Growing Into the Body of Christ

August 27, 2017                     12th Sunday of Pentecost

Exodus 1:8–2:10         Romans 12:1–8           Matthew 16:13–20

The New Testament is divided into four sections. The Gospels, which tell the story of Christ; The Book of Acts, the story of how the early church started; The 21 books of letters, in which various authors debate how to be a good Christian, and how to build God’s Kingdom; And then the final book of Revelations, the prophesy of how Christ will return to complete the Kingdom. Out of 27 books, three-fourths of them are discussions about how to apply Christ’s message to become a better Christian and make the world into God’s Kingdom.

One of the reasons why I was drawn to Wesley’s writings and his approach is because he was primarily concerned with that application. He came up with this great applied process of salvation where we exist unknowingly inside of God’s Grace; then we have that psychological moment of confrontation when we realize how small and imperfect we are compared to the universe and God; then we realize that we need God’s help to make it through the universe; then we experience the feeling of God’s love and Grace and know that God is in our lives, and in our corner; then we accept God’s and Christ salvific power; and then we dedicate ourselves to living inside the universe with God and His love, through the teachings of Christ, because we realize that God wants us to live that way: Devoting our lives to being expressions of God’s love in the world.

Devoting our lives to being expressions of God’s love in the world is what Paul is trying to get people to do when he says: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Of course Paul didn’t mean that we should throw ourselves physically on an altar like one of those Aztec sacrifices. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get the imagery of the word sacrifice because our culture is so removed from preforming sacrifices. In Paul’s day most of the religions preformed regular, if not daily, sacrifices to their deities. The Hebrew religion had sacrifices that everyone did for the high-holy days, but the Temple was always preforming sacrifices because there was always someone who was atoning for something. The concept of holy sacrifice was something that surrounded people; you saw it all the time when you were going to the market.

So let’s back up and look at the concept of sacrifice. Our modern word sacrifice comes from the Latin word sacer, which means holy, and the old French and Middle English root word fice which means to make. But the old Greek and Latin words had the same meanings with their root words: to make something holy. Paul’s readers would have understood that when he says to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice that we are supposed to be working on making ourselves, while we live in these bodies, holier people. It isn’t by dragging animals to altars that we do this; it’s by offering our own lives, to work with the love of God, and the actions of Christ, to present God’s love to the world.

Paul knew that this isn’t always an easy thing to do and that it’s something that we need to practice daily. A disciple practices a discipline to make their life a habit of Christian actions. But have you ever tried to install a new habit in your life? Sometimes it’s really hard, and everyone who coaches people in habit forming says that it isn’t enough to just do something over and over again – you’ve got to get yourself in the right frame of mind to keep doing the habit or you’ll stop doing it. That’s why Paul says we need to be transformed by the renewing of your minds; we have to give ourselves new valid reasons to do new things, or we stop doing them, no matter how good they might be for us.

For instance, right now I’m trying to instill in myself something called the four base habits, suggested by the habit coach, Gretchen Rubin, for a healthier happier life. They are: Get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise daily, and organize daily. They sound simple and easy enough to apply, but it has meant that I have to consciously apply myself to doing certain actions to attain them, and I’ve had to change old habits, like going to bed at 10:30 pm instead of going to bed after 11:00.

I’ve done pretty well at applying this new habit, despite my occasional setbacks. The valid reason I started with was: I needed to do this because I often felt very tired in the middle of the day (this has also caused me to push my lunch forward). But once I started to go to bed earlier I suddenly found three more valid reasons to keep up with this habit: I was sleeping sounder, I was waking up earlier, and I was getting more done in the morning.

This is a great thing about a good practice, often the benefits multiply beyond what you thought you would get. This ties into the concept of producing good fruit in your life.

So first of all, as Christians, we have to understand that we are going to work on making ourselves holier. Then we give ourselves positive reasons connected to positive Christian actions, which, as we discipline and apply them to our lives, will give us more reasons to continue and more benefits that we can enjoy in Christ’s love.

But I’m sure a lot of people asked Paul: Well, Christian action and practice is great, but where do I start? Paul says to start with your own gifts and use them for God’s grace and love. Are you gifted with a croquet hook and yarn? Then maybe your action is to make baby blankets for mothers in need, or blankets or hats for a homeless shelter. Are you a good cook? Then maybe your action is to make dinners for meals-on-wheels. Do you like to garden? Then maybe your action is to help a very elderly couple take care of their garden. Do you like to drive? Then maybe you can transport people.

When I was teaching students how to find a job I would have them make a list of all the things they could do. One student said that she liked to play the piano, but that she didn’t want to put it on her list because she wasn’t good enough to be a professional. I told her she was right, but she could work for a music school as a secretary or a manager. Sometimes our talents can be used as an end-run rather than as a forward drive. Sometimes we don’t have to be a professional to get something done, we just need to know enough to get the job done, that needs to be done, in the moment.

