Keep on Going for Christ

October 15, 2017                   19th Sunday of Pentecost

Exodus: 32: 1-14        Philippians 4:1-9       Matthew 22:1-14

One of the techniques for writing a sermon is to read a Bible story and then to think: Who am I in the Bible story? For instance, for the story of the King’s Wedding Banquet you might feel, if you are the boss of a company, that you are the King. If you’re the type of person who has a very hectic life, you might feel that you are one of the wedding guests who refused to go in the first place. If you are not in a very good situation in life, you might feel or hope that you are one of the people invited the second time around. All of us might feel like all of those people, depending on our situation in our lives when we encounter the story.

But there is one odd character in this story: The character of the guest who didn’t have a wedding robe.

I was wondering why the wedding robe was so important, especially in an era when people didn’t have that many clothes to begin with. I have a few outfits in my closet that I only wear for special occasions like weddings. (And isn’t sort of silly of our culture that the stuff we wear the least is the stuff that costs the most?) But in Jesus’ day, the majority of people only had one or two sets of clothing – comprised of a tunic and an outer sleeveless, or short sleeved, robe that was your jacket – which you alternated wearing. If you were poor you only had one set and if you were REALLY poor you probably only had a tunic.

If the king had invited all the leftover people from the streets to come into the banquet, both the good and the bad (or the rich and the poor as it is said in the Gospel Luke) he couldn’t expect everyone to be at their best dressed for a wedding. But because Jesus didn’t throw out some obscure symbols in his teaching – he was dealing with stuff that people knew about – I did a little research into this wedding robe bit.

It turns out that just like we give little gifts to our wedding guests, they also did that back in Jesus’ time. Of course if you were an ordinary person you weren’t expected to do much more than serve a nice dinner. But if you had the money to give a gift to everyone invited you probably would; it was a status symbol thing. And if you were really wealthy you gave your guests one of those outer sleeveless robes. Apparently this served two purposes. First of all, it showed that you had the money in a time when material was not cheap and you were willing to pay to have all those robes made. And second, the servants would hand the robes out to the invited guests at the door, who would put on the robes, thereby indicating that they were approved guests. Apparently this cut down on gate-crashers. Those who didn’t have a robe would be thrown out.

Of course it makes sense that a king would be giving out robes for his son’s wedding, because he has all the wealth of the kingdom at his disposal. But while the king is walking through the banquet he notices a person who is not wearing a robe. Now this is odd because the servants went out into the street and gathered up everyone, and I can’t imagine a servant not giving this particular guest a wedding robe – everyone else was wearing one after all. The only explanation for the wedding robe not being worn is that the guest never put it on in the first place, might have taken it off because he didn’t like it, or it wasn’t convenient for him to wear it.

When the king confronts the man about not wearing the robe the man is speechless.

So now we have another set of questions to ask: Why did the man not wear the robe or take it off, and why is he unable to give a good answer to the king who gave him the robe in the first place? This is when we start to get into the parallels between the Kingdom of Heaven and the wedding banquet.

Who is admitted into the wedding banquet? Everyone, both good and bad. Who does Jesus admit into his Kingdom? Everyone, both people who are righteous AND people who are sinners, like prostitutes and tax collectors. (Socially and morally the prostitute was the lowest sort of female and the tax collector was the lowest sort of male.)   To get into the wedding feast you have to put on the new robe that the king gives you. To get into God’s Kingdom we are required to accept God’s commandments and to live a new life the way He wants us to live, not the way we want to live. This image is even stronger when you realize that a lot of religions at the time, expressed conversion as donning a new set of clothes. Changing clothes expressed the giving up of the old way of life and putting on the new life and a new identity.

We do this today. When you move from being a student to working in the world you no longer show up in your sweatpants and a rumpled T-shirt like you did when you were in university or high-school. You put on the uniform of your job, whether it’s a suit and tie, a nice dress, a chef’s jacket, a hospital lab coat, or a clerical collar. You assume the new visual identity so that people will identify you with your new internal identity.

But if you don’t take on the responsibilities and mindset of the new job, or a way of being, you are not going to be able to live up to and into your new identity. The wedding guest didn’t want to keep the new identity that the King had given him – he took off his robe, thinking that he could just enjoy the wedding without it. I’ve met a few people who say that they are Christian (or Buddhist or Jewish – you can throw any religion into this) who are not wearing the outer robes of their faith (i.e. behaving like a Christian) nor are they taking on the internal changes and challenges that God asks of us to grow in our faith. Hey, they got confirmed when they were 13 – there is no need for them to read the Bible or attend worship service, they’ve got the paper, so God is going to let them into the Kingdom.

Don’t be so sure of that.

But before you think that I’m getting all righteous on you, let me circle back to the beginning of this sermon. The person who I relate to the most in this story is the wedding guest without the robe. And sometimes, like him, I don’t have a good answer for my non-compliance.

None of us like to think that we are the wedding guest, but how many of us have moments of being convenient Christians? Now I’m not saying that we are like this all the time, I think that most of us are really trying to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves as Christ loved us and showed us. I think for the most part when it is comfortable we do our best. But there are times when I really wonder if I am doing the most that I can, to be the best that I can, for Christ.

Am I really trying to figure out who in our community needs my help? Or am I just waiting for people to have a crisis right in front of me before I do anything? Am I really dedicating myself to my prayer life? Or am I letting myself watch just a few more minutes of news in the morning, and: Oh dear, now I don’t have any time to pray – after all, I really need to work on that bulletin. When challenges come up in my life am I embracing them as a moment to grow in Christ, or am I just doing the careful minimum instead of that little extra stretch that might make all the difference?

