Sunday, August 12, 2018

Embracing the New



Scripture   Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Common English Bible (CEB)    


25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil. 28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.
29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.
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Last week we talked about forsaking the old ways, asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and transgressions, and looking to live life differently.  Today’s reading is specifically about how to be better people - how to embrace the new life in Christ that we have been given. 

Paul’s instructions in this passage seem to be pretty much no-brainer.  Be truthful.  Be angry without sinning.  Don’t steal.  Watch what you say.   We got this, right?   Maybe.  Maybe not.  

I get the “Still Speaking” daily devotional from the United Church of Christ which is based in the lectionary reading for the day. Today’s was written about this particular reading and the writer’s perspective was rather different, and very timely.    Rev. Quinn Caldwell addressed the first two verses of today’s reading, saying, “Paul did not do a good job of anticipating the Internet. Like, I'm not blaming him or anything, but let's just be honest that he really failed to see Facebook coming. All his advice is given to people who are looking each other in the eye. What would he say about how to engage on Facebook, or Twitter, where you can easily be in electronic relationship with thousands upon thousands of people you will never meet in person? "Speak the truth"—OK, that's pretty clear, I guess, maybe. But "speak the truth in love"? What does love look like in the middle of a Twitter flame war or Facebook showdown? Is it always patient, kind, understanding—or is it sometimes a smackdown? 

He has a pretty good point.  I mean, some people have a hard time speaking the truth with love in person, but when they get online . . . and it doesn’t even have to be about anything big, or political, or religious. I posted a picture of a cat sitting beneath my hummingbird feeder, which I thought was cute.  Almost immediately people began attacking me, with great anger, because I was using red hummingbird food.  I was not aware of any problems with red hummingbird food prior to that moment, and OK, I understand they had a concern they wanted to express.  But I think “speaking truth in love” would sound less like, “You horrible person!  That red food is killing the hummingbirds!” and more like, “Studies suggest that red dye in hummingbird food may cause liver problems.  You can make your own, healthier hummingbird food of sugar and water.”   Both of these statements are true, well, except for the horrible person part, but verily I say to you, my brothers and sisters, my reaction to the latter is way more reasoned than my reaction to the former.   Remember when we used to tell our children “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”?  That works on Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media.  And in person.  Speak as you would be spoken to.  Speak truth in love.  

There are those who would say it is always wrong to be angry.  But Paul seems to feel differently.  “Be angry without sinning,” he says.  “Don’t let the sun set on your anger.  Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.”  Rev. Caldwell disagreed, in part, noting that  “anyone who's ever been engaged in a heated conversation online [or in person] knows that sometimes sleeping on it is a way better strategy than responding immediately.”   One of the techniques I was taught for dealing with anger is to write a letter to the person I am angry with and not mail it, for at least 24 hours.  Often I would discover that I wasn’t nearly as angry in the morning light as I had been in the moment.  I would usually be able to tear up my letter, and address whatever the issue was more calmly and reasonably than if I had spoken out at the time.  
“Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work”.  Paul said that they should then use their income to help others.  And they should.  But I know that getting a job doesn’t necessarily end the stealing.  I have known people to “help” their church by donating office supplies “liberated” from their place of employment, or providing pirated software for the church computer, or by thinking copyright laws don’t apply to church music.  Don’t do those things.  All of those things are stealing, and no part of the Christian life. 

Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth.  OK, that sounds pretty clear.  Watch your language!  An admonition that I need to remember more often than I want to admit.  However, is that what it really means?  Because the next sentence is “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.  We are back to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”, I think. 

What Paul is really addressing here is conflict resolution.  You see, there were some significant conflicts in the churches in Ephesus.  Every church has some conflict, and most of that conflict even from the very beginning of Christianity has been between “We have always done it this way,” and “Let’s do this new thing!”  Do people have to be circumcised (the old way) or not (the new way.)  Do we have to follow the dietary restrictions (the old way) or not (the new way.)  Do we want pews (the old way) or chairs we can use in different configurations (the new way).  Sometimes conflicts are over personalities - Apollos versus Paul.  Sometimes the conflicts were over how to interpret what Paul had taught.  Regardless of what the conflict was about, Paul was trying to teach folks how to deal with conflict, saying “Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. 

Chances are pretty good that we here at First Christian Church in Selma are going to engage in some difficult discussions in the not too distant future.  This week many of the people who you have elected to leadership positions will be meeting with a representative of the Board of Church Extension in Indianapolis to talk about our financial situation - which is not good - and possible choices for our future as a church.  Then we will start talking about those possibilities - all of us together.  And when we start talking about those things, we need to do so with open minds and hearts.  We will need to take into our hearts these words from Paul - who knew a thing or two about dealing with conflict.  Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 
Embracing the new life in Christ that we have been blessed with means changing the way we think about things, and the way we respond to things.  We start thinking about what is best for all people, not just what benefits me, or us right here.  We start reaching out to make life better for all people, not just for our own folks.  We ask ourselves how we can best serve all of Selma instead of how we can best serve First Christian.  Jesus did not tell us to just love some people.  He told us to love our neighbors, and then he told us the neighbor was the Samaritan, the enemy, the person we would never normally allow into our homes.   

