Week in the Word: Love Stories by Jesus

 

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 17th,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

As we’ve been doing since the New Year, today we continue looking at Matthew’s Gospel, this time by turning from the Sermon on the Mount to another part of Jesus’ teachings, his parables, looking at Matthew 13.

 

Matthew 13:24-35

planting seeds24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables,       I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

These are God’s words for God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we can see and know what God is saying to us through them this day.  Amen.

Does anything stand out to you about Jesus’ words?

Love romance perforated paper heart

We are in that time of year when folks get into love stories, aren’t we?   Cupid has been about and love is in the air!  Maybe you were  curled up Thursday night to a Lifetime story or classic romance novel.  Maybe you took out a special someone this week either hoping for love to spark or celebrating your own love story with them.  Perhaps as a single person like myself you either wished you had a love story to tell or you  were glad to not be in the midst of a story that had started out  looking alot like love but had become  something else entirely.   For good or ill — and I hope good for each of you — it’s pretty hard to avoid thinking about love this week.

Today,  in our Scripture reflection time, we turn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been studying the last few weeks to his main form of teaching, parables,.  Parables are stories Jesus told to teach us about what he called “God’s kingdom” or “heaven’s kingdom”.  And though we often don’t realize it, and — goodness knows! —  these stories sure don’t appear alot like the ones we see on Lifetime or at the movie theater, there is a real sense in which these stories Jesus tells are, in their own way, all love stories.

You see, in the Bible, love is not just about candles or candy, nor is it only about romance.  Sure, those things are great, as far as they go, but love in the Bible is a deeper, stronger, thing that that. Love is in fact where we came from and where we all ultimately are headed.  It is God’s love and care for us that births us into this world.  It is to God’s love we all are headed on our great homecoming day, whenever that is. And, in that time between, it is that some love that lifts us up and carries us through all of our lives, on days of joy and wonder, as well as on days that are hard and trying. As 1 John tells us, God is love, and we are called to live out and reflect that love in every aspect of our lives.

In a way, all we have been studying so far in the Sermon on the Mount, with its calls for sermon on the mountus to be caring for all kinds of people, even enemy and outcast, even those who use and mistreat us, even when that means forgiving them, going the extra mile for them, turning the other cheek, or sharing with others without expectation of “thank you” or a return of the favor — all of this is a picture Jesus has been painting of what God’s love looks like when it is put into action.  Speaking of the importance of such love in our life, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Cornel West picked up where King left off by adding, “We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence…” — the very things Jesus calls us to in his Sermon on the Mount! And Dr. West continues, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

In a way, just as the Sermon on the Mount is kind of a roadmap or blueprint for what a life of reflecting God’s love in every corner of our life can look like, so these parables are short stories that picture what love lived out together in a community and love lived out in public looks like: Jesus is showing us what it would be like for a community to change the world by the power of love, by working to tear down every barrier that stands in the way of love, so that here and now we can see love lived out among us as it already is being lived out in heaven.  This life-transforming and world-changing love lived out in community together and lived out in public is part of what Jesus means by saying the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God has come near and by teaching us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here on earth as in heaven”.

 

What do today’s love stories by Jesus teach us about how God changes us and our world through the power of love?  And what love lived out in community, and in public, looks like?   I think we can learn something from what Jesus looks to in order to tell us how to love, as well as how Jesus says God’s love changes things, and finally how these stories suggest we can respond to God’s work of love within and all around us.

First, notice what Jesus looks to: ordinary everyday life.

Most of you know that a few years ago I was widowed.   At first the pain of that was so hard I could never imagine ever thinking of dating or finding love again.  Then when I realized that was a possibility, my very nerdy and bookish self decided, first, look at what the experts say!  And before I would even try to seriously date, I decided had to read book upon book about dating in the modern world, which (not surprisingly) I discovered had changed alot since my 20s.

Jesus does something different when he paints a picture of how God’s love works in the world.  Jesus does not quote hard to decipher Bible verses to explain how God’s kingdom skillet cornbreadof love breaks forth here and now.  He doesn’t quote the experts either, the philosophers or theologians.  In his parables Jesus points to everyday life – he talks about women baking bread, he talks about planting seeds, growing plants, and farming.   Though for some of us, such things may seem far removed from our daily lives, working at universities, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, construction sites, this likely is not the case for all of us here.  And it couldn’t have been less true for his first audience.  For them the stories Jesus gives are of what they did every single day.

You know, sometimes we can get the message that our lives here and now – our work with its frustrations and joys, our families with their laughter and fighting, our play and rest – don’t matter.   They aren’t the things of Lifetime movies, nor of political arguments, let alone the stuff of fancy theologians, are they?  But it is exactly in the midst of those things that Jesus is teaching us to look for and expect to see God’s hand and handiwork, God at work guiding us into how to receive and give, reflect and share God’s love.  And any of you who have ever had a marriage or partnership of any real length, let alone raised children or cared for older parents, you know what Jesus knows: it is in how you do the daily and the ordinary  in your life that everything piles up, which makes your relationships work smoothly and with grace, struggle, or grind to a clanging halt.

