anarchy, and no one would be able to live in God’s love and obey God’s commandments of love and respect for their fellow humans. Jesus is trying to get his audience to see that violence against violence is not the answer.

Not only that but he takes it one step further and says: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  The enemy, for anyone who was Jewish, was someone who was not Jewish – occupying Romans and Gentiles. Neighbors were your Jewish neighbors and enemies were anyone who was not Jewish. Never mind the nice Greek family down at the end of the street; for many people since they weren’t Jewish they didn’t count with God.

And then Jesus hits them with a serious truth: For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Come on, he says, if God is the God of ALL creation then the gentiles are as much His creation as the Jews.

He then points out that it is easy to love those people who love you and are nice to you. But really what makes us so different from the other people? Don’t the other people have feelings? Don’t all those foreigners love their families and their friends like we do?

Remember LOVE is not a sentiment to Jesus – Love is an ACTION word that is shown through the courage of treating someone with respect, and compassion, and giving them charity when needed. And Jesus is saying that those other people should not be written off, and that our actions of love should be extended to them as well.

This was mind-blowing stuff for that day and age! This is mind-blowing stuff for our day and age!

Back then Jesus was challenging people to love tax-collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, lepers, Samaritans, and anyone else who was not in the accepted part of society.

Today who is our unaccepted part of our society? Is it immigrants, unwed mothers, people of different races, people of different classes, people with mental illnesses, people with substance addictions, people who are on the other side of a political fence?   Sometimes we don’t want to admit that we all carry within us an aversion to the other: the ones who don’t think like us, or look like us, or talk like us, or have the same values as us – but that otherness doesn’t make them unworthy of God’s love or of our love.

Jesus challenged people to expand their love. He challenged people to think outside the box as to who was their neighbor. He invited them to love all people as God’s creation, not just a selected few. When he says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, Jesus means that God’s love is perfect for EVERYONE, so our love must be for everyone.

Are you going to accept the invitation of God’s love for everyone? And are you willing to act for others in the spirit of the love of God?   You might end up living outside of the conventional social box, but don’t worry about that. You will still be living in and for God’s love, because His love is here for all of us.

 

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The Invitation to Forgive and Reconcile

February 12, 2017       6th Sunday in Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20          I Corinthians 3:1-9           Matthew 5:21-37

Happy Valentine’s Day – a few days early! I know that Valentine’s day isn’t one of the high holy days in the Christian calendar, and that St. Valentine is kind of a disputed saint, since there are actually eleven of them in the catholic list of saints; and the one who died on February 14, might not have died on that day; but it is nice that we take sometime in the middle of winter to celebrate the idea of human love.

You know love is what Christianity is all about. We believe that God created us out of love. We believe that God loves us because we are His creation. We believe that the two first commandments that God gave to us: To love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves: are the basis of all our laws and life-practices. We believe that God incarnated and came to us as Christ because He loved us so much that he wanted to teach us how we could love better and understand His own love for us better. We believe that Christ sacrificed himself because God loved us so much that He needed to show us that we are redeemed. And one of the promises of that sacrifice is that we can live in God’s love for eternity. God loves us so much that He has a place for each of us in His eternal kingdom, and we have the assurance, through Christ, of eternal life.

That’s a lot of love. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp, it’s so big. But it can move out of a concept into reality when we give, and receive, actions of love to and for each other.

But there is a problem with all that love. We are not perfect people. And sometimes we mess up and don’t show the love we need to, or end up hurting people by our actions. And then we don’t have love. We have anger, resentment, hurt, and fear, which can sometimes lead to hate, pride, jealousy, and revenge. And, when those emotions start to control you, love gets shoved out the door and sometimes it can’t even come back in through a window.

Moses, as the speaker of Deuteronomy, describes very clearly what it is to live in love, or to live on the other side in hate.

He says: See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. Those are the two different ways that you can approach life and living. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. Notice that to obey the commandments you must act with love.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.   Now my first thought of what “other gods” might be are gods from Egypt, or Greece, or Philistine, but then I thought that allowing hateful emotions to take over your life is even worse that worshipping a foreign god.

