Don’t Let the Eeyores Get You Down

June 25, 2017                        3rd Sunday of Pentecost

Jeremiah 20:7-13         Romans 6:1b-11       Matthew 10:24-39

There is a character in the beloved children’s book, Winnie the Pooh, called Eeyore. Eeeyore is a gloomy donkey. His favorite expressions are, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, dear,” said in a sad gloomy voice. If a character says to him, “Good day, Eeyore,” he would probably answer, “It could be a good day. Unless of course it rains. Which it might. Since there’s a cloud over there.” Eeyore is the lovable pessimist of children’s literature.

I bring up Eeyore because our two pieces of scripture today seem to be incredibly pessimistic if not downright alarming. But today I want to focus on Jeremiah

Jeremiah is lamenting about the difficulties of being a prophet, but if you know the history of Jeremiah you would actually wonder why he didn’t lament more about his job, since he was given the commission by God to preach against the corruption of the Temple and the Government of Israel.

The Temple had basically turned into a vehicle to maintain the government’s agenda of corruption of the normal people. Israel shouldn’t have been surprised by this development. It was a classic example of: Be careful for what you wish for, because when you get it, it might feel good at the time, but you aren’t going to like the future consequences.

You see five hundred before Jeremiah, the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel went to the prophet Samuel and asked him to speak to God to appoint a king for them. Samuel warned them that what they really needed to do was to figure out how to work together, but, because they insisted, Samuel prayed for guidance from God, and God delivered the following message:

            This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.  Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.  He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.  When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Still, the people wanted a king so God appointed Saul and the David, followed by Solomon, and then (except for a few bright and moral individuals who did follow the commandments of God and the Hebrew Law) it was downhill all the way until the aristocratic corruption was so entrenched that you couldn’t have extracted it from the structure of government with anything less than the Babylonian invasion.

Not only that but over the centuries, the people of Israel had taken to worshiping foreign gods as well as the God of Israel. Back then it was not unusual to find statues of Egyptian, Canaanite, and other gods in a Hebrew household, as objects to be worshiped and to ask favors from. Did people still believe in the Hebrew God? I think they did as their principle God, but humans like something they can touch and visualize – so why not pray to a cat, for a safe home, or a cow for lots of children, or a hawk for good rains, just to be on the safe side?

The problem with this is when they de-emphasize their own traditions they lost the focus on what made their relationship with God such a great thing. If you look at the ancient laws in the Torah they were made to give everyone a chance for equality among people both socially and economically because the main emphasis of the law is to care for your neighbor as you would care for yourself. The people, forgetting their own rights and traditions of equality, allowed the government to becoming more exploitative and corrupt. No wonder Jeremiah was so gloomy.

This is what Jeremiah was sent to prophesy against and pretty much everyone in power said to him – Hey be quiet! We are the ones running the country and you just don’t understand how hard it would be for us to change things at this point. Yeah – following the ancient laws is a nice ideal but this is how we are doing it. This is how we remember it being done. And we’ll all get by. And as far as all those household gods, well they really can’t hurt anyone. As long as everyone pays their Temple tax the main religion of Israel is doing just fine.

This is justification for a broken system. But what on earth does a gloomy donkey have to do with a frustrated angry prophet that no one listened to until it was too late?

Well, one of the problems that Jeremiah had was that he was often sidelined as an Eeyore. Oh that Jeremiah. Always preaching gloom and doom. The harvest is doing just fine this year. The Babylonians are way over there and aren’t interested in us. On a bright sunny day no one wants to hear about rain but that doesn’t mean rain isn’t coming.

Any dysfunctional system, is going to limp along and sort of function, until something happens that causes it to fall apart. A healthy system that works for the whole people, might have disagreements within it but it can meet crisis and adapt because it is not working on maintaining the system – it is working on maintaining the people within it, who will support it as long as they see that they are getting somewhere.

In our own lives we have Jeremiahs – legitimate people who know what they are talking about who try to warn us that we are on the wrong path. And we have Eeyores – people who simply see the possibility of gloom on the horizon and enjoy telling us about it. The problem happens when we mix up the two.

When any system, whether it be a family, a company, or an organization, has a problem solving session then you will have an Eeyore. “Oh, dear. If we try to fix that we’re going to have to do something different. We’ve never done it that way before. Someone isn’t going to like the color of the new carpet. Can you imagine the amount of money it’s going to take to fix it? It probably won’t change anything anyway. People will still trip when the walk in the entrance.”   Kind of makes you want to throw up your hands and say, “Fine let’s just leave it the way it is until it falls apart and we HAVE to do something.” Eeyores tend to lead us to being re-active instead of pro-active.”

On the other hand you can get people who are so alarmist that they try to be uber-Jeremiahs and paint an apocalyptic picture of total destruction if we don’t change. “If we don’t change that carpet someone is going to really trip on it, break their leg and then we will be sued for everything we have and we will all be living out of our cars for the rest of our lives!” Sometimes you spend so much time calming that person down that you never solve the problem.

Jeremiah, as a prophet, might have seemed to be alarmist, because he told it like it was. However, he didn’t sugar coat the serious problems, or blow them out of proportion. He said, This is the deal. You’ve got a corrupt government, which isn’t following the laws that we all agreed to live under, and this makes you unable to protect yourselves. You believe that God is never going to let Jerusalem fall to any enemy but in reality we know that that the Babylonians are bigger, stronger and meaner than we are. We’ve got to get ourselves right with ourselves and God so that we can meet them face to face as equals. And the other thing he always preached was: God is mad at you but He wants to help you. Just get in line with Him and He will help us out of this mess.