Instead, of thinking: I’m not a professional so I can’t do it, we should value our gifts and experience, and trust that what we have been given by God is exactly what is needed for us, and from us, for the common good. What God has given is enough, and is often more than enough. That’s a way of not conforming to what the world thinks we should be.

The other way we don’t need to conform to the world is to buy into the expectations of success in life. There’s a lot of pressure in life to be successful and often that success is measured by social-conformity, with being wealthy high on that list. Now social conformity can be good, but remember the rich young man? He was wealthy, but not happy because he didn’t feel successful. He wasn’t a bad greedy person, he had followed all the rules of being a good person and he still wasn’t happy. What was lacking in his life was following Christ and helping others. If your gift or talent is making or managing wealth that’s okay – as long as you are using those talents to help others. Helping others is being a successful Christian.

The reward that we get from being a successful Christian is a greater awareness of God, and how He is moving in the world. As we transform our minds to God through our actions we will discern what God’s will is for us, and what is good and acceptable and perfect for us with God.

Growing into God is a process. The more we practice being Christian, in both thought and action, the more experience we get doing it, and better we get at it. And eventually our experience (both our victories in Christ, and our mistakes in Christ) are going to give us a lot of wisdom, and definite knowledge, and assurance about God. And when we have wisdom, knowledge, and assurance about God in our lives, then we have a deep solid faith to live and work with.

So start with your gifts and talents. Every day, when you wake up, ask the question: Today how can I use my gifts and talents to be an expression of God’s love in the world? That can become our daily goal. Maybe you will find one, or two, or three, or maybe even ten things that expressed God’s love in the world. When you go to bed at night say: What did I do today that was an expression of God’s love in the world? Maybe even keep a diary of it. I bet after a few weeks or even days you’ll read it through and really be able to see how God is functioning in your life.

And then you’ll know, with certainty, that you are growing into a holy and living being for God.

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Who Are the Children?

August 20, 2017                     11th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 45:1–15         Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32         Matthew 15: (10–20) 21–28

The uncertainty and even the fear of dealing with people who are different from us, has been around as long as humanity has existed. In both of today’s scriptures we can see some of the uncertainties and uncomfort of those interactions.

In Romans, Paul is addressing the first century Christian community about where Jewish people fit into the scheme of God’s salvation. He is trying to get people to see that God made a covenant with the Jewish people, and remind them that God does not break His covenants. We are brought into the covenant through Christ, but God does not undo the original covenant – He only adds to it. Just because Jewish people are other than Christian they are not less than Christian to God.

Then we have Jesus dealing with the Pharisees criticizing the different behavior of his disciples, and then Jesus’ seems to reject a Canaanite woman, just because she isn’t Jewish.

If nothing else this tells us that relating to someone who is the Other, whether they be of a different race, socio-economic class, religion, culture, political ideology, or just from any unfamiliar territory, is a question that we’ve grappled with for a long time.

Do we learn about who they are, or do we condemn who they are? Do we treat them as equals, or as second-class citizens? Do we evaluate them by our ideology, or by theirs?

Before Jesus preached to the crowds about the mouth and the heart, he had been confronted by some Pharisees who criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands.

One can actually sympathize a little with the Pharisees because their job was to maintain the purity laws, and many of the purity laws existed to keep people healthy. People back then were intelligent – they didn’t know about bacteria and viruses but they knew that there was a correlation between washing your hands before you eat and not getting sick. Even today in the Middle East many people are ambidextrous in their actions because they will only eat or touch clean things with their right hand, but touch dirty things with their left hand. For instance you always pick up something off the ground with your left hand, never your right; and you always eat with your right never your left, even though you wash both hands before eating. And it doesn’t matter if you are a dominate right or left handed person, you’re trained to do it that way from when you’re a little kid.

Now I don’t know the context of the Pharisees complaint. The disciples traveled around a lot. Were they in a place with little water and they couldn’t wash before they ate something? Did they accept food from a kind stranger and they had to eat it right there before moving on? We can all think of similar situations that would lead to this observation. Jesus answers the Pharisees by challenging them: Why do you practice breaking the commandments of God and refused to love your neighbor as you love yourself? Essentially he calls them out for focusing on a small incident as if it defines the entire mind, heart, and soul of the disciples in question. This is why he goes to the crowd and says that what comes out of your mouth comes from the intentions of your heart.

Now I agree that the tongue is an unruly member and that we all say things that we shouldn’t say. Sometimes we just can’t get a handle on our words and we intend to say one thing but it comes out all messy and sounding like it means something else.   And then what do you do? You try to correct it, and usually you end up saying something that is even more painful, which you try to correct, and of course that doesn’t work. And then finally, or hopefully, someone will say, “Peggy! Quit while you’re ahead!” “Okay. I’ll shut up now. . . Thank you. . . Sorry about that.”

