Called in for refuge; Called out to reshape the world

Called in for refuge; Called out to reshape the world

Psalm 16 

Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston

July 23, 2017

 

This summer we are studying the book of Psalms.

Today the Psalm is 16--a Psalm of Trust.

The First verse:  “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” 

A refuge is something that we all long for.  A place to be sheltered and safe, free from danger or despair, a place to be comforted and cared for, a place to be at home. 

 

Where do we find this refuge?   

The middle verses tell us: The Lord is my chosen portion; you have made my lot secure. 

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.  I have a goodly inheritance.”   

The Psalmist claims that the only true refuge is in God.   

And even when we are in a place that does not feel secure, the Psalmist is confident and trusts that “ The Lord gives me counsel.  The Lord is always before me, at my right hand.  I shall not be moved.”   God is a refuge of trust wherever we are.   

 

The Last verse:  You show me the path of life. 

In other words, the psalmist cannot stay hidden in a place of refuge, but has to live life.  And so, he trusts that God will lead him out and on the right path, to the place where there is joy and goodness for all.   

 

In the July edition of Revelations, I described our church’s WHY like this:   

We are all beloved children of God,  

together 

called in for refuge  

and called out to reshape the world around us. 

 

We are all beloved children of God,  

All of us, whoever we are, wherever we have been on the journey of faith, whatever color, class, creed, gender or sexual orientation or political party we are, we are all created in God’s image, loved with a deep abiding love that will never let us go.  

 

Together 

We are not alone. We are better together—more loving, more faithful, more hopeful, more peaceful, more prayerful, more missional, more giving, more joyful.  

 

Called in for refuge  

Jesus knows we all need a place of refuge, and so we come to church. We gather together to worship God and to share fellowship together, to offer our prayers and to remember the promises of our faith. We come to find strength for today and hope for tomorrow.   

 

Called out to reshape the world around us. 

Jesus calls us out—to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.  He promises he will go with us, as we seek to change the world for good.   

I can’t think about refuge without thinking of refugees:  the people who, because of war in their countries, are refugees—without a place to be sheltered and safe, free from danger or despair, without a place to be comforted and cared for, without a home. 

 

Children’s author Nicola Davies published a poem to draw attention to the 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children to whom the United Kingdom government decided not to give a safe haven.  As Rebecca and I traveled through England, we saw the refugee camp that had just been emptied.  The United States has had a long history of welcoming the strangers, with the Statue of Liberty standing tall inviting:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Recently, however, we have not been a welcoming country, we have not been a refuge for those in need.   

Nicola Davies’ poem challenges us and invites us to see the refugee with new eyes, through a child’s eye.  Her poem is called “The Day the War Came.”   

The day war came there were flowers on the window sill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.  
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school. 

That morning I learned about volcanoes, I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs. 
I made a picture of myself with wings. 
Then, just after lunch, while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin, war came.  
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder… 
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand. 

It came across the playground. 
It came into my teacher’s face. 
It brought the roof down. 
and turned my town to rubble. 
I can’t say the words that tell you  
about the blackened hole that had been my home. 
All I can say is this: 
war took everything
war took everyone
I was ragged, bloody, all alone. 

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;  
walked over fields and roads and mountains,  
in the cold and mud and rain; 
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand. 
I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind
But war had followed me. 
It was underneath my skin, 
behind my eyes, 
and in my dreams. 
It had taken possession of my heart. 

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself, 
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached. 
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street  
It was in the way the people didn’t smile, and turned away. 

I came to a school. 
I looked in through the window. 
They were learning all about volcanoes  
And drawing birds and singing. 
I went inside.  
My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile. 
She said, there is no room for you, 
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on, 
you have to go away. 
And then I understood that war had got here too. 

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside. 
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it. 
The door banged. 
I thought it was the wind. 
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.” 
It was a chair. A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
and drive the war out of my heart. 
She smiled and said “My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school” 
Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,  
on a road all lined with chairs. 
Pushing back the war with every step. 

WHY does our church exist?  Because we are all beloved children of God, together, called in for refuge and called out to reshape the world around us.  

Today, I am thrilled that we have some of our youth who have come into our church for refuge and have gone out on the path of life to reshape the world around them. 

And they are here to share their experiences and inspirations with us.  As is more often true than not:  And a little child shall lead us.  May it be so. Amen.

For I was in prison and you visited me

"For I was in prison and you visited me"

Preached on 5th Sunday of Lent, April 2, 2017

Matthew 25:24-40

 

This is the last Sunday to examine Matthew 25.  In case you don’t yet know it by heart, it goes like this:

Jesus was describing the Last Judgment to his disciples:  To some people the King will say,
“Come inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothing.  I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.  The righteous will ask, “But when was it that we saw you hungry and thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison?  Jesus replied, For just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

To the other people, he said, “Depart from me into the fires of eternal punishment, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and gave me no drink.  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and did not clothe me.  I was sick and you did not take care of me, in prison and you did not visit me.”  They will ask, but when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you no food or thirsty and gave you no drink, and when was it we saw you a stranger and did not welcome you or naked and did not clothe you.  When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and did not visit you?  Jesus replied, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.” 

 

Both groups were confused, asking, “But when was it that we saw you in need?”

This verse is the key to understanding this passage, the key to make sure you end up with the sheep—not the goats, the key to being who God calls you to be, the key to finding Jesus—it’s a matter of seeing.

 

What do you see?

This was the question that I heard at every Presbytery meeting when I lived and worked in Ohio.  One of our jobs as the Presbytery was to examine candidates for ministry, to ask them questions and make sure that they were theologically fit to be a pastor.  Many people would ask questions examining theology of the cross and salvation.  A retired Pastor, a gentle old man, would raise his hand and slowly rise and ask the pastoral candidate, “Look outside, see that person walking by, who is that through your theological lenses?  What do you see?  Some people would say, “He is a sinner in need of redeeming.  He needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and turn his life around, and be saved.  That’s what I want to do—save sinners.”  Others would say, “I see a child of God.  She has challenges, just like me.  I see someone who God loves.  And that’s what I want to do—tell people and show people how much God loves them.” 

What do you see?

 

This final week for this Gospel reading the verse we are focusing on is: I was in prison and you visited me. When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see?  What image comes to your mind?

Do you see a sinner in need of redeeming?  Or do you see a child of God in need of reminding?

 

One evening Rebecca and I clicked on a t.v. channel showing “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”  It was fascinating.  And a true story.  A psychology professor at Stanford wanted to test how people would behave in a prison experiment.  He assigned some male students the role of guards and other male students as prisoners.  They stayed in a building on campus, set up to look and feel like a prison.  The guards wore uniforms and mirrored glasses and carried clubs.  The prisoners were stripped naked and sprayed, then made to wear a hospital gown without anything on underneath, with their prison number sewn on the front.  After a few days, the guards no longer saw their fellow students and friends with names, but saw only prisoners they called by a number and treated them harshly and inhumanely. The experiment was to run for 2 weeks, but the experiment had to be ended on the 6th day because it had gotten out of control. The guards could only see their fellow students as prisoners to be punished.

