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THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
April 19, 2015
“Believing is Seeing”
Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.
Not all that long ago, my wife and I were traveling somewhere. It was snowy, windy, and cold. I could have been December, January, or February, I don’t remember. As we rounded the bend in the country road I noticed out of the corner of my eye four deer standing out on the edge of the field, near the woodline; they were easily 500 yards off. I said, “look, deer.” We kept going. She said to me, “are you watching the road?” She’s that kind of navigator. I told her, “of course I am!” She wondered how in the world I managed to pick those deer out of the landscape. Some of you know how I did it. My eyes are tuned to that image. It jumps out at me.
I was standing in the parking lot about a month ago, talking to someone. I paused. “What?” they asked. “Listen,” I said, “snow geese.” They wondered aloud how I heard that.
It’s a habit. Over the years I have gathered an encyclopedia of times and places where deer can be expected. Not specific places, but if I am in a familiar spot that helps, then I can anticipate seeing them.
When I get surprised is when I see deer where I don’t expect to see them. When I was at Princeton, my advisor’s home was on the edge of town and he couldn’t keep shrubs in his yard. The deer chewed them to the ground every winter. This was suburbia. I thought he was hallucinating until when I was there one day having lunch, the deer came up between the houses for their lunch. They startled me. I didn’t expect to see them in that setting.
Hearing is the same thing, we get tuned to certain sounds. Snow geese on the horizon. A baby’s muffled cry down the hall. Sometimes, though, we don’t hear and we don’t see.
It is like the nurse who had a patient in the hospital. She had cared for the man for two weeks, nurturing him back to health. The man went back home to his wife. One day they were in the grocery store and this nice young woman came up to them and greeted them, saying ‘It is so good to see you again.’ He looked at her during an awkward minute. His wife looked at him. He looked at the young woman. Finally he said, ‘do I know you?’ ‘Why sure she said…’ he interrupted her and said, ‘of course! I know you! I just didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!’ Some things are easier to recognize in a setting that we expect them.
I hope you don’t mind if we think about this variable experience we call ‘seeing.’ It is common in the bible to hear this word, see. Peter begins speaking to a crowd and uses this word ‘see.’ John writes a letter to a church that is enduring division and he uses the word, ‘see.’ In the gospel, Jesus tries to quell the disciples confusion saying, ‘see that it is I myself.’ I want to emphasize these conversations, not in a way that some people do, to criticize. I want to take a close look at those people so that we might learn something about ourselves. We all develop our vision as we grow older, but one thing we all do; we see things through our own ‘lenses.’ Behind most of the decisions we make, things we say, what we do, what we like and dislike, is how we ‘see.’
I have a childhood memory of the first house my family owned. It was a warm summer evening and after dinner we were sitting out in the backyard eating watermelon. What I remember is my grandfather telling me that the seeds were bugs. I couldn’t bring myself to eat watermelon for years. Even now, I can plainly see that the seeds are not bugs, and yet I don’t eat it if I can avoid it. What is going on here? You know what is going on here. I am entirely able to observe that those little black bits are not bugs, but seeds. Yet, no thanks to the watermelon.
We come to Peter. Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar. At the gate of town where the beggars congregate a man looks to Peter for something. Peter knows what he wants. He anticipates what he wants. Then, in one of the greatest lines in scripture, Peter takes the man by the hand and says,
I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
The man begins jumping around and shouting for joy. The people nearby were, of course, astonished. What did they see? You can imagine what some investigator would hear if he interviewed the witnesses. But Peter didn’t wait for any speculation. He explained to them what they saw.
We come to the letter writer John. John is writing to a church that has been divided over some kind of disagreement. We don’t know what it was. But whatever it was, John told them there is one medicine for what ails you:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
So for us, there is something wrong if we cannot recognize the love of God in one another. It is present for all to see and yet something hinders our ‘seeing.’ What would it be? Is not God’s loving grace such a powerful presence that it is obvious? Apparently not. Not if you aren’t looking for it. Not if you do not anticipate it.
We come to John and the disciples in the upper room. I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. Last week I watched a part of the tv mini series, A.D. I told myself that I didn’t need to watch it. I’ve read the book. As I watched, I was impressed, surprisingly, that the writers and editors did not depict the disciples as a group unanimous in their resolve, in anticipation of the risen Christ. They were not. Not in the book, not in the t.v. series. The writers of that series depicted the upper room scene. Just like in scripture, they had trouble ‘seeing Jesus.’ “They were startled and terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost.”
I know people who limit the possibilities to that realm. You know, to the ‘religious.’ It is as if Faith is active only in the territory of the spirit. They might say believing Jesus is the Christ is something that is important in that it gives us hope for eternity. The risen Christ is encountered in the bread and the wine, and in scripture read and preached. And, to their credit, Jesus can be encountered there. But there are other places too.
Some things are so hard to see. We are so prone to miss what is going on around us.
One of the hardest things to see is the Risen Christ in our midst. So John wrote these things to remind all of us that we need to practice ‘seeing,’ and build our own ‘encyclopedia’ of where we notice God at work in the world around us. If we decide ahead of time the likely places where we will encounter Christ we can increase our chances. But where?
John wants the reader to know that the place to look for the presence of Christ is not beyond the earth. But that the sacred center of life is still in the world, in the flesh and blood, material world. This is where God is active and alive. This is where people can know God and where God lives with and empowers people. In the world around us. In people around us. Sometimes in the most unlike people and places.
And because of this passage and so many other passages in John, no one who reads these stories can then continue to believe that following Jesus Christ means being concerned only for matters related to the soul. Then, with the ancient heresies of John’s day, and now, with those ancient heresies dusted off, the dwelling place of God is not off in the world of the spirit somewhere, fenced into what is sacred but not secular, but within this physical world in which we live. Let us not create false divisions.
We have to tune our eyes and our hearts so that we might believe this, and so see it.