Eeyores just see negative outcomes no matter what the change might be. Jeremiahs look at our problems and ask us to live up to our full potentials to solve them. The problem is to live up to our potentials we have to get out of our comfort zones. When Eeyores say, “Oh, dear. We’ve never done it that way before. How do we know it will work? It probably won’t,” we tend to think that maybe we should stay were we are and not do anything, until of course it’s to late.

Don’t let the Eeyore’s get you down. Be a Jeremiah. Look at the problems in your life, get them in line with God, and work on solving them with God. Just as God wanted the Hebrews to be proactive and work with Him to avoid disaster, God wants to work with us to avoid the disasters in our lives. God sees your heart and your mind. He is on your side. Commit your cause to Him and He will help you out of whatever difficulty you have, and get you to the other side, where you find your life for His sake.

 

 

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Begin with Prayer

June 18, 2017                        2nd Sunday in Pentecost & Father’s Day

Genesis 18:1-15          Romans 5:1-8              Matthew 9:35-10:23

Jesus had a tough job.

I don’t mean the whole salvation of the world thing. Don’t get me wrong, dying on the cross so that once-and-for-all we would get it through our thick heads that we didn’t need to keep on with the sacrificing of lambs was no picnic. Let’s face it: Jesus endured about twelve hours of dreadful fear and suffering to get to the point of our salvation. But actually, as hard as that was, it was part of the completion of the job that he knew he had come into the world to do. He knew that on the other side was the resurrection, which sealed the deal of God’s love, the acceptance and redemption of our sin, and the coming of His Kingdom.

No, I am talking about the really hard job that Jesus had to do day in and day out. He had to take a bunch of mismatched, spiritually frustrating students, and turn them into disciples, who would eventually continue his and his Father’s work of building the Kingdom of God.

You know, very early on both the eastern and the western church decided to canonize and make the first disciples, who we now classify as the apostles, into saints. I understand why they did that, because any motivational system, which is trying to teach us how to reach our potential, tells us to find someone to model ourselves after. The idea is that if I say, “I’m going to try to be like Elizabeth the First, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or Mary Magdalene,” that I will try to emulate the best of that person, and make and find myself to be a better person in that process. But at the same time I think that the concept of saint unfortunately evolved into someone who was classified as perfect. And perfect the disciples were not.

Yet, as Wesleyans (Oh, and by the way yesterday was John Wesley’s birthday) we are supposed to be striving for spiritual perfection. Which can be extremely frustrating because quite frankly I feel like I take nearly as many steps backwards as I do forwards on that journey. But that’s okay – because God isn’t finished with me yet. But the disciples weren’t saints – they were at once incredibly obtuse and brilliant students who made mistakes. Right up to the resurrection they made mistakes and after the resurrection they made mistakes. And yet at some point Jesus decided to trust them to go out into the world without him, heal those who needed healing, and preach his message of love, tolerance, and the coming of God’s Kingdom.          

Jesus knew that he wouldn’t be around forever, even though his disciples were probably counting that he would be, so he decides to send them out alone to try out their techniques. The scripture from Matthew that we read today is the first set of instructions from Jesus to His disciples on how to go out in the world and evangelize; a list of instructions, which might seem strange to us in our time.

First, he tells them to only go to areas where Jewish people live. That sounds exclusive – but if you think about it, Jesus was really expounding a new way to think about our relationship to and with God. Since the disciples were Jewish, Jesus probably felt that the disciples would be better received in Jewish households, and be more comfortable there, than in Gentile households. Jesus’ ideas would eventually catch on with the Gentile community but at this moment they were just too different, and the disciples need to practice with the familiar.

Then he tells them not to accept payment for their ministry. At that time there were a lot of charlatan holy men wandering from town to town who would convince people that they were super holy, and pursued them to pay them for a miracle cure. Jesus wanted his disciples to show people that God’s love requires no payment – just faith.

It doesn’t seem logical to not travel with a bag, extra tunics and sandals, or a staff – but Jesus wanted his disciple to show that they were only concerned with living in the moment for God, in the belief that the kingdom could come at any moment. Remember Jesus warns us to not get too attached to earthly treasures, and his disciples had to practice what they preached.

However, the disciples could accept food and hospitality for their preaching, which fits in with Jesus’ relational message. Of course some disciples might be invited into a house to stay, and if the house was kind and loving they should bless it, but if the house was not kind and loving then they should simply leave and not worry about it again. The common expression of the day that Jesus used was, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. This means not to worry about something anymore, because there is nothing you can do about it, so you don’t need to take on any responsibility for it.

Finally, Jesus warns his disciples that often their message will not be accepted or understood by others, but not to worry because the Holy Spirit will tell them how they should speak. They were instructed to live with and in their faith.

Apparently the disciples did very well in their solo ministries and brought to a lot of people Jesus’ message. But they didn’t do it because they were perfect. They did it because they were like the people they talked to, and the people could relate to them.

