Sunday, March 10, 2019

Opportunity Knocks


Scripture   Luke 4:1-13 Common English Bible  


4 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 

13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

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The Spiritual Growth Team here at First Christian Church is in charge not only of worship planning for special days and seasons, but also of enhancing the spiritual life of everyone here.  In the coming year we will work on a variety of themes for our services so that all of us can learn more about who we are, what we doing here, and why we do what we do.   Why is, after all, one of the first questions we learn to ask as tiny humans, and it remains one of the important questions for as long as we live.  During Lent we will be looking at “why?”   

Beginning with “Why Lent?”  In the early days of the church, the season we know as Lent was sort of informally observed during a 6-week period leading up to Easter during which sinners could repent and people wishing to be baptized could be prepared. This  was formalized at the First Council of Nicea in 325.  But that only allowed for 36 days of fasting, because Sundays are excluded.  So in the 7th century an additional four days were added at the beginning of the season so that the period of fasting would be 40 days, reflecting Jesus’  40 day fast in the wilderness after he was baptized.   And why do we decorate the sanctuary with purple?  To signify mourning as we anticipate the pain and suffering of the crucifixion,  and because purple is the color associated with royalty, so celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.   


Why did Jesus spend 40 days and 40 night in the wilderness?  Throughout Scripture there is a pattern of important things taking 40 days and 40 nights. The flood, which cleansed the world of sinful people, was the result of 40 days and 40 nights of rain.   Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai (twice), at the end of which he brought the tablets of the Law to the (sinful) people he had brought out of Egypt.  Elijah walked through the desert fasting for 40 days and 40 nights until he reached God’s mountain, Horeb, and spoke with God in a cave there about the sinfulness of the people.  And now Jesus, whose purpose in life was to bring salvation to a sinful world, is spending 40 days and 40 in prayer and fasting - and temptation - preparing his own soul for the redemptive work that was ahead of him.   And so, during the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, we spend the time in prayer and (maybe) fasting to recognize our own sinfulness and come to repent before Jesus dies on the cross. 

You might be wondering why I chose this particular piece of art for today’s message.  It’s kind of disturbing.  When I read this passage in several different translations, I was struck especially by the last line -  After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.  So the idea of the devil bringing temptation in the guise of opportunities struck me.

Testing our faith is what the devil does.  It’s his job.  It’s what he did with Job.  It’s what he does with us. So ok, even knowing that the devil’s job is to tempt us, why did Jesus have to be tempted?  I mean, what was the point?  Surely, the devil knew that Jesus was the Son of God - he even says he knows that.  And if anyone ever was going to resist temptation, it would be the Son of God, right?  Jesus was fully human, and was or could have been just as tempted as any other human.  And so, the devil did his job, and tested Jesus’ faith and determination to go forward with his mission no matter what.  We will remember that much later in his story, when Peter tells him not to talk about his coming death, he turns and says “Get behind me, Satan.  Because the temptation was real, and right there in front of him. 

I mean, look at the opportunities Jesus was given!  He was hungry, starving even, and the devil offered him bread.  Ok, he offered Jesus the opportunity to misuse God’s power to make bread out of stones, but y’know, it had to be tempting.   He tempted Jesus with power - and the opportunity to grab power can be really hard to resist.  He tempted Jesus with invulnerability, the idea that nothing bad could happen to him, that no matter what God would protect him from harm, even if he was about to die.  And on every count, Jesus turned his thoughts away from the opportunities presented, and toward God, toward the mission that he knew was ahead of him.  Jesus resisted the opportunity to get stuff to make him comfortable, the opportunity to wield political power with all the wealth and other very cool perks that comes with that power, and the opportunity to consider himself invulnerable, better than everyone else, untouchable by the ills of humanity.

You see, Jesus was human.  He was born into a poor family on purpose.  He was born into a subjugated people on purpose.  He was subject to hunger, to powerlessness, and to mortality, just like the rest of us.  He wasn’t part of the 1%, he wasn’t part of the ruling elite, he wasn’t immune to the pains and injuries of normal, human life.  He was human.  The devil was offering him opportunities that would make him something other than fully human, and that would negate the whole purpose of his existence.   Jesus had to be fully human, so that we could know that he knew what we go through, how fragile we can be emotionally and physically.  He had to be fully human so that following his ways would be realistic for us.  He had to be fully human so that we could know temptations, and opportunities that are too good to be true, can be resisted.  We have to be able to look at Jesus and know that he did it, and he was human, so we can do it.