 

What do you see?  How you see someone determines how you treat them. 

Why did Jesus include “visiting the prisoner” in his list of things that his followers must do?

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, Bo Cox writes, “Jesus knew that the second we deny the humanity and sacredness in the most marginalized, we begin to close a spiritual door in ourselves, and eventually, lose our own connection to the Light.  Ultimately, we will lose our connection to our fellow human beings and to God.  Go to prison. Look into the eyes of another and see yourself.  And your God.  That’s what Jesus wanted for us.”    

 

Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me. 

When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see? 

 

Maurice Cohill, a recently retired federal judge and church member knows about prisons.  In fact, he spent enough time in the old prison in downtown Pittsburgh to know that it was not acceptable.  It was overcrowded and unsanitary.  He believed people deserved to be treated better.  And so he was instrumental in getting the new jail built.  The political jokes in the paper at the time called the new jail “Cohill’s condos.”  He took it in stride, because he knew that what he did was right. 

 

Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me. 

When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see?  What image comes to your mind?

Do you see a sinner in need of redeeming?  Or do you see a child of God in need of reminding?

 

Caitlin Werth is the Chaplain of the Allegheny County Jail.  She preached here last year.  I tried to get into the jail this week, so I could talk about it in my sermon.  But, the tour is scheduled for April 24.  I will go and see how our church might be involved in ministry there.  So I have not been a jail yet.  However, I have visited a prisoner.  He had spent time in jail and was on house arrest for a couple of months.  I must admit that I was a little anxious going to his apartment alone.  So I took along a member of the church I was serving at the time.  That’s always a good idea—to go with someone.  I must admit that when I first saw him, all I could see was his crime and his anklet tracking device.  He looked like a sinner in need of serious redeeming.  But, after hearing his story and seeing his pain and his remorse, and praying together, my lenses changed.  He began to look more and more like a child of God in need of reminding.  As I looked into his eyes, I saw myself and I saw God.

 

Many of us have never been to prison—as a prisoner or as a visitor.  So what does this verse say to us?  When I say the word “prison” what do you see?  Likely, you see steel bars and a prison cell.  Inmates have physical bars that imprison them.  But there are other kinds of prisons of our own making. 

What imprisons us?

·         Marriages have lost love and become hardened and cold and restrictive, like a prison cell

·         Our success and wealth dictates how we spend our time and money, and keeps us captive

·         Chronic pain is a daily reminder that we are imprisoned by our doctors appointments, medicines, and limited mobility

·         Drugs, alcohol, and other addictions, some we keep hidden, but they still control us

·         Fear of the unknown keeps us locked up in our present circumstances, even if they are not healthy

·         Resentment and inability to forgive others imprisons us in our own hardened heart unable to welcome a visitor by the name of joy.

 

Whoever we are, we are imprisoned by something, in some way.

 

Friends, I have good news today:  Jesus died on the cross for us and for our sins out of his great love for us.  And because of that, he brings with him a “get out of jail free” card.

You don’t have to stay imprisoned.  Jesus sets you free and gives you a life of freedom and grace.

Jesus walks with you on the journey to a better fuller life. 

And it all begins with seeing yourself as a child of God worth saving and worth loving.

 

Once you see yourself as broken and imprisoned—and still a child of God worth loving—then you can begin to see others as beloved children of God, worthy of a visit.

Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me. As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I will always remember the Presbytery meeting when I was being examined to transfer my membership to Middle TN Presbytery.  I answered many questions about my theology and beliefs—atonement, salvation, sacraments, the church. And then a retired old pastor slowly stood, and with all of the wisdom of a life of service, he asked a simple question, the only question that really matters in the end: 

“Do you love Jesus?”

Jesus said, “Just as you loved one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you loved me.”

"I was sick and you took care of me"

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017

Our Gospel lesson today is….no surprise…Matthew 25, in which Jesus describes the last judgment, at which he will say to some people, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick and took care of you or in prison and visited you?”  And he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 

Today we are focusing on “I was sick and you took care of me.”

What does it mean to be sick?  Sickness is when our health is compromised. 

Sickness can affect our bodies.  From the common cold to Stage 4 Cancer, when we are sick, we do not feel well, our bodies ache and we long to be cared for.

Sickness can affect our minds.  From anxiety or depression to bipolar, when we are sick, we do not feel well, our minds ache and we long to be cared for.

Sickness can affect our spirits.  From doubts or despair to hopelessness, when we are sick, we do not feel well, our spirits ache and long to be cared for.

When we are sick, in body, mind or spirit, we do not feel well, we ache and long to be cared for.

Think for a minute about a time when you were sick and someone took care of you.  I remember last summer, when I had surgery.  Doctors and nurses, family and friends, and church members all took care of me.  And I was grateful for being cared for.

Sickness affects everyone.  When people are sick in body, mind and spirit, they do not feel well, they ache and long to be cared for.     

 

Jesus said, “I was sick and you took care of me.”  He taught his disciples that one of the most important ways for us to practice our Christian faith is to take care of the sick.

“Take care of” is the translation of the Greek word epi-skep’tomai

Which means “to visit, to look out for one’s good, to relieve suffering of another.”  It involves visiting sick persons, giving good advice, or speaking words of comfort, waiting on them, doing things that they are not capable of doing for themselves. 

We started Lent with the hungry and thirsty, and the stranger and naked.  Now we are at the sick and next week the prisoner.  We see that the deeper degrees of misery demand higher degrees of charity.  The word epi-skep’tomai is used in the Bible to mark a gracious visitation on the part of God.  And so taking care of is actually being the hands and heart of God.

Jesus calls us to epi-skep’tomai, which involves taking care of people fully—with our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.  

 

We care for people with our bodies when we are present with them, to visit with them, touch them, take a meal, or bring medicine, do things they are not capable of doing, take them to the doctor or the hospital.

Allison Duvall writes about the time she was sick in Morocco, far from home, and was cared for:      Intermittently hot and then shaking with chills, aching throughout my body, I was more than sick; I was scared.  My command of Arabic was weak; I had only been staying with my host family in Rabat, Morocco, for a few weeks.  On top of that, it was the holy month of Ramadan, a sacred time. The daily fasts had my host parents and siblings tired and very hungry at the end of the day.  The scent of lentil soup wafted from the tiny kitchen as all of Morocco prepared for the call to prayer announcing sundown and the end of the day's fast--the ftour.

My elder sister Fatima sat next to me, dabbing my forehead with a cool cloth, just as the calls began to ring our across the city.  "You will be better," she said.  My host father came in the room, and he and Fatima spoke rapidly in Arabic. "We will take you to the doctor," Fati said.  "Oui, doctor," said my father.

Their ftour would have to wait.  They supported me as we slowly walked out of the apartment and into the street to hail a taxi.  For many hours into the night, long after the breaking of the fast, they stayed with me.  Fati held my hand as I cried softly, and she continued to cool my flushed skin with washcloths.  My father, in French, assured me that all would be well.  He and Fati mediated between me and the doctor; I was too tired and bewildered to stumble through my mess of Arabic and French.