Like those first disciples we are supposed to evangelize. That doesn’t mean knocking on doors and saying with a fake smile, “Hi, I’ve come to bring you the word of God.” (How many of you have experienced that? Not always a comfortable experience.) That doesn’t mean standing on street corners and haranguing people. (How many of you have experienced that? I experienced one of those at a bus stop and I thought that a very unchristian fight was going to break out.) That doesn’t mean walking up to complete strangers and offering to pray for them. (How many of you have experienced that? That one was really uncomfortable for me because the person asked for money. See – 2,000 years later, it’s still happening.)

What evangelism means is sharing how Jesus helps us, as imperfect people, to be better people in our lives. It means us saying that Jesus is the main person who we model ourselves after, and how that helps us to mature and be stronger and more connected to our faith and to God. That is all the disciples really did: They sat down and told people what it meant for them to be followers of Christ.

Now that is a nice concept but how do we get to the point where we are comfortable talking about that message? Because we don’t want to be knocking on doors with fake smiles, haranguing people on street corners, or soliciting strangers with prayers. We don’t want to be the people who make other people feel uncomfortable as Christians.

So now we come to the title of this sermon: Begin with Prayer. Prayer runs through the Gospels. Jesus used to take time to pray before he would teach. He would pray before he healed. He would pray before he preached. The disciples spent ten days in Jerusalem praying before Pentecost came. They got themselves ready for the Holy Spirit to be in their lives. And they prayed before they set out on their solo missions.

We need to start by praying, which gets us centered with ourselves and God, and opens our lives to the Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit can work with us. Prayer is not difficult. You can pray any time and anywhere. I challenge you all and myself to become prayer junkies. I’m not quite there yet but I’m working on it.

You can pray when you get up in the morning, plan your day, and ask God to help you through specific tasks. You can pray before you eat, thanking God for your blessings and then slip in a request that you need. You can pray while you’re driving. (I don’t know about you, I talk to myself all the time while I drive – I might as well let God into the conversation.) You can read the Bible and then journal your thoughts by saying, “Dear God,” instead of, “Dear Diary.”

It doesn’t matter how you do it – just talk to God. Talk to Him like you talk to a friend. Thank Him for what He’s given you. Let him know how you’re feeling. Ask Him for the help that you need. Tell Him about your concerns. Let Him know about your other friends who are in trouble and in need of help. And then take a few minutes to be silent and be open to what He might say to you. Maybe He won’t say it right away – but if you open yourself up to be receptive to Him, then when He does say something you’ll be ready to hear it.

You know, Jesus still has a really hard job to do. He is still working on taking us, a bunch of mismatched, spiritually frustrating students, and turning us into disciples, who are continuing his and his Father’s work of building His Kingdom. But he wants to do that job. Let’s help him do it, by being in prayer and connecting to him. Let’s get our connection that teaches us how to live with God, and speak about God.

Speak to God knowing that prayer produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us now and forever.

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In the Beginning

June 11, 2017            1st Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 1:1–2:4a        2 Corinthians 13:11–13          John 1: 1-5, 9-14

            In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

            In the beginning, before everything else, was God. There was a void, which means: Nothing. It was all darkness. Nothing was there. That’s how the Old Testament, the spoken tradition of the Hebrew people, which led to the written word, begins our creation mythos. I’m not talking about myth or mythology, which means stories of different gods and goddesses and supernatural forces – I am talking mythos: The core stories that form the understanding, the zeitgeist of our culture; the core symbols that speak to us about who we are.

The beginning of our mythos is darkness and nothing. But before that beginning, was God – the infinite power that has the ability to create universes. This mythos of creation lasted thousands of years. But then, 2,000 years ago, Jesus came to live on earth and more was added to that story. We learned that with God was the Word. The Word was with God and it was God. He was present before the forming of our universe. In fact the Word worked with God to make everything that was ever created come into being.  And everything came into being through the Word because: Then God SAID, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The word “light” was spoken by the Divine Power and light came into being. But, God did not get rid of the darkness, he merely contained it and separated it from the light to use later. Darkness wasn’t evil – it simply was; but it was useful. Light became day, and darkness night. And then God, with the Word, spoke more things into being. They spoke the sky, and the land, and the seas into being. They spoke the plants that all the animals eat into being. They spoke the sun, and moon, and stars into being. They spoke the fish, and the birds, and the animals into being. And finally they spoke humanity into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

And after each thing was created God pronounced it good. After giving humanity life, God pronounced us good. But then God gave us to us a special gift: The gift of speech along with the permission to name every plant and animal on the earth. God gave us the gift of the power of the Word.

God gave us the power to name our reality. That is one of the meanings of the story of Genesis – the naming of reality, and the power of naming our reality. Hang onto that thought for a minute because before we talk about that power, we have to acknowledge that soon after we were created into a relationship with God, we lost our relationship with God.

We all know the story of the fruit, and the serpent, and the temptation, and the fall. I don’t literally believe that part of the story, but I figuratively believe that at one point our consciousness became separated from God. Not completely of course, because we are able to perceive God and His power working in our lives. But I think that our consciousness, handed down through our DNA memories, is aware of an ability that we had to commune with God at one point, which we have lost. And if you read the Bible you realize that it’s a long story about the attempts of humanity to gain back to that connection. Individuals are working to get that connection with God; they are trying to help their neighbors get a connection with God; and whole cultures are trying to get that connection with God. We are trying to get back to the Garden. And we have been using the spoken and written word to do it since our time began.