You can see Jesus in the daily ministry of the church. Where? As we are armpit deep in the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual…human hurts of people in our church, our community, and our world. As we gather around the Lord’s table and Word of God our eyes and hearts get readjusted. And when we go out to serve this same God, we continually re-discover God, the living and true God, noticing this presence around us; There, God meets us and continues to empower us for ministry in this world. See?
You are witnesses to these things.
April 5, 2015
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
For a few minutes, I ask you to suspend your familiarity with the account of what happened ‘early in the morning on the first day of the week.’ For a little while, let your heart rest in that place that so many were on that day, confused, discouraged, perhaps ready to go back to ‘normal’ life, whatever that is.
But someone, not of our close knit group, a person who had to follow along on the edges, makes her way to the tomb. Her name was Mary. She has been called Mary Magdalene. She has been the subject of wild speculation like so many prominent figures are. Some have said she was a harlot. Others, quite creatively, have suggested that she was Jesus’ partner. Some have even imagined that she bore his child. Early in the church’s tradition, she is is often identified not only with the anonymous harlot with the perfume in Luke’s gospel, but also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; this interpretation is often called the “composite Magdalene” in modern scholarship. The seven devils removed from her by Jesus “morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well.” (Morrow, Carol Ann, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation.” Liguori Publications. Catholic Update Newsletter. Nov. 30, 1999.)
What we do know is that according to Luke, seven demons were cast out of her. I do not confess to know what that really means except that she had a complex condition that Jesus miraculously relieved her from. We do know that she appeared to be the leader of this group of women who also followed Jesus. Being a woman, and living in a society where they were seen as little more than property and a means for procreation, she was never the less depicted as a brave and resolute person who stayed nearby Jesus throughout his suffering and crucifixion.
The insiders, you might note, have scattered. The end of the Jesus story, as they had conjured up in their minds, did not turn out as planned. Fearing for their lives, or soundly dejected, they have made their presence scarce in the final days. Who can blame them.
Then, maybe because she and the other women were doing the woman’s work of anointing the body, or perhaps it was because of her unwavering dedication, early in the morning on the first day of the week, she leads a small group to the tomb.
I do not know precisely what was going on. But I have stood at the edge of freshly dug graves enough to have a sense of the mood. There is a scripture I use there, perhaps one of the earliest writings of the christian era, from another outsider named Paul to some folks in Thessolonica: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” But on this day no one knew this, so no one could say it.
It is easy to not know this. I see it outside my office window from time to time. Someone goes out to the cemetery, amidst the stones. There are family names, sometimes they put the words: ‘Father, mother, or, husband, wife.’ Sometimes they are bringing some fresh flowers, sometimes they are taking away a dried and decrept arrangement from a prior season. There lingers there a certain kind of pain that is renewed, even though the smell of freshly dug soil has long been blown away by the wind and grass now grows.
When I watch them I believe that there are many who visit whose name is also chiseled into that stone, their loved one’s dates complete and theirs uncertain. But in some continual act of devotion they come to tidy things up and remember.
I imagine that this is the work Mary was about that day. So it was a normal day, the usual for those who were grieving. But the removal of the stone and the empty tomb disrupt what she was about. Her mind moves to the logical conclusion that someone has taken Jesus’ body. What other conclusion could there be? In a closed an ridged structure of ‘that’s the way things are’ only the old and familiar occur. Find the body, and get things back to normal.
To this outsider, this one who was not welcomed at the table, but had to tag along at the margins, Mary’s closed world (and ours) is broken open when Jesus calls her name. The one who was certified as dead greets her. The established rules as to what should happen, what can happen, how things can happen, are overthrown. And because of who she was, the old structures of who is an ‘appropriate’ disciple of Jesus Christ is left in shambles. It is a new day.
But even Mary is stuck in the old way. She asks the gardner, “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” Even she wants only to do what is acceptable and proper. But his calling of her name, that familiar voice, shatters her customary world, as comfortable as it may be. It is Mary Magdalene, who begins the proclamation of Easter.
Now, remember with me that we do know the entirety of the story, so that with Mary we can experience, and with Peter, we can proclaim, the reality that ‘God shows no partiality.’ With Saint Paul we can affirm that now and forever ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.’ That apparently it is true, that ‘whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you…Today we know this. Today we are certain that Jesus came to redeem the whole world, even you and I, as imperfect as we are. ”so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” This is the good news.
Here is a throw-back-Friday post from a while a ago:
A rare event, my wife and I went out to breakfast this morning.
She noticed that I have descended into my Triduum funk.
This condition is an annual affair, even though I do my best to strike it from my calendar. I suspect that the reason for it is other events that dominate my calendar.
The liturgical calendar demands that I immerse myself in the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to Golgotha. I wish that there was a way to keep one foot planted in present realities, pleasantries of my choosing, and just dip a toe into the Triduum tide. Apparently I cannot manage this dialectic.
What is strange is that it isn’t as if I don’t know the entirety of the story. Our bible study group has been reading Luke. Miraculously, the series ended yesterday, Maundy Thursday, with our reading and contemplation of chapter 24. Two weeks ago, the group wondered if we should cancel our meeting this week, what with it being Holy Week and all. I said, “no, the timing is perfect. I am happy to meet if you are willing.”
I suspect that my consternation is due to my observation that most folks do not travel the whole route. It could be this avoidance is because it is just to hard a route to take. Another reason is that this part of the story tells us something about ourselves we’d rather not face. We, after all, are sensible, progressive, modern folk.
I hope that I am not bitter. Who can blame those who would rather not make the entire trek. We could all be spared what is by any estimation a few days that chronicle the worst human traits; betrayal, violence, greed, self-righteousness. The large crowd of Palm Sunday will not be repeated until the following Sunday, despite the best efforts of musicians, liturgists, and preachers.
I guess that, as clique as it sounds, I wonder if the fullness of the good news can be received if the fullness of the bad news is not paused over, considered, and taken up as part of our own story.
“One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we are also the ones who on a Friday – just rationally following the best of western jurisprudence – tortured to death the Son of God.” (“The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up In Jesus’ Name”)
THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
March 22, 2015
“Something Old, Something New”
In a season of failure and disappointment, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people of something on the horizon.