But Jesus isn’t talking about a little foible of speech. Jesus is talking about believing one thing and saying another. More importantly when Jesus mentions evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, he is talking about hypocrites. People who have all those desires and power plays in their hearts and use their clever rational words to justify their actions, saying all the time that their actions are for the good of everyone around them.

Justification of unjust actions, by people who think they know what justice is, has been going on for long time. There were people who said that slavery was okay because by removing people from Africa we were going to bring them to Christ. There were people who forcibly removed Native-American children from their parents because, well those people were uneducated and couldn’t possibly raise their children properly. I am not saying that there are not times when drastic actions need to be taken to insure the safety and well being of people, but it better be from a place in the heart of understanding and compassionate love, not from a stand of moral high-ground that doesn’t consider the effects of actions on people.

So it is strange that right afterwards Jesus verbally slaps down the Canaanite woman, who acknowledges that he is the Son of David – implying that he is the messiah – and who is asking for healing for her daughter, not even healing for herself.   But Jesus says: Nope. I was only sent here to help the Jews – my people. Why should I give you my time and talents when so many of my children need me?

Wow. But think of the context here. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, who have just recently been put down and discounted by the Pharisees. And then Jesus gives this lecture on not being hypocritical and saying and doing from what is in your heart. And then along comes this woman in need and what do the disciples say to Jesus about the woman? Make her go away.

            The more I looked at this story the more I saw that this is one of Jesus’ brilliant teaching moments. Jesus is deliberately acting and behaving the way we shouldn’t behave.   He is using himself as a negative example in order to drive home his point and to challenge his disciples to think about their speech and actions. I think Jesus was going to heal her daughter all along. But he had to get his disciples to see that this gentile woman was just as worthy as anyone else to receive that healing. It didn’t matter that she was a woman, which makes her a second-class citizen, and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t Jewish, which made her a third or forth class citizen in their eyes.

Jesus is putting on the persona of, “I’m going to be a Holy Man who’s above it all. Come on guys, how do you like how I look now?” And just reading that I am uncomfortable with that Jesus, because that is not the Jesus who I have grown to love in the last 14 chapters of Matthew. It’s a visceral feeling of: Who does this person Jesus think he is?

There is relief when the woman zings back at him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And then Jesus answers her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Whooh! Thank goodness! This Jesus guy is who he’s billed to be after all.

Who are the children of God for you and how are you going to relate to them?

There has been a lot of nastiness on the news in the last week – caused by a lot of people who think that some other people are not God’s children and that they know better and have all the answers.   I’m not here to take a political stand on this issue; I’m here to tell you that this attitude of religious and moral exclusivity is not new. You are all intelligent people and you all know that this separation from Those Other People has been going on since we all began.

But Christ calls us to put down the hypocrisy in our hearts. When we feel that uncomfort and that unfairness, like we did in the story, that is Christ calling us to be courageous and to reach out across the racial lines, the economic lines, the social lines, the culture lines, the, political lines, and into lines of unfamiliar territory, and claim that we are all children of God. Even when those people on the other side of the lines aren’t agreeing with that claim. Christ calls us in our words and actions to be Christians and to be mindful of the caring of all people.

This does not mean that we roll-over, play nice, and accept hateful situations because we have to respect all the Others. This means that we take a stand and say: We will not say or do hateful actions in our lives. We will not accept hateful speech or actions in our presence. We will speak out against such things when we see them, and we will attempt to replace them with words and actions of kindness and love.

And if enough of us do that, then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness will exist in our lives like an ever flowing stream. And all of us will become like the Canaanite woman’s daughter: healed of our demons, which is our fear of the Other; by our faith; in Christ’s name.

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When Do You Wrestle with God?

August 13, 2017                     10th Sunday in Pentecost

Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28           Romans 10:5–15                     Matthew 14:22–33

A few weeks ago we talked about Jacob’s Ladder, and I mentioned that Jacob is not someone who we would call a typical or classical hero.

Now we all know that Jacob had a falling out with his older twin brother Esau, and tricked him out of his birthright, which meant that Esau couldn’t becoming the heir of his father, Isaac. Because Esau was so mad at Jacob he had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran, which was located just over the southern boarder of present day Turkey. Jacob married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 11 of the 13 children that we know of at this point in the story.

After many years Jacob decided that he would head back to his birthplace. So he went to his father-in-law, Laban, and asked for his wages. Of course Laban didn’t want Jacob to go – and you can kind of understand that because then he would have been separated from his two daughters and his grandchildren. Besides Laban admits that because of Jacob’s hard work his flocks have increased and made him a wealthy man, so he doesn’t want to lose such a good worker. So Jacob strikes a bargain and says that he will only claim the spotted and stripped goats and sheep. I think that Laban figured it would take time for Jacob to accumulate enough livestock to equal his wages so he agrees. But then Jacob sets up a sneaky breeding program, which ensures that more stripped and spotted animals are born. So after six years he gains the amount of assets that he needs to leave.  As we can see, even though Jacob did mature and become a family man – and there can be no doubt that he loved his wives and children – he was still resorting to trickery to get what he wanted.