And you know what? It is sometimes a really frustrating process because we all start from the beginning. We all start prenatally in darkness. And then all of a sudden there is this light, and then there is sound. We say our first word, which is really just a howl of crying. But you know, we’ve found out that babies can’t be born without that crying. It’s built into us to cry so that our lungs will start working so that we can live. Crying is actually good for babies. That first power of the howl of sound gets and keeps us alive. We begin by crying out a word of creation. Our beginning is darkness, to light, to word.

Jesus walked that same road. The Word became Jesus, Emanuel, God with Us, by putting himself into darkness, and being born into the light, and crying the primal word that we all cry when we’re born. Jesus, the Word, who was there at the beginning, brought us the Word through His words and deeds so that we can get closer to God.

And by following the light of his words we dispel the darkness of our confusion and misunderstanding, and we re-forge our connection to God.

By using our words to pray, we ignite our thoughts and offer them up to God as an offering. When you open your heart and you talk to God or Jesus, you’re harnessing the great power that God gave you to articulate your thoughts and giving your thoughts to Him. So your prayers become an offering and the beginning of a conversation with God about something.

By using our words and voices to sing, we ignite our bodies and souls in praise of God, as we participate in His joy.

By paying careful attention to words, we listen to and grow to understand the pain of others. Then by using our words, we comfort and heal broken hearts and spirits.

By using our words, we give knowledge to each other so that our society will learn from our successes and failures and go on to greater things.

By using our words, and examining the words of others, we challenge tyranny and speak the truth so that it stays alive in this world.

Christ came into the world: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. We know that many of his own people did not accept him, even though, with the words and the mythos of his own people, he spoke the word of God His Father. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Christ, showed us how we are born into being children of God, through the Holy Spirit, by His death and resurrection.

There have been times in each of our lives when we have felt alone. We have been alone with unbearable pain, and doubt and uncertainty like Christ on the cross. And we have all felt dreadfully alone and cut off from life in our tombs of despair. But though we may feel alone in our pain and despair God is still there. If God wasn’t there then there would be no unsealing of door and rolling away of the stone. There would have been no proclamation by angels who said, “He is not here, he is risen.” Mary Magdalene and the woman, who came in darkness to the tomb, would not have seen Christ in his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. There would have been no meeting in the Upper Room, or on the Road to Emmaus, or by the Sea of Galilee.

But God was there, and Christ was there, and the Word was there on that Easter morning and on the day of Pentecost, when the Wind of God passed over the crowd and gave them the gift of words once again in the tongues of new languages, at the beginning of the Church.

We’ve all heard the expression: When you don’t know what to do – Go back to the beginning. So when you don’t know what to do go back to the beginning to figure it out: What is the darkness that you are in? Even if the darkness is one that you do not know, use your gift that God gave you: the power of speaking to reality, of speaking your reality into being.     Whatever it is, name it. Even naming your ignorance helps, and then speak the words in prayer to ask Jesus to guide you into the light of truthful knowledge.   Then speak your knowledge and truth into action by declaring what you will do. The power has been given to us to name our reality into being, and to map out a path that we can walk on.

Speak it, pray for it, and work with Jesus on creating it. And God will bless it, from the beginning to the end of it, and say, “It is good.”

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The Elements of Pentecost

June 4, 2017         Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21     1 Corinthians 12:3b-13           John 7:37–39

Every holiday has its images and symbols. Christmas has the star, shepherds, mangers, angels and the holy family. Epiphany has the wise men, presents, and camels. Palm Sunday has palms; Good Friday thorns and the cross; Easter also has the cross, the empty tomb, and eggs. And Pentecost has wind and fire.

But when I examined the overall story of Pentecost I realized that it also contained water and earth. I’m not sure if Luke, the original author of the book of Acts, was deliberate in their inclusion – but I think that it is really neat that all four of the ancient principle elements: Earth, Wind/Air, Fire and Water are involved because when we examine how the four elements work together in this story we get a more complete understanding of what Pentecost means to us.

And although this might seem like I’m stretching the prose and poetry of the Gospel, the symbolism of the four elements was very important in the first century, since most of their science was based on these elements.

Let’s start with the element of air or wind. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Air is the element that they are talking about, but wind is the mechanism by which we see air. We know air is there when we see the trees or other objects move. Air or wind doesn’t really have a noise, rather it’s the movement of it through things that creates noise. The sound of wind has often been used as a metaphor or vehicle of God speaking. In Job God speaks out of a whirlwind. So when the disciples heard this mighty wind they would have known that God’s presence was now among them.

And if you think about it, the description of air and wind is a good way to describe God. Like air we cannot see God, yet God is essential to our living and His presence continually surrounds us. Like the wind we can see God in the movement of our lives. Many people will say things like, “God pushed me to where I needed to go,” or “God put something in front of my path.” We don’t physically see God doing those things but we see the effects of God’s movement.

The next element is fire: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

            For the ancient Hebrews fire was one of the main designations of the presence of God. There are actually 34 references in the Bible to God manifesting as fire. Moses first met God when he encounters the burning bush. God appears as a pillar of fire on the Red Sea. And later Moses encounters God as a fire again on Mt. Sinai. Also, God’s Holy Fire was a well-known purification method. Isaiah has a vision that his lips are purified with a live coal from God’s altar by an angel so that he could speak the truth and become a prophet. The Temple offerings were burned so that they would become pure for God.

So when the fire appeared on the disciples while they were praying this indicated that God was with them, and that each person was being purified. What happens then is that each person is given the gift of a language as the first step to the evangelism of Christ’s message through out the world.