Am I putting on the robe of Christ, am I acting with the heart of Christ, only when it is convenient or comfortable, and leaving it off when it gets a little challenging and I don’t feel that I have the courage? The thing is, I don’t need Christ when life is convenient or comfortable. That doesn’t mean that I don’t act in Christ’s love or heart when it’s convenient or comfortable, but there’s no need for me to call on him for help because: I got it, I can handle it. Praise God and give thanks for your blessings of being able to handle it when it’s convenient and comfortable.

It is when you get a challenge and you need courage – that’s when you call on Christ. And actually – that’s when he wants you to call on him – because that’s when he gets to show you that your faith is real. When things get scary and you call on Christ, and he gets down with you in the dirt and the muck, and the confusion and the uncertainty, and you are still calling for him, and working for him, and wearing that robe that you have put on proudly, that is when you truly find your faith and become a Christian deep in your soul. It is when you wear that robe in the outer darkness that you become a life-long guest of the wedding feast.

We’ve got to always remember to wear the robe that Christ has given us – the one that reminds us, and shows everyone, that we love our Heavenly Father, because he loves us. Our wedding robe, our salvation, is more than just a pretty garment. We accept it with our commitment to do our Father’s work in this world.

As Paul says: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen . . . and the God of peace will be with you. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. May we all wear our robes proudly.

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Being Caretakers of God’s Love

October 8, 2017         18th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 39:4-6            Philippians 3:4b-14         Matthew 21:33–46

Jesus told a lot of stories about tenant or stewards who were in charge of their master’s houses when the master was away, a common practice in the first century.

This story is actually rather gruesome and the most radical example of stewardship neglect in the Bible. The tenants lose no time trying to commandeer the farm from the rightful owner. They don’t even attempt to send to the owner his rightful produce for a year or two before they try to cheat him. You see, tenant farmers actually had the right to a negotiated percentage, usually ten percent, of the produce as their payment. In a good year the ten percent would be larger than in a bad year, so the better the tenants worked the better their pay. It was an incentive to maintain the farm and improve on it. But there were a lot of ways to cheat an absentee landlord that I am sure Jesus’ audience knew about – Everything from hiding a few bushels of produce for yourself, to selling stuff on the side, or even cooking the accounts. It would actually be in the best interest of the tenants to play the game of appearing honest while they cheated the landowner rather than cheating the landowner outright.

But these tenants don’t play that game. Over and over again they beat up the servants and finally get the brilliant idea to kill the son thinking that if they do so that the farm will be theirs free and clear. This is such a blatant disregard for the law that the Pharisees say right away that the landlord will execute the tenants and replace them with good tenants who will follow the rules. And they are not happy when Jesus equates them with the tenants and says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Stewards were very important people in ancient times. Property was industry and needed proper management. One of the most famous stewards was Joseph who, because of his honesty in administering first a nobleman’s house and then the Pharaoh’s household, eventually rose to become prime minister of Egypt. To take care of someone’s property and make sure that it prospered was a noble calling. A steward controlled not only the property, and was in charge of buying and selling his master’s goods, but he was also responsible for the management of the servants and setting their wages. If you hired people who were honest and fair and paid them decent wages you could expect that they would work for you with the motivation to bring a profit to the landowner, which would trickle down to everyone. The basic theory, expectations, and economics of stewardship are not that different from modern management.

But stewardship has a broader meaning than just an economic managerial one. It means in its base roots: to take care of the hall. The hall was the main part of the building that everyone lived out of. So stewardship can be expanded to mean that we take care of anything that we use.

We all exercise a stewardship of our bodies. If we do not take care of our health we can’t expect to be very productive people. I admit to being a bit of a health nut, and I apologize for all the before and future times that I bend people’s ear about a new health book that I have read. But that is because I know that I need to take care of my physical body in order to keep going at a decent pace, and I want you to do that too.

Stewardship is also about taking care of our physical surroundings. I know that when I get really busy and don’t take some time to straighten or clean my house that I start to get stressed out. It has been found that people function better and are happier in a cleaner, neater environment than they are in a dirty messy one. It doesn’t have to be military clean but it should be functional and comfortable clean.

The other big source of comfort or stress is our economic environment. If we regularly take care of our economics and know how our money is going in or out, even if we don’t have a lot of money, then we feel that we have a measure of control over our economic well being. Economic well-being is measured in terms of having enough money to be comfortable, but it’s also measured in knowing how to best manage it for now, and how to keep ourselves going into the future.

So if you think of stewardship as a combination of taking care of our physical bodies, our mental state, our physical environment, and our economic means, you realize that stewardship is a holistic management of how to best take care of our lives so that we can be better people for God’s love.

What about spiritual stewardship? John Wesley was really into that. In fact his general rules: Do Good, Do No Harm, and Attend on the Ordinances of God, were created so that if people became Methodist they had an outline to keep on developing and managing themselves.

But stewardship always comes back to property – it’s just the nature of it because we need to manage our physical world as we manage our spiritual selves. So now I would like to talk a bit about the management of our church.

Nearly all of Methodist societies started as house churches. For whatever reason the people who started them didn’t find answers or comfort in the Congregationalist or the Episcopalians, or any of the other area denominations. It has been said that in America we don’t join denominations we join congregations. The Methodist system of disciple development spoke to them. They got something out of the structure of the classes, and the prayers, and the discipline to stick with it, grow their societies, and eventually move from meeting in houses or barns, to putting up a church building that everyone could use for the purpose of developing their spirituality.

