The Invitation to Be Radical with Your Love

February 19, 2017                 7th Sunday of Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Invitation to Forgive and Reconcile

February 12, 2017       6th Sunday in Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great Invitation to Mission

February 5, 2017                   5th Sunday of Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great Invitation to Give and Receive

January 29, 2017                   4th Sunday of Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8      1 Corinthians 1:18-31         Matthew 5:1-12

The scriptures that we read today are two of my favorite in the lectionary. The reason why I like this pairing is because they encapsulate so much of what our Judeo-Christianity is about.

Every scripture has time and cultural context. Micah lived in a time when the country of Judah was doing rather well over all but there was a lot of exploitation in business and temple practices. There were a lot of nouveau-riche people in the economy, mostly in Jerusalem, who were showing off their wealth. And priests of the Temple, when people came to give a sin offering, were taking advantage of this by promoting that it was better to sacrifice twice or more of the standard amount to show true contrition. It was sort of like what we went through in the Renaissance with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences.   You could buy your way out of sin without having to change your heart.

Micah slams that practice so beautifully by naming those rivers of oil, and rams, and calves, and then saying that in the end they are all worthless before the Lord, because all God really wants is for us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Basically that’s it. Oh, He’s not going to turn down those sin offerings. He’s not going to turn down our confessions and our prayers. He will accept and listen to each of them, because our connection to Him is very important.   But our only job in this world is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And if we walk with God then God will walk with us. But we’ve got get on with it and be walking with God!

About three hundred years later along comes Jesus. And one of his intentions was to teach us how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And today we read the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which very much outlines Jesus’ message of how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God in chapters 5, 6 & 7.

But Jesus doesn’t start by saying what we should and shouldn’t do. He starts by blessing the crowd. But when we read these blessings we need to a little careful as to how we interpret them.   A lot of people read them as cause/effect statements. In other words, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he isn’t saying that you are blessed with the kingdom of heaven because you are poor in spirit or that you are blessed with comfort because you are in mourning.

What Jesus is doing here is pronouncing a blessing on the people who have come to hear him teach. And he is blessing them so that they will think differently about the way the world works. In Jesus’ teaching he is describing how we are to live as God’s people in this world and he’s saying right off the bat that because we are God’s children, no matter what our condition is, that we are blessed.

Even though Jesus starts out his sermon by saying that we are blessed we need to remember that blessings flow two ways.

Many of you have heard me say that one way to start a connection with God is to remember our blessings. I don’t like the phrase count your blessings because I feel like it’s too much of a quantifier of blessings. As if: You have a lot of little blessings they are somehow equal to or better than a few big blessings.   I believe that all blessings are important. A blessing that seems like a small blessing now might turn out to be a HUGE blessing down the road. So I like to say instead: remember your blessings and say thank you for them.

But even when we remember our blessings we usually only think about the blessings that we receive, not the blessings that we give. I actually think that they go hand-in-hand with each other because often the blessings that we give become the blessings that we receive later on. What’s the verse 11:1 from Ecclesiastes? Cast your bread on the water and it will come back. I don’t think we should deliberately look for it, but often blessings do come back in another form.

Receiving blessings can sometimes be hard to do. I love doing favors for people, but sometimes it is very hard for me to accept help when it is offered, or ask for help when I need it. Often my initial reaction is to resist. You know the, “Oh, I don’t want to impose on you.”   When that happens I often need to remind myself that by accepting or asking for someone’s blessing I am allowing them to give me a blessing – so then we are both blessed. Besides, why should I hog all the fun and be the only person who gives blessings?

Blessings can be found in so many places. We can be blessed by having a house to live in, but we are also blessed by the places that we have access to. If you think about it public parks are also part of our living space. I can go out and enjoy the Sharon Green just as easily as I enjoy my living room. Think of all the beautiful trails we have in this area to walk around in, and all the free knowledge I have access to through our library system.

We are also blessed by the people around us. Yes, sometimes people can be difficult, but for the most part we can learn and grow from them even if we do find it difficult to sometimes love them.

A place that we all have that is a living space, a learning space, and a people space is a church. Our church is a blessing. It’s a place to come and to rest your weary mind. It is a place to be built up spiritually. It is a place to find hope. It is a space to use for everything from a Bible Study, to an AA meeting, to a knitting group. But most importantly it is a place to build, form, and sustain disciples.