Paul told the folks in Ephesus, and us, “…imitate God, like dearly loved children.  Live your life with love, following the example of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us.  When we go from this place today, let us do as Paul directs.  Let us follow the example of Christ, loving others and giving ourselves for others, as Jesus gave himself for us.  Let us embrace a new life, a new way of being.   Let every day be a new day in Christ, a new day in love, a day to embrace the new way of living.  

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Forsaking the Old Ways


Scripture  Psalm 51:1-12     (NRSV)

1  Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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According to my Bible, this is the psalm David wrote after the prophet Nathan came to him with the story of the ewe lamb the rich man had stolen from the poor man - a parable he told so that David would understand the severity of his crime against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and also against God.  David suddenly understood what he had done as something other than just self-indulgence, but as actions that were not only against the Law, but greatly offensive to God.  His lust, his abuse of the privilege he held as king, his murder of an innocent man so that he could claim Uriah’s wife for himself, all of these sins were abhorrent to God and, quite frankly, to us, the readers of these stories.   We hear it said that David was greatly loved by God, and we wonder, because we know how sinful David was.  We know this story!  As well as many others told in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles.  How, we wonder, could such a flawed person continue to be God’s beloved? 

This psalm goes a long way toward explaining that.  Yes, he sinned.  He sinned egregiously against God, against Uriah and Bathsheba, and against the Laws of his people, the Laws God gave to Moses.  He was guilty of more than just unethical abuse of power.  He committed rape, adultery, and murder, and he forced others to participate in his sin, because he was, after all the king, and his orders and “invitations” could not be refused.  Perhaps he didn’t think about the severity of what he was embarking on when he told his men to go, get Bathsheba and bring her to him so he could enjoy an afternoon’s dalliance with a lovely woman.  But when he did finally realize the evil of that one, selfish action, he repented.  And then he cried out:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse from me my sin.  
For I know my transgressions,  and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,  and done what is evil in your sight,

Coming before God to proclaim his sins and ask forgiveness, David was forgiven.  David remained greatly beloved of God, a man after God’s own heart.  And so it is for all of us.  

David said, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.  And this we still believe, for we know humans are inherently prone to error.  We have to work at doing what is right, and avoiding the wrong.  I grew up believing that my sinfulness was so deeply a part of who I was that there was no chance of heaven.  Even as a small child, confessing to the terrible sin of talking back to my mother, I knew that I was going to spend thousands of years being punished in Purgatory before I would ever know the joy of being in God’s presence.  It is, perhaps, no wonder that I left that church, rejecting God and God’s people.  It is probably not surprising that I chose to do whatever I felt like, since it really didn’t matter whether I was good or bad.  I believed I was going to Hell no matter what I did, and that was that.   It wasn’t until I was taught about a loving, caring and (especially) forgiving God in a 12 Step program that I started to believe that I too, like David, was a beloved child of God.   I had already made a decision to change my life, to give up the drugs and alcohol and other unacceptable behaviors.  But once I had God in my life - even before I returned to church - I was able to give up so much more than just the behaviors.  Once I was able to turn to God, I was able to give up the resentments, the anger, the things that drove me to that life I had been living.  I was able to forsake my old ways.  I was able to confess my transgressions and ask God to forgive me.

Giving up the old ways isn’t a small thing. It’s not simply a decision that one makes one day, and then it’s done.
It’s a process.
Not a once and done thing, but a daily struggle that becomes a daily part of life, snd soon, not a struggle at all.
But the decision to make that change is more than merely something that feels like a good idea at the time. 
It’s like an explosion in which suddenly your soul is freed from the claws of the way it’s always been - of bad decisions and guilt and giving up because you will never get it right, or be good enough. . . 
It’s that moment of epiphany when you become aware that you are free,
Like this dove exploding from its cage.

Many here will have grown up in the church, and never left, and never indulged in the sorts of unacceptable behavior that David did, or that I did.  Many here came to their baptism with a pretty clean heart to begin with.  For others, there may be (or have been) something that is (or was) a struggle.  There may be feelings of guilt or pain, resentment or simmering anger, of inadequacy, of worthlessness.   We may even feel guilty for feeling these things!  For all of us, I suspect, there are aspects of ourselves we would like to improve or change, in order to be more acceptable to God.  And so we read further in the psalm, to share David’s greatest desire, 

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; 
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,  and put a new and right spirit within me.