If we will slow down and pay attention to our every day lives, we can find signs of God in each day and each moment.  We can see where God is at work, where we and others are reflecting, and point out God’s love in action, and also where love is breaking down in our individual lives, our relationships, our church, our world, and our community.  This is part of why I encourage us in worship to pause, be quiet, and pay attention to what God is saying in our lives each Sunday.  Each day God is showing up, in each encounter we have, if we learn to pay attention.

 

Questions for Discussion

            What difference does it make to see God as at work in your everyday life?

            What are places or people you’ve not expected to see God?  What would it look like to look for God there?

            What examples do you have of times that you learned lessons about what God wants through paying attention to people, places, or experiences in your everyday life?

 

Next, these love stories by Jesus suggest that love’s way of changing the world is slow and messy. Love is patient because love takes time.

All three parables are stories of growth and change.  A field grows from seed to harvest.   A seed grows into a shrub so big all the birds of the air can rest in its branches.   A tiny speck of yeast grows, spreading through dough until it can help create 60 lbs of dough. Such growth takes time.

koinonia farms qYet each is messy.  They discover weeds are growing alongside the wheat and have to decide whether to risk pulling up wheat alongside weeds by weeding before harvest time, or to risk weeds choking out some of the wheat’s resources in the meantime, possibly damaging the harvest.   The yeast the woman  does not just mix into but, in the original Greek literally hides within, the dough is not the sweet sanitized packets you buy in a store, but a smelly bubbly mix of old dough that has developed all kinds of bacteria and, though effective for its purpose, would seem very gross to us.  And mustard plants kind of got mixed reviews – some people used them for food, but others treated them like pernicious weeds that weren’t good for much.  So, messy business indeed!

I am reminded by these stories of seeing the end result of surprising growth that took time while serving in Los Angeles at a historically black church.  About once a month one of the older members would bring in bags full of collards, ready to hand them out to anyone who would take them.   Folks would tell me “you gotta try some of these collards from Elder Felix’s collard tree”.  Now I grew up in the south and if I knew one thing it was that collards don’t grow on trees.  They grow just like cabbages, near the ground.   Finally I got invited by Felix and Melba to their house and I could not wait until I could ask to see their fabled collard trees.  “Sure, I’d be happy to show them to you,” Felix told me,  and lo and behold there were enormous, tall, collard plants growing straight up to my neck.  Felix explained that he didn’t pull them up out of the ground or cut them down when he harvested his collards, but plucked off a few leaves at a time.  With no frost, the things just kept growing.  I was seeing decades of growth on his collard plants.   And it truly did make collard plants — not that different from mustard in the big scheme of things — which, after years upon years of growth, were tall enough you could imagine birds roosting in their leaves.

Jesus is letting us in on a secret – love doesn’t often come in a neat easy to wrap package and love takes time. Such love can be messy.  The messiness of love can lead us to withdraw and not open up, but Jesus would have us know that is not the path to life.   As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  Yet the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation,” since God is love and heaven is the unrestricted presence of that God who is love.   “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” So the way to life means embracing the risks and vulnerabilities, the measures of being open to others through love.

 

Not only this, but the change God’s love brings doesn’t happen overnight or happen easily.   If God shows us as individuals, as families, as partners or spouses, as a church, as friends, as a community, some way we are supposed to be a part of God’s change in this Everyday-Miracles-of-the-Planetworld, making it more like it is in heaven, and making love happen in community or in public, we need patience and understanding.  If we open ourselves to others — whether friend or partner, family member or church member, neighbor or someone we are called to serve, even the best relationships with them will be messy and take time.  And sometimes God calls us to love, serve, and care for people we don’t naturally find easy, with that commitment to love being how the kingdom breaks out in our midst. Although God could choose to just snap God’s fingers and make it  all work out at once, God doesn’t.  Love takes time, even God’s love.  God works slowly, over time.   God spreads changes little by little, person by person, in this love lived in public, love lived in community.

 

Discussion Questions

            What are changes you feel called to help happen in your community, your church, or family that may take time?

            In what ways is it is easy or hard to patient for them?

            In what ways can such changes be messy at first?

 

Finally, the way we get to God’s destination, the way we live out God’s love together, is not by judging but by hospitality and discernment.  God’s way of loving in public and loving in community casts a wide net, where everyone, folks from all walks of life, can find a welcome.

Our natural impulse is that of the workers in the farm – let’s pull up what we think are weeds as soon as we see them.  Yet their master says, no, make room until things are full grown, because you never know if you might mistake wheat for weeds and pull up something worth saving.  Such a slowness to judge and exclude those God brings along our path on this journey of being a people who help change this world to be more as it is in heaven through the slow work of love is key.