 I keep coming back to that last line.  After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.  Oftentimes, I think, the devil comes to us knocking on the door with opportunities, presenting temptations that might look like a really good idea for a minute, but that might well not be the right thing for us, might not be what God would want for us.  

Now, I know that we have many sayings about opportunity.  “Opportunity only knocks once.  Don’t let an opportunity slip through your fingers.  Great opportunities don’t come every day - recognize them and seize them.”  Those sayings are often used by salespeople to convince us to part with our hard earned money.  I really should have said “Get behind me, Satan” when that nice young woman selling Kirby vacuums showed up at the door, but nooo . . . I had to fall for the something-for-nothing offer of “I’ll shampoo your carpet for free! No obligation to buy.”  I know better.  But hey, I got something for nothing.   And then spent way too much money on a vacuum cleaner.  

We are bombarded with temptations all the time, opportunities to earn more, save more, and get more for ridiculously cheap that sound too good to be true.  We are daily faced with the temptation to give in to over-spending, road rage or other instances of inappropriate anger, or selfishness, jealousy, resentment, laziness, pride, unwillingness, over eating, over drinking, whatever fault we may be most prone to in that moment.  The devil will find and take advantage of times when we are tired, or stressed, or feeling complacent to place these opportunities - those temptations - before us, hoping that we will act without thought, without prayer, without asking God for guidance in the situation before us.

At the end of 40 days and 40 nights of fasting and prayer, and temptation, Jesus could still resist every opportunity placed before him by the devil.  Every time the devil made an offer to Jesus, Jesus referred back to God.  “It is written, people don’t live by bread alone.”  “It is written, worship your God and serve only God.”  “It’s been said, don’t tempt your God.”  Jesus was completely God-centered, even at his hungriest and weakest.  The devil could not break through Jesus’ dependence upon God to guide his decisions and responses.  And so he went away, until the next opportunity.  

The good news, my brothers and sisters, is that we can do what Jesus did, for he was human, like us.  And if he, in his humanity, could resist the devil’s offers, so can we.   When we go from here, and have all those daily temptations to face and decisions to make, let us remain God-centered, as Jesus did.   Let us rely always upon God to guide us, through the season of Lent and always.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

He Said What?