So then, after twenty years of living with his uncle’s family, God comes to Jacob and tells him to go back home, and that He will protect Jacob on the way and once he gets there. So Jacob packs up his wives and puts them on camels, and all the goats, sheep, donkeys and oxen that belonged to him, and all the furniture, and all the servants and he heads on back to Canaan to his brother’s house.

As he gets closer to his birthplace Jacob starts to get nervous. He sends messengers on ahead to his brother who return saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob and his family with 400 men. Okay, now Jacob starts to get really nervous, because he thinks that Esau is coming to get his revenge for his birthright. So Jacob sends to Esau an appeasement present: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. That’s 600 animals in all. Then he packs his wives and kids up along with the rest of his servants and has them cross the river, in the hopes that they will be safe, and he stays on the other side until daybreak.

And then it says that: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Now there are a number of thoughts as to who this “man” is. There have been scholarly, Christian treatise that say that since we start out with the word man and we then move to the word God later in the scripture that the person who Jacob was wrestling with was the son of God, or Jesus.

Wait a minute, you might say. This is the OLD Testament, Jesus doesn’t appear until the New Testament. But remember that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. So why couldn’t this have been Jesus?

Some theories say that the man was actually an angel and that somewhere during the wrestling match God took over. Either way, the point is that Jacob wrestled with God.

Okay, fine, Jacob wrestles with God. But why here and why now? Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he tricked his brother out of his birthright. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he saw the ladder. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God while he was getting married, working and having kids. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when pulled the to-his-advantage breeding program on Laban. Jacob was coasting along in life, taking advantage where he could, but now the bill comes due.

I think that Jacob has been hit with the full realization that his actions are going to have consequences, and he doesn’t know what those consequences are. So he is over on that side of the river; dealing with a sleepless night; probably wondering if his brother Esau isn’t going to catch up to his flocks and servants; kill his servants and take his flocks; then catch up to his wives and kids and kill them; and then finally finish it with Jacob.

He is pacing on that side of the river, trying to get up the nerve to go forward. He can’t go back, he burned his bridges with his father-in-law. And besides, God told him to go home. But what if this is the wrong thing to do? What if this isn’t what is right? What if he’s put his servants and his wives and his children in mortal danger? What if this is his punishment for being a no-so-good person? Jacob, like the rest of us in a decision crisis, is drowning in the “What ifs.”

And when you are in that time of struggling and pacing, and wrestling with your decision and yourself, and you question: Is this what I am supposed to do, is this my destiny? Isn’t that wrestling with God?

I was teaching a unit about religion once and we were comparing different methods of prayer between different faiths and cultures, and I said that when you pray there are always three people present: You, God, and the person who you don’t want to be that you drag to God to help you fix. Sometimes we wrestle with all that we don’t like within ourselves; sometimes we wrestle with the consequences of our past actions; sometimes we wrestle with the decision that we have to make now; sometimes we wrestle with the uncertainty and the directions of the future; sometimes we wrestle with the place and the meaning of our faith, and the ethics of that faith in our lives; sometimes we wrestle with what God means to us.

But we need to remember that in all those wrestlings, God is with us.

It is interesting that God doesn’t automatically win in this story. I mean you would think that God, being all powerful, would pull a back flip on Jacob and end the encounter easy-peasy. But He doesn’t. He actually is held down by Jacob, and God injures Jacob trying to get away. That seems so counter-intuitive but then I realized that I hold onto certain ideas about who God should be in my life, or what God should do for me. I hold God down and don’t let myself expand on the idea of God or think about Him differently – I put God in a corner and I don’t let Him come out.

It sometimes takes God giving me a shock to get me to see what He can do for my life. And also what I can do with my life when I let go of all those expectations of how it should work, and just let the work get done that God wants me to do. But that unexpected push from God, which is sometimes painful, changes me. Jacob ended up with a new name and a limp. Usually I end up doing things completely differently than I did before, or seeing things differently than I did before. I don’t come out of these revelations the same way I came in.

One last thing about this encounter. Jacob asks God for a blessing. When I wrestle with our indecisions or uncertainty, I don’t think in that moment that I am in a position to ask for a blessing from God. I just feel too uncertain in those moments, and I don’t feel it’s right to ask God to bless in my life when it seems to be in turmoil. But you know, I think when we are wrestling with something and we are uncertain, that is when we need to ask God for a blessing to get us through the uncertainty and give us a sign or a feeling of assurance that everything will be alright. Maybe if we asked for more blessings in times of uncertainty we would receive more guidance on how to get out of our problems.

We all wrestle at times with our problems and with God. Even if you don’t feel it, God is there with you. Sometimes He’s wrestling against you, for your own good. Sometimes he’s wrestling with you for your good. Just hang in there, get through to the morning, and you’ll be blessed and be ready to cross that river and head on home.