Some foreign gods, like Buddha, want you to have compassion for your fellow humans, but hateful emotions don’t. They demand all your attention and all your time to keep them going. They demand that you focus on the negative in your life, never on the positive. They demand that you put yourself at the center of the universe – because that’s how they are maintained. And anyone that puts themselves and their needs at the center of the universe develops into a narcissistic egotist, who has no love for anyone else.

It’s easy for us to be hurt, and then find ourselves living in the hurt, and then worshiping all the hate and rage that comes out of the hurt.

Now I’m not saying that some things aren’t hurtful. Some things are very hurtful. Some things that happen in our lives are down right unacceptable, inexcusable, and you don’t walk away from them unshaken and untouched. But it’s not good to keep living there in that hurt and pain, because it keeps you from joy and love.

Jesus never said that we weren’t going to live without pain. But what he tried to do was to give us a coping mechanism that would get us back to love. And he outlines it in the Sermon on the Mount.

The first element is that no matter what our condition is – no matter what pain we are going through God loves us and we are blessed. Even if we don’t feel blessed, as all those people who were hungry and oppressed can attest to, we are still blessed and loved by God. The second element is that, even though we might not feel ourselves to be, we are sacred beings. We have souls that are beloved by God, we are God’s creation, and that makes us treasured by God as people who are worthwhile. The third element is that we all have a very special power. We have the power to forgive and to reconcile.

Hateful emotions do not like forgiveness and reconciliation. I think we all know what forgiveness means but what does to reconcile mean? It’s from Latin meaning to bring back or bring together but it has evolved in our language to mean different levels of bringing back or bringing together.

The first level is to accept something that has happened. I have reconciled myself to the fact that my daughter is going to college overseas and not in America. This is the point that we accept that something has happened even though we might not like it. We are not in denial and we are facing the situation.

The second level is to make one account consistent with another, as in: I have reconciled Mary’s story with Sarah’s. I’ve heard person A’s story and person B’s story, about what happened, and now I think I see as truthfully as I can the middle point of what actually happened.

The third level is to work toward coexisting in harmony. That takes compromise. That takes both sides willing to give and acknowledge that mistakes were made; and now how can we fix things?

The fourth level is to restore friendly or loving relationships between people. And in order to do that you have to forgive the mistakes that were made and figure out how you are going to move forward with the person you are in conflict with.

Now you can still go through the first two points and still not be moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation. You can be at the first level and can accept the fact that something has happened but say, “Do you believe this stupid situation? Do you know what that person did? Do you know how angry I feel? Well, if they think that I’m going to apologize to them or accept their apology – forget it!” That’s when you find yourself worshiping at the temple of pride, anger, and hate. Look, I’ve got nothing against blowing off steam and acknowledging hurt if you gets you to level one that something happened and something has to be done. But if you set up an altar to it and light that fire everyday on your anger and hate then you are going to be worshiping before that god.

Instead give it to Christ. Say, “Jesus, I am so hurting. I am so angry and hateful. I just have to pour out to you all this anger and hate – show me how to get past this, to solve it.” Yell your hurt at Christ if you have to – He died on the cross for you to prove to you that he can take it.

A lot of people don’t get past the second level, because they won’t listen to the other side. We have all been there when we’ve tried to explain our hurt and anger and what have we gotten? God, you’re just too sensitive. Really, what are you so bothered about? Or they deny that the situation never really happened.   Okay, they might be stuck in denial and unable to reconcile – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t. You can say, “Okay, Jesus, this person isn’t going to help me work this out. I need you to show me how I can get some harmony back in my life, and figure out how I am going to work with this person in the future,”

We’ve also done the denying that it happened because we’re too ashamed to admit that we might have done something wrong. When you find yourself defending your involvement in a bad situation that is when you need to take a deep breath – and ask Jesus for the strength to admit that you were at least involved in the situation or wrong somewhere.

Maybe the two of you won’t find that middle ground of workable truth – but at least you will know where you stand and you’ll be able to see a way forward into the third level, which is establishing some sort of harmony. It is at this point that forgiveness comes in.