How do we do this?   How do we make the changes that will accept that clean heart, and right spirit?  About 600 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, wrote a series of Spiritual Exercises.  The very first of those exercises is called the Particular Examination of Conscience to be Made Every Day.  In this exercise one focuses on a particular sin or defect and makes note throughout the day of how well that feeling or behavior was avoided, or not.  The object is not to say “Oh, look how bad I am.”  Rather, this practice enables us to say to ourselves “Look at my improvement!”   It is the same thing we do when we change the way we eat, or add particular exercises to our lives, or any other major lifestyle change, if we want to be successful at that new thing.  When Leah started running, she didn’t berate herself because she could only run a short distance.  She measured today against yesterday, and celebrated every improvement.   When she doesn’t do as well as she would like, she makes the determination to do better tomorrow.  When I do this daily Spiritual exercise, I can look at it and see what I did well, and what I need to work on.  So, today I did not indulge in yelling at other drivers even one time.  Yay!  Today I only ate one cupcake, not all of them.  Yay!  Today I remembered to tell my friend how special she is to me.  And if I didn’t do very well today, there is always tomorrow.

It is a given that we will sin.  That we will make mistakes.  That we will trespass against others in one way or another.  We are human, and prone to error.  But, just as David was forgiven, and remained God’s beloved child, so too are we forgiven.  When we forsake our old ways, ask God’s forgiveness, and go forward with a willing spirit to make the changes that are necessary each day, God will create in us a clean heart, a new heart.   A heart that is dedicated to loving God, and teaching others the Good News of God’s love, compassion and especially, God’s forgiveness - the Good News that we have learned from God’s beloved son, our brother, Jesus the Christ.





Sunday, July 29, 2018

A familiar tale, with a twist


Scripture 2 Kings 4:42-44   NRSV
4:42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat."

4:43 But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left.'"

44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD

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When we hear this story we are tempted to fast forward to the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  It might even be tempting to nod our heads sagely and say, “See, Jesus was way more powerful than the old prophets.  Elisha only fed 100 people, but Jesus fed 5,000!”   Let’s not go there.  Instead, let’s look at the context in which we find this story.  Let’s look at Elisha.

Elisha was one of the great prophets, the one who received God’s blessing from Elijah.  It was a time of great suffering, a time of famine and war.  Chapter 4 in 2 Kings begins with the story of a poor widow whose creditors were about to sell her children as slaves.  All she had in the house was one jar of oil  Elisha had her borrow all the jugs and jars she could from her neighbors and when she had brought him all she could find, he filled them all to overflowing from that one jar of oil she had and sent her out to sell the oil in the marketplace so she could support her children with the money that was left after her debts were paid.    Then, a childless woman married to a an old man was given a son by God’s grace, as a reward for her faithfulness in caring for Elisha as he went through her town.  That son suddenly died some years later, but Elisha returned him to life because the woman believed that God gave him the power to do so.  After that,  he shares a pot of stew with a group of people but one had accidentally put some poisonous plants in it and Elisha, using God’s power, purified the stew with a handful of flour, and everyone ate with no ill effect.  And then - a man comes with his tithe, the best of his harvest, and Elisha, rather than keep it for himself, tells his servant to divide it among the poor who were there.  

In a time of great need, this little bit, this minuscule amount of food being offered as a tithe was multiplied by God to feed 100 people.   “How can this little bit make a difference?”  Well, cause God said it could.  God said “They shall eat and have some left.”   And when God speaks, the entire universe listens.  Some loaves and grain stretches to feed 100.  Some loaves and fishes stretch to feed 5,000.  It’s not a matter of which prophet is stronger. It’s simply a matter of God taking what there is available and making it work.

God works way beyond our expectations.   My friend Linda is a nurse. Some years back she went on a mission trip to another country to help in a medical clinic.   Everything that clinic had was a gift, a donation from somewhere in the world.  Linda could see that the need of the people far exceeded what was available for them.  They were running out of prenatal vitamins and she asked the woman in charge of the mission whether she shouldn’t just give the women half, so more could be served.  She was told no.  She was told to rely on God, and give the women all the vitamins they needed until they ran out.   Much to her surprise, there were enough vitamins for all the women who came to the clinic that day, and a bit left over. 

We probably all have a story of some time in our lives when we were short on the rent, or had an emergency car repair, or something, and no idea how to cover it.  Most of us did not go out and rob someone to get the money.  We probably prayed and did whatever we could to come up with what we needed when suddenly, a refund check for something we forgot about showed up in the mail, or we received an unexpected bonus at work, or a cash gift for our birthday, or someone gave us a winning scratch off ticket.  Something almost miraculous and totally unexpected anyway.  We just did the next indicated thing.  We just did the best we could with what we had, and God took care of the rest.  Now I can’t count on God coming through to pay my bills, or fill my pantry, or change my insurance company’s mind.  And, just in case you were wondering, spending my money on lottery tickets instead of my bills is not the best way to solve my financial problems.  But if I just keep on doing what I am supposed to do, living the way God wants me to live, I can be assured that whatever happens, God is with me.  And things will work out, somehow.  Even if I am not especially crazy about the way they work out.

If Elisha’s servant and my friend Linda had had their way, the food and the vitamins that got distributed would have been insufficient. If they had been allowed to let their fear of not having enough be in charge of the distribution, there would not have been enough.  But the people directing them - Elisha and the head of the clinic knew that God is great, and God’s blessings are abundant.   They knew that the Lord said, “They will eat, and have some left.”  And indeed, they did.  Everyone was served and there was some food left. There were some vitamins left over.