Scripture   Luke 9:37-43  NRSV

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

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We have heard the story of the transfiguration many times.  Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying he was changed, even his clothes were dazzling to the eye.  Moses and Elijah were there talking with him, so Peter wanted to build 3 booths for them to stay in, but by the time he finished saying that, a voice came from the cloud saying “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  As suddenly as they appeared, the prophets were gone, Jesus was alone, and the disciples were terrified.  And they kept silence, telling no one what they had witnessed.
Upon coming back to earth, as it were, after that mountain top experience, as usual a great crowd was waiting for them.  And the first person to get Jesus’ attention is a man whose son is afflicted with an unclean spirit and who has come to complain that Jesus’ disciples weren’t able to cure the boy.  He begs for Jesus’ help.  And  Jesus answered him saying, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?  Bring your son here.”
Wait, he said what?  Where’s our loving, compassionate Jesus?  I mean, he was just up on the mountain top.  He spoke with Moses and Elijah, he was transfigured, completely changed, in the sight of Peter and James and John, and God called Jesus his son and told the disciples to listen to him!  He should be feeling, well, on top of the world!   All full of love and sunshiney stuff.  You know, I have to wonder what it was that Moses and Elijah shared with him on that mountaintop.  After all, both of them had to deal with people who had to be continually shown God’s power with signs and wonders - just like the people Jesus faced all the time.  Maybe they were commiserating with him, you know, complaining about their congregations.   God’s power enabled Moses and Elijah to do great things, impossible things, just as Jesus did.  Even though the people they led were stubborn and stiff necked, like his people.  Even though they quickly forgot what God had done for them.   Even though trying to lead them in God’s way was harder than herding cats.   Maybe his conversation with Moses and Elijah did have something to do with his reaction.  We will never know.  We do know that the first thing he does is chastise this man, and complain about having to put up with this faithless and perverse generation.   
Now, more often than not this passage is read as a rebuke to the disciples who were unable to heal the boy.  And yes, we do love to make fun of the disciples.  They get so much stuff wrong that we, with our 2,000 years of hindsight, can see right away!  We products of 20th and 21st century educations, tend to think that the 1st Century disciples weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs on the tree, but you know, Jesus picked them for a reason.  They were willing to drop everything and follow him.  At the beginning of this chapter, “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”   He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom and to heal.  And they did.  Luke 9:6 tells us they “went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”  So they definitely could cast out this boy’s affliction.  Peter has already proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah.  Frankly, they get a pretty bad rap from us and in the case of this passage, it’s really not deserved.  It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is speaking to the boy’s father, because the last sentence in that condemnation is, “Bring your son here.  It’s not all that surprising that Jesus got upset with the father who didn’t believe his disciples could heal his son.  They could have healed the boy . . . because Jesus had given them the power and authority from God to do those things - but the father didn’t believe they could.  He had no faith in them.  And if you don’t believe that something can happen, it probably won’t.   If you don’t believe in the abilities of another person, nothing they do or say will convince you otherwise.
Think about this for a minute.  If I am convinced that I cannot succeed at something, the likelihood is that I will not.  If I keep telling myself I can’t, then I probably won’t.  I might not even try.  But if I think I can . . . well, the story of the Little Engine That Could comes to mind.  
Many of us have lived with lies that other people told us about ourselves so often that we came to believe the lie.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not smart enough.  I’ll never amount to anything.  I’m unloveable. I still struggle with some of these lies.   Leah and the Young Adult Group are studying a book called Enough - Silencing the Lies That Steal Your Confidence.  This book’s goal is to help people learn how to recognize the lie, reject it, and replace it with the truth.   The truth is, we can do anything we set our minds to doing.   All we need is faith that we can do those things with God’s help.   Now, this does not mean that I can go out and run  a 10 mile race without long and intensive training.   But it does mean that at age 44 I could go to college and then seminary and be successful as a student.  Even though I had been told over and over that I wasn’t smart enough.  When in doubt of my abilities I would remind myself that if God wanted me to be a minister, all I had to do was my part  - showing up for class, doing homework, studying, writing papers - and the rest would come.   Not everyone believed in me.  During every conversation with my mother-in-law she would tell me that we were welcome to move in with her when I flunked out. *sigh*  But I believed that I could succeed with God’s help, and with God’s help I did.
A few weeks ago Alan repaired my fence and I was giving him credit on Facebook for being able to do pretty much anything, because, you know, it’s Alan.  It seems like anything he turns his hand to is successful.  He can fix just about anything. He bakes.  He builds rockets.  He is an amazing woodworker.  His first quilt won a prize at the fair!  His response to my Facebook post was,  I give God the credit: first he makes me, then he teaches me, then he motivates me.   
All things are possible with God.   All we have to do is believe in the power of God.  All you have to do is give God the credit.  With God’s help, lies can be detected and rejected.  With God’s help, the demons that afflict us can be cast out.  With God’s help, people can be re-born.  With God’s help, churches can be transformed.  And all who witness these things will be astounded at the greatness of God.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Using the Golden Ruler


Scripture Luke 6:27-38   CEB  


27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.
32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.
37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38  Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”
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It can be dangerous to read what’s written in the Gospels and bring it forward into our world without first considering that it might have meant something a bit different when Jesus said it.   So first let’s look at the context, the history and culture surrounding this oh so familiar passage.    

By the time of Jesus’ ministry the people of Judah and Galilee had been under Roman rule for nearly 100 years.  Romans called the area Palestine and treated its inhabitants like servants.  If soldiers walking along the road saw a man walking ahead of them, they could and would force him to drop what he was doing and carry their burdens, like a human pack mule.  If they liked his coat or anything else he owned, they could take it.  If he talked back to them, or even if he didn’t, they could strike him.  Jesus didn’t have to spell any of this out.  Everyone knew it entirely too well.  When he mentioned these things they were well aware that he was talking about things Romans did every day.  He was saying, in essence, we are a subject nation, an oppressed people, and we are treated badly.  But God would not have you rebel or seek revenge.  Rather, if a soldier strikes your face, turn your face so he might strike the other side.  If he confiscates your coat, offer  him your shirt.  If he curses you, don’t say what is in your mind but instead offer him a blessing.  Treat everyone in the way you want them to act toward you, even especially those who mistreat you, your enemies, your oppressors.   After all, even sinners return good for good, but you are God’s children, and you need to be better than that.  You must act “the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people.”   

For us this passage doesn’t have quite the immediacy it held for the people listening to Jesus that day, because it’s not a lived experience most of us can relate to.   Nonetheless, it is a meaningful and necessary teaching in today’s world as well.   If you only treat those well who treat you well, what ’s so great about that, Jesus asks.  Even sinners do that.  The hard part, and what we are called to do, is to be good even to those who treat us badly, to love even our enemies, to be compassionate to all people, even as God is compassionate to all.   