Church buildings aren’t meant to be social clubs – they are meant to be places where people can come to develop their spirituality. Specifically they are places where we should be setting up programs to be better disciples of Christ for ourselves, and to teach people outside of our church how to be better disciples of Christ. It has been shown that congregations who believe that their church is being used for that purpose will donate willingly to maintain the building.

But that puts a bit of a stress on a congregation to be more than just the Methodist (or any other denominational) social club. In order to keep any congregation alive the people of the church need to be always re-evaluating and themselves by asking if they are strengthening the people in the pews as Christians, and are they reaching out to people in the community to help them be better people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, with our common Christian values. It has been shown time and time again that if the church claims that their purpose is to develop disciples both inward and outward then that church has a vital congregation. If it’s only concerned with taking care of the disciples in the church then it is classified as a chapel.

Is this building being used just as a chapel for ourselves, or is it being used also as a church that reaches out into the community with its values? That’s a question we need to ask about our church culture.

           I think that our churches can be proud of what we do in our communities.  But can we strengthen our spiritual culture to do more? And more importantly – do we want to keep this church going so that we can do more?  We have been talking in visioning meetings about revitalizing or merging, but we must be clear during either process that we are maintaining our churches for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for two centuries.   We talk about the need and importance of giving to maintain our organizations of Lakeville UMC and Sharon UMC, but we must be clear that we are maintaining ourselves for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for 225 in Lakeville or 182 years in Sharon.  We need to claim that we are a movement of God’s love, not just an organization of God’s love.

The tenants in the parable, and the Pharisees, never understood that they weren’t working for themselves – that they were ultimately working for God. Think about the fact that God loves us and trusts us to work in his vineyard – and He will pay us fair wages – but we need to treat Him fairly and respect His property as well. If we work on maintaining the foundations surrounding the cornerstone of God’s loving Grace we will be able to do great things that will be marvelous in our own and God’s eyes.

 

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Putting the World into Communion

October 1, 2017           17th Sunday in Pentecost   World Communion Sunday

Exodus 17:1–7            Philippians 2:1–13      Matthew 21:23–32

World Communion Sunday. The entire planet in connection and communication with God all together on one day.   It’s a great idea.

It doesn’t matter if you are Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Coptic. Today all of us celebrate the feast that Christ had with his disciples; the continual relationship that we all have with Christ now; and the feast that we will all have with Christ once we are done with this life. It is a wonderful, huge concept. And are any of us ready for it?

Now I am well aware that everyone sitting in this church is open to engaging people of other denominations as well as people of other faiths. I personally believe that, although coming to this table is a Christian act, that I am including all people who believe in a loving and forgiving God. Whether they be Jewish, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoastrians, Shintoist, or any of the other myriad faiths that cover our planet – If anyone out there is striving to live as a person of faith and compassion then I should welcome them to a seat at the table.

Some might say that since they are not Christian that we shouldn’t include them in our thoughts and prayers, but I’m going to leave that final decision up to God and Jesus. I don’t think that God would be angry if I welcomed someone who is a stranger, and who might be looking for a friendly place to sit. Compassion is for everyone.

I sometimes think that it is easier for us to welcome the stranger, or the person who is very different, because we don’t expect that they will have the same values so we accept the differences more readily. Sometimes it is the people closest to us, who are supposed to be more like us, whom we have difficulties with their differences. Differences might change from age to age, but they are always there and we are always ready to judge them.

I remember when I was 5 or 6 – this was in the mid ‘60’s – there was a married couple in our apartment building who both worked, even though they had two small children. Kids hear things. It was very apparent, from the remarks that I heard some mothers make in the playground, that this was not something that was approved of.

But of course, it is now the 21st century and we are beyond all that. We don’t glance disapprovingly at the woman wearing a business suit with a purple streak in her hair and a nose ring. We don’t wonder at the suitability of the young gentleman in the tank-top who has tattoos on both of his arms. We don’t pass judgment on the grandmother who is taking care of her grandchildren because her child is in re-hab.

Or do we?

Each of us carries around with us a construct of what is socially correct or at least acceptable. And each of us carries some measure of the idea that if it isn’t acceptable to society then that person won’t be acceptable to God. These thoughts don’t make you a bad person – it is the fallibility of being human. To be cautious of differences is a survival mechanism that is built into us. When we see something that is not familiar or comfortable our brains go into caution and alert mode – because this unfamiliarity might hurt us. It’s a perfectly natural biological reaction.

My anthropology professor explained it once. He said, “I want you to honestly think about a time that you met someone who was severely disabled. Did you have a moment of repulsion? If you did, don’t worry or feel guilty about it. That is a biological reaction to insure that as a member of the human species you will not want to mate with this person and pass down something that might not be genetically good for the species. That is the basic animal instinct in you. The human in you is when you look beyond that initial reaction and treat the person with respect, caring, and dignity.”

Now of course, severe disability is not simple unfamiliarity, but they both exist in the same areas of our brain. And one way to rise above our familiar vs. unfamiliar thinking is to remember that Jesus was not a socially correct or acceptable prophet. My goodness that man was breaking bread with prostitutes and tax collectors. Remember when I break the bread later that prostitutes and tax collectors are allowed at this table.

Jesus was challenged by the Socially Correct and Acceptable, who believed that they were the Authority. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Implication: It certainly wasn’t us!!!