It’s easy to let our fear run ahead of our faith.   It’s easy to decide we don’t have enough, and to start holding what we do have close so we don’t run out.  It’s easy to forget about God’s abundant blessings.  And then we hear stories like these, and we remember. 

In today’s Scripture, the generous gift of one person in a time of great need, plus the faith of another person, provided abundance for those present that day.   The same thing happened at that missionary clinic.  There was enough, because the Lord made it happen.  There was enough, because those who had faith held up those who were fearful.  

If we bring our best before God, recognize the needs of the people, and keep our attention on the movement of God in our midst, amazing things could happen.  Amazing things will happen.   For Great is the Lord, worthy of all glory and praise.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Little Alone Time?


Scripture      Mark 6:30-32, 53-56  NRSV    

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 

6:53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,  55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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A few weeks back, Virgie posted a plaintive cry on Facebook.   “I just want a little alone time.  Is that too much to ask?”  . . .  When I say “Virgie”, do you all know who that is?   Virgie is the church custodian.  For decades she also cleaned for her ladies - ladies like Mrs. Staley, mother of Jennifer and Marsha.  And later on for them as well, and for other ladies with whom she has had a very long and caring relationship.  She comes to my house and does the floors and bathrooms once a month, plus whatever extra stuff she does just because, even though she isn’t asked to.  But she does a lot more than just clean buildings.  While she is here, she prays in every room, for the people who have used that room during the week.  Even though she attends a different congregation, she loves this church and does her best to make sure it is in perfect condition.  She was here before 6 this morning to make sure we were ready for worship after yesterday’s memorial service and concert.  When she is at my house, and when she went to her ladies’ houses, she prays for the people who live in that house, and who come to visit, and their families.  And she is a wife and mother and grandmother, with a house full of people and cats.  She has had significant medical issues, especially with her vision, and has recently had to give up cleaning for most of her ladies - although she still prays for them.   She spends all her time caring for others.  Her days are filled and over filled.  So when Virgie says, “I just want a little alone time.  Is that too much to ask?” the answer is No!  No, it isn’t.  Or rather, it shouldn’t be.  But in our busy world, it sure seems that way sometimes.

Apparently, Jesus and friends had the same problem.   You may have noticed that there is a large section of Scripture that was skipped in today’s reading.  In that section between verses 32 and 53 which Alan read, we have that event known as the feeding of the 5,000.  After the people were fed and had gone home,  Jesus sent the disciples out in a boat and he finally got a bit of alone time - which one assumes he spent in prayer and meditation -  before he walked across the sea to where the disciples were busy freaking out in the storm.  And when they got out of the boat on the shore at Gennesaret they were mobbed, as usual.   

We’ve looked at Sabbath before, about how God commanded us to take one day every week to worship and strengthen our relationship with God.  What we are talking about here, however, isn’t so much Sabbath as simply taking time out of the craziness of life to pray, to rest a little, to those things that help us get centered.  We can see from this passage that Jesus just took a little time.  It’s not like he left his disciples hanging around on the boat for 24 hours or a couple of days.  He just needed some time to regroup.  I mean, he must have been exhausted.  He had been so very busy, and then there was the whole rejection in Nazareth thing, and sending his disciples out to do what he couldn’t do in his home town.   As I am sure you all know, emotional ups and downs are really exhausting.  Using the power he received from God to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead and feed 5,000 people had to have taken a lot out of him.  I mean, we all have have battery chargers for our phones and so on.  Because the power to run all our devices comes from electricity, and if we don’t recharge them now and then they won’t be able to do what they are designed to do.  The power that Jesus drew on to do all the wondrous things he did came from God, and every now and then he had to go and re-charge.  He had to go and get a little alone time.   And he made sure his followers, his friends, also got some time away from the crowds, by sending them out on the boat to wait for him.   Because even though they weren’t doing nearly as much as he was, they were still in the middle all the chaos and excitement that surrounded him.   

Our world is filled with chaos and excitement.  Even if we stay off Facebook to avoid some of the insanity.  Even if we don’t watch the TV news.  Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that there is much conflict, much anger and disagreement in our city, in our state, our nation, around the world.  Those who have been called to help others often find themselves drawn in to arguments that they would much prefer to avoid, because in so many cases there is no winning.  The two sides in whatever the argument might be often remind me of a story my mother used to tell about me and my sister when we were very small.  She heard noise coming from our room when we were supposed to be napping and walked in to discover us standing up in our cribs, one yelling “Yes!” and the other yelling “No!”   Clearly, no one was going to win that argument.   

That’s what the world feels like a lot of days.  And then on top of all that, there is the daily pressure and stress of job, school, family, medical stuff, even church and volunteer activities  - all of the things that make your life full and over full.  

Believe me, I know your stress.   I understand the demands of family, and school, and work, and things you signed up for not realizing how much effort it was actually going to take.  (The time I said I would make gingerbread men for my step-son’s 5th grade class Christmas party comes to mind.)  And conflicts to be managed, and unexpected expenses, and emotional upheavals - all of those things that build up until we cry out, like Virgie, “I just want a little alone time!”  We all get to that place now and again.  Even Jesus got to that place.  