And, just in case any of you have been listening to Prosperity Gospel preachers, “Give, and it will be given to you.  . . The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” really has nothing to do with receiving monetary blessings if you give generously to the church.   It has everything to do with the blessings you receive from doing good - not repayment for doing good, but the blessings you receive when you have given of yourself with no expectation of reward.  When Janice takes a van full of dogs to new forever homes . . . When Karleen picks up food to distribute to people who would not have enough to eat otherwise  . . . when you are in a hurry but choose to hold a door for some really slow old guy with a walker . . . those blessings, those feelings you get from being of help to someone,  although not quanitifiable, are far superior to any other sort of repayment.   Anyone who has ever been on a mission trip -  to build a house or dig a well or clean up after a natural disaster, for example - will tell you that they received far more in the way of blessings from their experience than did the people they went to help.  

At the very end of his ministry Jesus told his disciples to love one another.  But throughout his ministry he taught them how to do that.  This passage gives some very specific examples and instructions.  “love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. . .  “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”   And clearest of all the instructions, the Golden Rule. “Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 

We’ve heard this our entire lives.  We’ve seen it on wall hangings and book marks and bracelets and screen savers and as a meme on Facebook.  We’ve heard it so much that some even question whether it’s really in the Bible, or whether it’s one of those sayings that people think should be from the Bible.  Well, the good news in this case is yes, it is actually Biblical.  Jesus did say this.  And we are pretty good at forgetting it, maybe because we do see and hear it so often.  Maybe we just need to hear it in different ways.

I saw this on Facebook the other day:
Hurt People hurt people.  That’s how pain patterns get passed on, generation after generation.  Break the chain today.
Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness
Greet grimaces with smiles.
Forgive - and forget about finding fault.
Love is the weapon of the future.
In other words, treat others as you would be treated.  If something goes wrong, don’t look for someone or something to blame.  Blaming others just creates tension and resentment.  Regroup and go forward, or in football terms “Drop back 10 yards and punt.”  And have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back?  They may think you’re a bit crazy, but they usually smile back.  If you want to be smiled at, smile first.  Even if you don’t feel like it.  Love one another. 

“Love is the weapon of the future”  I love the idea of weaponizing love, although I think it’s been tried.  In my mind’s eye, I can see the image of a young woman with flowers in her hair putting a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s weapon during an anti-war demonstration back in the day.   Still, if at first you don’t succeed - Christians have been living with the Love Commandment for nearly 2,000 years.  Surely, eventually, we will get it right, right?    Although, according to Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel,  The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”    

I am afraid he is right in this.  Even believers are put off of Church when they see vicious infighting over who is acceptable and unacceptable to hold membership, or to be married, or to be in a leadership position.   Right this minute, today, the United Methodist Church General Conference is meeting in St. Louis  to consider possible plans for dealing with the church’s current policy stating that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  There are several possibilities being considered, but there is talk of a split, no matter what decision is made.  People look at things like that, and at nationally known preachers speaking out against a whole raft of groups and issues, and wonder where’s the love these Christians are supposed to have?   People see us ignoring the Golden Rule, which is pretty much “how to love one another” in a nutshell, and decide that what we have, they do not want.   The early church grew because the members went out and loved others - all others - rejecting none, because that’s what Jesus did, and that’s what Jesus said we are supposed to do.    

It’s not easy. Most of what Jesus taught is not easy.   Most of what Jesus taught is pretty much the exact opposite of what the world teaches us.  The world says, “Do unto others before they do it to you. If you are hit, hit them back harder.  If you are mistreated, get revenge.  If they are different, reject them.”  But Jesus says, love one another, as I love you.   Accept each other, the way I accept you, the way God accepts you.  Love your enemy.  Do good, expecting no reward.  Do not judge.  Be kind to wicked and ungrateful people.  Be compassionate.  Forgive.  Treat everyone the same way that  you want to be treated.  In every situation, in every decision you make, use the Golden Ruler.  Act as children of the Most High.  The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.

My brothers and sisters, please stand and sing with me, asking God to “Help Us Accept Each Other”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Being the blessing


 Scripture Luke 6:17-26  NRSV


17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 
“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
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This passage is known as the Sermon on the Plain.  It’s sort of like the Sermon on the Mount (aka the Beatitudes), but instead of eight blessings and no woes, here there are only four blessings and an equal number of woes.  It balances - the poor and the rich, the hungry and the well fed, the grieving and the happy, the hated and those who are spoken well of by others.