By the time we made it home and Fati helped me into bed, making sure I was comfortable, only a few hours remained before the sun would rise and the fast would begin again.  My father came to the door of the salon where I slept, looked in, and offered a sweet "Good night" in broken English.  Fati placed a cool cloth on my forehead and joined him for a simple meal.  

This memory has been my guiding light, my offering when I heard someone spek of Muslims with suspicion and mistrust, or prejudice.  I tell them of the time I was very very sick and how my loving Muslim family cared for me. (Meeting Jesus on the Margins, p. 93) 

That’s epi-skep’tomai.  Jesus said, I was sick and you took care of me.  Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

Jesus calls us to epi-skep’tomai, which involves taking care of people fully—with our bodies, minds, and spirits.  

We care for people with our minds when we look out for them, act as the other person’s ears in the doctor’s office to hear and ask questions, research treatments, give good advice, organize medicines and meals, speak up on behalf of those who can’t, ensure that they have health care.

In The Christian Century, I read about a woman named Jesse Bohon.  She is a French teacher who lives in Cookeville, TN.  She has never been political, but she is concerned about health care coverage and wants to ensure that whatever replaces the Affordable Care Act is sufficient to take care of the elderly and poor people on Medicaid and sick people with chronic illnesses and pre-existing conditions.  At a town hall meeting with her representative in Congress she offered an appeal in explicitly religious terms.

 “As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is to pull up the unfortunate. So the individual mandate, that’s what it does. The healthy people pull up the sick.” Bohon’s comments amounted to the kind of moral argument for universal health care. These comments inspired much of the room to all but explode with applause. As a result, the video clip went viral. 

In a newspaper article, reporter Helaine Olen wrote:  Bohon is insured through her work and has never needed to access the Affordable Care Act insurance markets, nor has anyone she is close with. So what motivated Bohon to drive an hour and a half and speak as personally and powerfully as she did?  Bohon told me about her childhood, growing up as one of three children of a single mom in rural Grundy, Virginia, a small Appalachian coal-mining town near the border with Kentucky. “We were the poorest of the poor,” she says. “We had no car, we were on welfare.” When children at school made fun of her because she wore clothes from Walmart and had chipped teeth, she says, “My mom made me feel special because she would tell me it didn’t matter, because Jesus loves me.”  Bohon said, “my mother raised me with the belief that Jesus loves poor people, he loves the oppressed, he loves the most vulnerable and I will tell you that’s a lesson that stuck with me.  I believe in the central message of Jesus, which was to pull up the people.”  “To me the central message of Jesus Christ is pulling up the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the poor. You could apply that to a lot of things today. Black Lives Matter, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, the refugees, or health insurance. The central principle remains the same.”  (Helaine Olen, Feb. 10, 2017) 

That’s epi-skep’tomai. Jesus said, “I was sick and you took care of me.  Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Jesus calls us to epi-skep’tomai, which involves taking care of people fully—with our bodies, minds, and spirits.  

We care for people with our spirits when we relieve their suffering, speak words of comfort, send a card, knit a prayer shawl, pray for them, lift their spirits, be the way they are visited by God.

One of our church members Patti Timpani is sick. She was in the hospital for a long time and now is at a Rehabilitation Center.  The Deacons of our church have faithfully gone to visit her, took flowers to her, sat with her, talked with her, and prayed with her.  She is so encouraged to know that her church is with her, helping to lift her spirits during this difficult time.  One day, I went to visit her in the hospital.  I greeted Patti and sat down to visit.  Just as we began talking, the nurse came in with medicine to give her.  Patti introduced me as her pastor.  I thanked him for taking care of her and giving her the medicine to help her heal.  The nurse said, “I will tell you what is the most powerful in helping her heal—and it’s not this medicine.  It’s your prayers.”  After he left, I told Patti I brought her a present: a prayer shawl.  I told her that a member of our church knit it, and as she knit it, she prayed.  So that this prayer shawl is knit together with healing prayers and infused with love.  She was thrilled.  As I put it on her, she asked me to pull it up, all the way to her chin, so she could be covered with the warmth and the comfort and the prayers of her church family.  I prayed for her, adding my prayers to the prayers of all of the others, for God to take care of Patti.     

That’s epi-skep’tomai.  Jesus said, “I was sick and you took care of me.  Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing."

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017

I walked into the room unsure of what to expect.  I knew there would be pastors there, so we had something in common.  But, I had no idea that I would not know anyone else and that I would be the only woman.  As the men who knew each other talked among themselves, I stood alone for awhile feeling like a stranger.

Have you ever had that happen to you?  Standing in a room full of people, but feeling very much alone. 

I’m guessing we’ve all been there, at some time or another.  And it does not feel good. 

After a couple of minutes which seemed like hours, someone came over and said, “hello, my name is Tom. Welcome.  What’s your name?”  I was no longer a stranger.  I was welcomed.  And it felt good.

We’ve all been there.  When someone welcomes us—with a smile, a handshake, an introduction, a name, a word of welcome—we feel like we belong.  And it feels good.

 

Jesus knew how hard it was to be a stranger and how important it is to welcome the stranger. 

And so when he talked to his disciples about the last judgment, he said to the righteous ones,

“Come inherit the kingdom of heaven, for I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

 

Who is the stranger?  Anyone who is different than we are.

On a global level, a stranger can be immigrants and refugees of different ethnicities, fleeing places of violence and war, desperately seeking a welcome to live in safety.

On a national level, a stranger can be people of different races and religions, desperately seeking a welcome to learn equally and to worship freely.

On a local level, a stranger can be people of different sexual orientations and disabilities, desperately seeking a welcome to go to the bathroom safely and to love freely. 

On a personal level, a stranger can be anyone who we notice is left out—by virtue of anything that makes them different—desperately seeking a welcome to belong.  

On a gospel level, it is Christ himself disguised as the stranger, desperately seeking to be recognized.

 

The people said, “Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you? 

Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So how do we do we welcome the stranger in our midst? 

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, Mike Kinman writes:  The deep truth behind welcoming the stranger is that the very act of welcoming makes the person not a stranger.  The first act of welcoming is the most powerful—sharing names.  When we share names we become human to each other.  And that is the beginning of activating the healing power of love.

Women pastors were strange for Oak Grove Presbyterian Church until they called me—Pastor Donna

Homeless people were strangers to me until I worked in Washington D.C. and met Alvin and Chuck.

Gays were strangers to us.  Until in New Jersey-our new next door neighbors were Chuck and Ben.

Black people were strangers to my kids, until Christian’s best friend in Nashville became Daniel. 

Immigrants from the Middle East were strangers, until we met Rebecca’s soccer coach from Iran, Essy.

Names are so important.  When we know someone’s name, they are no longer different or a stranger.  They are human beings, people with a name and a story worth knowing. 

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  And I was naked and you gave me clothing.” 

Being naked can be someone in need of clothing, but also someone who is different, but without any covering to disguise their difference.  They feel vulnerable and exposed…without a place to belong, without anyone to know their story or even their name. 