A lot of research has been done over the years, both religious and secular, centered on the action of giving and receiving. It has been found that generous givers are typically more spiritually vigorous and happier than those who are not generous. This extends beyond giving money to the church, so that it can continue as both a spiritual entity and as a community place. We give to the church not just because it is the right thing to do and we want to maintain this building, but because in our hearts we believe that what we do here not only uplifts and strengthens ourselves but also is a mission to uplift and strengthen others; both those who our beyond our community doors as well as those in our community.

Think back to Micah. His disgust wasn’t about the offerings – it was about the spirit of the offerings. The fact that all those people thought they could offer lots of stuff to the priests, and that would ensure God’s blessing in return. But actually if they had changed their hearts and walked with God then they could have used all the extra oil, rams, and calves to help their neighbors who were in distress.

Think forward to Jesus, who is telling all of us that we are blessed already. We are blessed even if we don’t feel spiritually worthy; or are mourning a loved one; or are caught up in a struggle to do the right thing; or have no political or social power; or are trying to be charitable; or we just don’t have the ability to ward off the hurt in life; or we try to make peace in a world in conflict.

Think of that – We Are Blessed Already. And the big thing that Jesus is trying to do is to create our lives so that we share our blessings with each other. Whether it is our time, our money, or our expertise; our job is to share our blessings with others.

So I challenge you to accept Jesus and God’s invitation to give and receive generously. Remember and recognize your blessings. Thank God for them. Look for ways that you can give as well. And then thank God for those opportunities in your life. As you receive and give, and give and receive, you will be strengthened as a disciple, you will live with abundant blessings, and your connection with God will multiply and grow.

And we will all be able to rejoice and be glad, for not only will our reward be great in heaven, but also here as we live with our blessings below.

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The Invitation to Follow Christ

January 22, 2017       3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4      1 Corinthians 1:10-18           Matthew 4:12-23

Two weeks ago I introduced the idea of Baptism as the Invitation from God (via John and Christ) to wash our past away and to accept the chance to step out on a new path and a new way of being. But when you start a new way of being you don’t know how to be that new person. So Jesus gave the second invitation to come and see what his teachings are all about and how they connect you to God.

This week our Gospel story is about the next step: The invitation to follow Jesus. This invitation is different from come and see. To follow means that you are actually going to try to put Christ-ideas into practice in your life. A certain commitment is required from you to try and act on loving God with your whole being, loving yourself, loving those around you, and using the blue-print of Jesus’ love to accomplish that.

Some people are a little intimidating to me in the way that they follow Jesus. I’m not talking about the subway preachers who I used to encounter in NY City, who would basically yell at everyone and tell us all that we were going to hell if we didn’t accept Christ right now! I’m talking about people like Mother Teresa who went into the slums of Calcutta and helped the really poor people who had been rejected by society. Or someone like Bonheoffer who stood up to Hitler and spoke out against the state taking over the church and using it for its own ends. Or even all those Civil Rights ministers who marched against those fire hoses and dogs. I mean those people really made a dedicated effort to follow Christ and sometimes I feel that I can’t measure up to them.

To get over that intimidation I try to remember that just as everyone’s connection to God is unique and different so is everyone’s ministry going to be uniquely their own. That’s because everyone’s ministry is in a context of the place that they exist in when they follow Jesus. This Gospel story about Jesus calling the original disciples reminds us of the beginning of Christian ministry, but it also reminds us that all stories of people answering Jesus’ call to “follow me and I will make you fishers of people” are equally important. If someone is sitting in the pew, it is because he or she has heard the call to serve God by serving others. And it doesn’t matter where or how you serve God – as long as you serve God.

Now if you read Matthew from chapter one up to this part of chapter four you are suddenly thrown a plot twist with a verse from Isaiah. Matthew basically spends the first three plus chapters showing that Jesus is the Messiah because he is fulfilling all the Prophesies that described what he would be like. Then suddenly in chapter 4, verses 15 & 16, we take a left turn with a quote from the book of Isaiah about the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali in Galilee as “Galilee of the Gentiles” and a “land of deep darkness. Let me give you a little historic background on this.