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Fellowship Friday

August 6, 2017

This Sunday the Sharon and Lakeville United Methodist Churches worshiped to gather at the Lakeville church.  Matthew Vreeland was the guest preacher.  When the video of his sermon goes up on YouTube we will post the link here.

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Hidden Treasure

July 30, 2017             8th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 29:15–28          Romans 8:26–39          Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

While looking at all these examples of the kingdom of heaven I wondered: What do they have in common other than the fact that they are examples of the kingdom of heaven?

My first thought was: they relate to things that people would normally find in their environment, work that people would normally do, and places that they would normally be.

For instance, the mustard plant is the dandelion weed of the Middle East. Like the dandelion it grows everywhere. It has teeny-tiny seeds that get into cracks and between rocks, and then grows into a scrawny bush that everyone would have around their house or in their garden.

Yeast is something that a woman would deal with every day to make bread, a staple food that people would eat every day.

People might not have had gold and silver treasures in their fields, but the land of Israel was lived in for centuries before Jesus and, just as kids sometimes dig up arrowheads here, people would dig up old pots, weapons, or other things on occasions. I can’t tell you how much old pottery and toys Michael and I have dug up in our garden, not to mention the garbage we have found!

Pearls weren’t common, but people knew that they were found by divers who were mining oysters – and to the Romans they were the diamonds of the 1st century.  Pearls were definitely a commodity that a merchant would deal in if you lived near the Mediterranean Sea, so probably a lot of Jewish merchants had access to them. And a lot of people were fishermen so they would know about fish and nets, the diversities of a catch, and that you had to sort out the edible from the un-edible fish.

So the first thing that comes to mind is that Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven is surrounding us right now in the common things and events of our lives. It seems that we can find the Kingdom easily if we just shift our perspective and start to appreciate and be grateful for the little things that God gives us and give us joy, like nature, bread, unexpected finds, beautiful objects, and the foods we eat.

Another facet of these parables is that the Kingdom of God seems to be for everyone. These parables are inclusive because everyone would have had mustard seed plants in their garden or around their house. Women are included, which is interesting because a common conservative view was that God valued a man’s connection over a women’s, and that women were connected to God through their male associations. Then Jesus mentions farmers, merchants and fishermen, which pretty much covers about 95% of the Jewish male population, but the ones who would not have a lot of political power. There is even a hint of foreigners being included because Jewish people couldn’t come into contact with shellfish, since it was one of the forbidden foods. Only gentiles could harvest the oysters and eat them, which is how they would find the pearls. So God’s kingdom is suggested to be far more inclusive, and existing for the common people, rather than just the Hebrew people or the nobility and people in power.

But then I began to realize that above all those meanings, that all these examples are hidden items.

Wild mustard seeds are so tiny that they are practically invisible. You can’t distinguish them from a piece of dust when they get picked up and blown on the breeze. And yet you can see the result of their planting. They turn places that are desert or rocky, where nothing else will grow, into areas of green, with flowers for bees, and food for goats, and leaves and spices for people’s food. Even if you were poor you could eat wild mustard greens.

You can’t see yeast. Today we buy yeast from the story in packets, but yeast is actually present in the air around us. A woman would grow yeast by mixing water and flour in a jar and in about a week the yeast would start to bubble and grow in the mixture. She then would take a measure out of the jar and mix it into more flour and water to make bread. You can’t see the yeast but you can see what it does and it can be used with a whole bunch of different grains to produce something really yummy and nutritious.

The treasure hidden in the field is a little more complicated. First a person finds the treasure, maybe while he was working the field or he could have found it outside of the field. But he hides it in the field again. And then he goes and sells everything he has to raise the money to buy to field that he hid the treasure in. I had to think about this one for a while, and then I realized that when we do find out what God’s Kingdom is we need to claim it for ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but recognizing that that it is valuable to us, that we want to be a part of it, and that we are going to be responsible for it. Because when you buy that field you are accepting responsibility for its management and development. We claim our part in God’s Kingdom by accepting a responsibility for developing God’s kingdom. And we should joyously put everything we have into that development because we know that God’s Kingdom is the ultimate good thing in the universe.

Pearls are also hidden, and random, and take time to be made. Not every oyster has a pearl; not every oyster has a well-formed pearl; not every oyster has a big pearl; and not every oyster has a beautiful colored pearl. But every once in a while you get an oyster with a pearl that is well-formed, big, and very beautiful. But those pearls take time to grow. This is why wisdom is equated with pearls. Pearls of wisdom are thoughts that are well-formed, well-thought out, encompass what needs to be said, and convey a beauty of knowledge. Wisdom takes work and time to develop. Like the oyster, you need to work, sometimes for years, on cultivating your mind and your spirit. The person who is looking for the Kingdom of Heaven is actually looking for a hidden wisdom that will lead them to God. And when that person finally finds how to have God in their life, they gladly give what they have to continue to have God in their life. And they will treat that connection like the precious commodity that it is, because they know that nothing is more valuable than being and living in God’s love.