Once again Jesus faces great numbers of people. Some are his disciples - not just the Twelve, but a “great crowd” of men and women who are there to learn from him, who hunger and thirst for the Word.  (OK, hold that thought because we will come back to it.)  And then there were all the other people in the crowd, who were there to be healed of diseases and unclean spirits, who were trying to get close enough just to touch him, because power flowed out of him and healed them.  Most of them would wander back home, healed physically, even maybe mentally, but not significantly, spiritually changed by their experience of Jesus.  He knows this, and so he looked up at his disciples and said, 
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 

If the crowd was listening to what he was saying, they would maybe have heard the “pie in the sky by and by” message that this passage has often been thought to mean.  His disciples, however, would have heard something different.  Blessed are you who are poor, who know they need God, who know they need a new life, for you will receive a new way of living, a kingdom way of living.  Blessed are you who are hungry, for the Word will fill your hearts to overflowing.  Blessed are you who grieve, for God’s love will comfort you and you will laugh again. 

And blessed are you when you are reviled and hated on account of the Son of Man.   Luke wrote this gospel more than 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a time when Christ followers were being persecuted, but not necessarily executed.  They were outcast, because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor and other gods.  They were looked down upon, because they considered everyone equal, and treated everyone the same - even slaves.  Even women.  This blessing was for them, for the disciples who come in the future, even for the ones who were following him during his lifetime, because as you will remember they will be pursued and persecuted by one Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul.   His disciples knew their history.  They knew that anyone who preached against the status quo, like some of the prophets, were beaten and threatened with death - Elijah and Jeremiah come to mind.  Jesus knew that being different, standing apart from the world because they were following the Word he was teaching them, would cause them grief, and he wanted them to know that this, too, would be a blessing.

And now we come to the problematic parts - the woes.  Woe to you who are rich!  And who are well fed!  And who are happy!  And whom everyone speaks well of!
Wait, we’re rich, kind of. I mean, compared to the folks who sleep on the church steps, we’re rich.   And we are well fed.  And we’re pretty happy.  Is Jesus talking about us? 

There are a lot of passages in the gospels where Jesus speaks poorly of the rich.  He said things like, It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.   But Jesus really didn’t hate rich people.  After all, we know that he had followers with money and property who helped support him and his disciples in their ministry.  
What Jesus had a problem with was rich people who didn’t help the poor.  
What Jesus had a problem with were people who were well fed and didn’t feed the hungry.  
What Jesus had a problem with were folks who were perfectly happy with the way the world was, who didn’t care about injustice, who participated in the oppression of those they considered “less than.”  
What Jesus had a problem with were people who didn’t want to rock the boat, who wanted to fit in, who accepted things they didn’t like because, after all, what difference can one person make? 
 What Jesus had a problem with were people who did not follow the commandments to care for the least, the last, and the lost.

Jesus objected, not to people having money and food and a nice life, but to people who have all those things and don’t care about others.  Consider the story of the rich man who allowed the beggar Lazarus to die of hunger at the gates of his house, then went to Sheol where Lazarus was with Abraham, and he begged for just a little water.  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  (Luke 16:25)   It’s kind of a “what goes around, comes around” situation.  Those who have been filled with the Word  and who are willing to love one another, treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves, those people need not worry too much about the woes.   But we need to keep them in mind, for when we become complacent, or become more interested in maintaining the status quo than in making sure all persons are treated with love and compassion.  We need to consider them whenever we are given the opportunity to help.

Speaking of opportunities to help . . . Today is one of the Sundays when we take up a special collection for Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  Week of Compassion is there to help people around the world who have suffered loss after a natural disaster - like the wildfires here in California, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, and floods where ever they happen. They were there after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when WoC volunteers went to help re-build in Galveston, TX and each of the people receiving their help received one of the signs of hope shown in the slide.    They are there to help resettle refugees coming to this country (with the all the appropriate permissions and visas.) They are there to help communities around the world learn new agricultural skills, dig wells, and develop community health programs.   They are our boots on the ground all over the world, supplying not just funds and supplies but also volunteers on mission trips to do the hard work of rebuilding.   And when I say “they” what I really mean is “we” because Week of Compassion is part of the Disciples of Christ.   Disciples congregations and individuals give money, make hygiene kits, sometimes even school kits.  We are there where ever Week of Compassion is, even if all we did was send a little money.    We are there when we give out of our riches so that others may be fed, and housed, and cared for.   

This congregation is actually pretty excellent at being there and helping others.  As a congregation and as individuals we give generously of our time, our money, and our talents.  We are involved with food ministries, homeless ministries, animal rescue, children’s programs, and caring for the people in the Selma Convalescent Hospital.  We support missionaries, give scholarships, and help homebound people with meals and rides to therapy.  We pray for those who ask for prayer, and for each other, and for our church and our nation.  And each of us has other help agencies and organizations we are involved with one way or another.  We give so much of ourselves.  We are being the blessing that Jesus has promised to the poor and the  hungry and the grieving.  Let us be careful not to fall into the trap of comfortability with the way things are, rather, let us work toward changes in attitudes so that the Kingdom of God may truly come to be on earth, as it is in heaven.