But I want to elaborate a bit on this gift idea. We all say that we have each been given gifts and graces to use in the service of God. When we are young we are encouraged to try different subjects, like the sciences and the arts, or music and sports. One purpose of education is to find out what we are good at and develop those attributes to use in life. We say to people that they should find out what they are passionate, or “on fire,” about. The same could be said with our relationship to God and how we do His work in the world. I had a friend who entered seminary fully intending to become a minister – but then she discovered that her fire was in academics.

We all of us need to find out what our fire is for Jesus and God. Do you have a ministry that you’ve always wanted to do but have never tried? Do you want to start a prayer group or a book group? Is there a specific group of people who you want to help? A church is where we should be bringing our fires for God and nurturing them.

The next element that is mentioned is Earth. First the scripture says that: there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And then later Peter says that the prophet Joel proclaimed: in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below. So Earth is not only mentioned as the entire planet but also as the nations that make up the world.

            The Hebrew word for humanity means: from the earth, or made from earth.   The disciples are understood to be connected to the physical planet. But also the gift of languages from many countries and cultures started to break the boundaries of Christ’s message being just for the Hebrews, and expands the Christian idea to all of humanity. The disciples of Christ who had been insulated within their culture because they knew only their language could now step outside of their culture and travel freely to other cultures because they knew other languages. I wonder if Joseph of Arimethea was there. Remember he’s the disciple who supposedly immigrated to England and set up the first church there. Perhaps he received the gift of speaking the old Saxon-Celtic and that’s why he went to England.

The Gift of Languages shows us that we are all part of humanity and all children of God. Today that isn’t such a radical idea, but we still need to be working on it. I am sure that each of us carries around prejudices about certain groups of people or even about certain people. But even by using our own language we can break down those barriers and try to at least understand each other and find our common ground and humanity.

The final element of Water isn’t mentioned in our reading today. But after Peter finishes speaking about Jesus the crowd asks him what they should do and he answers: Repent and be baptized. And we learn that three thousand people were baptized that day.

Water is of course essential to life. It is part of the rule of threes: You can live three weeks without food; three days without water; and only three minutes without air. Water is what we use to clean ourselves, both internally and externally. But being baptized is more that just being washed clean. It is also a willingness to let go of our sinful nature and actions, and to bravely accept the fact that we are going to take on new actions – even when we don’t know what they might be.

And that’s a lot about what accepting the Holy Spirit does in our lives. We will be letting go of that which is harmful and replacing it with something new – but new, by definition, means something unknown. And the unknown can be scary.

But when we are washed clean we are opened up to greater connections of what we find in this life that we share with others on this earth. When we make those connections we open ourselves up to options of what is around us so we can learn and grow, and we are more aware of how God is guiding us in our lives to find out what our passion is and how we can use it to serve Him with our love.

Pentecost is the awakening of ourselves to God, the love that He shows us in Christ, and the continual connection that surrounds us that we have with Him. So take a moment, breathe, pray, and listen for the wind of God that brings His fire into your life.

 

 

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Heaven Here, Not There

May 28, 2017             Ascension Sunday and Memorial Day

Acts 1:6-14          1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11         John 17:1-11

You know, as Christians we aren’t supposed to get too caught up in the troubles and politics of the world. (and I mean politics in the broadest sense) There are a few pretty good theological reasons for this outlook.

First of all, when Christianity started out the faith practice was mostly made up of people with no political power, and not much chance of getting any in the future. Most early Christians were poor or maybe middle-class. The people with power were the ones in the hierarchy of the Jewish temple; or the people who publically declared that the Roman Emperor was a god. Early Christian preachers and writers approached this condition by saying: Don’t worry about politics or worldly power. We don’t have the influence to do anything about it or change it. Stick instead to your sphere of influence that you know you can do good work in. Make yourself into a better, more loving person, and make the world around you a better and more loving place for you and your neighbors to live in – this is how you serve God.

We are in the world, as Jesus said; but we are not of the world. As Jesus’ ascension to Heaven shows us, our ultimate connection is to God and His Heavenly Kingdom, and to God’s Kingdom, which is coming. We don’t need to be too concerned with this world because ultimately this is not where we are going to end up living.

The second reason to steer clear of getting too much involved in the world and its power struggles is the belief that the world has a corrupting influence on our souls. There are a lot of things out there that will pull us away from our focus on God. Paul at one point defined them as the seven deadly sins: Those corruptions that tempt us by promising to make us feel good.

Ultimately the reason why the seven deadly sins are dangerous is because thoughts and actions relating to pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and laziness, put you, not God or others, at the center of your universe. It’s true that we should obey one half of the Second Commandment, which is to love ourselves, but we also have to obey the other half, which is to love others. The Second Commandment recognizes that we are all in symbiotic relationships with each other and the way we keep that balance is to bring into the equation the recognition that we are all God’s children. But worldly temptations pull us away from that, so Christian disciplines have always encouraged questioning the spiritual value of what we find in the world.

Still, Jesus knows that his disciples might not be of the world – but they still have to live in it. Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is Jesus’ long prayer, at the Last Supper, for his disciples, who are going to come up against the world in the worst possible way with Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus prays that his disciples won’t lose their faith because of these events. He knows that if they can just keep it together for three days that they will then be able to witness the resurrection and then be given the absolute certain proof that he is indeed the Son of God, Emanuel among us, and our Savior and Redeemer.