Fish in the sea are also hidden.   Fishermen can sometimes see fish, if they are close enough to the surface, but for the most part a fisherman just casts his net into the water and brings up what he can. It’s always a surprise. Christ says that the net is the Kingdom. The net attracts and pulls up all different kinds of people. Not just Hebrews but people from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia: All those different people are included in the kingdom. But then the fisherman sits in the boat and sorts the good fish from the bad fish. Now I’m sure a lot of people thought that at first Jesus was talking about the obvious distinction: Jews vs. Gentiles. But then Jesus says that the angels will separate out the evil people from the righteous people. It is not what is on our surface, what we look like, that God cares about – it is what is hidden in our heart that God looks at.

Jesus finishes this string of parables with an interesting sentence: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Suddenly we have a scribe – Why a scribe? Well, although scribes were people who knew how to read and write, and therefore functioned as secretaries in an age when many people couldn’t read and write well: scribe could also be a word meaning a general teacher. So Jesus is saying that every scribe, who has been first a student, and has worked diligently to understand God and his relationship to us and the world, is going to bring the treasured wisdom of God to us. Not only the traditional wisdom, but they are also going to be conveying what they have learned that is new.

Like mustard seeds and yeast, knowledge and wisdom of God is always growing for us. Like the treasure and the pearl it is hidden, so we need to look for it. And it’s also valuable, so we need to take responsibility for it and claim it as our own. And like the net it’s universal for all people and all ideas, but we must discern which are good people and ideas to associate with, and which are bad.

God’s Kingdom is there for all of us, but it’s going to take time, practice, study, learning, and dedication to find it. It is the revealing work of a life-time, the treasure of eternity, and it’s out there for us to find. And Jesus is the map to get to it, so follow him and let him lead you to the Kingdom.

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Where Earth Meets Heaven

July 23, 2017             7th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 28:10–19a                 Romans 8:12–25        Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

I loved the story of Jacob’s Ladder when I was a kid. I thought it was really neat that Jacob saw this ladder that stretched up to heaven with angels going up and down it. And we learned the song Jacob’s Ladder in Sunday school so I imagined the angels going up and down the ladder singing the song. And I thought: Wow, I bet that Jacob was a really good person because he got to see the ladder and the angels. And God told him that he was going to inherit all that land that was around him. And he was going to have a million descendants who were going to be all over the earth. Jacob must have been one of the bestest people in the whole world!

Well, when you’re a kid you don’t read the whole Bible. You read the kid’s Bible with all the difficult, questioning stuff taken out of it. When you get older though, you start to read the adult scripture, and that’s when you get shocked by the actuality of who those neat interesting characters of your youth are.

Jacob is not a typical hero. In fact I’m not so sure that we could classify him as the classical hero at all. Apparently Jacob was constantly fighting with his older twin brother Esau to the point of tricking him out of his birthright and becoming the heir to his father Isaac’s inheritance. Things got so bad between the brothers that when their father died, Jacob had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran. (It was during that trip that he saw the Ladder.) Jacob then settled in Haran, married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 13 children – 12 boys and one girl (that we know of).   Eventually he tricked his father-in-law out of a substantial number of his goats and sheep and returned to his homeland, and wrestled with an angel along the way. When he arrived he made peace with Esau and was able to continue the rest of his long life.

When I was a preteen and found out the true character of Jacob I was really disappointed. I decided that I didn’t like Jacob. He was a trickster who was always looking for a way get the better of people to benefit himself. I’m sure that he was a very lovable trickster – I think we’ve all known people like that. They’re charming, and they can play on your feelings, and they talk their way in and out of anything. You kind of admire them, maybe even like them a little, but you can never really trust them.

So why would God reveal part of his power to Jacob? Why would Jacob be privileged to see a place where God broke through the barrier between heaven and earth, and then have God stand beside him and tell him that not only was He the God of his father and grandfather but that Jacob, the person who had tricked his own brother out of his birthright, was going to inherit all the land surrounding him? Not only that, but Jacob’s family was going be so numerous that they were going to cover the earth and be eternally blessed. Not only that, but God was going to protect him wherever he went, and bring him back to this land, and make sure that all those promises were fulfilled.

In my opinion Jacob didn’t deserve that. I was very mad at the Bible when I reasoned this out. Mind you, I wasn’t mad at God – it’s hard for me to get mad at God unless it’s really personal.   But I was mad at that Bible story.

It wasn’t until I was older, and I read a few other sticky stories in the Bible, that I learned that Jacob wasn’t the worst character out there. And in fact if you look at the entire history of Jacob there’s a maturity that happens to him. He evolves from a know-it-all punk into a mature family man, who really tried to go home and clean up the mess he made in his youth. And he also finds out that children are your parent’s revenge when his own kids commit a series of spectacular mess-ups. At the end of his life we see a man who has learned his lessons, sacrificed a lot, only wants the best for his family, and is willing to take huge risks to ensure that they will survive.