My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us continue to be the blessing.   Let us seek always to do God’s work in the world, with mercy and compassion, so that God’s Kingdom may truly come to be on earth as it is in heaven.  



Photo credit:  Week of Compassion, Danielle Cox

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Thanks for all the fish


Scripture Luke 5:1-11


Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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In the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was tempted by the devil, almost thrown off a cliff by his neighbors in Nazareth, and then went around teaching, casting out demons and healing the sick, including Simon Peter’s mother in law, and preaching in Judean synagogues.    Already he had become so famous that the crowds were a problem.  Luke tells us in 4:43 “The crowds were looking for him. When they found him, they tried to keep him from leaving them.  He was a 1st century superstar, really.  Everywhere he went, people wanted to be near him, crying out for his attention, asking to be healed, begging for him to cast out their demons, to change their lives.  

So one day he had some fishermen take him out a little way from shore so he could preach without being overwhelmed by the crowds.  Now, the boats were sitting by the lake because fisherman in Capernaum typically went out at night.  Their years of experience had taught them that night is the best time to catch fish.  Jesus told the fishermen, including Simon Peter, to let their nets down even though it was the middle of the day and they hadn’t caught anything all night long.  I can almost hear Simon Peter thinking, “You are a preacher and a carpenter, not a fisherman.  This is my area of expertise and I happen to know that the fish here are most likely to be caught at night, but we will humor you and do as you ask.  Surprise, surprise, surprise.  The nets were filled with fish, so full that it took two boats to bring the nets in and even with two boats the catch nearly capsized them!  All they had to do was follow Jesus’ instructions and the fish practically jumped into the nets.    

According to Luke, this is when Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee became Jesus’ disciples.  As you may remember, John’s gospel has a different account of how the disciples were called.  But this is the way Luke tells it, that after causing the fisherman to catch more fish than they knew what to do with, Jesus said to them, “From now on, you will be fishing for people.” and “As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Wait, they dd what?  They left everything right then and there?  What about their families?  What about their jobs and responsibilities?  What about all those fish?   Did they just leave them on the shore?    The very idea of dropping everything like that kind of freaks us out a bit.   It’s pretty much the opposite of what we are taught to do as adults.  I mean, adulting is hard mostly because we can’t just up and do whatever, whenever.  We have responsibilities that come first, to our families, to our jobs, to our community.   Imagine James and John saying, “We’ll catch up with you, Jesus.  Right after we deal with the fish, tell our Dad we’re leaving the family business, kiss our wives and kids goodbye, and pack a few things.   Probably take a day or two.  Not.  They left everything and followed Jesus as soon as they brought the boats to shore.  

Most of us aren’t asked to leave our families and jobs and places in our community to follow Jesus.  Mind you, some are.  More than half of my seminary classmates were people who left behind successful careers to become ministers of the Gospel.  There were nurses, accountants, an attorney, several teachers, corporate officers, a high school principal.  Some of them lost spouses because of their call . . . their spouse couldn’t understand what would make anyone give up a successful, stable, and well-paid career for the ministry. They didn’t understand how strong Jesus’ call on us was, and is.   But for most people, following Jesus doesn’t require that kind of sacrifice.  

But we are all called to leave behind anything which holds us back from fully following Jesus.  That requires hard work.  That requires much more than being able to quote Scripture, or show up on Sundays.  It requires being the kind of person who attracts others to whatever it is that makes us the way we are - a caring, loving, giving person, a non-judgmental person, a person about whom others say things like, “I want to be like her when I grow up!”  If we are to be fishers for people, we have to have the right bait.   We can have all the evangelism tools in the world.  We can have the best preaching and the best website and the best post cards and the best worship experiences and the best Bible Studies and the best small groups and the best music in town, but if we have not love, we have no bait.  If we have not love, we will be like the fishermen in the story, who said “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  In his first letter to the church in Corinth Paul makes it clear to us just how important it is to have love, for he said “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)  

If we would follow Jesus, we have to leave behind all of those things that hold us back - our worries, our fears, our favorite sins (yes, we have favorite sins, like maybe over-dosing on Girl Scout cookies).  You may be saying to yourself, “Well, I’m certainly not good enough.  I can’t fish for people when I have so many things I need to change about myself.”  But here’s the thing . . . you are good enough to fish for people just the way you are.  It is our very imperfections that makes us so good at attracting others.  As Nadia Bolz-Weber said in "Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,”  Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.”  