Often church folks have pet sins they use as boundary markers to exclude – perhaps it is drinking too much, perhaps it is being divorced, or being gay, or loving Jesus but cussing a bit, or not dressing right – whatever that means! – or having tattoos and piercings.  And perhaps we should put sin in quotes, for not all or even most of what I just described is in fact a sin in God’s eyes, is it?, though there are folks ready to call it so and throw the first stone!  But perhaps that person you say is just too much this or that is one God has called to be a part of the solution.

And sometimes the people who come off as most opposed to what you feel God calling you to  in fact become in the long run your biggest asset in helping love’s long work be done in community and in public , because if you build a relationship with them and you both truly hear each other out, you might find you have more in common than different and become allies.

This is why the other two parables have images of welcome and inclusion.  The mustard tree becomes a welcoming spot, where all kinds of birds can take roost.   A woman, often kept out of the center of decision making and the life of the community, is brought in by Jesus to be welcomed as an image for God.  That woman makes enough dough to bake bread to share with everyone she knows and many she does not yet.   And as Irvin Milton, a patriarch in our UCC Conference has often said, you can’t really sit down and eat bread with another person –maybe just eating from the same table but not really dining together with them– and truly remain enemies.  There is something about breaking bread that tears down walls and includes. Such is the way of God’s love.

 

Discussion questions

            What are groups of people you feel the church sometimes struggles to include?  How can we work to include them better?

            Do you have an example of someone you did not expect who became a good ally when working to make a good change or make a difference?

 

Loving God, you created life in us and all around us,

Help us to encounter you in our daily lives, with hearts and and minds open,

Embrace the call you give us there to live love together, to live love in public,

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Week in the Word: The Path is Made by Walking

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 10th,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

Call to Worship,  based on poem by Antonia Machado

moses-wandering-in-the-desert-2-immigrant

Wanderer,

your footprints are the path, and nothing else;

wanderer, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.

Walking makes the path,

and on glancing back

one sees the path

that must never be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no path—

Just your wake in the sea.

 

 

SERMON  The Path is Made By Walking

 

 

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

sermon on the mount laura james“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

These are the words of God for God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and hear what God is saying to us in these words of holy Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words?

U-Turns are often the best way to move life forward.One of the most life- and trouble-saving inventions in my life was the GPS.  Before I got one in my car, and then later now in my phone, I took missing my turn and getting lost on a trip to epic proportions.

My late wife Kat never let me live down the time when we were driving home to just outside Los Angeles from a trip to the beach in san Diego and I made just one wrong turn, ending up accidentally in Mexico.

Not that getting lost was all bad, I would always remind her.

One time getting lost landed me to exactly the perfect retreat center for a gathering I was planning.

More importantly, I would say, it was me getting royally lost that sparked the friendship which became a romance that became a marriage with her when, just weeks after moving into southern California, my friend John asked her and me on a road trip and handed me the map for a quick 2 hour drive.   Somehow I so misread the map that I turned the 2 hour trip into 5 and got us smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert, which let me tell you, was nowhere near where we were headed.  Lucky for us, Kat had the job of packing snacks and we had our fill for the trip – and that trip sparked a fun conversation which really never ended between Kat and me until the day she died some 3 years ago.

Looking back, I have to ask myself is it any wonder my dad would barrage me with questions before starting a trip as a teenager or a young adult – have you checked tire brokencarpressure?  Have you checked the oil?  Have checked and double checked the maps?  I guess deep down he knew I was one apt to make a wrong turn and end up stranded in the desert.

In a way Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading, as he reaches the end of his Sermon on the Mount, are just that kind of advice and those kinds of questions.   Following the example of Moses who climbed atop Mount Sinai to give a roadmap or a blueprint for how the rag tag band of just freed slaves who stood gathered around Moses could become a nation of free people, so Jesus had climbed atop a mountain too to give his directions on how it would look for people to live out the heart of God in our world, becoming a people through whom God’s kingdom breaks out in our world, so this earth became more as it is in heaven.

And what a roadmap or blueprint he gives!: he describes a life defined not by the righteousness of the religious teachers of his day, a life lived not by a blind obedience to heartless rules that leads to forcing others into boxes that may cause harm.  A righteousness defined instead by rejecting treating others as objects.  A path defined by the kind of peacemaking that does not return evil for evil but instead loves enemies, prays for those that use and abuse you, and does good to all people even those who mistreat you.       It Is a way of living that he says gives generously of time, of talent, of resources, of treasure, to those in need without expecting either a congratulations or that gesture of giving to be returned.  He describes a way of sharing well expressed by Dorothy Day, a Christian leader in the last century who organized communities aimed at helping the abject poor and the working class find their way to break the cycle of poverty.  Day said first “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in

DOROTHY DAY IS DEPICTED IN WINDOW AT NEW YORK PARISH WHERE SHE HAD BEEN RECEIVED INTO CHURCH

other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend” and, perhaps most importantly, she always added that “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

Jesus paints a vivid picture in this Sermon of a way of living that goes even further – and rejects the idea of an outsider at all.   Edwin Markham’s classic poem “Outwitted” puts Jesus’ way for all of us well when it says “He drew a circle that shut me out– / Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win: / We drew a circle that took him in!”