“Just as you did it one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

So how do we do we welcome the stranger in our midst?  How do we clothe the naked?  It’s simple:  notice those around you who are being left out, ignored or labeled “the least of these.”  Reach out to them, and welcome them in.  Exchange names.  Try to see Christ in them.  That is the beginning of activating the healing power of love.  And it is powerful.  Prepare to be amazed.

 

A woman shared with me this true story that happened to her recently.  It is amazing! 

Linda was the speaker for her work at an off-site location.  She needed technology to make her presentation work--microphone, computer, projector, and screen, etc.  There was an IT man assigned to help her.  She started by introducing herself and getting his name, and welcoming him warmly. 

She thanked Kurt for his help—even before he started.  As he set up the technology, she talked with him, about his work and his life.  And she listened to what he had to say. 

He said that he was sorry that he couldn’t be there the day before to get organized, but he was off. 

She said, “Hope you were doing something fun.” 

He said, “I was at my aunt’s funeral.  My aunt raised me.  She and I were very close.  I will miss her.” 

Linda shared some words of sympathy and blessing. 

He said, “Oh, that’s ok, I don’t believe in God, never have.  I am a science guy. Hard facts, that all.”

Linda listened, then asked, “well, how was the funeral?” 

Kurt said, “Like any other funeral, I guess.  There were a lot of people.  There was music and words and silence.  But as I sat at her funeral service, I don’t know what happened.  All of a sudden, a strange feeling came over me.  This feeling was warm and comforting, and through it I felt good knowing that my Aunt was with my Uncle in a better place. And I had a deep sense of peace.”

Linda just nodded and listened.

Kurt paused and then he continued, “Wow, that feeling that came over me was so powerful.  It must have been God.  There is a God, isn’t there?”  Linda just smiled and said, “ I believe there is a God.”

He said, “I can’t believe I am talking to you about this.  I don’t even know you, you’re a stranger, and yet you made me feel comfortable telling you.  Thank you for listening and caring.  You helped me realize that there is a God.  Wow!  Thanks.  Well, I better get back to work. And he did.

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, we are reminded, “When next you find yourself inclined to see someone you don’t know as stranger, take a moment’s pause.  Perhaps wave in greeting.  Perhaps say hello and ask, “How are you?”  A small bit of kindness, a small gesture of welcome, may go a long way—not only for the person you greet but for your own soul.  You may, in fact, begin to find your understanding of neighbor shifting and growing.  You may begin to see and find God in places you did not look before.”  ~Allison Duvall

May it be so.  Amen.

"I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink"

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017

Surprise!  Do you like to be surprised?  Some surprises are good—like surprise birthday parties or a job offer or news of a baby or grandbaby on the way.  These are good surprises that we welcome and celebrate!

Other surprises are not so good—like a pink slip from your boss or a letter from the IRS of an audit of your taxes or your spouse announcing a divorce.  These are surprises that we do not welcome but lament!

In life, there are good surprises and not so good surprises.

 

Our gospel lesson for today is filled with surprises—good and bad. 

Jesus teaches his disciples the final lesson before his passion and death.  He describes the final judgment:  when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, he will say to some of the people, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

The righteous ones were surprised, and they asked him to help them understand, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?   And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’    And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to the others, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 

They were surprised and they asked him to help them understand, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And the biggest surprise: these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Both groups of people were surprised.  One group was surprised that in doing small things for others, they were actually doing them for Christ.  The other group was surprised that doing small things—like taking care of others—was actually a big thing—with ultimate consequences. 

We who hear this today are surprised that the criterion of judgment-of whether one will enter the kingdom of heaven-is if one has acted with loving care for needy people.  Surprise!  We can’t live selfishly and recklessly and count on grace to save our soul in the end.  And if we want to be closer to Jesus, we have to get closer to the least of these.  For we meet Jesus right where he tells us he will be…in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. 

Friends, I am telling you this now, because I don’t want you to be surprised in the end.

This week we focus on thirst in our world today. 

Water is basic and vital for all known forms of life.  Safe drinking water is essential to humans and other lifeforms.  Access to safe drinking water has improved over the last decades in almost every part of the world, but approximately one billion people still lack access to safe water.  There is a clear correlation between access to safe water and gross domestic product per capita.  The poor have less access to safe water. 

The city of Flint, Michigan made the national news for its water crisis.  Flint was home to General Motors’ biggest plant.  But when it closed, an economic crisis followed.  In Flint, 41% of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is about $25,000; the household income for the rest of Michigan is double that. The city is 57% African-American.  The state of Michigan took over Flint’s deficit budget and to save money, switched the water supply to the Flint River even though the water was known to be of poor quality, running through old lead pipes that were not treated.  Consequently, Flint’s drinking water had a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger.  Thousands of children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead that can lead to a range of serious health problems:  impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty.  In pregnant women, lead can lead to reduced fetal growth.  In everyone, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Although there are medications that may reduce the amount of lead in the blood, treatments for the adverse health effects of lead have yet to be developed.

Water is so basic.  It’s easy to provide.  But also easy to pollute.  It’s easy to give freely.  But also easy to give foolishly or financially.  It’s easy to distribute. But also easy to discriminate. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.”

Surprise!  Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.’ 

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation made national news for its water issue.  The Dakota Access Pipeline was projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  Many in this native American tribe consider the pipeline and its intended crossing of the Missouri River to constitute a threat to the region’s clean water and would put the water source for the reservation at risk.  Thousands of people—many people from religious communities of faith—joined the protest.  Police use of water cannons on protestors in freezing weather drew significant media attention.  Under President Obama’s administration, an environmental impact assessment was to be conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.  President Trump signed an executive order to advance the construction of the pipeline and authorized the Army Corp to proceed without completing the environmental impact assessment and without consultation with the Sioux people.  On Feb. 16, a letter from Peacemaking Committee of the Pittsburgh Presbytery was sent to PNC Bank that asked them to pull out its $270,000,000 investment in the Pipeline project, saying:  “It is with our faith and our faith communities that we request you make these changes and hear our voices.”  On Feb. 23 all protestors and Sioux people were forced to leave and the camp was cleared out for the project to continue.

Water is so basic.  It’s easy to provide.  But also easy to pollute.  It’s easy to give freely.  But also easy to give foolishly or financially.  It’s easy to distribute. But also easy to discriminate. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.”

Surprise!  Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.

I heard this true story from a colleague and shared it a couple months ago.  It bears repeating because I think it speaks to our lesson today in a particular and powerful way.  In Atlanta, there are two Presbyterian Churches right across the street from each other.  In between, on the street, one Sunday, there was a parade, people standing up and marching for the rights of gay and lesbian (LGBTQ) people.  On one side of the road, a Presbyterian church protested and called the marchers names and said they were sinners going to hell. 

The other Presbyterian church took a different approach.  They poured water into dixie paper cups and stood along the route handing out cups of water to those who walked by.  An old woman—well into her 80s—diligently filled up cups of water and put them on a tray.  She was a little unsteady on her feet, but that did not stop her. She began to walk out into the street, offering cups of water to people as they marched by. But she did not stop there.  She continued all the way across the street, to the other side, to where her Presbyterian sisters and brothers were shouting insults at the marchers.  She said not a word.  She simply lifted up her tray and offered them a drink of water. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Surprise!  It’s the small things shared with the least of these that matter most in the end.