Jesus throws down his cousin John’s acts of baptism. “Was John’s authority to baptize from heaven or of human origin?” Besides putting his questioners in a bind for an answer, it is a question we should ask ourselves of all our interactions with other people.

Are our own actions coming from a place of God’s loving commandments, or are our actions caught up with what is socially acceptable and expected? One of the Kingdom building exercises, that we are supposed to be engaged in, is to work on making God’s loving commandments socially acceptable and expected. But this world is not perfect – as Methodists, as Christians, we are working on it – but it’s not perfect yet.   There are still a lot of actions out there that have nothing to do with God’s loving commandments but are socially acceptable and expected. And those are sinful actions because they are systemic inflections of negativity; built into our social conceptions and perceptions of others, and we need to work on rooting them out of us and out of our society.

There are a couple of things we can do to get ourselves over to the God square. First of all, ask yourself if your reaction to someone (or something) is a basic animal instinct. Is that person with the multiple tattoos really a danger? Sometimes the fight or flight is real; don’t discount it; but ask yourself if it’s true. Remember, people with tattoos are welcome at God’s table.

Next, ask yourself if what that person is doing or being is really inappropriate. The combination of a business suit, purple hair, and nose ring is not something that I could pull off, but maybe that girl is really rocking it. What is my perception? I see a woman in a business suit and I’m going to think lawyer. (Hmmm, lawyers shouldn’t dress like that!) But what if this woman works for the entertainment industry? Her unconventional attire might be very conventional, or even conservative to her. What do I gain if I treat her with distain? Nothing. What do I gain if I give her a smile and say hello? Maybe we’ll strike up a conversation and find out that we both like Pink Floyd. Maybe I’ll find out that she has an issue in her life that she needs help with and I just happen to have the information she needs. And then I start to think: Well, yes, God, this is why I got put in line with her at the grocery store. Remember people with purple hair and nose rings are welcome at God’s table.

And finally pray. Now if you get to know someone and find out that they have a problem of course your can pray for them, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you praying for you to recognize that each strange unauthorized person is a child of God. I used to travel on the city buses to seminary, and you can’t really do anything – it’s hard to read or study. So I would do a prayer game. I would look at everyone on the bus, one at a time, and I would pray to myself: Dear Lord, bless this person, for they are your child.

This is a great exercise for your blood pressure. Try this exercise in a traffic jam. Instead of getting mad at the traffic or at the idiots who don’t know how to drive, look at each car and pray for the people inside. I am not kidding, your stress level will go down. Remember idiot drivers are also welcome at God’s table. So are people who cut in line, don’t have exact change, and forget birthday or anniversaries. So are grandparents who are taking care their grandchildren, and so are the people in re-hab. The only criteria for being at the table is to repent, turn away from the bad stuff you do, believe in God, and then try like heck to live inside of God’s love.

It isn’t enough for us to have World Communion Sunday one day a year. We need to walk out of here and make everyday a world communion for ourselves. Next time you are in a store, or park, or at work, look at the person who gives you the feeling of difference and practice loving them as a child of God.  If you do you will find yourself united with Christ, comforted by his love, and sharing in his Spirit of joy and compassion.

And that’s a very good place to be when you come to God’s Table.

 

 

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A Space for Everyone

September 24, 2017              16th Sunday of Pentecost

Exodus 16:2–15         Philemon 1:21–30        Matthew 20:1–16

Do you know the TV show, Undercover Boss? It started when a British television executive, Stephen Lambert, was laid over in the Seattle airport, which was being remodeled, and he over heard some of the workers complaining that a lot of the new ideas being put into place weren’t going to work because management really didn’t know what was happening on the front end of the company. That got Lambert thinking: What if I went undercover in my TV company in Britain? Would I hear honest, needed complaints in my own company?

I haven’t been able to find out if Stephen Lambert actually went undercover in his TV company, but he did start a television show that has been copied in 15 other countries.   It’s a feel-good show with a formula. The boss is put into a disguise and goes to work, as a trainee, in his or her company. The camera crews and interviews are explained as a contestant-reality show. The boss usually works with about four to five people in various departments, and you can tell that the employees are chosen by the producers for their hard luck stories. The boss finds out both good and bad things about the company. In the end, the great employees are usually rewarded and, the bad employees are given the chance to be retrained, and the boss ends up making necessary changes to their company.

I remembered reading one comment about the show which asked: How do you think the other employees felt when their colleague was given a bonus, or a new car, or had their mortgage or debts paid off, and they received nothing? What do you think that did for morale in the company?  

That is an extremely relevant question. We expect in our society equal pay for equal time, although we know we don’t always get it. Often women get paid less than men, the uneducated get paid less than the educated, and sometimes certain races get paid more than others in certain industries. But we have an ideal of: Work harder, and longer, and you will get paid more.

Because of this ideal, I think that we can all sympathize with the early workers who were upset that the workers who came later were paid as much as they were in Jesus’ parable of The Generous Landowner. And I think that most people who heard the parable felt the same way, because who doesn’t want equal pay for equal work. It just seems fair.

But Jesus is trying to redefine God’s Kingdom, and trying to show people that it doesn’t operate by the same rules as our regular society. It’s hard for us to imagine this but, let’s try by taking some of these images and playing with them.