And then Jesus said to his followers, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”   For …they had no leisure even to eat.  

There was a commercial years ago for a bath oil with the image of a beautiful bathtub filled with suds, and a woman’s voice saying, “Calgon, take me away.”  And for lots of people, a nice warm bath will do it.  But if you are the mother of young children (or any person living with house cats), even the bathroom is not sacred.  So how do we do that?  How do we get away to a deserted place all by ourselves to rest for a while?   For each, the answer will be different.   Virgie likes to get up at 4 am for some alone time before the rest of her household starts waking.  You might like to go for a ride on your bike or walk in nature or curl up somewhere with a book or play music.   It might be deliberate and focused prayer and meditation, but it might simply be being alone, away from others, with your electronic devices turned off for an hour or more or less.  It might even be time spent at the gym (although I totally don’t get that).  Whatever it takes for you to re-group and re-charge.   If you and I can manage that every day for at least a little while, we are less likely to get overloaded with stress.   We are less likely to get separated from God.  Because if you take that time to be alone, if you take the time to find your quiet center, prayer will happen.  Conversation with God will happen.   Peace will come, even if just for a moment.

My sisters and brothers, we come to this place every week to be renewed and re-energized and restored.  But we can also find restoration out there, in our daily lives, during the week, if we take some time to be by ourselves and rest a while, even if just a few moments out of our very busy days.  When we go from this place, let us make that effort to rest, to take a moment to find a place of silence within our hearts, and in that moment, allow God to re-fill and re-charge us so that we may continue doing what God wills for us to do.   

Sunday, July 15, 2018

But I promised!


Scripture   Mark 6:14-29

6:14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”  15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

6:17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

6:21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.

6:27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.  29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


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If you remember from last week, Jesus had been going around the countryside preaching, teaching, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead.   And King Herod heard about it.  So this part of the story is a flashback.  Because Herod, hearing about Jesus’ works of power, is looking back over what he has done and getting a bit scared about consequences.    “Oh no.  This must be John the Baptizer, raised from the dead.”   Not a zombie.   But the actual person, returned to life by God.  And he was totally worried, because he had done something that he knew at the time he did it was a serious mistake.  He had made an open ended promise.

If we were watching a movie or reading a book, and one character said to another, “I will do this thing for you, but sometime in the future you will owe me a favor.” we would be jumping up and down saying, “Don’t do it!  It’s a trap!”   Part of the reason we feel that way is because of this story.   Herod made a very unwise promise, because he really wasn’t thinking of all the possibilities.   I mean, realistically, what would a typical young woman of the time ask for?   A new chariot, clothes, jewels, a handsome husband.  You know.  Stuff.  The kind of stuff a wealthy king could easily provide.  But Salome wasn’t a typical young woman.  

Salome was the daughter of Herodias and her first husband Herod II, son of Herod the Great (the King Herod from the stories about Jesus’ birth) and half-brother of Herod Antipas, (the King Herod in this story).   So, Salome was both Herod’s niece and his step-daughter.  When she married Herod II, he was in line for the throne.  But his mother had been involved in a plot to poison Herod the Great, so she was executed and her son was kicked out of the succession.  Our Herod was next in line.   The two met and fell in love in Rome, where Herod was getting the Emperor’s approval to take the throne.  Because, you know, Rome pretty much owned the world, so no one could inherit a throne without the Emperor’s approval.  While in Rome Herod and Herodias both divorced their current spouses and married.  This all made the Roman Emperor happy, but did not endear Herod to his people, the Jews of Galilee.  And John preached loudly against this breaking of the Law, because Herodias remarried while her previous husband was still alive.  Anyway . . .  So, Salome had been raised in households filled with political intrigue.  Instead of asking for those things that make a typical young woman’s heart sing (like shoes!), she thought in terms of political power, and asked her mother what would be the best request.   And her mother, who really did not like the things John said about her, asked for his head on a platter.

Sometimes, like Herod, we promise things unwisely.  And then his pride wouldn’t allow him to go back on that promise in front of all his guests.   His wife knew that, and took advantage of his pride - his weakness.   He might have backed out if he hadn’t had a house full of people - diplomats and merchants, wealthy nobles, probably some Romans.  People he had to impress, because if word got back to the Emperor that he was wishy-washy, his life could be over.  Literally.  

That usually isn’t the case with us.   Pride, yes.  Wanting to impress others.  Yes.   Being in fear for our lives if we don’t keep our promise.  Probably not.   But keeping a promise when it goes against your principles and/or your beliefs, that’s not good.  And that is what Herod did.  If ever a promise should have been broken, this is one.  Because he enjoyed his conversations with John.  He knew John was a holy and righteous man.  He really didn’t want to kill him.  But because he made a promise in front of all his guests, he did a thing he knew was wrong, a thing he didn’t even want to do.  