For most of us, we live in a territory marked by privilege and exceptionalism. Lent is a time for honesty. Not only about ourselves, but our society, our world. Such honesty may well disrupt the illusion of well-being.1
I recently heard about Oklahoma legislator, Dan Fisher, who introduced legislation to ban AP courses in that state because they “omit American exceptionalism.” Fisher said the current structure of Advanced Placement history courses focus on “what is bad about America.” The Tulsa World newspaper contradicts him, saying that the course teaches the full range of American History, ‘the good, the bad, and the exceptional.’ But it isn’t only in Oklahoma where there is resistance to naming how we have failed one another. We do this to ourselves, our families, and our communities all the time.
Against the prevailing, self preserving, idea that we are doing just fine, thank-you, the prophet speaks of the brokenness of the covenant; the covenant that shapes a healthy society. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.
If someone is speaking about a new covenant, they must have in mind an old covenant. Jeremiah recalls God’s covenant at Mt. Sinai, which they broke. His community could call to mind the covenants before that one: with Noah, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. After Sinai, there was Joshua and Samuel. Each of these covenants were new at one time. Jeremiah says that the newness will not be seen in the terms of the agreement or the time period covered. Even God does not indicate any change. What will change? What will be new? It is the people and how they receive it. First, Jeremiah speaks of inhaling the Torah. Then he speaks of knowing it.
The people will internalize the covenant. This will be no privatized reformation of individual lives. Not that people were asking for this new covenant. No one in Jeremiah’s day was speaking sweetly of “letting God into” his heart. There is no hint of an invitation on the part of the people. As Walter Brueggemann points out, this covenant is given by God without reason or explanation. God wants the relationship with the people and resolves to have it. So God declares that he will write himself into the people.
You could say there is a down side, I suppose, to all this. God will be intimately present. God will not be experienced as some distant, disinterested deity. With that presence we cannot live in a world of our own imaginations. There will be no refuting reality. God will be as close as a parent chaperone on a first date. The young couple returns from the movie, a hamburger and milkshake, the car is parked along the curb as they chit-chat in the front seat. A few moments go by and hands embrace. The tones are hushed, there is electricity in the air. Then the porch light goes on. See what I mean? There might not have been anything happening, but the icy stare the father received by his daughter as she came through the door indicated that not everyone believed that ‘nothing was happening.’ There can be a down side. When Jeremiah uses the word ‘know’ he means it in the biblical sense. He does not mean some sort of intellectual awareness or possession of some inert fact. This is something as tight as your skin, as ever present as your pulse.
Yet there is an upside; the upside of this is that God will be intimately present. Yes, I know it is the same thing I said a few moments earlier. But not every close relationship is overbearing and restrictive. There is in the covenant the truth that it is loved into being, not coerced. Did you hear about the story of what is called ‘free-range’ parents? There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance. This is not what Jeremiah is talking about when he speaks of God’s presence.
Instead, God has chosen to give us a good bit of free reign. But like every good parent, God does not send us out into the wilderness without the resources to deal with it. This resource is the substance of Jeremiah’s message. Something new is on the way.
In some quarters you will find resistance to anything ‘new.’ Who isn’t skeptical about every ‘new and improved’ claim? But this ‘newness’ does not involve starting from scratch. Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ (verse 33); same covenant, but this time, that relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned. It is not imposed upon anyone. It is freely given. It is something that they will have with them as a resource rather than baggage.
Like every good parent knows, both ‘helicopter’ and ‘free-range,’ your children are not puppets and do now always do what you want them to do no matter how much or how little supervision they receive. So in every relationship there are moments, days, that are strained, even with us and God. But even this doesn’t threaten the relationship. We are sent out into an imperfect world with a guide for what will bring a happy, healthy life in community with our neighbor; and, the promise that we are never ever left alone, ready to be received with open arms.
The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness: For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34). The choice of grace on God’s part to create a world and love it into freedom is, Karl Barth writes, the “sum” of the Gospel, the best news that we could ever hear. For it means that God has chosen not to be alone in this life or in the life to come but to share that life with every creature. It is in this respect that we can say God has made a commitment to be for us and with us before we ever came into existence, no matter what.
Some years ago I had a confirmation student whose mother was a Christian and his Father was Jewish. At the little reception they had for him after confirmation I saw grandma coming out of the corner of my eye. There was no place to retreat. With no introductory chit-chat, she said, “So, Pastor Fogle, what do you think about the Jews?” Fortunately, God is merciful and just, I quickly came up with something to say, I told her: “I believe that God doesn’t break promises.”
So, until such a time as Christ is raised up and draws all people to himself, Jeremiah’s text remains for us – and for the first hearer of these words – a word of hope. Until that redeeming comes, until that new thing pushes the old thing into the past, God’s covenant with us will bear the marks of the cross. We have reason to be hopeful. We have not yet arrived. The days are surely coming, Jeremiah says. They’re on their way. We’re leaning into them. This is what God desires, and it would serve us well to accept that, God as present in our house, present in our hearts. Jeremiah insists that the covenant remains, will be renewed, and our best days are ahead.
1Walter Brueggemann, “Ferguson and Forgiveness” Odyssey Networks March 16, 2015 ON Scripture – The Bible. Walter Brueggemann says: “Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.”
February 15, 2015
“An Altar In The World”
2 Corinthians 3:2-6
As I begin this morning, I want you to take a few moments and turn to your neighbor and share with them one time that you experienced God in the world.
If you are willing, share with all of us that time. You can be brief, just the ‘Reader’s Digest” version.
I did not hear any accounts of clouds of smoke or pillars of fire as the Israelites experienced on their journey out of slavery. I did not hear any mention of faces, shining so brightly with the radiance of God that a veil was necessary so as to not terrorize the neighbors. It doesn’t sound like any of your shrubbery was set ablaze but not consumed. Nor did I hear any accounts of visitation by our Lord that moved you to set up permanent residence there.