As Mother Teresa once said, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…the smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.”

 

May it be so.  Amen.

"I was hungry and you gave me food"

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on First Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017

It’s report card time for our children.  This can be a happy time or a hard time, depending on the grades.  A time for rewards or punishments, depending on the grades. It all depends on the grades.

Since our children have been attending Quaker Valley High School, we have learned that the grades are calculated in a different way than we are accustomed.  The “formative work”—the homework, projects, and class participation—are given some credit, but the “summative” tests are worth 80% of the grade in regular classes and 90% in Advanced Placement classes.  Even if the child does every homework assignment, all projects, and actively participates in class, if he does not do well on the tests, his grade is negatively impacted. It all depends on the tests.  My husband Brian, who is a teacher, does not completely agree with this, because he likes to give his students a variety of ways to show they learned—a little extra grace, you might say.  He asked the QV teachers about it, but their final answer is: the test is what really matters.

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear the last lesson Jesus gave to his disciples before the passion story begins his suffering and death.  He describes the final judgment, when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, he will say to some of the people: “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

In this final test, the criterion of judgment-of whether one will enter the kingdom of heaven-is if one has acted with loving care for needy people. Jesus’ grading is similar to QV teachers: the test is what matters:  Did you feed the hungry?  did you give drink to the thirsty?  Did you welcome a stranger or give clothing to someone in need? Did you take care of the sick person and visit the prisoner?  Did you or didn’t you? Jesus doesn’t say anything about grace, justification of faith, or forgiveness of sins.  Good intentions don’t matter.  Prayers don’t even matter. Only actions matter. But, I want to say, what if you do your homework and study the Bible and pray for the poor, or if you do projects like host a fellowship hour after church, or attend meetings of church committees?  Surely that should count for something. 

Jesus teaches—and warns us—that what will count in the final judgment are only deeds of love and mercy performed for the needy.  In fact, at the end of his discourse, he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not to it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Our salvation, in this passage, is a matter of how we treat the least of these.  Period.  Jesus has made it clear that what matters most is taking care of people in need.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is:  how do we do that?

This Lent, we will study this gospel lesson in depth. Each week, we will focus on a different part of Jesus’ test.  For today, we will explore the first part:  feeding the hungry.

*In our world, over 800 million people do not have enough food to lead an active, healthy life. 

*1 out of every 9 people in the world go to bed hungry every night. 

*70 percent of the meals served to public school students in the U.S., were free or reduced price. 

*In the summers, those same children survive on only 1 or 2 meals per day. 

*Hunger is real even in our rich country. People are hungry for food. 

For Lent, many people give up some food from their abundance—meat on Fridays, desserts, or chips and snacks.  There is value in fasting, to help us appreciate the how many people feel hungry.  However, I challenge you that instead of giving up something—maybe to lose weight for yourself—try giving away something to feed someone who is hungry—maybe bring in canned goods for the North Hills community outreach or the Backpack program to feed children over the weekend or make a dish or volunteer time to serve the dinner to the hungry at the Center in Bellevue.  People are hungry for food.

At our Wednesday Lenten Suppers, we are discussing the book Meeting Jesus on the Margins

In the book, Lee Anne Reat writes this, “Churches are very good at feeding people.  Church folk are known for sumptuous potlucks and parties (fellowship hours).  We respond readily to calls for food at pantries that serve the poor, and many congregations serve dinners at shelters or in their own dining rooms to neighbors in need.  We give generously to organizations” that feed the hungry. That is all good.  “But is that enough?  If we look closely at a bread line, we see more than hunger for food. Each person in the line is turned inward, alone and vulnerable.  What we see goes beyond hunger for food.  People hunger for connection, hunger for relationship.”  Hunger for healing, hunger for love.

Feeding others food is important, yes, but recognizing the hunger for more and helping to fill it is the next step.  One woman I know volunteers at the North Hills Comm. Outreach food pantry weekly.  Yes, she gives out food to hungry people, but she goes beyond.  When she sees someone come in with their head down, she talks with them. She makes a connection.  She lets them know that she cares.  So that when they leave, their head is up and sometimes, they even have a smile on their face. 

Jesus does not just want us to feed people and check it off our list—did that, passed the test.  Jesus wants us to go deeper.  To be in relationship with people who are hungry—not out of pity, but out of love.  This Lent, I challenge you to make a connection with someone who is hungry for relationship.  

Who are the hungry?  At first we might think of people who are not like us:  people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets.  But the hungry can be very close.  They can be in our own neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, or families. Even closer, the hungry can be ourselves, who feel rejected, ignored, abused, or unloved.

Hunger for connection, hunger for relationship, hunger for love…Isn’t that a hunger we all share regardless of our economic circumstances?  Truth is, We are all hungry for something.

In Jesus on the Margins, Becca Stevens writes, “All people who attend church are beggars, holding out hands for a bit of bread, as we are reminded of our hunger. 

When we can see ourselves as hungry, too, then our judgment is replaced by concern; our sense of duty is replaced by compassion; our giving is replaced by generosity; our tolerance is replaced by love.

By feeding the hungry, we discover our own hunger and our own connection to others.  And we find Christ there.  When people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding or failing to respond, to Christ.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Mike Kinman writes, “This book Meeting Jesus on the Margins sets our Lenten journey in the context of meeting Christ…meeting Christ right where he tells us he will be…in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  It is a journey of seeing all of those people as Jesus.  Of realizing that those whom the world of power and privilege label as “them” are really the deepest and most sacred portion of “us.”

For Jesus, the final judgment is a simple test: Did you or did you not feed the hungry?  Simple but hard!  As your teacher, like Brian, I want to give you a variety of ways to pass the test.  I want to say to you, “Do your best.  Trust that God will make up the difference with grace. Jesus will grade on a curve.”

But, this reminds me of when I was teaching a preaching class at Vanderbilt.  I had a hard time grading my students’ sermons.  I wanted to give them all A’s for effort and faith.  One day, I told Rebecca about my struggle; she thought for a moment, and then said, “But Mom, you are teaching them how to preach the word of God.  Don’t you want them to preach so well that it makes a difference?” 

Jesus, the master teacher, wants to be sure we learn what is at the heart of discipleship—caring for the least of these—and that we do it so well that it makes a difference. 

Good news is: Jesus’ test is not tomorrow; you have your whole life to get ready and you are not alone.  Come to church, be a part of a community that practices our faith in here and then goes out and lives it.

Lent:  A Time to Write the Next Chapter of Your Life

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Preached Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lent is a 40 day period that commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness tempted by the devil. During those days, Jesus was trying to figure out, as Frederick Buechner writes, “what it meant to be Jesus.”   

In the weeks that follow Ash Wednesday, the Gospel readings tell the rest of the story.  Jesus walked from town to town, ate with tax collectors and outcasts, talked to women, healed on the Sabbath.  People did not know what to make of him.  Who is this man who even turns water into wine, makes the winds and the waves obey him, breaks bread and feeds thousands? 