Jesus has been inviting his hearers, and by extension, each of us, through his Sermon on the Mount to embrace living a whole different pattern of life, a way of living that bucks against the messages our world surrounds us with every day.  He calls us too to join together, to build a different way of being community, whether that community is churches, neighborhoods, families, marriages or life partnerships, you name it.   This is why Jesus’ way is through a narrow gate, along a narrow path, and few there be that make it.  As the late G. K. Chesterton one said, by and large true “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and” left “not tried”.  And, as Jesus warned when talking of those who cry out “Lord, Lord”, yet to whom he will say “I don’t even recognize you”, even many of us may go through times when, though we call ourselves Christian, though we go to church and pray, we may be busy going through all the outward motions of worshipping Jesus while, in our hearts, not really be listening to anything he is saying at all.  It is easy to keep up appearances rather than listening to his voice and following where it leads.

Not only so, but it is easy to get distracted.  It almost sounds contradictory at first that Jesus follows the command Dorothy Day referenced in saying we had no right to judge who was deserving and not deserving among us by then saying for us to not cast our stranger and pilgrimpearls before swine, but in truth he is warning us, that the path we are on is one it is easy to become distracted from, and thus from which to wander off.  Jesus’ warning echoes the challenge of the prophet Isaiah who asked those who heard him in his day, “Why spend money on what is not bread,  and your labor on what does not satisfy? “  The world bombards us with the messages to give our time, talent, and treasure, our hearts and lives into things that truly don’t fulfill, into projects that will not give us the return they promise on our investment, into people and relationships that won’t last.  And we find ourselves forgetting the higher calling, losing our way, and wandering off in the desert like the one I got Kat, my friend John, and me lost in so many years ago,  as we follow rabbit trails off the beaten path Christ is laying out for us.

And of course this path is hard.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the kind of life Jesus calls us to if we want to be his hands and feet in this world today and I compare it with my own life, I sometimes want to throw up my hands.  How can anyone live this straight and narrow path Jesus has given us in his teachings and example?

And, you know what, we can’t.   We can’t in our own strength.  We can’t in our own power.  We can’t in our own will power, or our own wisdom.

We can only do it by God’s grace, strength, and help.

To return to the story of Moses and Israel, which Jesus is intentionally pointing back to by delivering this message on a mountain, even though the journey from Egypt to the Holy Land was not really that far, it took Moses and Israel 40 years of wandering lost in the desert to get there.   The Scriptures tell us that the reason why is that they kept getting distracted, not listening to God, and wandering off the trail.

Yet, guess what? It may have taken 40 years, but they finally made it.   They were able to make it that far not because they were good at following directions.  They weren’t!  God was with them, appearing as a fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day, guiding their steps whenever they were willing to listen.   They did not get through the desert because they were good at foraging and hunting, nor good at finding good sources of water.  They weren’t!   They made it to the other side of their wilderness journey in one piece, all the way to the holy land, because God provided – bringing springs in the desert, sending quail like snowfall on the ground, and manna or bread from heaven every morning.  God was faithful.  God led, God fed, God provided.  God pulled them through.

This is a reminder to each of us.   We will not be able to find our way on the narrow road to being people who reflect God’s image, God’s heart, like Jesus because of how smart, or good, or holy we are.  We won’t be able to build the house of lives, communities, families, churches, marriages or partnerships, that make heaven break out here in this world because we are so strong, or so smart, or so kind, or so spiritual, or so well-versed in our Bibles.  No, it will happen because God will lead and feed.  God will provide.  We will get there because we let the Holy Spirit guide us like God did as fire and cloud to Israel.  We will make it as we listen to and follow Christ’s still speaking voice, and trust he can give us what drink and bread to strengthen us until the end through our every desert.

And this is a part of what communion means.   When we break the bread and drink the cup, we remember that the lives and callings we have from God are exactly who we cannot be and what we cannot do, on our own that is.  We remember that to get where God has called us individually, as families, as couples, as singles, as a church, and as a community, we need bread from heaven, too.  We need the strength, grace, wisdom, and guidance only God can bring.  It depends on God, not on us.  On our own, we will find ourselves stranded in the desert.  But with God, we will make it.

And so my challenge to you and me is the same challenge Isaiah gave Israel, which Jesus echoes in these words, to not despair for the path is what we cannot do on our own, nor to become distracted by what will not nourish, but instead to come each day, seeking the strength, wisdom, and sustenance God alone offers, which alone can give us strength for this journey.

Amen and Amen.

 

Week in the Word: Connecting with the Hub of Life

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 3rd,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall. 

 

Call to Worship,                   based on poem by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

 

 

Connecting with the Hub of Life

sermon on the mount laura jamesMatthew 6:7-21, New International Version

7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’  14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

These are the words of God for God’s people.  May God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and hear what God is saying to us in these words of holy Scripture.