So knowing that I realized that when Jacob sees the ladder and the connection between heaven and earth, and encounters God, that it is a turning point for him.

First of all, he experiences physically a connection to heaven. In the Bible we read about these connections; maybe we also read about them in other books; we think about them; we talk with other people about them; but all those are intellectual exercises of the possibilities of what they are.   But Jacob’s dream was a physical reality to him. He wakes up from that dream and says: “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

That’s not someone who wakes up and says, “Wow, that was a weird dream.” Jacob woke up convinced that the dream was real. And from that moment forward he started to live out his life as if he was connected to God. It takes a while, but he starts to be more responsible, more considerate of people. It starts to be no longer about him alone. And he starts to take a long-range, not a short-range view.

You see redemption is for everyone. Do I like the Jacob before that dream? No – he’s a spoiled little mama’s boy. Do I like the Jacob after the dream? Not right away. But as his story progresses I see the influence of his encounter with God and his struggles with his family issues and his own personality.   They are not my issues, but I can still relate to them because I have family issues too and I have personality struggles.

It raises an issue for me. I don’t think I have ever behaved with the amount of selfishness that Jacob did, but would I be any more worthy than he was to have that dream?

Would I be a “good” candidate to witness a connection between heaven and earth? I have experienced some mind-blowing things, and the only explanation that I have for them is that God was there and the barrier between this earth and His heaven was very thin. And a few laws of physics might have gotten bent. When I told one of my stories to a psychologist he asked me, “So what’s your explanation for that?” I said, “I don’t have one. There is no logical explanation for what happened.” And as Sherlock Holmes said: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And the only truth I have left is that God was in those places making the impossible happen.

But really, how am I, with all of my own imperfections, any worthier than Jacob? None of us are perfect. And this one of the lessons of Jacob: God works with imperfection. God works with really imperfectly people to make things happen. God punches holes in the universe to show us that this world is not the be all and end all – there is another realm out there that we are connected to, and it is glorious and wonderful and the dwelling of God, and we have access to it and knowledge of it even if we are not heavenly beings.

But it’s not accessible to us unless we are willing to believe and accept that it is there. Remember that when Jacob woke up from his dream he didn’t brush it off by saying: well that was weird. Instead he accepted that God was real, and from that point on he allowed God to come into his life and to change him.

God is punching holes in the universe for us all the time, but are we accepting them as God in our life, and are we willing to believe that earth is meeting heaven? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when a friend calls with the exact information that you need? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when we are given an unexpected gift? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when difficulties happen, but they turn out to be just what we need to move on to something better?

Do we allow ourselves to change like Jacob did? Do we allow our experiences that God gives us to mold us into something better? Do we follow the prayer: Lord, I am not what I was, and I am not yet what I will be, and I thank you for that.

Where in your life has earth met heaven? How have you encountered God? Did you let Him change you? How is He redeeming you right now? If he hasn’t or isn’t, ask Him to show up as soon as possible and show you His glory. If you accept it, like Jacob, you will be changed for the better, and be changed for the good.

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Getting the Ground Ready

July 16, 2017       6th Sunday of Pentecost       Fellowship Sunday

Genesis 25:19–34                   Romans 8:1–11           Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

The parables of Jesus are like archeological digs, with multiple layers of meanings to what he says and the fun is trying to figure out what those layers mean.

Jesus preached to his audience using metaphors that they knew; allowing them to relate their environment into their own spiritual understanding. And he liked to use a lot of agricultural images – which makes sense because about 90% of the people he talked to were connected with farming. People understood different types of soils, geological formations, weather conditions, and how they created or influenced a good or a bad harvest.

If Jesus came back today he might preach in terms of computers, or car racetracks, or airline or space travel. But actually, I kind of like the fact that we have to stop and think a little about his metaphors. It makes us think a little more deeply about their meaning, and think a little deeper about our lives. Which is of course the point of the metaphor.

So in this parable Jesus says that the word of God is like seeds. When it is tossed onto a path, it’s very exposed so the birds come along and eat it quickly. Besides being exposed, a path has very hard packed soil, so the seed doesn’t have any way of gaining a purchase and rooting into the ground. That’s why Jesus says that people don’t understand what the word of the kingdom means. We don’t hold onto what we don’t understand. If our minds have no way of associating what we are hearing we just write off what we hear and go on with our lives.

Then you have the seed that falls on rocky ground, which Jesus says is someone who is unstable or not very focused. That person is happy to hear about God’s promised kingdom since they might hope that religion will bring stability into their lives. But since they can’t figure out how to find stability in their lives to begin with, they have a tough time hanging onto the ideals and practices of a spiritual life, so when difficulty arises they don’t stick with their new life with God.