Look at who Jesus chose to be his disciples!  Look at his followers in the early days of the church - Paul comes to mind.  And when they went fishing, they fished for all people, not just particular sorts of people. They were’t targeting a particular demographic.   They didn’t care about filling the pews with folks who could afford to help support the ministry.  They fished for men and women, rich people and poor, young people and old, healthy and sick, housed and homeless, free and slaves, law abiding people and criminals, people everyone despised and people everyone admired.  In the early days of the church, their very ordinariness helped to attract others, to see what it was that made these very diverse groups of people go out to help others for no payment, no benefit to themselves - even people who weren’t part of their church.  They didn’t worry about whether someone deserved to be helped - they tried to help everyone.  They went out telling others that God loves them, no matter who they are or what they do for a living or what they have done in their lives.   And the more they spoke of living in God’s kingdom on earth, and following the commandments Jesus had given his disciples,  and showed others what that meant by the way they lived their lives, loving and caring for everyone they encountered, bar none, the more people were attracted to this new way of living.  Their neighbors came to see what it was that had changed people they had known for years.  Strangers came to find out what why these people cared about them.   Everyone was welcome - everyone, even the worst sinners - and the church grew and grew as they continued to carry the Good News of God’s love for all the world.  Any fisherman will tell you, the better the bait, the better the catch, and for Christians, the bait is love.  

When we go from this place today, let us consider the world our fishing hole.  Let us use the bait of our love for others to attract people, all people, into Christ’s family.  All we have to do is follow Jesus’ instructions to love one another and the fish will jump into our nets.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Lord, Make us One


Scripture 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 26-31a   CEB   


12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. . . . 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 

27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. 28 In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. 29 All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? 31 Use your ambition to try to get the greater gifts. And I’m going to show you an even better way.

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Many of you know that I select the scripture reading and message hymn about 2 months in advance.  When I selected today’s message what I knew for sure was that today we would have a congregational meeting to vote on new officers and approve the budget, and the readings I had to choose from included 1 Corinthians 12, which is about as close to ideal for election day as possible.  Many parts, one body, no one part is more important than any other part, all are needed.  Perfect!  

And yes, we did leave out about 10 verses in the middle, which describe several specific parts of the body and their roles.  I asked Debbie and Leah to delete those verses early this morning, because frankly this is a very long passage and since there is no way I’m going to preach on every verse in the time I have available, it makes sense sometimes to shorten the reading.  And I had decided a while back that I will be focusing on the first and last parts of  this passage, the body of Christ parts rather than the body parts.   

So, looking at the body of Christ as it is constituted in this particular congregation, what do we see?  Look around, really look, to see who is here.  Not just to count heads.  But to see all the different people here.  Children are here.  The littlest ones are downstairs having their own church service, but they are here as part of the body.   There are some women here without the rest of their families, and that is typical.  But there are also men here without their families, and that is not.  There are families who have been coming here forever, and there are families who haven’t been here long at all.  There are families with children and couples and singles. There are retired folks and working people, who are able to support the church financially.  And there are the unemployed and students and families just starting out, who are not.  There are some with college educations and some who didn’t finish high school.  There are registered Democrats and Republicans and No Party Preference, and some who don’t vote.   And there are also those who have physical issues that keep them from being here in person, but are still part of this body, because they pay attention to what this congregation is doing, and because this congregation pays attention to them.  There are some who are hyper involved in church activities, serving on Boards and Teams and going to every church event, some who just show up on Sunday and are glad of the hour’s rest and renewal they get while they are here, and some who fall somewhere in between.  Some are happy to preside, and volunteer as often as possible, while others panic just thinking about talking in front of people.  All of those different people make up the body of Christ here at First Christian Church.  And some of those have answered the call to serve this congregation as deacons and elders and team leaders, and Board officers.  Some of these have served many times over the years.  Some will be stepping up for the first time.  Today you will be voting to approve their service for the coming year.

The folks who are being elected to serve on the Board will be facing some tough decisions in the months to come.  You all, in electing them, allow them to make decisions on your behalf.  Not all of them.  Not the really big ones, like buying and selling property or building a building.  But a lot of them.  They work hard at putting together a budge for the coming year - You will be voting on that today, also - and making sure we stick to it as closely as possible. And trust me, that is not always fun or easy.  Your Board has had to make some very tough calls in the last year or so, to keep our expenses in line with our income.  Because just like in our own homes, if the income drops so must our spending.   Sometimes we find ourselves in between a rock and a hard place - between what Jesus would have us do, and what we need to do in order to be good stewards of the property with which we have been entrusted.   Making decisions as a Christian church can be ever so much harder than making decisions as an ordinary business.   For example - What to do about the unhoused people who sleep on the church steps.   