What stands out to you in these words?

dr kingThis Scripture reminds me of a story by my good friend Chuck. Chuck Fager often tells people of his experience eating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dinner.  Chuck is retired and lives in Durham now, but when he was younger was a student worker helping with Dr. King’s fight for Civil Rights in Selma.  Chuck tells how, he was gathered up by the police with Dr. King and others while they were speaking up against segregation.   Chuck had only been there a month and had no idea what to expect.   He ended up being tossed in a jail cell together with Martin Luther King and some of those other key leaders in the civil rights movement there.

The wardens of the jail were mainly black citizens of Selma themselves who were supportive of Dr. King.   Quietly, in a way that didn’t draw attention to themselves, these wardens put together a meal for King, to express their appreciation for his work.   After a long day of marching, speaking, and ultimately being processed by the police and put in jail, everyone who had been working with Dr. King was famished and exhausted.   Despite this, when the meal that was the best these wardens had to offer was brought out, King graciously turned it down.  His reason?  Long before this imprisonment, King and the other civil rights leaders in Selma, most of whom were pastors and other Christian leaders, had decided to follow the example of others who fought for Civil Rights before them and, when put in jail, to set it aside as a time of spiritual retreat where they would fast, going without food to focus on prayer, Bible study, and reflection.  So in order to nourish themselves spiritually, he and his closest associates in the jail had to turn down the specially made meal.   My friend Chuck knew nothing about this agreement, being just a student worker and not that active in church beforehand himself.  So Chuck was heartbroken, with his mouth already salivating as he eyed the delicious meal, to think of it going to waste.  Stuttering and embarrassed, Chuck let them know he had made no such commitment, and would hate for all that good food to go to waste.  King, the other leaders, and the wardens all agreed.

That Dr. King chose when jailed to focus his time there on prayer, fasting, and Bible study, is important. He and other Civil Rights leaders recognized that, as important as walter winktheir work for civil rights and equality for all was, something more was needed.  They need to be able to also to put away the business, stress, and constant going, going, going, that this work brought into their lives at times and simply to be in the presence of God.  As Walter Wink says in his book Prayer and the Powers, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, the wells of love run dry, and we are slowly changed into the likeness of” what we fight against; “prayer…is the field hospital in which the diseased spirituality that we have contracted from” the injustice all around us “can most directly be diagnosed and treated.”

This is also true with all our work and callings – from our work serving in the church to our own activism in the community, to our careers to caring for family members, to being parents or grandparents or spouses.   Ultimately, unprotected by prayer, such work can cause our wells to run dry, and us to become people very different than who God made and called us to be.

Jesus’ words challenge us, like King, to pause and put away the need for more and bigger in our lives, pulling away from the noisy and public, from our constant going, going, going, to turn instead to seek a deep inner connection with God and within ourselves.   Full of worry we can become tempted to pile up treasures, power, privilege, popularity, comfort, for ourselves.  We can become tempted to Super-size our lives – having to have the biggest and best careers, homes, cars, the youngest and most attractive partner, you name it.  Our world bombards us with the temptation to invest so much in that material side of things that we don’t make the time and space for lasts and what really matters.

This doesn’t just happen with things that seem suspect right away but can even happen with otherwise seemingly good pursuits.  Dr. King’s work for civil rights was good, but he MLK prayingknew he needed to drink deep of the waters of life God offers to sustain himself and keep his perspective.  This is something I have to constantly remind myself as someone who works with ministry: ultimately though that work is important, it cannot become an end in itself.  If I am not myself connecting with God each day, working at caring for and loving the people around me, and working to be the person God has called me to be, even so-called “holy work” can be a kind of keeping up appearances.

We don’t have to be ministers for this to happen.  Caring for our children, for people who are sick or in need, working for social justice, or even our jobs we work to provide for our families, all can stretch us without taking time to connect to spiritual resources.  Even prayer, Jesus says, can become something we Super-size, something we make more about saying pretty words or appearing holy before others than us honestly, truthfully, coming before God just as you are.  Fasting too can become about putting on a show to be seen by others.  Even things we claim we are doing for God or out of faith can be used just to prop up ourselves, rather than truly connecting with God.  Any spiritual practice, when it becomes about looking good, about how great we are, and not coming before God in honesty to really encounter God as God is, developing a personal relationship with God that changes you, even that can be a dead end.

The kind of connection Jesus is calling us to is exactly about taking us out of ourselves – and hence done best when not on display.  This is why we read Wendell Berry’s poem as our responsive reading.  When it says, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do / we have come to our real work, / and that when we no longer know which way to go / we have come to our real journey”, it is highlighting that connecting with God is about real honesty where we open up to God showing us who we really are, what we really need, and even how we must change our lives.  To do so we must be willing to admit what we don’t know, and what our limits are.