During the time of Isaiah’s prophetic work Assyria, in 726 BC, had conquered and annexed the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (later Galilee) and exiled many of its people. Then, in 722 BC, Assyria, ordered other captured people to be relocated into the Zebulum and Nephtali territory. This was typical Assyrian policy. Take over territories, exile the strongest of the natives, leaving the “poor of the land,” then resettle the area with people of other languages, cultures, and religions so that they are all thoroughly disoriented and demoralized, with no cultural center, and therefore unlikely to be able to work together to rebel.

Over the centuries it stayed a multi-ethnic blend of peoples who had little wealth or power and no resources to defend themselves whenever the next overlord (Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome) would run over them. It was still “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Under Roman occupation, it had become a place of relative peace. But the history had left its deep wounds and the scars were still everywhere, wreaking damage on the image of these people. Remember the slight that Nathaniel gives about Jesus? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That’s because Galilee was still seen as the backwoods, nothing-good-happens-there area of Roman-Palestine.

But it was in this place, in the heart of darkness of Israel, that Jesus established the center of his public ministry. In fact our Gospel reading ends today by saying, “Jesus went around everywhere throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Think of that – Jesus started his ministry in the most hopeless area of his culture; the place that had been written off for centuries as being hopeless. These people were seen as being at best seen as second-class citizens of Judea, and perhaps lower among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The Samaritans might have been seen as a bit lower, but not by much.

Think of what Jesus’ ministry meant to those people. Suddenly in their midst was a teacher, a preacher, and even a miracle worker. But most importantly, here was someone who was listening and responding to their pain, their loss, and their suffering. They needed the teaching and preaching, and miracle healing, but the healing they needed most of all was the kind that comes from listening and caring. They needed to know that they were valued children of God, who were worthy to receive the word of God, and who were worthy to become followers of the Messiah. That is what Jesus offered them.

Jesus came equally for those whom the culture has judged negatively, or oppressed, as well as those who are have security. He came for all people, for all of God’s children, all across this world, and he invites each one of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done in this life, to join him in the work of discipleship, to join him in the work of transforming the world.

Jesus calls some of us to the adventure of serving in the mission field in a foreign land. Others are called to adventure closer to home, serving God’s people through service organizations and schools, through foodservice and legal assistance, through volunteering, through offering prayer and healing. Through talking with our neighbors and helping them out in their times of need. There are so many ways for God’s people to follow Jesus into the adventure of serving.

As we try to follow Jesus let’s think of where the-land-of-darkness is in our own lives.

Is it a person who is in a depression? Is it someone who is suffering from substance abuse? Is it a child who is missing a mother or a father and needs to have a foster grandparent? Is it a family that is living in uncertainty because they need some help with rent because only one parent can work; or help with babysitting because both parents need to work? Is there a community problem that needs fixing, or help, or organizing?

Every time you bring light into darkness with Jesus’ love you are following him. Jesus’ invitation to follow him starts with us sharing our love and God’s love with each other, and other’s who need love. Every small act of kindness and compassion, and one-to-one act of justice that we practice, is just as important as a big dramatic action that someone else might do for God. Remember Jesus’ calls us to act in the specific context in which we have been placed.

We don’t have to go to a war zone to follow Jesus. We don’t have to go to another country, or another city, or even another neighborhood. All we have to do is to tend the garden in which God has planted us, and nurture the people who God has placed in our community. And if each of us tended our community as best we could with God’s love, imagine how we could c

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Methodists in Sharon, CT

Preached at Sharon UMC.  Lakeville UMC had a different sermon since it was Sharon UMC’s Church Birthday.  The theological points are the same but the historic reference points are different.

January 15, 2017       2nd Sunday of Epiphany   Church Birthday 182 years

Isaiah 49:1-7        1 Corinthians 1:1-9         John 1:29-42

Methodism was in America before the Revolutionary War, so for all we know there were itinerate Methodist ministers popping in and out of Sharon before the United States was even a country. But we do know that the first recorded preaching of a Methodist minister in Sharon was in 1788.