Now a lot of people think that forgiveness comes with an apology. And I agree that this is the best way to do something. But you also need to forgive yourself. What happens if you apologize and don’t get forgiveness – well that’s the other person’s problem – you at least made the effort and made things right with yourself, and that is all that God asks you to do.

But what if you had something really terrible happen to you and the person doesn’t acknowledge or apologize? Is it possible to forgive even if you don’t have the other half of the dialogue? Yes it is. Give the apology through Christ. Go ahead and have a dialogue with Him.             Say: Jesus, this person did this terrible thing to me. I really got hurt. They are never going to acknowledge or apologize for it. But I don’t want to be stuck in the temple of anger, shame, and hurt. I want to live my life in your love and joy. So I need your help to know that even if THEY don’t acknowledge or apologize that YOU acknowledge and give me the apology of love that I need to heal. I need you to take away my anger, shame, and hurt and heal me. Please give me your Holy Spirit of healing so that I can be whole again in your love. Amen.

            This is not mystic mumbo-jumbo. This is acting on the promise of God’s love that you are blessed no matter what your condition is. This is you walking out of the Temple of Hate into the Temple of God’s Love. This is you finding the sacredness in your heart and soul. This is you being reconciled to God’s love and restoring your relationships with Him and the world.

This is all of us living the true spirit of Valentine’s Day. So on this Valentine’s Day I urge you to accept the invitation to God’s Love and to reconcile and forgive the hurts in your life. What can you give to God and let go that will make you a person of wholeness and love? Give it all to God and Jesus and see what the Holy Spirit does for you.

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The Great Invitation to Mission

February 5, 2017                   5th Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-9a             1 Corinthians 2:1-12               Matthew 5:13-20

You’ve probably noticed that during the last month I have been preaching a progression of becoming more involved with Christ and God. We started with the baptism as the point in our lives when we consciously say “I want to leave my old life behind and move forward into a new life with God.” The next step is to Come and See; a learning and evaluation phase when we put ourselves in the presence of God through reading and studying scripture and trying to see where we fit into this construct of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then we take up the invitation to follow Christ and we start to put what we learn into practice.

One of the first things that we put into practice is giving and receiving blessings. We understand that all the blessings that we receive are from God, for the use of building His Kingdom. And all the blessings that we give in life, we are ultimately giving back to God for Him to use to build His Kingdom. That is a mind-blowing concept. That any good thing that we do in life, God is going to use to build His Kingdom.

I want to add something about this Kingdom building concept. Yes, it might seem sometimes that some people are really messing up this world and that our life situation is getting worse – but God is STILL in the middle of that mess, building His Kingdom.

If you read the Bible, you are constantly reminded that even though the Hebrews were running around being idiots at times (and sometimes they were complete morons: doing things like promoting the worship of false gods, like Ahab; or totally unconcerned with justice and fairness like Solomon’s son, Rehoboam; or spouting a racist agenda despite the fact that several of King David’s ancestors were not Jewish, like Nehemiah) Bible history show us that God is working on the Kingdom the whole time, using no-matter-what we throw at Him. The challenge to all of us, when it seems that the world is messed up around us, is to not be a part of the problem and to instead work on being part of God’s energy that is working on building a Kingdom which does justice, and to be a person who loves kindness and walks humbly with God.

Remember, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was given to people who lived in a messed up world. It was given to people who had no political power. People who were being taxed into poverty, or taxed to keep them in poverty. People who wanted a better life for themselves and their children, but who knew that pretty much the only way they could get that better life was if they abandoned justice and kindness, accepted and participated in the corruption, and lived outside of the laws that made them God’s people. That type of person was a tax-collector, or the landowner in Matthew 25 who is hard-hearted, or the judge in Luke 18 who wasn’t interested in the persistent woman’s judgment.

The people who Jesus addressed were surrounded by corruption and unfairness and uncertainty in their lives. But after Jesus blesses them he tells them that they are the salt of the earth.