I don’t think Jesus knew what being the Son of God really meant.  It seemed as if he discovered it, step-by-step, as he walked, and waited, and laughed and lamented, healed and helped, taught and was tempted.  As he walked, he found his path and his purpose, and he wrote his story.  He found the truth and it set him free. 

The story of Jesus unfolds before him in the streets of Jerusalem, where crowds welcome and worship him on Palm Sunday, and shout “Hosanna!”  By week’s end, the crowds taunt and terrorize him and shout “Crucify him!”  The story does not end with death, though, it ends with an empty tomb and a resurrected Christ.  God wrote the last word of the story—and it is a story of new life! 

This is our story.  And the ending is our beginning.  Ultimately, we are promised new life. 

Lent is an invitation for us to journey with Jesus in trying to figure out what it means to be who we are.  It is a chance to rewrite our own stories. 

But before a new story can be rewritten, the old one needs to be examined.

This examination may take different forms. 

--It can be an emptying out—a time of fasting and penitence. To let go of what is overwhelming you and suffocating your spirit. 

--It can be a time of filling up—a time of praying intentionally.  Set your phone alarm for the same time everyday—maybe noon time—and when it goes off.  Take 1 minute.  Take 5 minutes.  Take 20 minutes.  And just sit and breathe.  Allow God to fill you with the Holy Life-giving Spirit.  Be still and get to know yourself better—who you really are, the one God loves and cherishes. 

As the Gospel says, But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 

The reward is a deeper knowing of yourself—but in order to get to that place of knowing, we have to go through a time of unknowing—of asking hard questions, and not assuming we know the answers:

Who are you when no one is looking?  Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?

Where are you putting your time and attention?  What’s your story? 

What will your next chapter be?

As the Gospel says, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

Where our time is spent, where our attention is given, there our heart will be also.

Who we are when no one is looking, is who we are, truthfully. 

Truth chases us during Lent.  The Truth will not let us go. The Truth will not be silent.           

It will pursue us until we face it, embrace it, and allow it to set us free. 

As we walk through Lent together, may we follow Jesus, may we face the Truth, and in so doing, find our path and our purpose and write the rest of our story; or better said, allow God to write it with us.

The good news, my friends is that the end of the stories that God writes do not end in despair and death; they end with resurrection and celebration, with new birth and new life.  That’s the Truth!

And that’s the only thing that has the power to set us free to live fully and to love freely.

 

The Times They Are a Changin'

Matthew 17:1-9

Preached on Feb. 26, 2017

 

Benjamin Franklin once said: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  I propose adding a third thing that is certain:  CHANGE.

In life, there is constant change—nothing stays the same. 

Prices go up; Children grow up; technology speeds up, as we get older, we slow down.

We know that change is a part of life, and yet, by our human nature, we resist it.

We resist change because we fear change because we don’t know what is coming.  Fear of the unknown is one of human’s top fears because the mind tells us that in order to move forward, we must know what is waiting for us, because, if we don’t know, then we are not in control. 

Therefore we often find ourselves caught in between knowing that things have to change yet wanting everything to stay the same.

 

Peter knew this place well. 

He understood that Jesus was the Messiah, but when Jesus said he must go to Jerusalem and be killed, and then be raised from the dead, Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  Jesus showed no sympathy, but said to Peter, “You are a stumbling block; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus was right—Peter was human and he feared change.  And his fear was standing in the way of Jesus’ ministry; it was a stumbling block. 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

 

In essence, Jesus was saying what singer/songwriter and recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature Bob Dylan sings, “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changin’”…

 

Today’s Gospel reading begins, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain.”  There Jesus is transfigured—he is changed in appearance and filled with God’s glory so much so that he glowed; his clothes were dazzling white.  It was mysterious.  And yet Peter knew exactly what it meant…it meant that Jesus would shine in resurrection glory, but first he would have to die; it meant that they all would have to leave this heavenly mountain and go through the valley of the shadow of death below; It meant CHANGE.  And Peter was afraid and so he said, “it is good for us to be here”…I imagine he was thinking, “it is good for us to be right here, where it is familiar and known and safe and filled with light and love and where Jesus is with us, where grace is visible and faith is easy.  Don’t make me go into the valley, where it is unfamiliar and unknown, and scary and dark, where love is in short supply, where it is hard to see grace, find Jesus and have faith.  It is good for us to be here, and so I will build tents, so we can stay right here.”

 

Today is Transfiguration Sunday—every year we mark Transfiguration with the reading of this story. 

Transfiguration is from the greek word metamorphóō, which is the root of the English term "metamorphosis", a change in form or appearance, a transformation.

This kind of change—real transformation—takes time.  It is a process. 

 

Transfiguration Sunday marks the change between the season of Christmas and Epiphany (when we celebrate Jesus’ birth and his epiphany light that shines through us) and the season of Lent, which starts on Wed. (when we begin the journey with Jesus to the cross to mark his death). We know we will end up at Easter on April 16 and celebrate his resurrection.  But to get there, we have to go through Lent. 

We can’t go around Lent; we can’t go over or under the cross; we have to go through the crucifixion and death and the valley of the shadow of death.  We have to walk with Jesus through Lent.  That means, we have to admit that something in our lives might need to die in order for something new to be born.  We have to admit that something in our lives may need to end, in order for something new to begin.  We have to allow ourselves to be changed.  We have to go through Lent.  Lent is 40 days long.   Transformation is a process.  Change takes time. 

Change, by definition, is holding onto what you know and looking toward what you don’t know.  And that’s why it is so difficult.  Change puts you in a place you don’t want to be—a place of the unknown, unresolved, and uncontrollable.  Change creates a sense of grief—because you know what you are leaving, but you don’t yet know what you are gaining yet.  

Often change rocks our world.  Change demands we do different or think different, but sometimes that happens before we are ready or understand why change is necessary.   (Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher)

Like Peter, we find ourselves caught in between knowing that things have to change yet wanting everything to stay the same.  We know “the times they are a changin’,” and while we are afraid to sink like a stone, we are not ready to start swimming. 

 

Transfiguration marks the beginning of a new season, a new chapter in our faith story.

The Transfiguration insists that change is difficult, but needed. 

The Transfiguration is that threshold moment between what was and what is to come,

That moment when you know change has to happen but you are not quite ready.

That moment when you are desperate to hold on, yet you know you have to let go.   

As Laga Gaga says, “That moment when you have a hundred million reasons to walk away but you just need one good one to stay.”

 

That moment when your 16-year old son wants to take the car for a date with his girlfriend, and you want him to stay home with you and play legos.

That moment when your parents move you into your college dorm, and you wave goodbye with a smile on your face, but with fear in your heart.

That moment when you know your marriage is over, but you are afraid to leave.

That moment when you retire with excitement of what will come and anxiety about what you are leaving behind.  

That moment when you know you can no longer take care of your beloved spouse by yourself. 

 

The Transfiguration marks that threshold moment between what was and what is to come.

And we wonder if we are ready, if we are prepared, if we can handle it. 