I am not questioning your interpretation of those events. Who am I to say that you cannot experience God’s presence out on the golf course or in the turkey woods? You can. Its just that even in accepting that fact I must tell you that nobody has ever come up to me to elaborate on such an experience.
I suppose I am a bit suspicious because I spend so much time in church. I agree with another famous preacher who says she came to love churches, every one she has been associated with. This love is born from the all of the things…
we did nowhere else in our lives: we named babies, we buried the dead, we sang psalms, we praised God for our lives. When we did, it was as if we were building a fire together, each of us adding something to the blaze so that the light and heat in our midst grew. Yet the light exceeded our fire, just as the warmth did. We did our parts, and then there was more. (Taylor, Barbara Brown (2009-03-06). An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Compared to what we experience in here, so often so full of God’s presence, the world seems not only ordinary but often worse than ordinary. So we focused our attention here.
Somewhere along the line we bought— or were sold— the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. Plenty of us seized on those ideas because they offered us meaning . Believing them gave us purpose and worth. They gave us something noble to do in the midst of lives that might otherwise be invisible. Plus, there really are large swaths of the world filled with people in deep need of saving. (ibid, p.24)
And then we stop looking around, or if we do, we can walk right past a big bold epiphany because we have no expectations for God’s presence out there.
I don’t know what sort of expectations made the journey up the mountain with Jesus and the disciples. It may not have mattered. The disciples seem to have such an overwhelming experience of God’s presence that it could have torn in two whatever veils kept the Lord hidden. It’s a good thing too. Amid the violence and confusion of daily life that surrounds the Transfiguration event in Mark, faced with a troubled boy and a rowdy crowd Jesus.…God’s presence…wasn’t easy to notice.
Until, that is, they came face to face with the still-glowing countenance of Jesus and remembered that who he would one day become is who he already is. They are reminded that Jesus’ future glory shines into each violent and confused moment of life. It alone is able to transfigure the present moment. And it needs only a disciple who remembers to look, to notice your surroundings. It is a kind of paying attention to God.
The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who became famous for her sensuous paintings of flowers, explained her success by saying, “In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven’t time— and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
And if time is one of the essential elements for epiphanies such as this, it is no surprise that all this occurred as Jesus and the disciples went ‘away’ to pray. Not to the synagogue, not to the temple. Away.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, “An Altar in the World,” suggests that one part of our problem is categories. We draw sharp boundaries between what is sacred and secular, what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘unclean.’ I do not mean to suggest that everything in life is a homogenized muddy gray. Rather, as Taylor suggests, there is a rich often unnoticed tapestry of God’s presence in the world.
It may be a pretty simple experience, not many get a grand and glorious, hit you over the head, experience like the disciples. But whenever and wherever you come to a stop and say, hey, surely God is present in this, you stand on holy ground. The real secret is that all ground is sacred ground. Our presence in it and our recognition of it does not make it so. But when we do, oh thanks be to God.
DEVOTIONS FOR THE CABINET MEETING
February 7, 2015
When our Consistory President and I were first discussing the content and agenda for this meeting this morning my mind immediately turned to a verse from proverbs that is often quoted to support meetings like this: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18.
But translated in the Contemporary English Version, we get closer to the original Hebrew meaning: “Without guidance from God law and order disappear, but God blesses everyone who obeys his Law.”
This text from Proverbs, chapter 29, is often cited to justify the work of visioning. Actually, it has nothing to do with vision, per se, but is instead about the ability to hear God’s will for God’s people and to act upon that.
Which lead me to think that this was not the perfect verse for today. It is a perfectly good verse for any day, but as a backdrop for thinking about what we want to accomplish in the coming year it isn’t that great or inspiring a verse.
I prayerfully contemplated this situation an I was drawn to another place in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Nehemiah. In chapter 4, the nation Israel is in ruins, literally and figuratively. Nehemiah has convinced the King to allow the people to rebuild their ravaged temple, their city, and their passion for this is made evident in their work to reconstruct the wall.
But there was this man, Sanballat, a Moabite who held some authority in the land at the time of Nehemiah the prophet. He heard about this band of Jews rebuilding the walls and he was angry. He ridiculed the Jews. He spoke to his associates and the army of Samaria, no doubt with a tone of ridicule and sarcasm: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble…?” The thing is, opposition to the work of God’s people has always been opposed by someone.
Nehemiah 4 is the verse that came to my mind: “So we rebuilt the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work.” (Nehemiah 4:6) Under the shadow of some angry opposition, the people went ahead and did what God had called them to do.
The temptation is – when there is opposition – is to become so worried, so terrified by the opposition, that you pray and pray and wring your hands and wait, and to stop doing what God would have us do. This happens to individuals and churches and can become the death of mission and ministry. You experience a few set-backs. The number dwindles, the budget is strained, and people think about the negatives, talk about the grim prospects — and talk themselves into death, by keeping their eye on all the difficulties and challenges and not the work God sets before them.
I imagine Nehemiah heard things like this: I just don’t know if we can make it… such a pitiful little bunch… people don’t want to go in this direction…We like things the way they were.” That’s not faith talking — that’s the emotion of fear and discouragement. Faith says: Let’s just do what’s right. Faith says: let’s turn adversity into advantage. Faith says: in spite of the trials, conflicts and circumstances – we are still going to obey this new light shed upon God’s word. There are strong parallels between our time and Nehemiah’s time. What looked like a disaster was turned, eventually, into a time that the people looked back upon as a moment in their history when new hope came forth.
Michael Piaza, part of the Center for Progressive Renewal wrote:
“While we in the church tend to think that institutional failure is just about us, the truth is that we are living in the midst of a much larger social shift that is destabilizing all of our critical institutions and creating a sense of fear, uncertainty and anxiety about our future.