We tend to think that the worst thing we can do is promise something we don’t intend to do.  I used to do that all the time.  I would find myself in some sort of trouble and say, “Oh God, if you just get me out of this one I swear I will never do it again.”   And I pretty much always did it again.  Haven’t had to do that in a long time, for which I am grateful daily.

What is worse is to swear by God’s name that a lie is true.  That one even has a commandment against it.  “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” means you will not use God’s name to swear to a lie.   So perjury, lying under oath in court, has pretty significant consequences.  Our Quaker brothers and sisters will not swear by God’s name, ever, because they believe that if they swear to something and it turns out that they are mistaken in what they have said, in what they believed to be true, that would be acting against the commandment.  So they will affirm their word in court or when taking an oath of office, but they will not swear on a Bible.    

But worst of all is to make and keep a promise that goes against our ethics and our faith.  These are the promises that should be broken.  Even the oath taken by soldiers specifies they are required to disobey an order, if they are ordered to commit a crime.  “I was just obeying orders.” turns out not to have been a good defense for soldiers who have been convicted of war crimes - like Pfc. Lynndie England in Iraq and Lt. William Calley in Vietnam.  

The most important promise to keep is the one we made to God at the time of our baptism - our promise to renounce evil.   This is greater than any other promise we might make at any time.     It is the one to which we are bound at all times, in every thing we do.   We are sworn to make a determination whether any given thing we might do or say is good or evil, and then to avoid - renounce - the evil, and do the good.    Any word or action that would cause another person to suffer needlessly is most likely evil.  Any word or action that would cause someone to be treated unjustly is most likely evil.  Things like racism, sexism, ageism, homophobism - these are among the many evils to be renounced - in ourselves and in our society.  When we hear people hating on other people, or bullying other people, we need to renounce it.  When we see people treating others unfairly or unjustly for no reason other than skin color or accent, or religion, or perceived orientation, we need to renounce it.  We need always renounce evil when we become aware of it, so that we may be true to the promise we have made to God and to each other.

It is easier to be silent, and not to speak out against evil.  But the promise we each made at our baptism is to renounce evil, to be true to God and to one another.  This takes courage and strength.  It takes determination and faith.  

So when we go from this place let us go filled with strength and courage to do the right thing, always.  Let us go out and be true to the Lord our God, and to our faith.  Let us go out remembering the promise we have made,  in Jesus’ name.   Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Two by Two


Scripture  Mark 6:1-13

6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 6:10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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This really seems like two separate stories, deserving of two separate messages.   And yet, maybe not.   Maybe they do work together.  Let’s see.  

Familiarity breeds contempt.  We all know that one.  Maybe we have experienced it.   In seminary one of the things we were cautioned against ever doing was go back to the church that sent us out as their pastor.  And this passage was used as the reason for that advice.  “It will be hard for them to respect you as their pastor if they remember changing your diapers.  Even if you haven’t been there your entire life, they remember when you left for college, and they heard your first (terrible) sermons.  They aren’t going to appreciate your growth any more than your mother appreciates you are a fully grown, independent adult.  Even Jesus couldn’t go home again.”   Naturally, a few of my classmates and friends decided this sage advice did not apply to them.   I probably don’t have to tell you that 100% of them crashed and burned, and left their home church for their next call sadder and wiser.   The thing about those old sayings, and proverbs and such, is that they pretty much tend to be true.  That’s why they keep being repeated.  

So Jesus has been preaching and doing all kinds of signs and wonders, and healing the sick and casting out demons.  Everywhere, crowds gather to hear him.   Everyone who comes to him for healing goes away well.  He even brought a girl back to life, and healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years!  He commanded a storm on the sea to stop, and it did!  Then he goes back to his home congregation in Galilee and preaches, and the folks from his hometown are all like, “Uh, isn’t this Jesus?  We know Jesus.  He’s the carpenter’s kid.  His brothers and sisters are sitting right over there!  He never went to study the Law, so how can he possibly know what he’s talking about?  We never saw him cure anybody, so these must be stories he’s telling to make himself seem like somebody.  We notice he’s still on foot, wearing ordinary clothes, all dusty and everything.  And all these guys with him are no better than he is - fisherman and such.  Why would we listen to him?”   And he can’t heal anyone in that place, except for just a few sick people.  Because no one had faith in him.  No one believed he had the power.   They knew him too well, you see.  And when you think you know someone, it’s hard to change your mind about what you think you know.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  

So he left that place, and went to teach in the villages around there.  But because   he loved his home, and he knew they needed to hear the Good News as much as anyone else, he sent his disciples out to teach the folks who wouldn’t listen to him.    He sent them out two by two.  He told them not to take anything with them.   If people wanted to hear their message, they would be fed and sheltered.  And if people didn’t want to hear them, they should go on to the next place.  Not push themselves or the Gospel on people with closed minds.  Not insist that people had to listen to them.  Just go on to the next place, where they might get a better reception.  And so they did.  They proclaimed the Good News of God’s forgiveness, and that everyone must repent of their sins to be reconciled with God.   They laid their hands on the demon afflicted and cast out the demons.  They anointed the sick with oil and made them well.  All the things that Jesus could not do in that place, others - strangers - could.  