And like Peter, we are afraid, and so we say, “It is good for us to be here….it is good for us to be right here, where it is familiar and known and safe and filled with light and love and where Jesus is with us, where grace is visible and faith is easy.  Don’t make me go into the valley, where it is unfamiliar and unknown, and scary and dark, where love is in short supply, where it is hard to see grace, find Jesus and have faith.  It is good for us to be here….even though we know it really isn’t. 

 

On the mountain that day, from the cloud comes the voice of God who interrupts Peter’s plea, saying “This is my Son, listen to him.”

The disciples were overcome by fear.  But Jesus touched them and said—“Get up and do not be afraid.”    Jesus promises that whether on high mountaintops or in low dark valleys, he will be with them.  Always.    

 

That’s the story of the Transfiguration.  We celebrate it every year. Why is it so important to our faith journey?  Because we are afraid of change.  We know that change is necessary—good even—but still it is hard to accept.  And so we resist change and the blessings that can come from it. 

God knows that about us. 

And so God speaks a powerful truth to us:  “This is my Son.  Listen to him.”

And Jesus says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Get up.  Get going.  Embrace change.  Step out in faith.  Be transformed. 

And remember: 

The times may be a changin’, but my promise to be with you stays the same.  Always.  Always.  Always. 

 

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Matthew 5:38-48

Preached on Feb. 19, 2017

The gospel reading this morning is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  And like other portions which we have been reading over the past few Sundays, it makes us wonder if Jesus is really serious about what he says,

Do not resist an evildoer. Really?

But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; C’mon.

and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; In the winter?

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  Get real.

Tom Long, of Emory University, in his commentary on this section of Jesus’ teaching says,

“It boggles the mind to think about living out this example literally in contemporary society. Imagine a Christian in New York City who got up one morning and decided to do what Jesus says here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital before noon!”

 

But if that weren’t enough, Jesus finishes this part of his sermon with a bang:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. 

I can hear the objections of Jesus’ audience—then and now:  Impossible.

How can we possibly love our enemies?  And besides, what’s love got to do with it anyway? 

Jesus is describing what the kingdom of heaven is like—where there will be no more crying or sorrow, no more pain or violence, only pure love.  We pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And sometimes, our prayer is answered.  We get glimpses of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth. Some people have helped make God’s kingdom come on earth by showing us how to live by Jesus’ radical words.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who employed nonviolent civil disobedience to lead India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world, said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

 

Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa was a nun and missionary who showed her love to the poorest of poor in Calcutta.  As a reporter watched her clean the maggot-infested wound of a man on the street, he said, “I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.” Mother replied, with a bit of a wry smile, “Neither would I.”

 

Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister who inspired and led the Civil Rights movement for African Americans with non-violent civil disobedience, said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

 

We recognize extraordinary people-Gandhi, Mother Teresa and MLK-can love as Jesus did, but how do we? 

What’s love got to do with it anyway?  Everything.  For without love, none of this is possible.

This week, I have seen ordinary people’s ordinary acts of love make an extraordinary difference in lives. 

 

Jesus says, but I say to youif anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 

A strike on the cheek can be a serious issue of abuse, so I don’t want to suggest that if you are being hit at home, you should turn the cheek and take more.  Jesus did not endorse violence, but advocated for love.

So we can think about other ways to read this today.

If you receive an email or a text or see a facebook post or a tweet that is mean and hurtful, it is so easy—too easy to reply instantly-before you can think twice-with a mean and hurtful retaliatory reply. 

A woman was having a hard time being on facebook, there were just so many angry and mean spirited posts about the candidate she supported.  She was tempted to reply with just as much anger and hurtfulness.  But, instead, she put on a post about love—nonjudgmental, inclusive, and kind—and it changed the conversation—at least for a day. 

Jesus says, but I say to you…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 

Out coat keeps us warm and comfortable.  Taking off our coat is stepping out of our comfort zone. Monday night, a group of youth gathered together at the church with Melanie and a couple of adults, prepared a meal, and went to the Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter on the north side, in a neighborhood that looks and feels different than our own—in effect, they took off their coat, went out of their comfort zone—and served a meal to the homeless.  They also took small red paper hearts, on which were written some messages of love, and they put them beside the plates of every man.  So, the men were not just served food, but love.

 

Jesus says, but I say to you…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 

My 15-year old son Christian is on the Quaker Valley basketball team.  They are required to run and do drills in practice that amounts to running a mile (at least).  They have had a full season—beginning in November—and just made the play-offs.  But, that was not enough for the coach.  He didn’t just want them to be good players, but good people.  He, with some parents, organized a service day.  On Saturday, we went to the Allegheny Valley School in Coraopolis, a home for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Most were in wheelchairs and could not speak.  But that did not stop the boys.  They helped the residents make valentines and play games and have a good time.  They shared their time and they shared their love. 

 

Jesus says, but I say to you…Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

I met someone this week, he came to see me to tell me about his organization that gives money to people in need.  Local families who have experienced cancer diagnoses, unemployment, or in the most recent case, the fire that destroyed the Milbert family’s house and took the life of their daughter Hannah.  He collects money from people he knows who have big hearts (and not so small wallets) and he gives it away to people in need…even before they can ask.  He is living his faith through generous acts of love.

 

Jesus says, But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

This is the hardest of them all.  It’s one thing to love people we know or who are innocent victims in need in some way.   But, the hardest thing to do is to love our enemies or those who have hurt us.

I admit that I am not as diligent as I used to be about reading the newspaper every day, or listening to NPR, or checking the Associated Press app on my cellphone.  The news is just so overwhelmingly bad and frustrating and depressing to make it part of my daily routine.  After all, my job is to keep faith and hope and love alive!

But, as a concerned citizen of this country, I do try to stay informed—every couple of days.  And so, on Monday, Feb. 13, I read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  In the main section, I read some local news...it was bad.  And then national news…it was getting worse.  And then I ventured onto the International page.  Here were the headlines:  Brazils’ huge corruption scandal spreading to the rest of Latin America… Police brutality protests turn violent in Paris…North Korean nuclear test aggravates concerns in Washington… Slow going for Turkish backed forces in northern Syria.  But in the midst of such grim news, I saw a picture that captured my attention.  It was a picture of man painting a long line of hearts red on a street.  The caption read:  An Iraqi Kurdish man spray-paints hearts Sunday in anticipation of Valentine’s Day in a street in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.  This picture was worth a thousand words.  Here in a part of the world that has known such hostility and war, was a man who refused to give into hate.  He was painting hearts, and the red paint was spilling over onto the street. In a place and time of hate, with a simple, some might say foolish gesture, he was witnessing to the power of love.

As I recalled the words of MLK, , “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word,” I was filled with faith and hope and love all over again.   

What’s love got to do with it?  Everything. Ordinary people performing ordinary acts of love have the power to change the world for good, one place, one person, one heart at a time. 

More Than Words

Matthew 5:21-26

Preached on Feb. 12, 2017

Words are powerful!

Put together in the right way, they can tell a story…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Words can profess love…

A million stars up in the sky

One shines brighter I can’t deny

A love so precious, a love so true

A love that comes from me to you

~Mrs. Creeves(you can use that for Valentine’s Day:)

Words can inspire a movement…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream.  