Ultimately this is kind of prayer which Jesus calls us to, which is the real work we are called to, first and foremost.  This is inner work and an inner journey.

One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, explains this well.  He likens prayer to the sort of large wagon wheels that are used in his home country for decoration – with wide rims, strong wooden spoke, and big hubs in the center.  “These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center,” he said.  “When I move along wagon wheel 1the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once. To pray is to move to the center of all life and all love. The closer I come to the hub of life, the closer I come to all that receives its strength and energy from there. My tendency is to get so distracted by the diversity of the many spokes of life, that I am busy but not truly life-giving, all over the place but not focused. By directing my attention to the heart of life, I am connected with its rich variety while remaining centered. What does the hub represent? I think of it as my own heart, the heart of God, and the heart of the world. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love. And I recognize, right there, the place where all of my sisters and brothers are in communion with one another. The great paradox of the spiritual life is, indeed, that the most personal is most universal, that the most intimate, is most communal, and that the most contemplative is most active. The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the center of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!”

When you pay careful attention to how Jesus teaches us to connect with this hub or center of life, we see that not only does doing this help us find renewal and center, not only does it help us see the world from the bigger perspective Nouwen talks about by connecting us with others and their perspectives, but also it transforms how we look at and live here and now.

By praying our Father, we recognize each of us and every person we meet are children of God, that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and that none of us are better or worse than others from God’s perspective.   Each of us are loved, embraced, cared for by our God equally.   Not only that, but in the Psalms “our Father” is the name of God used to say God is the father of the fatherless, who sheds special attention on the poor, and who is the protector of the orphaned, the widowed, and the immigrant.  Saying “our Father” in prayer is inviting God to help those priorities, God’s priorities for our world, praybecome our own.  We are inviting God to widen our vision so that we can see ourselves and others as God does.  When we pray your kingdom come, your will be done, we are signing our names on the dotted line and agreeing to be partners with God in God’s work of setting right our world.   When you pray for God to give us our daily bread, you pray not just saying “give me my bread” but “give us”, recognizing that the needs of each person matter, and you are intended to be a part of God’s answer to this prayer for daily bread for others.  And Jesus makes it clear in his words after he introduces this prayer that praying for God to forgive your debts challenges you to forgive others who have wronged and harmed you.  The language Jesus uses is peculiar too – he does not say forgive us our sins or harms,  but forgive us our debt.  In his day and age, like ours, debts could wreck a person’s life.   Praying this prayer also involves an obligation to help accept God’s clearing of the slate while also committing to help clear the slate for others.  This does include forgiving people and seeking reconciliation.  But such prayer should also challenge us to ask, Do we set up a system in our society where people are pushed into debts like ones falling into the bottom of a well, without a way up, when they face health problems, disasters, poor choices early in life?  Does our world throw those people, whoever that is, into cycles of poverty or into the criminal justice system without a way to right their wrongs?

Since this Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ model prayer, even if it is not exactly these words you pray, prayer that follows after Jesus’ heart, opens you this sort of change in perspective.

Even fasting, which Jesus describes here and which Dr. King was practicing in front of my surprised friend Chuck, fasting is also intended to shape our perspective into one that considers others, leading us to recognize the struggle of the neediest around us who Rustic-Wagon-Wheel-Main-imagemay go without food or comfort not by choice.   As Isaiah 58 challenges us, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … [to] spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…”  This why such fasting as follows after the footsteps of Jesus cannot be for show.  Its point is not to make you feel or seem big and important.  It is to challenge you to see yourself and others as God does, and be moved to respond to them at their point of need.

Any thoughts about ways we can respond to this call as individuals?  As a church?

May we follow Christ’s words, Dr. King’s example, and make time and space to return to the center, the hub of life, where our hearts connect with God’s heart and the heart of the world, so we might be renewed and transformed there by God’s presence, love, and grace.  Amen and Amen.

 

Week in the Word: I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, January 27th,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall. 

 

“I am Not Throwing Away My Shot”

 

Call to Worship                             (inspired by poem by Rev. Pauli Murray )

bruised reedHope is a crushed stalk

Between clenched fingers

Hope is a bird’s wing

Broken by a stone.

Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —

A word whispered with the wind,

A dream of forty acres and a mule,

A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,

A name and place for one’s children

And children’s children at last . . .

Hope is a song in a weary throat.

dying child 2Give me a song of hope

And a world where I can sing it.

Give me a song of faith

And a people to believe in it.

Give me a song of kindliness

And a country where I can live it.

Give me a song of hope and love

And a child’s heart to hear it.

 

Matthew 5:1-20, New International Version

sermon on the mountNow when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.  He said:  3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

These are the words of God for the people of God.  May God open our hearts and minds to see and know what God is saying to us in them this day.  In Christ’s name. Amen.

 

What stands out to you in these words of Jesus?