Go out in pairs.  Preach repentance.  Cast out evil.  Lay healing hands upon the sick.  Pray for spiritual and emotional wellness in those  you meet.  And if they don’t want to listen to you, don’t push it.  Don’t insist they must listen.  Go away, and pray that someone else will be able to get through.  

There’s a lot of focus on doing things in pairs in scripture.  God created humans as a pair.  Noah rescued animals in pairs.  Even Moses was given Aaron as a helper.  Only the greatest prophets went out by themselves to speak God’s truth to the people and do deeds of power - Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah.  In the New Testament, also, the apostles and evangelists typically went around two by two.   And those who didn’t often landed in serious trouble.  Again, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.  As far as we know, he was alone out there, preaching to people who did not want to hear it.  Which is not what Jesus told his disciples to do.  Go in pairs.  If they don’t want to hear you, leave.  Even Paul always had companions with him.  We aren’t given specific reasons for doing things two by two, but sometimes we hear hints of those reasons in Paul’s letters.  If two people are together preaching the Good News, maybe they won’t wander off into questionable theology as they might were they alone and unchecked.  In his letters, Paul often cautions his churches against individuals who come behind him and preach and bring different understandings of who Jesus is and what it means to be Church.  And of course, there’s safety in numbers.   

Going out in pairs and groups is still a matter of safety.   One person alone with no witnesses as to what occurred in private, might be accused of crossing boundaries.  And that’s a big deal, especially in this time when people are becoming more willing to say, “Me, Too”.  As a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am required to take classes every  year about boundary issues of all kinds - sexual, social media, financial, cultural sensitivity, racism - to help keep any of these things from becoming an issue here. This is why I don’t want anything to do with the church’s money.   And it’s why my office door stays open, why I very rarely meet privately with anyone I don’t know really well unless others are nearby.   In many congregations, pastor and elders alike are encouraged to visit in pairs, not alone.   For when there are two or more together, even if one of them is misunderstood, the other is there to witness what actually happened.  It keeps both the visitor and the person being visited safe.  We are the Church.  The safety of everyone we come in contact with - physical, emotional, and spiritual - is important.  Far too many have been abused in one way or another by their church - by their pastor or by others in the congregation - and that should never happen.  But when it does happen, it should not be tolerated.    

We are Christ’s disciples, sent out to heal, and to carry the Good News.  We know that there are many who have contempt for the church, because what they know of Church is that they have been hurt, or people they love have been hurt.  If we are to heal those people, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are not the thing they are familiar with, that they are contemptuous of.  We need to be able to show them not just by our words, but by the way we live our lives, that we have faith that the God who created them, and us, loves each person equally.    If we are to carry the Good News to them, we need to be able to show that we also love them, as we love ourselves.  That we believe God can heal them of the injuries that have been done to them, of the heartsickness that afflicts them, if they will let Him.  When we go out from this place, let us be the Good News.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Matching Gifts


Scripture   2 Corinthians 8:7-15   

8:7 Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you--so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something-- now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has--not according to what one does not have.

13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

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It was about the year 50.  The church in Jerusalem was experiencing extreme persecution.   Many had scattered, getting far away from the city, but others remained.  We don’t know for sure what it was like, but we can assume that life was pretty difficult for Christians in Jerusalem.  If they were known to be Christ-followers they were considered blasphemers, and in Jerusalem, blasphemy could get you stoned to death.  The Church was kind of underground at that point, and known Christians needed to keep their heads down, because those who didn’t  - well, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.   Christians in Jerusalem were living in poverty, and Paul wanted his churches in Asia to help.   Even though they were far away from Jerusalem - some 1,250 miles, about a 3 month walk - Paul wanted the Christians in Corinth and in the other cities where he had started churches, to take up collections for the poor of Jerusalem which he would then deliver.     He didn’t say, “Let’s go to the Dollar Tree and gather things they will need because they are poor.”  He didn’t say, “Gather up your extra stuff and give it to me so I can take it to them.”   He didn’t say, “Make a collection of all the non-perishable food items you can find, and I will make sure they get food.”  He didn’t even say, “Let us send our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem our thoughts and prayers.”  He said, “Give money.  There is a great need for money.” 

He said, don’t give so much as to impoverish yourself.  Because then they would have to take up a collection for you, and that’s pretty much not what we are aiming for.  But give what you can afford, over and above what you are already giving to your congregation.  If you are eager to give, and I know you are eager to give,  let your giving match your eagerness, out of what you have, not out of what you do not have.   Let your giving match your eagerness . . . let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

No one told Paul he had to take up a collection for Jerusalem.  He didn’t get a directive from the church leaders back in Jerusalem.  He just thought it would be the right thing to do. Maybe because he had been an instrument of their persecution himself at one time.  Although that would really only be a compelling reason for him to give personally, and not applicable to all the Asian churches.  According to some scholars, the idea of the Gentiles supporting the Jewish Christians, the people who had sent Paul to them in the first place, not as clients, but as equals in God’s eyes, was pretty radical.  In those days, gifts tended to be either sort of required tribute from client to patron or rewards from patron to client - both of which would be made very pubic.  The idea of sending a gift without expectation of reward or some concrete sign of approval was totally counter cultural.  Sort of like Job’s faith in our message last week.  He freely gave God the gift of his faith even without reward, even when everything was going wrong - which is not at all what was expected of him - except by God, of course.  God expected this, because God knew Job’s heart.  He accepted Job’s faith as an act of worship.  