And then we have the forty days of Jesus returning to be with his disciples, and during that time teaching them how to be his disciples without him. But then Jesus says that it is time for him to get back to his Father and for them to continue to do His work in here on earth. But isn’t it interesting that even though Jesus has been preaching all through his ministry about not getting too involved in worrying about the world, that, right before he’s going to leave, his disciples ask him a question that has been asked many times before: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

I can just see Jesus taking a deep breath. Jesus knew that, like all of us, the disciples were still on the learning curve. We can hear in the lectures all about what we are supposed to do, but lecture smart does not equal street experience. Until the disciples got out there on their own and practiced they wouldn’t get the focus right. So he patiently replies, once again, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words – focus on the work that you need to do guys!

But Jesus knows that the disciples need more than just the intellectual knowing that they are connected with God. To really maintain their faith through all the trials and temptations that the world might throw at them they need an emotional, visceral connection: An experience that they can cling to with their physical and spiritual beings. So he assures them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I would say that with the Holy Spirit we have led Christianity on to the ends of the earth.

Not only has Christianity gone on to the ends of the earth it has also moved laterally up and down into all levels of our society. Unlike the early Christians, we are no longer the religion of the powerless and the poor. Christianity, through the application of faith, became a structured religion that became the dominate religious power in the west. Unfortunately it also took on power to the point where it is so in the world that it does have the potential to become corrupted by it.

But living the faith of Christ, putting into practice that all humans are children of God and are in need of respect and love, has led us over the centuries to create a society that tries to reflect that.

If the Kingdom of God means that we are all children of God, all equal in God’s eyes, then the American Revolution makes sense. We were perceived by Britain to be that colony of no-nothing people who were of a class to be exploited. The American revolution didn’t just spring into being, it was a tortured history of many years of the Americans trying to get the British to see that we were their bothers and sisters and worthy of respect. And finally when there was only NO left – people gave their lives so this country could come into being.

If the Kingdom of God means that we are all children of God, all equal in God’s eyes, then the American Civil War makes sense. We did not treat a whole race of our brothers and sisters as equals, and it was a long tortured history of negotiation and compromise that finally got to NO – then many people gave their lives so that our Union would not dissolve and we would be free of the stigma of institutionally treating people as less than human.

If the Kingdom of God means that we are all children of God, all equal in God’s eyes, then when tyranny got out of control in Europe and Asia, during the first half of the 20th century, then World Wars I and II make sense.   When everything finally got to NO – then many people gave their lives so that half the world would not have to live enslaved to tyrants.

There are times when our wars and conflicts have been more in the interest of our state than our ideals. But when I was living in Washington State I met many Vietnam immigrants who said that they had met many soldiers who lived the ideal that the Vietnamese were also children of God. They remembered acts of kindness that transcended all the politics.

If the Kingdom of God means that we are all children of God, all equal in God’s eyes, then our own civil rights movement makes sense. And all those who have lost their lives to lynchings, or police beatings, or standing up to the brutality of the world and our society are also our fallen heroes, who remind us that we must not look away when we ourselves make mistakes.

And if the Kingdom of God means that we are all children of God, all equal in God’s eyes, then even as we protect ourselves from terrorism and mourn those who have lost their lives because of terrorism, we must remember that those of other faiths are also children of God, and the way to end our hostilities is through the path of respect and love, because that is how you build God’s Kingdom.

I believe that over the last 2,000 years we have made a slow stumbling progress with our faith toward a world that is more like God’s Kingdom. The two men in white robes said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The disciples went back to Jerusalem after that and started to create a society on this earth where all people were considered to be God’s children and were treated as such. They tried to bring heaven here.

We can honor the memories all of those witnesses and workers in faith who have gone before us by living in this world with our faith of Christ. Making ourselves into better, more loving people, and making the world a better and more loving place for all of us to live in.

 

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Worshiping Objects

May 21, 2017             6th Sunday in Easter

Act 17:22-31               1 Peter 3:13–22           John 14:15–21

I admit to being a little superstitious. I don’t put photos in my wallet – because every time I’ve done that my wallet goes missing. However, I don’t believe that walking under ladders is bad luck – just dangerous, and I rather like black cats, so I don’t mind if they cross my path. I don’t carry a rabbit’s foot, but I do have a good-luck ladybug in my car and a good-luck key on my purse. Why is my ladybug or key good luck? I don’t know, they just feel lucky to me.

Everyone has something that they are superstitious about. Sometimes it’s because something happens to you, like my wallet and photos. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, like my key and ladybug. But I don’t worship my key and my ladybug, they don’t represent God to me, just a mild connection to the order or the chaos of the universe.

But for a lot of the human existence people have worshiped objects and things as being representations of the universe or at least pieces of the universe that they connect to and pray to.

The Judeo-Christian God is very unique as an ancient God, because He is formless, although God can speak through forms like burning bushes. Most of the ancient gods are either animalistic like bulls or lions, half-human and half-animal like the Egyptian gods, or humans with powers that related to natural forces.

One of the places that you could find an incredible mix of all these gods was Athens. During Paul’s life, Athens, even more than Rome, was considered to be one of the cosmopolitan centers of the world. Today we know that the city had already been settled for about 5,000 years, and from the beginning it seems to have been a center of trade due to its central location and natural harbor. The Athenians always wanted to make their overseas business partners feel welcome so they allowed foreigners to build temples to their gods. When Paul visited, besides going to the local synagogue, he probably wandered the streets and saw a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, or to a Babylonian god, as well as to the Greco-Roman deities.