Then you have people who are probably able to comprehend Jesus’ message, and also are stable in themselves, but they are either too stressed out by the thorns of poverty and uncertainty or they are too caught up in the thorns of materialism and expectations of the world, so they decide that the Kingdom of God is just not worth pursuing. Who has time for religion anyway with everything else you need to do?

But then you have people who are able to comprehend what Jesus is saying about a spiritual life and how it relates to God’s kingdom; are stable enough in their own personalities to be able to face the difficulties of a spiritual life; and aren’t caught up in the anxieties of poverty or wealth. And those people are able to not only hear the word and understand it, but also work outward and make God’s message of love real in the world, to the point where they spread the message up to a hundredfold. Now not every one of us can get to that hundredfold marker – like Mother Teresa, she was not even a100, she was a thousand-fold person. But I know that everyone here is spreading God’s Love and every little bit is still doing God’s work. So good for us, and keep at it!

When I examined this parable I got three layers out of it. Maybe you’ll find more layers – but these are my three.

First of all, Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they couldn’t reach everyone. Anyone who is dedicated to their job wants to do it well. I remember, when I first started teaching I took to heart the idea that I was responsible for every student in my classroom. It was my job to make sure that everyone learned the material. What I didn’t get was that I couldn’t always be the right teacher for every student. Now those two statements might seem to contradicted each other. It took me a while to realize that no matter how hard I tried for some of my students I was NOT the best teacher. Maybe it was the way I presented the material, or maybe that student just wasn’t at the level that I was teaching the subject. In that case, my responsibility to that student was to try to find a teacher or a class level that was good for them. My inability to teach them wasn’t personal – it was situational.

I’m sure the disciples had the same issue. Peter might have talked to some people and what he said about Jesus just didn’t connect. But maybe those same people could talk to Thomas and get this whole Jesus stuff.   And some people because of their situations just aren’t ready to hear about Jesus and God’s Kingdom. In that case, Jesus was saying: Don’t worry. You gave your message, if the idea can take, it will take. Concentrate on helping the people who are receptive, and move on from the rest. Just keep throwing the message out there and it will land on the people who can receive it.

The second layer or message focuses on the negative conditions of the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns. And it gets down to another level of discipleship that we experience as Christians who are committed to Kingdom building. I believe that the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns, symbolize conditions that we are supposed to confront and change from negative to positive, from bad planting conditions to good ones, so that the kingdom of God will spread even further.

The hard earth of the path represents people who can’t even comprehend the importance of God, and we all do encounter people like that. And when we do we need to take a breath and ask why that is.

Does God seem inaccessible to them because they believe that they are incapable of God’s love, maybe because of a sinful or an abused life? In that case we need to assure them that God’s love and grace is available to everyone.

Does this whole religious nonsense seem an illogical and unnecessary belief that gets in the way of life to them? Then maybe we need to be able to suspend judgment and explain what our faith does for us personally. How does Christ make us happy; how does Christ give us strength; how does Christ comfort our sorrows and give assurance when we need it? We can be looking glass for them to a different outlook on life.

Or maybe they just came from a non-religious family and they have no idea how to relate to this Jesus stuff. In which case we can tell them our story and maybe get them started on the road to understanding. You know a path can grow green – it takes time – but it can change.

The rocky ground is people who are interested in religion and curious about Jesus, but don’t have the stability in themselves or in their lives. Our focus should be to help them gain some stability so that they can grow roots into their spirituality. While teaching them about Christ we should also help them to clear some rocks from their lives so that they can have space to be better prepared for when difficult times come. Hopefully they will have grown in God and Christ to the point where they will be able to draw on the sustaining power and strength of the Holy Spirit during their difficulties.

The thorns of life are the cares of poverty, wealth, social expectation, or the desire for success, all the things that pull our hearts away from God.   We should show those people how the focus on God will enhance their lives beyond the temptations of the material world or the difficulties of real or perceived want. I don’t have a big piece of property, but I don’t need it, because I am surrounded by God’s country, and I give thanks for living here every time I walk out my door. We need to give thanks for our lives, and show our thanks, as the example and as an antidote to a world that wants more, more, more.

And then there is a third layer to the metaphor. Every disciple should bravely ask: What is it that I don’t understand about my own faith? What is unstable in my own life that is holding me back from a deeper belief and trust in my God, a better connection with my brother Christ, and keeps me from seeing how the Holy Spirit is working in me and around me? What are the cares and concerns that distract me from my faith, and how can I get God into those cares and concerns and make Him a greater part of my life?

Live your life on the three levels of this parable. Scatter your seeds of God’s love and don’t worry about where they fall. Help others to clear the ground of misunderstanding about God, the instabilities that get in the way of God, and the things that keep our focus off of God. And ask yourself: How you can make your ground better, so that your roots can grow deeper, and your love higher, so that your fruit becomes so abundant that you can share it with everyone. Live in that abundance and who knows how large your harvest of love will be?

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