In the midst of this change, the progressive church will rediscover its voice. The promise of the Gospel is that fear never has the last word, and that faith, love, and hope are always our paths forward. The future progressive church must reinvent itself in the midst of this global disorientation and step into the gap that today divides rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, legal resident and illegal resident, gay and straight, female and male. The church should be the place where these barriers are erased and genuine community forms to care for people victimized by the failure of the institutions built to support them. Reformed by a value of pluralism and diversity, the church provides a place for people to be known, loved, and supported as the world around us wrestles with disillusionment, violence, fear, and failure.” (Piazza, Michael S.; Trimble , Cameron B. (2011-07-15). Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Kindle Locations 331-340). Pilgrim Press/United Church Press. Kindle Edition.)
Let us pray: God of new beginnings every day, as we come before you, open our hearts and spirit to the difficult and rewarding work of discipleship. We have been working at caring for one another as you call us to do. Help us now, to add effort to the vision you supply, to add action and concern for our wider community; for your gospel is for the whole world. Inspire us. Grant us your Spirit and a mind to work. Amen.
Privilege is something I am familiar with. This awareness was something that came lately. Most of my life I would have rejected the assertion that I am privileged. As I graduated from seminary in the late 80’s, I was aware that being a tall, white, heterosexual, male, married to the same woman, I had a distinct advantage over some other candidates. This advantage was not based upon substance or skill, but rather upon perception.
But I have been privileged before that. I grew up in a fairly diverse community. Wider community. In the first grade I was bused to a school across town, from a predominantly white school to a more diverse school. In high school our population was diverse, predominantly blacks and whites with a very few asians. I lived next door to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. My town was a college town. And yet, it was only really a few years ago that I realized that some of my classmates faced issues that I never had to face.
I think of one frequently. He is a ‘Facebook friend.’ He was a year ahead of me in high school. My mother served with his attorney father on a “Planning Commission.” He was recently inducted into my high school’s sports ‘hall of fame.’ After he graduated, he went on to Fisk, then University of Alabama, has done some teaching and consulting on leadership. A great personality, generous, and by every measure I can think of is a ‘success.’ And yet, he has to warn his son about where he goes and and when; how to avoid putting oneself in a ‘compromising’ situation.
There is another I think of. Lives in Costa Rica. A pastor. We were walking down a road one day in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica, going to the bus. Two huge stone pillars marked a driveway toward the ocean. I asked him, “what is this?” He told me it is a “resort for north americans and europeans.” I said, “can we go into see it?” He said, “you can.” For a second or two I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I am sure that there are many, many, facts in the situation in Ferguson that I know nothing about and that it isn’t nearly as straightforward as I might think it is.
It seems to me though, that the explosion of anger and frustration is not only about Michael Brown. I am just guessing here, because, after all, I know nothing about the situation or the experience. What I do know is that all through my pastoral work, if someone acted out in a way that seemed out of proportion to the precipitating event, I said to myself, “something is going on here I don’t know about.”
So I have said it here. As I write this, however, I realize that I do know what is going on here. The reaction is not exclusively to the Michael Brown situation but the grand jury’s decision to not charge the police officer is a ‘tipping point.’
Is it possible that the police officer used excessive force? Of course it is. Is it possible that his perception of this person clouded his thinking? Of course it is. Is it possible that Michael Brown did something that made the officer think he was dangerous? Of course it is.
This, to me, is the underlying issue. Perception. Anticipation, or more negatively said, profiling, can be an element in shootings such as these. It’s presence is born out in the statistics regarding race and incarceration, and race as a co-efficient to a variety of studies that chronicle the inequality of society. The weight of living in this situation for a lifetime must lead to despair.
Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
When I ask myself, ‘what is going on here that I might not know about’ there are many potential answers, as privileged as I am. But that is the thing that I don’t really know about, that the playing field is not level, that there is not really equality, that it is this sociological and economic inequality that wears down entire classes of people. I have learned about perceptions, that because I so easily walk through those huge stone gates without a question, in no way means just anybody can.
Cornel West, in his book Democracy Matters, lifts up a literary metaphor for this condition, commenting on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,”
Ishmael is the slim beacon of hope, the only one who survives the journey. And he survives in a coffin-raft given to him by his only friend, Queequeg, a man of color – in stark contrast to the white – dominated ship – whose near death prompted the building of the coffin. Ishmael’s survival at the end of the book is therefore due to Queequeg’s agency. The carving of the lid of the coffin symbolizes “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Even as Moby Dick is an indictment of American imperialism it is also a call for multiracial solidarity. (West, Cornel “Democracy Matters” Penguin Books: London, 2004, p. 89)
On the southern part of the Americas, Paulo Freire describes this condition more directly,
Peasants live in a ‘closed’ reality with a single, compact center of oppressive decision; the urban oppress live in an expanding context in which the oppressive command center is plural and complex…in urban areas, the oppressed are subjected to an ‘oppressive impersonality.” In both cases the oppressive power is to a certain extent “invisible”: in the rural zone, because of its proximity to the oppressed; in the cities because of its dispersion. (Freire, Paulo, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” p. 156)
Although Freire is writing about a different culture, the basis of his way forward is important for us. Freire is is describing the creation of an awareness that ultimately is far-reaching; moving beyond a call for a raising of the minimum wage or the end of racial profiling to a solidarity, a ‘cultural synthesis.’ This ‘critical consciousness’ is the fuel for a movement “…beyond the deception of palliative solutions. It is to engage in authentic transformation of reality in order, by humanizing that reality, to humanize women and men.” (ibid, p.164) I am saying that the problem is that we live in a society that values some human beings more than others.
For this preacher, the Gospel (as in the inclusive ‘good news’) is clear about this. There is no hierarchy, their is no division in God’s eyes and by extension, we should make no divisions either. One of my favorite texts of late is from Acts, chapter 8.
8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”[b] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
The eunuch, this person of bondage, ethnicity, of a foreign race and religion, of questionable sexuality, this person (it seems to me) heard in the words of Isaiah a word about himself. The pivotal question for those holding the power in this situation (who are Phillip and the disciples) is the question asked by the eunuch: “what prohibits me from being baptized?” Philip’s far reaching and widely implicating response is this: Nothing but water. Nothing but water stands between us and the recognition of your full humanity. In a moment of interpretation of the text, brought upon him by the ‘situation in life,’ Philip’s thinking is radically transformed.