Mr. Cook, who was a Methodist lay preacher, preached at Samuel Hitchcock’s house in the south part of town.   Apparently he was a really good preacher so he was invited to return. Now remember, back then there wasn’t any TV, so a good rip-rousing preacher on an afternoon was excellent entertainment, besides being good for the soul. The second time he preached so many people wanted to come and hear Mr. Cook speak that the organizers of this event had him preach in the ballroom of Gallow’s tavern to accommodate the amount of people. However, the members of the town council felt that that preaching in a tavern had crossed the line and was irreverent, so they told the tavern keeper that they wouldn’t renew his license if he did that again.

Little did they know that Mr. Cook was only following a Methodist tradition of preaching in taverns – or actually preaching anywhere. Methodists have preached on street corners, in mining camps, even John Wesley stood up on his father’s table-top gravestone and gave a rousing sermon.

Sharon was one of the main stops on the itinerant preacher circuits. One of the most colorful preachers on the circuit was Freeborn Garretson. One of his diary entries from the area says: Monday, September 25th, 1788, I preached a funeral sermon in the same neighborhood; and the devil sent out a woman with a pistol or two to shoot me. While I was preaching from ‘Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace, thereby good shall come unto thee,’ Job 22:21, she came in, and made so much noise that I stopped till they put her out and shut the door.

But my favorite story happened on July 23, 1789, when he came to the town of Sharon, in Connecticut, where he found a number of precious souls, to whom he preached in the open air, there being so many assembled that no house could accommodate them. Unfortunately at about 2:00 in the afternoon Freeborn went to the local meadow to catch his horse, which was picketed on a long rope. Somehow the rope got around him and the horse swept Freeborn off his feet. He blacked out and when he came to was really disoriented until he found his hat with his name in it. Seeing his name he remembered who he was. He made his way to the farmer’s house where they called for a doctor and discovered that Freeborn had: my right shoulder dislocated and my left wrist, thumb, and shoulder, and several fingers, much strained, my body severely bruised, and several contusions on my head. The doctor patched him up and he rested for a few days recovering. He said of the people of Sharon that: Many of the inhabitants of the town came in to see me, and my soul was so happy that I was constrained with tears to exhort all that came near. I think I never had so strong a witness of perfect love. I was enabled to bless God for the affliction, and would not have had it otherwise. I do believe it was rendered a blessing to the place.

            Probably sometime after that, the Methodist Society was formed in Sharon. We don’t know the exact year but we do know that it met at the house of Mr. Alpheus Jewett, who Jewett Hill Rd. is named after. The farmhouse was at the corner of Caulkinstown Rd and Jewett Hill Rd and Mr. Jewiett and his wife opened their house to worship every Sunday, which, because they didn’t have a regular minister, was more like an adult bible study class with music and prayers. Every two weeks a traveling minister would come through and preach for the society on a weekday afternoon.

Mr. Jewett and his wife, were great people who really followed the idea of Christian nurture and fellowship. He was a farmer who employed a number of extra laborers and he always invited them to the preaching and gave them the time off to do so. One day, one of his workers, Mr. Maxam, declined to go and, when asked why by Mr. Jewett, he said that he was very poor and needed the money – so he would go and work at a neighbor’s farm for the afternoon. Mr. Jewett paid him for his time in church. Mr. Maxam was so impressed with this that he became a full member of the society and one of the founding Fathers of the church.

By 1808 the membership of the society was probably getting to be too large for the family living room so Mr. Jewett built a meeting-house for the society on his property, opposite the farmhouse at the corner of the corner of Caulkinstown and Jewett Hill Roads, and that was the first Methodist church in Sharon.  But within twenty years the society had grown out of the building so they began to discuss building a bigger church.

I’m sure that this was a lengthy discussion. There were probably people who wanted to keep things just the way they were, but at the same time they were just too big a group now to be accommodated on Mr. Jewett’s property. I am sure there were a lot of debates about what if they failed and couldn’t keep the new facility going for one reason or another.

But those founders finally took a leap of faith. On January 13, 1835 the Methodist Episcopal Church became a legal entity, and incorporated as an official church with the state of Connecticut. You see they hadn’t had to do that before since their building was on private land. But now they had made the full legal commitment to be a religious entity and to build a church in the downtown part of Sharon. As far as we can figure out the land was donated by the King family, who were possibly members of the church. They also purchased the parsonage, in 1839 (which was probably originally a family house for members of the King family) because they wanted to have a minister who lived in the town and could be a part of their community.  For that I thank the founding fathers and mothers, because it is a great community to live in.