Other religions were tolerated because the patron goddess of Athens was Athena, the goddess of learning and knowledge. Athenians considered education to be of primary importance and invited scholars from all over the known world to study and teach in their town. The philosophies of different religions were invited and their merits debated regularly. Athenians didn’t mind other religions being present among them as long as everyone obeyed the civil law. With all those temples to different gods and goddesses being maintained and attended, you could understand why Paul would compliment the Athenians for being extremely religious.

But then Paul, who has been invited to speak at the Areopagus (this is kind of like being invited to lecture at Harvard) makes his case for a singular God who lives without the need for statues of gold and silver.

First of all since God made the entire universe He doesn’t need to live in a shrine made by human hands. Of course we have church buildings, but back then there was a philosophy that said that a god needed a place to rest and recuperate, and the place for them to that was a temple.  Also that you could pray anywhere, but if you prayed at a really important temple that your god or goddess would hear you better. But for us God isn’t just one element of nature – God is nature. So he’s doesn’t need any one space to rest. He is all around us at all times.

The next radical thing that Paul says is that God does not need to be served by human hands, as though he needed anything. Now I want you to think about that for a moment because we do say that we “serve God.” But how do we serve God? In Paul’s time the deities were taken care of by offerings of food, wine, livestock, or money. It was believed that if you didn’t bring an offering to the god, who was your patron that you would lose some of your life power and influence, but also that if enough people stopped worshiping a god then the god would also become weaker. The stronger the god the stronger your power.

Paul however is promoting a God that is all powerful because He came first before everything else. Since he gave to all mortals life and breath, our service to him isn’t to keep Him alive, our service is to serve each other in respect and goodwill, because by respecting his creation we show respect to God.

Paul also tells everyone that God is the universal God of all the nations of the earth, since from one ancestor, created by God, all people came into being. Paul then states that all of us are searching for God. I like the term he uses “grope for him.” It brings to mind trying to find something that you can’t quite see or comprehend but that you know is there. But Paul assures us that we do find him. Though it is sometimes hard to find God, he is never far from each one of us.

Paul even uses the phrase; For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ indicating that we are never separated from God because we are actually inside Him and his whole creation. And because we are God’s offspring and within him, not looking at God from afar, we cannot really imagine what God looks like. So all the gold, silver, and stone statues don’t really mean much.

Paul concludes by saying that humans have been ignorant but now we need to put aside our ideas of God being separate from us and dependent on us, and start to realize that we are connected to God and dependent on Him for our salvation, which has been given to us by Jesus Christ.

Paul is preaching a universal God, saying that God is not something that you can ever control by feeding or taking care of him or her.   Paul is liberating God from being an object to be worshipped and in some way controlled to God as a force to be lived within and connected to through worship and the care of His creation.

Paul was talking to people with a different mind-set of how their universe worked than we have today. In our Christian culture we line up with Paul and don’t believe that God needs to be taken care of or loses His power if we don’t pray to him. Churches might be sacred space to pray in, but we also believe that we can pray anywhere and God will hear us.

But in our age we still struggle with the idea of serving God through serving our fellow man. Sometimes I think that we still get caught up in the trap of thinking that God is so big and far away from us that we don’t recognize that He is right here next to us with the people who we encounter everyday.

And since we are human, and are managing our lives, we can still have difficulties understanding that when change comes, that even though it might not seem like the right change, that ultimately God is in control.

As I thought about all those old religious practices I think that the object that humans really want to worship is stability. It seems that all of those efforts in ancient times to feed and provide for the gods was so things would stay stable and not change, because with stability we have a sense of control.

With change, especially if it is more radical, we have a sense that we can’t handle things. I think it is in our nature to resist change because then we can’t see our future. But one of the big promises that God gave to us is that He would be with us always. That means that God is with us even when things change for us. Even when we aren’t in control of things, God is with us.   That is a huge part of the promise that was made through Jesus resurrection.   Jesus told his disciples: On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. No matter what happens to us – whether it be stability or change – God is with us. And just like we pray in our Lord’s Prayer the God’s Kingdom is coming in the middle of all that change.

All we need to do is to keep God’s commandments of Love and Respect for His creation. By living in His love, and being in connection with God, we allow His spirit to be revealed to us. And we will be able to know that God is with us even in the change of our lives.

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Becoming Living Stones

May 14, 2017             5th Sunday of Easter             Mother’s Day

Act 7:55-60       1 Peter 2:2–10       John 14:1–14

Peter put forth a very powerful image in this scripture of Christians becoming “living stones.” It seems to be a contradictory image because stones, unlike humans, are not alive. So we have to ask: What are the qualities that stones have that Peter wants Christians to have?

Well, stones are very durable, and back then they were the preferred building material because they last a long time. They provide good shelter from calm to rough weather, and they contain heat in the winter, but they can keep off heat in the summer. Stones are hard to move; once you plant them somewhere they tend to stay in that place for a while. They make up stable landmarks in the landscape, and they were used as guide-posts for travelers in ancient times. You can also, with effort, shape and polish them into beautiful forms.

As I was really thinking about the characteristics of stones a story popped into my mind, and, as I thought about this story, I realized that it was a great metaphor that relates to this idea of “living stones” and living our faith.