Words are a powerful force for good.  But, Words can also hurt…

            An insult on how you look

            A put-down on what you’ve done

            A judgment on what you believe to be true

            And sadly, a single word of rejection is much louder—and longer lasting—than 100 words of praise

 

Words have real power.  Through God’s words, the world was created:  Let there be light, and there was light!  God created humankind and gave us the power to communicate through the spoken word.  It is a gift.  A powerful gift.  And with it comes a great responsibility.

Words do more than convey information.  Our words have the power to destroy or the power to build up. 

Our words can stir up hatred and violence or initiate peace.  Our words can cause wounds or help heal.

Words have the power to destroy or the power to build up. 

Our ancestors did not use their gift of words well and so in time, God’s Word had to become flesh in Jesus. 

Jesus knew the power of words and used his words for good.  He showed us that…

 

Words can shape a religion…redefine what people think, reshape how they live and love, change the world for good and for God…

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” 

 

We know that murder is bad and should be punished in some way.  But Jesus says, if you are angry with a brother or sister, then you will be liable to judgment…if you speak hurtful words against someone, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Surely these were just words to get our attention. 

He was probably using hyperbole—exaggerated words to underline an important point.

We use it all the time: 

·      I am so hungry I could eat a horse. 

·      If I can’t have the latest i-phone, I will die.

·      When I was a child, young man, I had to walk 20 miles to school, each way, uphill, in the snow.

 

So was Jesus just using hyperbole to talk about the sin of anger and words of hate toward our brothers and sisters? Surely anger is not as bad as murder; surely it is not bad enough to send us to the fires of hell, right?

 

The first reading today--Psalm 119--is the longest psalm in the Bible with 176 verses—and each and every one of the verses talks about God’s Law.  It’s important.

Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it and internalize it.  He showed us how to live the law, to seek God’s way not only with our actions, but with our whole hearts. Not only behaviors but attitudes and emotions fall within the Law.  Jesus connects the dots: Internal emotions can lead to external behaviors.  Anger can lead to murder.  Insults can lead to eternal judgment in the fires of hell.  Anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s kingdom.  The law and the will of God is not just that humans don’t kill each other, but that there be no anger and hostility between them.    

 

But, we are strong and resilient.  Surely we can withstand some bumps and bruises along the way.  People say words and they hurt, but we get over it and we move on, right?

And, surely the God of the Universe has bigger worries than our anger…

There are national and global, ethnic and racial, gender and social, and economic conflicts all over the world.

Where does my whimpering fit about someone who said something mean, hurt my feelings, made me mad? 

Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that anger is as bad as murder.  He is exaggerating.  We don’t take his words literally, right?  But, God knows that the only way to solve the bigger problems in the world begins with the relationship between two people.  Reconciliation and overcoming anger and hatred is essential.  “The Word of God became flesh” means that God is present in the flesh and bones, the heart and soul of our lives.  When we hurt, God hurts. But, how can we heal our hurts? How can we resolve our differences that divide us?

Jesus tells us how: ”So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” 

Surely, Jesus does not mean for us to leave worship to go and talk with someone who has hurt us or who we have hurt?  It would be chaos, and we are Presbyterians, we like things done decently and in good order.  Jesus is just exaggerating, right?  No, Jesus meant what he said—every word of it!

So when you are offering your gift at the altar…

Worship is very important.  In fact, we are made to worship God and enjoy God forever.  Worship is how we develop a deeper relationship with God.  So it is important to come to church, the altar, and worship God and offer our gifts of praise and thanksgiving. 

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…

At the altar, in worship, we can focus, and be open and vulnerable; we are not comparing; we are not competing; we are not defensive; we are not distracted…we are just here before God, just as we are, and sometimes there is a moment of truth.  It is then, that we remember that which we have done or left undone.  That hurt which we have managed to push down deep inside, at the altar, somehow comes bubbling up to the surface.  And we remember…

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,

            Reconciliation and overcoming anger and hatred is more important than worship and prayer and hymn singing (as much as God is glorified by that).  There is an urgency of reconciliation before arriving at the final judgment of God.  Do not delay. Anger will fester.  Unresolved hurts will ache.  Resentment will harden hearts.  Estrangement will build a wall between you and a loved one that you cannot break down. 

So, go and apologize for words said or left unsaid, be reconciled to your brother or sister,  

…and then come and offer your gift at the altar. 

I am sure he has forgotten about it.  Plus he is no longer in my life, thank God.  I know I was not very nice to him.  But, he was a real pain in the you know where.  He was always bugging me when I was trying to get my work done.  Always asking me questions and pointing out what I had done wrong.  Always had a better way to do things.  He really got under my skin.  I resented him.  And so I told the boss that he was not doing his job.  I had to tell a little white lie to justify my recommendation that he be fired—he was. I’m glad.  Life is good again at the office. I don’t think about him. Except when I see him occasionally, but he just walks the other way.   

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 

My sister and I have never gotten along.  We are very different.  She was a reader; I was an athlete. She was in the band; I was on the track team.  She loved meat; I was a vegetarian.  She was a shopper; I was a saver.  She liked to debate politics; I preferred poems.  She wanted to argue; I wanted peace.  And so, in the interest of peace, I have not talked with her—for many years—ever since she said something, off the cuff.  She had had too much wine that night, I am sure she didn’t mean anything by it. But it felt like a sword that pierced my heart.  In time, the scab covered over the hurt.  It’s best not to pick at it.  Let it be.  It’s just easier this way.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 

            A friend who is now 68 years old told me the story of her childhood. She remembers a very happy time—at least for the first 10 years:  We were always laughing at the dinner table—it was something I looked forward to every night.  Dad would come home from work, kiss mother, twirl her around the kitchen, and then hug us. We would sit around the table—sometimes for long after the meal was finished, to share stories of our days.  But, one night, I overheard my mom and dad arguing, yelling at each other for the first time.  When we came into the kitchen, they stopped yelling and were silent.  Mom put the dinner on the table, and just said, “Let’s eat.”  We did not laugh or even talk at the table that night.  The next night, when Dad came home, I noticed that he did not kiss Mom.  He did not twirl her around.  Mom did not ask him how his day was.  Dinner was quiet, no jokes or laughing.  The next night was the same; and the night after that and the night after that.  In time, over the years, we talked just a little and laughed even less.  But, dinner time was forever changed.  Mom and Dad never got over it, never dealt with their anger.  It was never a joyful time for our family again.

 

Words are powerful…

Our words have the power to destroy or the power to build up. 

Our words can rip apart or reconcile relationships.

Our words can cause hurt or help heal.

Our words have the power to change the world for ill or for good, one person at a time. 

So if you are at worship and something comes to the surface, don’t delay, it will fester…go, take care of it, You can come back later and worship.  God will be glad to wait, waiting for you to return with open arms.

 

 

Note:  I remember hearing a sermon preached by Fred Craddock on this text years ago, and it made such an impression on me that I remembered it years later.  So, I give credit to Fred Craddock for some of his phrases and I give him thanks for preaching such a powerful word.