I want to tell you a couple of stories from the church I served before this one.
Eusebio lost his home, his family, and his employment after his last DUI.  He slept in the church doorway and stashed his belongings - a bag with some clothes in it and a bedroll - behind a bush when he went out to look for work in the morning.  He was polite and respectful, and always left before the preschool teachers arrived in the morning.  He went dumpster diving and found many wonderful things - like the push broom he used to sweep the church parking lot and sidewalks every day.  And the reflective paint he used to touch up the lines in our parking lot.  And the varnish he used on one of the doors to fellowship hall.   And so many other things that he used to do unpaid and un-asked for work around the church property.  It was his way of paying rent.  We were happy to provide him a safe place to sleep at night (although we never specifically gave him permission to stay) because there are no homeless shelters in La Puente or the surrounding communities, only a cold weather shelter for a couple of months in the winter.  After a few months Eusebio found a job washing dishes, and a few weeks later he moved into a room.   If all the homeless people who slept in the church doorway were like Eusebio, we would never have any problem knowing what to do. 

But then there was Jim.  Jim was fine when he was taking his meds, and really hostile and paranoid when he wasn’t.  He slept behind the hedge alongside the church building, and kept his belongings there also.  He threatened the preschool teachers when they asked him to leave in the mornings.  He would listen to me, most of the time, but I wasn’t always there at 6 am when the preschool opened.  After a few months, many complaints from preschool parents, church members and neighbors, and a couple of broken stained glass windows, the board decided he had to leave.  He wouldn’t, of course, so we had to take legal steps.  We put a sign up saying no overnight camping or parking.  We called the police, and I had to make a citizen’s arrest.  They took him to jail, he ended up in a psych ward for a couple of months, and we had to hire someone to clean up his mess.  He had put so much stuff behind the bushes it took several dumpsters to haul it all away.  If all homeless people who slept at the church were like Jim, it wouldn’t be hard to know what to do.   

But they aren’t all like either Jim or Eusebio.   Most fall somewhere in between.  Some clean up, some don’t.  Some comply with requests, some don’t.  Some are fine when they are on their meds, but not so much the rest of the time.   (And trust me, I am quick to call the police when I witness threats of violence - I learned that lesson well.)  Mind you, we never specifically told anyone that they could sleep there, only that they needed to leave in the morning before the preschool opened.  It was a safe place for them to sleep, especially for women and gay men, who were often victims of assault in the cold weather shelters.  We wanted folks with no roof over their heads to at least have a safe place to sleep. It seemed the Christian thing to do.  If only they would just comply with a few requests - like leaving before people showed up, and keeping their sleeping area clean.   And for folks like Eusebio, who only wanted to get back on his feet and improve his life, that was easy.  

But frankly, many of those who live on the streets - especially in Selma where we have so many programs to help those who want help - aren’t able to comply with requests and rules.  They may have mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues, that make staying in a shelter impossible.  There are a lot of reasons why some folks are chronically homeless and we as a society have to find ways to solve those issues.   But here, as church, we have to somehow figure out what we need to do to both follow Jesus - who told us to feed the hungry, give shelter to those who need it, heal the sick, cast out demons, love your neighbor as yourself  - and protect the property we are stewards of.  That is really not easy.  Because these too, are beloved children of God.  Your Board, the folks you will be electing in a few minutes, will have to make those decisions.  

You are the body of Christ, and parts of each other.  You are all different from each other, with different viewpoints and different priorities.  But you all have the desire to live a Christian life, to make decisions in accordance with God’s will, to live in the world but not of the world.  It is hard to be a Christian today.  It always has been.  

The hymn I selected for today  has lyrics written by Carolyn Winfrey-Gillette, who writes new words to familiar music.  I selected it a couple of months ago because it was about serving God and congregations, and it seemed appropriate to use on Congregation Meeting day.  But it became even more appropriate when I realized that we had to talk about making decisions as Christians, and about who we welcome and who we help…and who we can’t help.  We want to help everyone, but even Jesus had to ask, “Do you want to be helped?”  (paraphrase of John 5:6)

My sisters and brothers, when we leave this place today, I would ask you to pray the Lord to make us one, to be of one accord on the best way for us to move forward, on this and so many other issues, when the world and the Word, our minds and our hearts seem to come into conflict.