Can you guess what the story is? It’s the story of the Three Little Pigs.

Now go with me on this. You start out with three little pigs who are about to go out into the world. But before they leave their mother says, “Go out and build your own houses, but beware of the big bad wolf, who would like to come and eat you up.”

This is what we do when we become adults: We go out into the world and we build our own lives. Our parents do for us what they can, but then we need to go out and apply our own characters to construct our lives. But the world is not a perfect place – there are big bad wolves out there. The big bad wolf can be all the nasty stuff that we can’t prevent, like storms or earthquakes. It can be the symbol of all the temptations that we come across in the world that might side track our endeavors.  Or, we can even take it one step further, and say that the wolf represents Satan: The spirit of evil who wants to come into our lives, mess everything up, and drag us down into despair by separating us from God, and making us think that we are horrible, incompetent people who will never do anything right.

Now I see the little pigs as three different characters – from immature to mature.

The first little pig makes a house of straw. You get the feeling that this pig isn’t really interested in working too hard, or taking the time to do something right. Who really thinks that a house of straw is going to be any good against the elements, or provide you with any protection? Never mind the big bad wolf, the first heavy rain is going to destroy that house. Go one step further and make the house a metaphor for character and spiritual life. This little piggy is like: Well, whatever. This straw is cheap and I’m going to be able to throw this thing together and if it falls apart, I’ll just do again. I’d rather have more time to relax and play around. I don’t really have to put so much effort into life.  

All of our lives have some parts that are made of straw. These are things that are not so important to us. If we have to lose them or they get blown away from us, it’s ok. When I moved to Japan and I sold everything I learned that a lot of my “stuff” was actually “straw.” It was nice to have, but I didn’t need it. It was nonessential to my life.

But you know, Jesus asked people to examine their lives and to get rid of the values that were straw. Several times he confronted religious leaders who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. Really, he said? Is your law against working so important, so etched in stone, that you will not allow someone to heal someone else, in God’s name, on the Sabbath? We can all be Pharisees. We can all get so involved in doing things the right way, that we don’t do the right thing that needs to be done. We all have to be really careful that we don’t live by laws and values of straw.

So life happens to the first pig. The wolf comes along and says: Little pig let me in. So here you have the wolf as the tempter.   Now the pig might be a lazy pig, but he is a good pig. He says, No, not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.   But, a house of straw is no protection. The wolf blows the house in. So the first lazy little pig has to run to his brother for protection.

Now we meet the second pig. He’s a little more industrious and he has taken some time to build his house of sticks or wood – depending on which culture you read this story from. This piggy is the kind who does what he needs to do, but isn’t going to go the extra step. A house of wood is good enough for him. He’s going to play the middle odds that something bad might happen, but nothing really bad is going happen to him. Character wise he’s kind of like those people who don’t make full commitments, even when it would benefit them.

He’s kind of like the rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to have eternal life and happiness. And Jesus told him to honor his mother and father and help the poor, and he replied: I’ve done all that. And Jesus realized: This guy is a good person, but he’s not happy, so he’s ready for the next step. And he tells him, he challenges him: Follow me. But the young man just can’t do it.

There is nothing wrong with wood in our life. It’s solid, it holds things together, it offers some protection, and it is easy to rebuild if we need to change things – but sometimes it’s not a strong enough commitment to get us where we need to go.   And of course along comes the wolf who tempts the two good pigs; they say no; but the house still gets blown down, because ultimately it’s not strong enough for some of the bad stuff that happens in life.

So now the lazy-little-pig and the just-enough-pig run to their brother, who has build a house of stone or brick. This pig takes the time and puts in the effort to do things right in his life. And you know what? I bet in that house he’s got a few straw baskets laying around, and he’s got some wooden furniture that serves him well.

But we have to build our lives on a rock solid belief system that measures our actions by love, compassion, and fairness, with ourselves and others. The command of Christ is to do unto others, as we would do unto ourselves, and to do it as Christ would love us. Following that code is a rock of serious strength.

So when the wolf comes to the door of the stone house – the house that has been given the time, and energy, and effort to be built right – and says: Let me in; and the pigs say: No; that wolf will huff and puff, and the house is not going to get blown down. Not only that, but when the wolf tries to invade the house the pigs are able to repel him, and do him serious damage.

Jesus encountered several people who had great faith and were living stones. I think the best example for me of a person of living faith was the Centurion who sent people to Jesus to ask Jesus to heal his servant. Now this was a Roman, but a Roman who obviously believed in the value of a faith that serves others. The Jewish people that come to Jesus with the request tell him that the centurion built their synagogue. This man recognized the value of all people, not just the ones in his own culture.  And when Jesus agrees to go heal his servant the Centurion says: Lord I am not worthy to accept you in my house, but say the word and I know that because you are a man of God that my servant will be healed.

That is living-stone-faith. That is a solid foundation that isn’t stagnant but is growing and becoming stronger.

The story of the Three Little Pigs tells us to take the time to build our lives right, because the world, life, temptation, is going to knock on our doors and disrupt our existence.

But if we take Peter’s advice and commit to become living stones, who are continually growing into our spirituality, and we build a strong foundation for life, through our faith in Christ, then we will be able to become God’s people and part of the living priesthood as disciples of Christ.

And then, by our faith and our works, we will be building from the cornerstone that is the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

 

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