In his book, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, Duke Divinity School preaching professor Richard Lischer writes:
The multiple traumas of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have produced a sense of futility among those with a vocation in language. Violence has a way of making a mockery of words. After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words seem hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God’s justice or God’s love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer. … When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, or capitalism, it is time for preachers to shut up and take stock of themselves.” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005, p.5.)
I hope that I have done that in the last few days. And I pray that God forgives and transforms me where I continue to need it.
I am reading. Well, I am always reading something. But recently I was laid up and so part of that time was spent reading.
Here is what I have been reading lately.
First, I read a book on Sabbath keeping. I have read many books on this subject. Long ago I read Marva Dawn’s “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” and Eugene Peterson’s work that is sprinkled throughout with his view of the essential relationship between Sabbath keeping and pastoral work. I know about sabbath keeping. I am not so great at doing it.
So the when I was referred to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s text “Sabbath in the Suburb” I was not expecting anything radically new. What I did expect was a very different perspective. Dana is a young, married, Pastor, with small children. Any one of these qualities can be what stops sabbath keeping in its tracks. I am painfully aware of the calendar most of our young families at church keep. The attraction for this book is MaryAnn’s voice. She shares a year in the life of her family, struggling to keep the sabbath. It was good to read, but I expect it would be ever better for some folks who find themselves at the same place in life that she is. The children complicate it, spouses complicate it, responsibilities complicate it, and technology becomes a leash with a very long reach. Dana deals with it all in her own way with timeless wisdom.
Too often I find books on sabbath keeping to seem unrealistic. When I read Peterson I wondered ‘why his church didn’t fire him.’ Some seep appropriate to the cloister but not to ‘real life.’ Dana’s book is real life through and through.
Another book I have been reading is Brian McLaren’s, “We Make the Road by Walking.” This text is a bit different than some of his other books. This one is designed and structured for groups. He calls it a ‘catechism’ but I wouldn’t classify it that way. Most catechisms I know about are prescriptive, or at least descriptive of the faith. I would categorize this as evocative. Brian says, straight out, that he is trying to introduce folks to the variant in Christianity that he believes is emerging now. And, if it is possible to introduce this post denominationalism, post modernity, post institutional, Christianity then I guess it should be through this kind of conversational style. There are fifty two chapters in this book. No coincidence. This would be a good resource for a small group ministry, or a prayer group.
One word of caution. This devotional will not be acceptable to some folks because in it McLaren seems unorthodox. For UCC folks his writing isn’t too threatening. Challenging, perhaps. Threatening, no. Apparently I am more ‘traditional’ than I thought, because I think this is a resource for folk whose faith has moved along on the journey. Developmentally, it would be helpful to have some Christian basics in your pocket before struggling with what may appear as a lot of ambiguity.
Another book I have been ‘nibbling’ at for some months is “Real Good Church” by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. Baskette was called to a small, urban, New England, church that was on hospice care. Surprisingly, they didn’t die. They went from a small, dozenish, gathering to a congregation of about 100 that can now support a solo pastor. What Baskette offers is not unique or new in the world of church development. What she does is get specific in terms of their experience and that makes it easier to translate into your situation. Is the space welcoming? Specifically, is the woman’s bathroom spotless and bright? Statistics suggest that it is women who decide if they will come back. She does not surprise in describing how attention to space, updated signs that make it seem like we’re alive, an ‘open and affirming’ welcome, and opportunity for participation (ownership, really).
This book is a whirlwind. Ok, an organized whirlwind, but a whirlwind none the less. Baskette lists items that deserve notation in every paragraph. That’s because she said she doesn’t like ‘swirly’ language but concrete language. So, plenty of examples are offered. Most importantly, epic failures. It is a comfortable read without technical ‘church-ease’ that is approachable by anyone.
One last book. Another friend recommended to me “A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-First Century Clergy Self Care” by Bruce Epperly. The author addresses contemporary issues such as technology, our calendars, and the changing expectations for the pastoral ministry. Still, he describes practices for self-care that have been around for hundreds of years. While I think that Epperly is masterful in his treatment of various practices, and his use of ‘real life’ conversations with pastors is helpful, I am not sure what makes this particularly contemporary. Compared to Molly Phinney Baskette’s chapter, “Pastoral Self-Care and Administration” in her book Really Good Church; Epperly’s treatment is plain ancient. Don’t misunderstand me, I really appreciate the way Bruce pulls together the classic areas of spiritual and physical care and his suggestions are absolutely practical. I am all about most of the spiritual and physical practices he suggests. But unlike Epperly, Baskette offers specific ways to deal with twenty-first century issues like email, social networking, and voice messages. No ‘swirly’ language there.
Finally, there are two liturgical resources. The first is a new volume by John Knox. It is a “Feasting On the Word” resource for Advent. I use the commentaries and the ‘worship companions’ and i find both very helpful. I expected this to be new material, but it seems to be a compilation of the other two resources in to a single, seasonal, text.
The other text was a joyous surprise. Here at church we have a children’s sermon every Sunday. Any preacher knows that those 3 minutes are dangerous territory. Say too much, over the kids head. Distill a complex text down to next to nothing and don’t do it justice. So I ordered “Feasting on the Word: Guide to Children’s Sermons.” For some reason I thought that this book would be a collection of children’s sermons that I could cut and paste from, modifying to suit my situation. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to see one of the first chapters: “Who Are the Children We Invite to the Feast?: Language Acquisition and Cognitive Development.” It was a great reminder for me that the Children’s sermon must take into account an entirely different world than the ‘other’ sermon. I knew that. But I have been fed a steady diet of ‘canned’ and ‘cutesy’ children’s sermons for a long time. It was good to remember some solid theory that underlies the ‘teaching moment’ in a children’s sermon.