 

my_shot_act_1_2

“I am not throwing away my shot / I am not throwing away my shot / Hey yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot”.      So begins the play Hamilton.  This play dramatically sets to music the story of the founding of our country, and the struggle our founding fathers went through to write out our constitution and our bill of rights, documents which flesh out exactly what it would look like for their dream – of a land where all people are created equal, with freedom and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – what that looks like put into practice.

martin luther kingThis week is a time we think about how dreams become reality, too, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who famously said “I have a dream” during his march on Washington, calling in that speech for a time to begin when people of all races and backgrounds could be welcomed as one, being treated as equal, in every part of human life.

Our responsive reading today is based on a poem by 6ebdd-paulimurraybylaurelgreenanother dreamer, the Rev. Pauli Murray of Durham, who was a civil rights leader working for that same dream almost a generation before King’s struggle and who, like King, was also jailed for her stands against racial prejudice and discrimination here in the South.   Unlike him, Pauli lived to a ripe old age, continuing even after his death her fight for this dream, by working as a writer, then a civil rights attorney, and finally as one of the first black female pastors ordained into the Episcopal Church USA.

 

In a way, when Jesus climbs atop the mountain in today’s Scripture reading, he is also announcing and fleshing out what the dream he has been proclaiming– the dream of “the kingdom of heaven” – looks like and how we can change our lives to help make it a reality here and now, which is, after all, what he means when he says repent and believe.

Those who followed Jesus up the mountain to hear his “Sermon on the Mount” which follows would have automatically gotten the point, remembering that it is on such a mountain that Moses first delivered the 10 Commandments, the laws that were the centerpiece of Moses’ fleshing out of what it would like for this rag-tag band of freed slaves he led out of Egypt to become a free people, the nation of Israel.   And those Moses-shining-facegathered listening to Jesus’ sermon would have remembered how the prophets imagined that a day would come when the same thing would happen for all people. Those prophets dreamed of a time when the mountain of God’s house would be set up, and people of all nations – not just Israel but anyone and everyone – would come to it, to learn God’s ways, learning how to beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more.        They would have known that Jesus was getting ready to flesh out what that dream looks like, in practical terms, the dream of becoming people individually and a community together that brings the healing of the nations the prophets promised, making this world here and now more as it is in heaven.

With that context, I wonder, does anything stand out to you about the picture Jesus paints of what this might look like?

First of all, it is important to notice what the foundation of this dream or vision for Jesus is not.  It is not a set of rules to obey, but instead having the heart of God.  I think this is an important fact we often overlook, and goes against the grain of what we expect.  When God calls that rag-tag band of freed slaves Moses led out of Egypt to become a nation, broken heart 2God does so through giving them a set of laws: The Ten Commandments.  I think often we look up, expecting the same thing from Jesus today: for God to hand us a list of rules, some IKEA instructions or how-to manual on building God’s church or community, or building a Christ-like life.  This is why, on the one hand, we often end up feeling inadequate wondering how we can ever live up to who we need to be if we want to be close to God and, on the other hand, why so often churches end up judging and excluding people who don’t always fit their image of what they think a good Christian ought to look like: when we think following Jesus is about keeping a list of rules we often end up trying to push ourselves and others to fit into boxes, predetermined images of what following God looks like,  which may painfully not fit.

This is why Jesus says our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and other teachers of Biblical law, who were the key religious leaders of his day.   They could quote the Bible front to back, but had turned it into a set of rules to keep people in line, and often instead of setting people to be free to be who God made them to be, it became in their hands just another force pushing people down.  Jesus’ kingdom is different than this – it is expressed by Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me; and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclaiming that the day of God’s favor or pardon has come.  It is a revolution of freedom that draws people out of fear and into close friendship with God, and pushes people to break every bond that oppresses them and others.

This is why instead of rules Jesus points to attitudes of the heart as his kingdom’s declaration of independence constitution, or bill or rights: those who are blessed, who become the salt and light we are called to be if we are ones who live out Jesus’ prayer thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven, are not necessarily those who keep all the rules right or can quote their Bibles.  That’s the righteousness Jesus says we need to get beyond.   They are those who are pure in heart and truly come honestly before God just as they are, without pretense.  They are those who recognize their own poverty and need before God, while also standing in solidarity with the needy and vulnerable all around them. They are those who mourn over the injustice in the world, its impact on others, and their part in it.  They are those willing to count the cost and face loss themselves for working with God to set right what’s broken and hurting in our world.  These aren’t rules – and there’s as many ways to live these beatitudes Jesus describes out as there are people and places in the world, so we don’t fulfill them by trying to fit ourselves and others into boxes where we and they don’t belong.

beatitudes (1)N

o, these beatitudes are what Gods’ heart is throughout the Scriptures, which tell us again and again that God hears the cry of the poor, lifts up the oppressed, cares as a father to the fatherless, the immigrant and widow; and is moved with compassion to the broken and hurting.

And we don’t develop God’s heart by gritting our teeth and trying really hard to blindly follow a list of rules or be someone we aren’t.  Rather, God rubs off on us as we regularly spend time in God’s company, as we openly and honestly share our lives with God, letting God guide our thoughts and minds, our heart and intentions, each day. That shapes our hearts more and more into ones that beat in sync with God’s.