So God has a beautiful piece of land, it’s actually as big as the whole world, but it’s not in the greatest working order. God calls to us and says, “I’ve got this great piece of land, which incidentally you live on, but I want to make it better for you to live here. Come and work for me and your reward is going to be eternal life, eternal love, and I will always be with you through the good and the bad. I need people at all levels, but I really hope that, as you work for me, you won’t feel that you should just stay as you are. I really hope that you will take advantage of the educational opportunities that I am offering to grow and become a better person. I know that not all of you are going to want to get into upper-level management, but I want everyone to know that, as you become better people, that you will end up doing whatever job you find yourself doing more effectively and with more love. Through my transformation-training program you are going to learn how to be more joyous and more discerning, by recognizing your blessings and strengths, which will lead you to greater opportunities in your life, even during the hard times. So what do you say? Do you want to come and work for me?”

A lot of us say, yes! Sometimes we don’t know what we’re in for when we say yes, but we do get involved with God’s program. And we find that, as we make ourselves into better people, that our lives do get better in one way or another. But here is the interesting part – everyone ultimately receives that same paycheck. We all obtain salvation and a place with God’s Glory. It doesn’t matter if I was born into a Christian household, was baptized as a baby, went to Sunday School, was confirmed, and then was an exemplary Christian all my life; or if I was a person with no religious background and then found God and my path in the middle or at the end of my life. We all are allowed and have the ability to transform in Christ and achieve salvation and live in God’s Glory.

It doesn’t really matter if this process seems fair to me or you. That is the fairness and equality of God. God wants all of us to participate in his Kingdom and He is going to keep working on us, holding out his hands to us, and he’ll be happy when we finally take that step to make Him a part of our lives. God reserves a space for all of us in His Kingdom, He’s just waiting for us to claim it.

Jesus was constantly listening to his disciples squabble over who was going to be first or last in the kingdom. They lived in a VERY hierarchical society so I am sure that they couldn’t imagine a social system that wasn’t a class system. I think it’s hard for humans to do that. The last major political attempt at an equal class system was Communism and that didn’t work out very well. We seem to have this desire to value, and classify, and rank ourselves, and then we get caught up in those values, classifications, and rankings as the way to evaluate who we are.

But Jesus says that those evaluations are NOT who we are, because while the world might evaluate us that way, God evaluates us another way as being fit for His Kingdom. The evaluation that He uses is: do you live your life with love? Do you try to love yourself; do you try to love your neighbor; do you try to love yourself and your neighbor with the unconditional love that Christ gave to us; and do you love God?

Unconditional love is another thing that’s hard for us to understand and do. It’s practically impossible for us to live unconditionally. We live in a world of physical conditions that we come up against everyday: If you ignore the condition of rain you will get wet. We live with social conditional boundaries that keep us safe: I don’t drive unconditionally because I know that I will hurt myself or someone else. And we live with emotional conditions because the act of caring is how we show and know that we love each other.

Unconditional love doesn’t mean that you let someone walk all over you. Unconditional love means that you put boundaries down where they are needed, but you look beyond the mistakes of crossing those boundaries to the good intention. You forgive the mistake, and you keep on trying to find the place of good and right that we all can work within. And when we find that place of good and right we will also find that God is there with us.

God makes a space for all of us in His Glory, Jesus makes a space for all of us in his heart, and the Holy Spirit fills spaces in our life with Grace. We are all invited to work in this vineyard, which is God’s world, to make it fruitful and a beautiful place to live in. It doesn’t matter when any of us come to the realization that this is the best place to be and work; as long as we come to that realization there is rejoicing in heaven. We all get to collect our wages and it doesn’t matter who is first or last because we all have a space and a place within His Kingdom.

So don’t grumble about receiving more or less. Open your hands and give thanks for the space and love that God gives to you. If you do with a thankful heart you will find that His generosity is more than enough for all of us.

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The Correct Way to Get Closer to God?

September 17, 2017              15th Sunday in Pentecost

Exodus 14:19–31        Romans 14:1–12         Matthew 18:21–35

There is a neat Buddhist parable that I would like to share with you. There was once a Buddhist Sage, a really wise, wonderful, and loving teacher. One day he heard about a hermit monk who had lived in solitude for many years, and he thought, “This man must have so much knowledge. I must go and meet him.” So the Sage traveled to see the Monk who lived in a cave, on the other side of a great lake. The Sage persuaded a local fisherman to row him across the lake, and there was the Monk, sitting in a cave, by the lake, chanting OM MADI PADME HUM. (This is the simplest prayer in Buddhism. It’s like our: Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord, have mercy)

The Sage and the Monk greeted each other, talked about their faith, and then the Sage asked the Monk, “How do you meditate and pray?” The Monk replied, “I have only ever chanted OM MADI PADME HUM all these years.” “Oh, how simple, how wonderful,” said the Sage. “But if I may, you are not pronouncing it quite right. May I teach you the correct pronunciation?” And the Monk said, of course, that he wanted to learn the correct pronunciation. So the Sage taught it to him, and then they said goodbye, and the Sage got back in the boat and the fisherman started to row him back across the lake. In the middle of the lake the Sage thought, “I am so glad that I was able to teach him the correct pronunciation, because now he will be able to obtain great knowledge and wisdom.” Suddenly the Monk was standing by the Sage outside of the boat! “Please, Reverend Sage, will you teach me the pronunciation again, I don’t feel that I have it quite right yet.” The Sage was so startled that he said, “I think you have the right pronunciation anyway.” “Thank you and bless you,” said the Monk, and then turned and walked back across the lake, on the top of the water, to his cave.

The story is meant to teach us not to get so hung up on the “correct” way to do things. There is nothing wrong with doing things a certain way to develop your spirituality, but it doesn’t mean that your way is the ONLY way to get closer to God.