Salt was hugely important in the ancient times. It was (and still is) one of the best preservers of food. It is something that enhances flavor. It is vitally important to our health – if children don’t have enough salt they can’t develop properly, and if adults don’t have enough salt they develop goiters and memory problems. And unlike today, salt wasn’t readily available – it had to be made through a long distilling process.

But salt was an important part of the ritual sacrifice in the Temple. When a person made a covenant with God it was sprinkled on an offering. Jesus is saying to the people that as the salt of the earth that they are the covenant with God. They are the people who God made His covenant with and for. He starts his sermon to these people with no power by pronouncing them to be a sacred people. Then he goes on to state that they are the light of the world. And he tells them to let their light shine, to let people see the good work that they do in God’s name, so that God is glorified.

Then Christ talks about fulfilling the law. The first thing that comes to mind about the law is the Ten Commandments. But later in Matthew a teacher questions Jesus as to what is the greatest commandment, and Jesus replies, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The active word in both of those commandments is LOVE. Not the sentiment but the action of love. The action of giving and receiving love. The action of giving and receiving all actions, with God’s love, to build the Kingdom. When we add love to our actions that is the salt on those actions that are offerings to God.

I want you to consider that all actions of love that are given and received by us are acts of mission. The root of the word MISSION in Latin is to send. All actions of giving and receiving are sent from us to others, and are sent by others to us. So all giving and receiving can be a mission.

Part of the Temple offering was given to heal our souls, one way to prepare for that was to fast before hand. Isaiah in our scripture today says that the fast that God really chooses is not the actions of not eating, wearing old clothing, or praying out loud all day. The fast God wants us to do is to loose the bonds of injustice and to help those who are oppressed. To share our bread, or soup, with the hungry, to try to shelter and clothe the homeless; and then our light will break forth like the dawn and we will be healed of our sin-sick souls.

And every action of love that you do to comfort another is mission work, sacred and is an offering that will heal your soul.

One of the problems with mission is that it has taken on a big ideal. Most church groups when you ask them what kind of mission work they’re doing will say something like: We buy stoves for Haiti; our church collects 300 health kits a year; we raise money for Days for Girls. And there is nothing wrong with any of that. In fact it is wonderful that we are thinking and involving ourselves with people we don’t even see. Maybe we will never meet them, but we know that our love with those stoves, and health kits, and Days for Girl’s kits, is going to reach those people. Those people are going to receive them and they are going to know that somewhere in America someone cared enough about them to help them. And that will give them hope.

That’s a great ideal, but it’s not the only meaning of mission. Sometimes we forget that one meaning of mission is to be purposeful with our lives here and now. Sometimes we are looking so far away that we forget that here in our community are people who need a gift of love as well. Now today we’ve got our soup collections going. And every can of soup is a gift of love. But what other missions exist in our communities? What other needs are not being filled? What people among us need some justice, or some clothing, or some homes? You know we can’t give and receive the love and help that people around us need until we go out and look around.

I need to mention one more thing about this salt stuff.   Jesus says that if salt has lost its taste then its flavor can’t be restored. The way salt loses its flavor is if it’s mixed with too many other impurities. If it gets dirty in a sandstorm or gets broken up and falls to the ground rendering it useless. Then you can’t use it and you have to throw it out, or go through the very long process of watering it down, getting the impurities out, and evaporating it to purify it so it can be used again. Jesus is saying – you’ve got to keep yourselves clean, you’ve got to keep obeying the law of God’s love, so that you can be the best usefulness that you can be.

In this passage Jesus mentions the earth, the world, a city, and a house, and he also references heaven. All places that we live, or will live, are God’s creation and are part of His Kingdom Building. Mission is the actions of love that we undertake to build God’s Kingdom. Mission is our daily giving and receiving of justice and kindness in the world, our community, our church, our work, with our friends, and with our families. Mission is the great invitation to work and live with God’s love.

So I invite you to see all of your giving and receiving as acts of love and mission for God. Be the salt that provides flavor to people, allow your light to shine into people’s lives to give them hope. See mission not just as a great something that you do for people far away, but as something loving that you can do for someone any day of your life. And when you do, no matter how crazy the world seems to be, you will be living in the Kingdom that God is creating.

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