PROPER 21 A – September 28, 2014
“Saying No and Doing Yes”
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Tonight used to be a particularly challenging night at my house. It is garbage night. I have two sons who, when they still lived at home it was their responsibility is to see to it that the garbage gets out to the curb.
This is particularly important because these young adults stay up much later at night that my wife and I, and they sleep in much later than we do. The garbage man comes at O’ dark ‘thirty in the morning. So putting the trash out the night before is a necessity.
This is what the Sunday night scene used to look like: They would be wanting to begin their evening, going here or there about nine-thirty. PM. The garbage is not at the curb. On their way out the door I say, “do you know tonight is garbage night?” “Oh yea, Dad,” they say, yep, got it. But with frustrating frequency I would get up in the morning, get ready to come here to the office, and as I leave I notice that there aren’t any garbage cans at the curb in front of our house.
I go back into the house, raise them both from their sleep and interrogate them. “Don’t you remember me telling you that last night was garbage night?” “Yes,” they reply. “why didn’t you take it out” I ask? “Oh,” one said, “I thought you were just giving me a ‘heads up.’
Now, I know that none of you have problems like this, that someone tells you they are going to do something and then doesn’t do it. And, my children are only home periodically and so it is I, myself, who occasionally lets myself down. Focusing on the gospel lesson, beginning in verse twenty eight, we find ourselves observing this very scene.
The response to Jesus isn’t always this way. The disciples immediately left their boats and followed Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the reasoning this way;
“the response of the disciples is an act of obedience; not a confession of faith in Jesus.” They did not consider His claims, make up their minds, and then decide whether to follow – they simply heard and obeyed…disciples are not so much people who follow as those who must follow. (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)
Many of you are parents and this status alone qualifies you as an expert in analysis of what is going on here when someone says yes and does no. Yet, I believe that others, without children, also perfectly understand what is happening. The greek word here is actually “children,” not sons. See it is not so much that the ‘Man’ had two biological sons, but that he had two heirs, two whom he claimed, and to them he offered a simple command.
You heard me right, it is a command. My father, when I would respond to his saying something similar would tell me: “That wasn’t a question.” The man is not offering alternatives as if it is equally acceptable that the ‘son’ lolly-gag around the house or ‘hang’ with his buddies over at the mall. No, he tells him to go work in the vineyard.
The young man says yes and does no. Another says no and does yes. And, in one way or another both men insult their father. They insult one who, in reality has authority over them, but who at the same time it is possible to disobey.
We do not know what the consequences were, in that moment. There is no mention of corporal punishment. There is no description of a follow up argument. Based upon my personal experience, this surprises me. But we just don’t know.
What we do know is that one young man had a change in heart. The text says that he changed his mind, but everyone knows that in the times that the gospels were written the idea of mind was not like our idea of mind and was closer to our idea of heart. The word here indicates that he ‘repented,’ literally, that he ‘changed direction.’ This is not so much an altering of how you think about something but is instead a change in what we do. The end of such conversations with my father was often punctuated with the phrase, “it’s just like lima beans, you don’t gotta like them, you just gotta eat them.”
As Christians told and retold this story, it dawned on them that this was more than an attack on the leaders of the synagogue. They began to see that the great danger was no different for them than it was for the Pharisees. See they knew their relationship with God was as heirs, as ones who through Jesus were made inheritors of the promise. They affirmed that Jesus the Christ the King. They also knew it was easy to say “Lord, Lord,” but not so easy to do what the Father asked. So we cannot hold this parable at arm’s length and shake our heads at the bad guys who ran the religious institution. This judgment is directed at all of us who claim the name Christian.
A friend of mine recently moved halfway across the country into the ‘bible belt.’ There are very few UCC churches near his new home, which isn’t necessarily a problem but he is definitely not religiously conservative so he doesn’t fit the local ‘mold.’ While visiting one church, for the fourth or fifth time, he spoke to the coordinator for the Adult Bible study. She asked him what he thought. He said, “I think a lot of people come to worship on Sunday and worship at another Chapel the rest of the week.” She did not understand his allusion. What he meant was that it is as if the fervent faith proclaimed on Sunday has no effect the rest of the week. I suppose he identified this trait because, well, it takes one to know one.
If this dichotomy between faith and practice is real, then no wonder the world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks and grabs their attention are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Liberia. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, the disease in that area is ‘too hot,’ and that ‘we are losing this battle with ebola.’ This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.
I admit that these grand illustrations are powerful. But for most of the world, there will be no opportunity for this kind of witness. Most of us are not called to such work. That doesn’t mean that we are not called to make the gospel visible in the world. That does not mean that what we do as a part of our following Jesus is unimportant. In our own daily tasks we can be Jesus’ hands and feet. One author claims that
“The church’s deepest challenge is neither political nor ideological, and certainly it is not military. It is spiritual and theological and comes to a head where behavior expresses belief and deeds express words.” (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)
Similarly, St. Paul told the disciples in Corinth: “Be disciples of me as I am of Christ.” Or as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” Working in the vineyard is what we are called to do….and I hope that this serves as a reminder that not all ‘church’ happens on Sunday morning. And the good news is that it’s not always the ones who come to Sunday School or sing the hymns and pray the prayers who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a Wednesday morning to take food donations to the food pantry. Sometimes it is someone who stops on their walk downtown and puts a dollar or two into someone’s paper cup. It may be one who drops off flowers to a shut-in. It could be, and most often is, simple kindnesses and graces shared with another, people doing what they can do, where they are — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake.
Let us pray:
O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen. (Buechner, Frederic, Godric’s prayer)
HARVEST HOME SUNDAY
September 14, 2014
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Psalm 65 NRSV
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions. Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
What a pleasure it is to gather together today in the presence of such wealth. In the sanctuary today we are surrounded by the symbols and reality of the bounty of the earth. For some of us these gathered goods are more symbolic than they are tangible examples of the richness of our existence.
There is so much distance, for most of us, between all that we have received and the source of these riches. Fortunately, we have Christian brothers and sisters in our midst whose lives are lived close to the ground. And so I am quite aware that the pork I select from the meat case, packaged so neatly as it is on that foam tray, wrapped with that plastic wrap; I am aware that there was a time when it was not packaged this way.