Isn’t that the purpose of a prayer, to get closer to God? Isn’t that the purpose of a hymn, to get closer to God? Isn’t that the purpose of a fast, or a worship service, to get closer to God? What does it matter if we pray with different accents or languages; or use different melodies for our hymns; or if I choose a different fast from you; or if the candles we use are a different color than the church down the road; or if someone brings in a different bread for communion? What matters is: That we learn about God, and are reminded about God, and bring ourselves out into the world and live with God in our hearts and in our actions.

If you read Paul’s letters he can seem to be very arrogant and preachy sometimes. But if you keep in mind that most of his letters were written to churches which were trying to figure out how to be churches then the tone of the letters changes. You realize that he is answering questions about the things in churches that people were getting hung up about. Paul starts out this section of our scripture by saying: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

I can just imagine that Paul was getting letters, or delegates of people, who were coming to him with complaints of: They don’t say the prayers in the right order. Their hymns are different from ours, and we don’t want to sing them. They don’t fast on the same days we do. They don’t eat the same things we do. We do things our way and we don’t want these people in our church unless they do things the way we want them to.

Paul is trying to get people to understand that it is the intention of honoring God that is important, not the minutia of how the honoring is done. In worship when anyone prays, or sings, or fasts, or gives thanks for what they have been given, they are making an offering to God. Our entire worship service is an offering to God, not just our tithes and offerings.

What is it that we say in our communion service? We ask God to make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world – that means that our daily ministry, our actions in the world, are offerings to God given in the name of Christ and His Love. The third commandment is: To love others as Christ has loved us. Love is an action whereby we show our feelings of love, and we can make every action of love an offering to God.

And these actions don’t need to be huge. Make cookies or a dinner for someone who needs it. Drive someone to the store who can’t drive. Smile at the waitress and say thank you when she brings you your coffee. Every little act of kindness is an offering to God. Paul wanted to get people to see that just because people don’t do things the way you might do them, or have them completely “right” according to your standards, does not make the offering to God wrong. It is God who accepts the offering not you.

Now of course sometimes we are going to try to do something for someone and instead of it being an act of GRACE (a generous, renewing action of care everlasting) we make a mistake and end up spontaneously or systemically inflicting negativity on people.  Come on, we’re human, not divine and omniscient, so we mess up. And this is the point where forgiveness comes into play.

Peter wanted to confirm with Jesus that he should forgive someone seven times, which was considered to be the standard amount to forgive someone. If you needed to forgive them because they did something for the eighth time you didn’t have to forgive them anymore and you could stay mad at them. (Seven was the traditional number used for divinity so if you had forgiven someone seven times that meant that you had been acting in a holy manner.) But Jesus turns around and challenges Peter to forgive someone: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Seventy-seven times is my Bible’s translation but some translations have also written seventy times seven, which would mean 490 times. That’s a lot of times to forgive.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t point out to the person that they are committing an act of negativity, or that you don’t fix whatever is wrong in the system. Remember last week’s message about Jesus telling people how to straighten out misunderstandings? Once you realize what the problem is you try to fix things with love, by beginning with forgiving.

Sometimes you have to forgive ignorance, because some people just don’t know what they are doing. Often we learn that their heart was in the right place. Is the offering negated because they were wrong? I don’t think it is with God, and now we have a chance to make our own offering to forgive them and to teach them with love.

Sometimes we need to forgive when we get new information and people are working with out of date information. Again they were just trying to do the best they could, and we can forgive and teach them with love.

Sometimes you have to forgive custom and tradition, because what worked before doesn’t work now, so it’s time to change it. Sometimes you even have to forgive the system itself because the bureaucratic ways of doing things are so entrenched that the only way to keep your sanity, and get through to the other side, is to forgive as you go, get the job done, and hopefully instigate change in or after the process.

But once you forgive you have a broader perspective, and a more open mind, that gives you insight to see that often there isn’t only one way to do something.   Or maybe you’ll see that the situation might call for doing something differently.

The Sage in our story felt that you needed the correct pronunciation of the prayer for it to work so he could get closer to God. I think he was a kind and wonderful teacher, but he let himself get hung up on the minutia and he couldn’t see the holiness of the monk until the monk was standing right in front of him on top of the water. The Monk, who concentrated on the meaning of the prayer, got close to God despite the incorrect pronunciation, because his entire life of prayer was an offering to God.

So here in worship allow everything, the prayers, songs, silence, listening, and tithes be your offering to God. And in your life dedicate all your actions of love to God, and accept and praise actions of love from others, even if your actions or their actions aren’t perfect, as offerings to God. As Paul said, someday we will all stand before the judgment seat of God, and whether we live to God, or die to God, we are the Lord’s.

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May Love Guide Us

September 10, 2017              14th Sunday in Pentecost

Exodus 12:1–14          Romans 13:8–14
        Matthew 18:15–20

There are times when I read the Bible and I think, “What on earth was happening that someone was compelled to say that?”   Usually this happens when you read the prophets because they’re religious and political commentaries about what was happening at that time, in a certain region of Israel, and we don’t know all the details of what happened. It’s like the nursery rhymes that our kids sing today. Ring-Around-the Rosies sounds like a cute song but it’s actually about the bubonic plague in the 1600’s. We still have the song, but we don’t have the original context anymore.

Anyway, we are going along in Matthew and all of a sudden we get this lecture from Jesus on how his disciples should handle problems between them.