While I was reading the opening of the Corinthian’s scripture I thought about what it was like for those few hardy souls who started the church in Corinth. They probably weren’t that different from the people who started the Methodist church in Sharon.

It’s true that the people in Corinth were starting their religion from scratch – since most of them converted from either Judaism or paganism, and the Christian church, was still sort of figuring out what the prayers and the hymns should be. But we do know that many of the early church rituals were borrowed from Judaism, and some pagan ideas slipped in as well, just as Methodists took traditions from the Christian church. But remember Methodists were actually innovators in some things like hymn writing, and scandalously setting words to popular melodies that you might hear in taverns.

Also I am sure that the people in Corinth had a wide variety of religious affiliations. In any day and age, there are people who have no belief, a sort of belief, a searching belief, or a strong belief. Just as the young church in Corinth probably brought in a variety of believers I am sure that the young Sharon Methodist Society provided a spiritual home to many non-believers, sort of believers, searching believers and strong believers to God, who were looking for a home.

But Corinthians had something very basic in common with the established Christians 1,800 years later – they wanted to figure out how to connect to God in a new way and make themselves better people through that connection. The important thing that both the church in Corinth and the Sharon church did, and why they ultimately prospered, was that they provided a place for people to find their faith.   Last week I talked about the Invitation that God gives to all of us through our Baptism. But we in turn provide an invitation to people to come and experience the Christ connection to God by providing a space for them to explore their faith and how it works in the world. A good church of faith always says, “Come and see,” to people. Jesus didn’t say, “Come and believe completely, right away.”   He gave people the space to experience and evaluate his teaching and to grow into those experiences and teachings, and to deepen their commitment to God.

Often we don’t like evangelism because we think that it means that we need to shove our ideas down people’s throats. But think of what Mr. Jewett did for Mr. Maxam: Mr Jewett didn’t say to his farmhand, “You HAVE to come to worship service.” Instead he said, “I will help you so that you CAN come if you want to.” The invitation was freely given and freely accepted and Mr. Maxam found his faith through that invitation.

During my research I found a lot of stories about our church down through the years. But always we have been a people who provide a space for people to find their Christ Connection to God. We can be proud that we have maintained that connection. From Corinth to Sharon has been a long road, but that connection has been maintained. And with God’s Grace we will continue our Christ Connection into the future. Happy 182 plus years to all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Invitation to Come and See

Preached at Lakeville UMC.  Sharon UMC had a different sermon today because they were celebrating their 182 birthday.  Theologically the sermons are the same but the historic references are slightly different.

January 15, 2017       2nd Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7                1 Corinthians 1:1-9                  John 1:29-42

You guys don’t know this, but today Sharon United Methodist Church is celebrating its 182 birthday. I’m actually going to preach a different sermon today down at Sharon outlining part of their foundation and history and, while I was reading the opening of the Corinthian’s scripture, I thought about the similarities between those few hardy souls who started up the church in Corinth and the people who started up our Methodist churches in this area.

First of all, the church in Corinth probably started as a house church, just like many of the Methodist societies started. It took them a while to grow their numbers and at some point they probably felt that they had too many people going in and out of houses. So they decided that they really needed to find a more permanent place to worship, which could accommodate everyone. So, like all of our churches, they started to collect funds to purchase a building or to build one as a central meeting place for everyone to use.

One could say that the church in Corinth was creating their traditions from scratch because the Christian church was brand new and still figuring out what the prayers, rituals, and the hymns should be, whereas the early Methodist church already had rituals and traditions from the Anglican Church. But we do know that many of the early church rituals were borrowed from Judaism, and some pagan ideas slipped in as well. However, Methodists were actually innovators in some things like hymn writing, setting words to popular melodies that you might hear in taverns.

It’s true that the people in Corinth were jumping into a brand new religion and expression of faith. But I don’t think that the people in Corinth were without faith.   Probably most of them converted from either Judaism or paganism, so they had some form of faith already. The Christian church was a better way for them to express their beliefs in God. The Corinthians had something very basic in common with the established Christians who were becoming Methodists 1,800 years later – they wanted to figure out how to connect to God in a new way and make themselves better people through that connection.