In Paul’s mind, the act of giving is an act of worship.  When you give, when you help someone who needs your help, then you are worshiping God.  The offering we receive on Sundays is not simply one of the many ritual things we do during worship, like lighting candles and singing.  According to Paul it is one of the necessary aspects of worshipping God, a heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.

A heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.  It is what happens in your heart when you hear of a family losing everything in a fire, or a city being destroyed by a hurricane, and you say, “How can I help?”  Even if you don’t have much yourself, you still want to know, “How can I help?”

If you are on Facebook you may have seen a post about financial difficulties in this church.  Just so you know, this week the budget team met, and said  “We have no savings left.   Sunday offerings are lower than we had hoped.  Payday is Friday, and we can’t pay our staff. And even if we come up with the money for this paycheck, we won’t make the next one.  What shall we do?”    We started throwing ideas around of ways to raise money and ways to save money.  If we have your email address you’ll get an email soon with the list of fundraising ideas and a request to either help out with one or more of those, or to give us your ideas.   A list of recommendations will be given to the Board at the next meeting which include some staff cuts.  If the Board agrees, two paid positions will become volunteer positions, and two will have their hours cut in half.  If you are on Facebook, you may have already heard some of this.   Meanwhile, this payday, one person declined their paycheck, and two others are holding theirs until after today’s offering is deposited in the bank.   

So can we talk about churches going through difficult times?  Can we talk seriously about money without y’all going all, “They only ever ask us for money” on me?   One of the reasons that we are in the current situation is that maybe we don’t ask for money as intentionally as we should.   Yes, we have a stewardship moment every Sunday, and I spend all of October preaching about stewardship, and all those messages usually goes something like “It is good to give of your time and talents and money.”   And it is good to give of your time and talents.  Most of the work of the Church is done by volunteers - people who give of their time and energy and creativity to feed the hungry, rescue dogs, help the homeless, decorate the sanctuary, take care of church business by serving on Boards and committees, praying with those who need prayer, visiting the sick, teaching our children, taking meals to shut ins, singing in the choir, presiding at worship, repairing things that need to be repaired . . . all of the oh so many things that are part of the mission and ministry of the church are done by people who give unstintingly of their time and abilities.  We use supplies which can be donated by anyone - copy paper and toilet paper and soaps and candles.  

If we were a house church, like the churches in Corinth and Antioch and Rome and Jerusalem, that would be all we needed - time and talents and some donated items.   But we’re not a house church.  I don’t know anyone in this congregation with a house big enough to fit all of us on a Sunday.  So we have a big, beautiful building.  And along with that building come PG&E and CalWater and Waste Management and property taxes and insurance and business licenses . . . and salaries.   And those things require cash money.   PG&E doesn’t barter.  CalWater does not accept thoughts and prayers.  Donations of food won’t pay my student loans.  There is a great need for money.

We, as a congregation, are facing some hard times and hard questions.   We want to build a new building - a wonderful new building where everyone will be able to come in and worship, where we can open our doors to all kinds of people and help agencies, where we can truly be Christ’s hands and feet, making the Good News more accessible to everyone.  But first, we have to get through our current difficulties, and finding the best way to do that may be harder than we like.  There will almost certainly be sacrifices to be made. So we need to pray, all of us, for discernment going forward.

One of the things I have said before - and that Paul said way before me - is that your giving should not make it harder for you to pay your own bills, and buy your own food.  Some of you really don’t have any money to give.  Again I say, you can only give out of what you have, not out of what you don’t have.  Let your eagerness to help go toward helping out at fundraisers, or encouraging others.  The time will come when you can, and that is all we can ask.

But if you can increase your giving by even one dollar a week - that one dollar really would make a difference.  It’s a roll of stamps or a case of copy paper.  If you typically give only when you attend and you aren’t going to be here one week, consider putting aside the money you would give if you were here, and bring it with you next time.  Consider making your church offering part of your monthly bills - and when you write the check or money order or whatever for PG&E, write one for First Christian Church at the same time.   Whatever you give, let your eagerness to help match your giving, so that your gift is an act of worship, a heartfelt response to God’s grace.  Let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

My brothers and sisters, never forget that everything we have belongs to God.  The gifts and talents that we use when we volunteer to do God’s work in the world come from God.  The education and abilities that we use to earn the money to live on come from God.   Even the faith that we have, that all will be well, that with God all things are possible - even our faith comes as a gift from God.  So when we give, no matter what we give, we are simply giving back what already belongs to God.   Let us stand and sing together, We Give Thee But Thine Own.