He starts off by saying: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. The word that threw me, in my translation, was “church” because at this point Jesus hasn’t started a church, just a movement among the Jewish community. But “church” is a later translation of a word that is closer to meaning of “religious community” in Greek, which would fit the situation of Jesus and his disciples.

But why does Jesus feel the need to instruct his disciples about how to live together?       Well, let’s imagine this. There was actually an incredibly mixed group of people around Jesus.   We know about the core twelve disciples, but the Bible also mentions women. Peter’s wife is never mentioned but we know that she did exist because scripture mentions his mother-in-law. It’s quite possible that Peter’s wife was traveling with the group. And there were also people who traveled with Jesus for a while, then would go back home, and then continue with him later. So there were people who came together on this journey from different towns with different customs. I am sure that you also had a few followers who were just along for the ride and figured that they could get a free meal if they traveled with the group.

You know, when you do cross-culture studies you realize that people are more likely to accept big differences between cultures that are far away from each other: Like Japanese don’t wear shoes in the house and American’s do; rather than little differences from cultures that are closer to each other, like the English cutting with the left hand and thinking it’s bad manners when American’s cut with our right. So I have no doubt that all these little clashes of culture were happening, and people were talking, and lines were being drawn, not just about culture differences but also about who was going to laundry, and who wasn’t carrying their fair share of luggage, and who always grabbed the best spot to set up their bedroll – and I’m sure that Jesus could sit back and see the mess that was taking place when no one talked to anyone else to clarify anything and just complained and ending up killing the spiritual vibe.

Nothing kills a group vibe faster than, “Well, she or he should know what their doing and how much it annoys me!” Really? I mean, really?! Let’s take a poll. Everyone who’s clairvoyant raise your hands. And you can’t count parent’s clairvoyance with your children, that’s different – that’s a combination of instinct and experience. I’m talking about: I know what my neighbor is thinking and what their motivations are for doing something at any given time. Show of hands please.

No one? Didn’t think so. But we go there all the time.

I can just imagine Jesus watching the squabbling from the sidelines and thinking, “Yeah, Moses, you were right. This is a stiffed-necked people.” (They were probably comparing notes during the transfiguration on the mountain about this.)

So Jesus starts by telling people to take a friend and go talk to the person who is committing an inflection of negativity. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say confront or argue, he says, “. . . point it out.” That’s gentler language. Then if you can’t reach an agreement or a resolution to the problem he suggests adding another two people to try to figure it out, then finally as a last resort to involve the whole community. Then if the person is going to be incredibly stubborn about their stance, to then ask the person to leave. We might think that’s a little harsh, but this was not the age where individuality was valued. People couldn’t survive on their own – they needed communities to help them live on a day-to-day basis and if the community was in strife or dissention then everyone would suffer.

The key to working out community problems is to live in the second commandment: To love your neighbor as yourself; to treat others in the way that you would like to be treated.   As Paul says, Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. The central issue is: How do you love someone when they are causing problems or being a pain in the neck? Because the hardest time to love someone is when you’re angry or frustrated with a person, that’s the moment when you don’t feel like loving them at all.

First of all take a couple of deep breaths. I know that this sounds silly but negative emotions, especially anger and frustration, cause the body to tense and make you feel even more angry and frustrated, which makes it harder to get out of the emotional part of your brain and into the logic reasoning part of your brain.   Concentrating on breathing when your angry or annoyed is a powerful tool – it really helps to you to think clearly.

Second, tell yourself, “It’s not about me.” Yes, I know, sometimes it is about you! But if you really step back and think about it probably 99.99% of what happens to us in life isn’t about us. Our problem is we make it about us, when it’s not about us.   Part of this involves letting go of your ego, getting off the I-square, and putting yourself on the other person’s square. That is the first step to loving someone, when you are willing to empathize with them and figure out what their going through.

Once I was waiting for a train in NYC. Someone bumped me accidentally and I ended up slipping and knocking into another woman. She immediately turned to me and started to berate me for pushing her. Instead of countering with my berating I said, “Sorry. Are you all right?” That stopped her cold. Her mouth hung open, and I said, “Someone knocked into me and I went into you. I hope I didn’t hit you too badly.”   She countered, “No, no, I’m okay.” “That’s good,” I said, “I would have hated it if you had been hurt.” She said, “No, I’m good.” My concern for her was so unexpected that it defused the situation entirely.

Once you put yourself into the mode of caring for the other person you make yourself ready to listen to what the other person is going through. And even if it seems that what they are going through is petty and ridiculous, remember that it’s their petty and ridiculous situation, not yours. One of the hardest things for us to do is to withhold judgment. Yes, sticking chopsticks straight up in rice might not be a big thing to you, but to someone from the orient it means that the rice shouldn’t be eaten because it is now a funeral offering for the dead. Take the mote – your lens that you see the world through – out of your eye, and try to see the situation as the other person does.

The next step is to lovingly ask if you’ve understood the situation. Saying, “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” and then repeating back their story validates how they feel and shows them that you understand the situation. If you don’t get something right they have the chance to correct you – accept the correction. The ego wants to say, “I understood it,” but we really only comprehend 80% of what’s been told to us.

Of course the ego says, “Well, what about my way?” This is where patience comes into play. Often if you let a person get out their frustrations they will burn out most of their frustrations. If you get to the point that the person agrees that you understand them then you can ask them if you can tell your side of the story, or give your perception about what’s going on. And I do mean ask permission. Our words often track our minds as much as our minds track our words. When a person says, “Yes, you can tell me your side,” their mind goes into listening mode.