Most people realize this, at least at some level. But the distance remains and it is easy to forget, not only that a pig gave its life, but also that someone fed this animal daily. And moreover, someone raised the grain and processed it so that it could be fed to this animal. Someone prepared the meat, packaged it, shipped it. That neat package of pork chops did not drop from the sky into my shopping basket.
The same can be said for other things we use or consume. We are often unaware of how these items got into our hands.
And sometimes we can be too aware. What I mean is that there are times when we look around at all that we possess and find great comfort in it. This is relative, of course. I have told you before of the fishing trip my dad and I participated in for years. Northern Ontario. Remote lake. Island in remote lake. No electric. No plumbing. Take in what you need. Carry out what you don’t need. No TV. No Cell phone, and no “onstar’ does not work there. And yet every time I have gone on that trip I sat near the fire eating some fresh fish, swatting at mosquitos or blackflies and thinking, I am living like a king.
You know what it looks like when we think that it was solely the sweat of our brow or the uniqueness of our own intellect or the resources of our own finances that created the bounty we enjoy. The reminder that what we enjoy is not, in fact, the product of our own efforts is a necessary correction. And nothing serves as quite a reminder as when we feel we are lacking.
John Reynolds, in his Anecdotes of the Rev. John Wesley (1828), tells the story of Wesley’s student days at Lincoln College in Oxford. A porter knocked on Wesley’s door one evening and asked to speak with him. After some conversation, Wesley noted the man’s thin coat (it was a cold winter night), and suggested that he had better get a warmer one. The porter replied: “This coat … is the only coat I have in the world – and I thank God for it.”
When asked if he had eaten, he replied: “I have had nothing today but a draught of spring water … and I thank God for that.”
Wesley, growing uneasy in the man’s presence, reminded him that the headmaster would lock him out if he did not soon return to his quarters. “Then what shall you have to thank God for?” Wesley asked.
“I will thank Him,” replied the porter, “that I have dry stones to lie upon.”
Deeply moved by the man’s sincerity, Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear; … nothing to eat … [and] no bed to lie on. I cannot see what you have to thank God for.”
The man replied: “I thank God… that he has given me life and being; a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.”
The man left with a coat from Wesley’s closet, some money for food and words of appreciation for his living testimony. Wesley later wrote these words in his Journal: “I shall never forget that porter. He convinced me there is something in religion to which I am a stranger.”
We are a people prone to see what is missing, rather than what is present. We see a nation at war, endless political infighting, economic woes, and declining moral values. We bemoan the downward spiral of our time without regard to our relationship with the God of grace, might, and providence. We need a new perspective.
This Psalm for today is usually categorized as a “Thanksgiving Psalm.” One scholar describes it, instead, as a “Reorientation Psalm.”
This is part of a learning cycle that we all participate in. It begins with orientation (assigning meaning to something); disorientation (or experiencing something that denies or diminishes that meaning); and finally Reorientation. Psalms of Orientation help create, not just remind us, a sacred ‘canopy’ where we as God’s people can live without fear and anxiety. These Orientation Psalms notice and proclaim that God’s creation is good, and that it works for our good.
And there is also the experience of disorientation. Bad things happen to good people. For no apparent reason this same creation seems to betray us. And yet, these Disorientation Psalms demand a God who is not absent but who is present in the dark days.
But Psalm 65 is a Psalm of reorientation. What it does is it begins, not at the beginning but at that low spot, the dark day, and it points toward a transformation that God has created. Paying close attention to this Psalm we can learn gratitude. Gratitude keeps us from thinking that being a disciple of Christ is all about us and our needs. It includes the act of noticing. Then our relationship with God is enhanced because we’re focused on God instead of ourselves.
In Judaism, The day starts with the Shema: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might “(Deuteronomy 6:5). The concluding prayer, the ‘alenu,’ thanks God for the particular destiny of the Jewish people. Gratitude for everything is appropriate in Judaism because all things come from God in the Hebrew world view; therefore, Jewish life is filled with this recognition. A prayer is said upon hearing good or bad news, and God is praised for everything. In this way, a divine perspective on life is maintained.
One pillar of Islam is fasting during the month of Ramadan. This period is intended to lead believers to a state of gratitude. “He wants you to complete the prescribed period and glorify him that He has guided you, and perchance ye shall be grateful “(Koran,2:185).
Jonathan Edwards, the 17-century revivalist preacher and theologian, described two types of gratitude in his classic work, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” He described these two types as natural gratitude and as a gracious or spiritual gratitude. Natural gratitude is thanks expressed to God for the benefits a person has received, whereas gracious gratitude has its source in the knowledge of the goodness of God independent of favors received. This is why Paul urges Timothy to set his hopes on God.
As a discipline, this means we are to able to realize our indebtedness to God and “practice” our faith because of what God has done for us. Thus, this ‘Discipline of Gratitude’ enables us to know God as we keep our focus on God’s promises and not our circumstances-His provision and care, not merely our experiences. See, following Jesus is not for our personal benefit; it is for His glory. Seeing life from the perspective of what I can’t get or what I deserve rather than what I have already been given will create problems in our relationship with God (and others). In a similar way, it is the ‘Love of Money’ that creates a problem…not money.
Look, no one is born grateful. We learn to be grateful, We can volunteer to do things for others and then feel gratitude for the work that others do for us. It takes a pause and sometimes an effort to identify something we are thankful for. Yet, the simple act of saying thank you teaches gratitude and this is the core of worship.
There has been a practice going around on the internet lately. On Facebook, participants are asked to list 3 things they thankful for, every day for a week. I think what would help this exercise be even better is to remember that those three things did not come out of nothing. Each one was a gift from God waiting for you to recognize it.
The purpose of Harvest Home is to create people of Gratitude. And for the faithful, gratitude needs to be directed in a certain direction. The practice of recognizing the blessings God has given us, and giving thanks is what today is about.