Also I am sure that the people in Corinth had a wide variety of religious affiliations. In any day and age, there are people who have no belief, a sort of belief, a searching belief, or a strong belief. Just as the young church in Corinth probably brought in a variety of believers I am sure that the local Methodist Societies provided a spiritual home to many who were non-believers, sort of believers, searching believers, and strong believers, but who were looking for a home to work on their faith.

And that ultimately is the most important thing that the early church, the churches that started in early America, and our church today have in common. They gave and give people a place for their faith to have a home.            Both the Corinth and the early Methodist churches provided a place for people to find their faith.

Last week I talked about the Invitation that God gives to all of us through our Baptism. But we in turn provide an invitation to people to come and experience the Christ connection to God by providing a space for them to explore their faith and how it works in the world. A good church of faith always says, “Come and see,” to people. You know, Jesus didn’t say, “Come and believe completely, right away.”   He gave people the space to experience and evaluate his teaching, and to grow into his ideas, and through those ideas and experience to deepen their commitment to God.

One of the neat stories I found when researching the Sharon Church was that the first building wasn’t in downtown Sharon. We don’t know the exact year that the Sharon Methodist society started, but we do know that it met at the house of Mr. Alpheus Jewett, who Jewett Hill Rd. is named after. The farmhouse was at the corner of Caulkinstown Rd and Jewett Hill Rd and Mr. Jewiett and his wife opened their house to worship every Sunday, which, because they didn’t have a regular minister, was more like an adult bible study class with music and prayers. But every two weeks a traveling minister would come through and preach for the society in on a weekday afternoon.

Mr. Jewett was such a neat guy, (his wife was pretty cool too) who really followed the idea of Christian nurture and fellowship. He was a farmer who employed a number of extra laborers and he always invited them to the weekday preaching and gave them the time off so that they could go. One day, one of his workers, Mr. Maxam, declined to go and when asked why by Mr. Jewett, he said that he was very poor and needed the money – so he would go and work at a neighbor’s farm for the afternoon. Mr. Jewett paid him for his time in church. Mr. Maxam was so impressed with this that he became a full member of the society and one of the founding Fathers of the church.

Now that is a great example of “Come and See” evangelism.

Often we don’t like evangelism because it feel that it means that we shove our ideas down people’s throats. But think of what Mr. Jewett did for Mr. Maxam: Mr Jewett didn’t say to his farmhand, “You HAVE to come to worship service.” Instead he said, “I will help you so that you CAN come if you want to.” The invitation was freely given and freely accepted, and Mr. Maxam found his faith, by coming and seeing through that invitation.

Essentially we should all be evangelists. That doesn’t mean we need to stand on street corners and shout out our faith. What we need to do is promote a “come and see” approach that each of us can participate in by inviting others in the most authentic way that we can to meet the Jesus we know.

One way to share faith authentically is to figure out why we personally made a decision to follow Jesus. My short story is that Jesus helps me to get through the day with a code of ethical love that I can be guided by. Also I tend to over think things and Jesus helps me to let go and rely more on the fact that God is working with me and that I can have faith that things will turn out all right. I also have experienced the forgiving Grace of God when I mess up. That is a big part of my story.

It’s hard sometimes for me to share my story with others. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I definitely do not connect with someone else. But I figure that as long as I tell my story with the attitude of, “Come and see,” rather than, “Come and believe completely right away,” then at least I’ll give someone something to think about.

Hear are some questions that you might ask yourself to clarify your idea of being a Christian:

Why are you a Christian? How do you express or practice your faith? What story from the Bible inspires you? What characters and stories from the Bible do you really connect with? What is it about Jesus that you really like and inspires you, and helps to get you through your day?

To all of these questions, every person will have a different answer, a different reason, a different story from the Bible, or from our tradition, or from a personal experience, that gives shape to their story.  But that’s okay. Because everyone has their Christ Connection happen to them differently.   The trick is for us to always be a people who provide a space for the Christ Connection for people so that they can find God.

From Corinth to the Northwest corner of Connecticut has been a long road. But down through the ages we have extended the Great Invitation to others to come and see what all this Christ stuff is about. Let’s work with God’s Grace to continue our Invitation to the Christ Connection now and into the future.

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