Jesus tried to bring peace into this world through love. Love is an action word. The way to bring peace is if we, as individuals, take a stand on conflict resolution through loving listening, loving reassurance, and loving solutions that are fair to everyone. This is not an easy thing to do because often our pride, well developed and guarded by our ego’s, gets in our way.

But if we stand on Christ’s love and see others without our ego lens then we can see where they are and start to lead them in love. And when two people are guided by the love of Christ, then Christ will be with us.

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Looking Through the Other’s Eyes

Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Eppersen.  Eileen filled in for me when I was on vacation.  Here is a copy of her sermon printed with her permission — Thanks Eileen!

September 3, 2017

1 Corinthians 8: 1-13         Luke 19: 1-10

I think it is helpful to know at the start where we are going, if possible. This reflection has a focus. I offer that our anxiety and self-consciousness can lift completely when we look through the other person’s eyes. When we step into their shoes. When we are genuinely curious about another person, our worries will lift, because within a moment, we can experience that we have a companion.

First, a word about Labor Day. This weekend did not begin as a beach and BBQ event. Labor Day has a very important history in this country. “The first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement in the late 1800s and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It was meant to be an annual national tribute to the contributions American workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” (internet)

It was the first time that the country which had been built on laborers and sweat factories actually looked through the laborers’ eyes and saw who they were and what they had provided. Physical labor developed our American standard of living. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City but Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a state holiday five years later. Over the next years, other states adopted it as a state holiday. There were street parades to show the public “the strength…of the trade and labor organizations” in the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families who worked long hours and had very little time to themselves. It is a small thing, but I always wave my thanks to the STOP and SLOW sign-holders on our roads. And I mean thank you.

Paul writes to Corinthians: your life has changed out of your baptism in the name of Jesus. Now, you must start to look out there, not just in here (pointing to my head). You need to practice looking through their eyes at you. I want you to pay attention, not to what you already know and what is familiar, but at what you don’t know. Who is nearby and watching how you live and what you do? Who is the community around you? How do people feel around you and what do they need?

Paul says, “True, you know that the idols are ‘nothing at all in the world’ and the food offered them isn’t tainted. ‘Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.’ However, new believers are watching you and how you live. They may think you worship the idols if you eat the food dedicated to them, so don’t eat it so you don’t confuse others.

There are concerns that are automatic for us to have about ourselves – how’m I doing? How do I look? Do you like me? Having attention on others is not automatic, whether 2000 years ago, or 2 days ago. We don’t just wake up wondering how the day looks to someone else and wanting to make it look bright if we can. That does not make us bad people. That makes us human.

I am human. I had a car accident a week ago, and it was my fault. I rear-ended a car because I looked away for a second too long and didn’t see the car slowing down to make a turn. Talk about the automatic focus on oneself, one’s upset, one’s shock, whew! The car I hit was driven by a young girl who had had her license for one week. I guess decades of silent centering prayer and training paid off. I did not want her to think she had done this, and I told her while my heart was racing and my whole body was in minor shock, that this was not on her. This was on me and I am so sorry.

Now, Jesus was a soul-reader. We can practice that as well, you know. We can practice inquiring into how the world is for someone else. Jesus was looking and listening for soul-readiness in others and seems to have decided moment to moment what action he would take. Who is ready to change their life today? In this passage in Luke, he spots the short tax-collector, Zacchaeus, who has climbed a tree to spot Jesus walking by. Come down, I must eat at your house today. “He has gone to the house of a sinner,” people say. [read Luke 19: 7-10]

Scripture is full of crossing borders to go to the other side, the other culture, the other tribe: Elisha and Naaman in II Kings when Naaman, a Syrian general, crosses the border to an enemy country, Israel, to be cured of leprosy; Jesus and Samaritan woman at the well in John – why are you talking to me? People from Jerusalem have no dealings with people from Samaria; the Gentile centurion in the gospel of Matthew who proclaims that this must have been the Son of God as he watches the curtain in the temple rip apart; in Acts, Peter has his strange dream of 4-footed animals and God’s instruction to eat them because God has made all things clean. Not I, Lord, I will never eat unclean, forbidden food. He hears a word: everything is clean; I made it all. Then begins Peter’s ministry to non-Jews.

I have learned so much from my forgiveness work with others. The Forgiveness Process® walks people through a sequence of steps and leaves them choosing a new future without resentments. Someone I’ll call Judy forgave her sister and was able immediately to have a different conversation with her. Judy literally experienced her bad younger sister differently after Judy stopped rehashing the grievance story in her own head. Her sister looks different; not so terrible. People can change if we let go of the conviction that they cannot change. It’s hard to change when the people in your immediate circle think you cannot change. Judy started to see what her sister saw and that made all the difference.

Who is soul-ready in your life? Who wants to be your friend and you haven’t noticed? Who would like to share something but no one is asking? No one is listening. You could ask and listen. Who in your family have you not paid any authentic attention to in a while?

The gift is that the moment we take our attention off ourselves and how we are coming across and get over there where another person lives and moves, what is bothering us starts to lift, because it is shared. We are suddenly in this life together. I am no longer alone when I tell a friend about the car accident and she listens to my upset and then expresses her concern. Then I am able to listen to her and learn something she may never have said before, a loss or accident that happened that she’s never mentioned. Something is shared. We’re in this together.

Who is waiting for you to look at them, sitting perhaps not in a tree, but on a bench, or the beach, or in a committee meeting or at your dinner table?      AMEN

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