One Biblical image for this is of a tree.  Psalm 1 tells us that psalm 1 treea tree planted by streams of water will grow fruit in due season.  As we open ourselves up to the living waters of God’s presence each day in our lives, in each person we encounter, in each moment, if we do it honestly, bit by bit we will begin to develop a heart shaped like God’s just like a tree planted by the water will naturally begin to grow its leaves, blossom, and ultimately grow fruit in due season. Our challenge then is not to ask what rule we must follow better  but asking whether we are planting ourselves each day by the running water of God’s presence by spending time paying attention to God.

These qualities then are a picture of what cooperating with God as God works to bring God’s dream of healing, reconciliation, and hope into our lives and world looks like.   I had a good friend of mine when I was a pastor in the Eastern part of the state who was a retired Jewish rabbi.  He used to say when asked that the message of the prophets of mend world 2Scripture was tikkun olam, or “you, go mend the world”.   This is definitely what Jesus is talking about when he envisions the kingdom of Heaven coming near in our lives and in our church, with us being salt that heals wounds and adds flavor to the world, and the light that shows the way for those who’ve lost direction.   As Bono, lead singer of U2, once said when asked why he kept arguing for people from wealthy nations like ours to help those struggling in poverty in the developing world, being kingdom people means to “Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing” and instead looking and listening to “Find out what God’s doing. It’s already blessed” so we can join God there, working together with God.  Knowing the ongoing message of Scriptures about God’s heart we are talking about now, Bono goes further to say where is God? “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

Ultimately, God is already at work in such places healing, reconciling, and setting free.  If we can but open our eyes and see, we will know that God is extending God’s hand to us, inviting us on the adventure of going those places with God and joining in that work of mending broken lives and our broken world.   Each day, as individuals, as a community, as a church, to be the people God has called us to be we have to ask how can we join God in what God is doing?  How can we join God in mending God’s people and God’s world?  And I would say this is especially important for us as a church now to ask, as we consider where we are moving together as a church in the  future — we must move together with God, working together where God is working, caring for those for whom God is caring, not simply doing what meets our needs and keeps us comfortable.  One path is the path that leads to life; the other to being that salt that has lost its savor.  Let us answer that call to go out of our comfort zones, Hanks Chapel, to be salt and light.

beatitudes

This is why it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers and the merciful that are blessed.  These aren’t passive qualities which God wants to shape into our hearts.  No, these are the qualities of those moved to action.  As one commentator puts it, hungering and thirsting for righteousness is not in the Bible longing for being some holier than thou religious expert but instead it is a longing to rescue and release the oppressed and restore the powerless and outcast to their rightful place in the community.  Likewise, being merciful is not just feeling sorry for others and going on your way but is instead us putting practical compassion put action.   As Glen Stassen says in his Living the Sermon on the Mount, this speaks of “those who have … such compassion

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toward all people that they want to share gladly all they have with one another and with the world”.   And being a peacemaker is not just avoiding fighting or looking the other way without getting involved while conflict happens, but it is pro-actively going to those situations where people are divided and things could turn ugly, and helping people find constructive solutions that tear down walls between people, helping them move forward together, without threat of violence and recrimination.   These qualities are good pictures of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King meant when he said that God’s people needed to be not just thermometers reflecting the temperature of the climate around them but thermostats who set the temperature and climate for their communities.

Any thoughts about ways you see some of us already doing this here?

What about new ways we can strive to live this out?

Friends, let’s hear God’s call. Let’s be scrappy.  Let’s be hungry.  Let’s not throw away our shot, but let us take God’s hands, joining God in being people of healing, of peacemaking, of compassion and of justice – the salt and light we are called to be in God’s world.  Amen and Amen.

my shot

Week in the Word: Shadow-Boxing

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, January 20th,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

Shadow-Boxing

Call to Worship                              based on poem by Rumi

guest-houseThis being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

They may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

 

 

Matthew 4:1-17, New International Version

temptation of jesusThen Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

and they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death  a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These are the words of God for the people of God. May God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see, know, and embrace what God is showing us in these words.  Amen.

 

Before I share what stands out to me, what strikes you about this section of Matthew’s Gospel?

 

I can’t speak for you, but I think every time I read the Gospel as it tells the story of Jesus going into the wilderness, I have to take a moment and remind myself “I don’t think that means what you think it means”.  For me, when I first hear wilderness I imagine woods, flowering dogwoodand I remember the words to one of my favorite poets, which says, “Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.  I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.  Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing. If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”  When I hear the word “wilderness,” I look at my busy schedule, my to-do lists for my two jobs, for helping family and friends, for planning for my future, and I think “the wilderness? That sounds nice.  Let’s grab a backpack and a tent, and do it.  Let’s go off the grid a few days”.

But that, of course, is not at all what it was like when, immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit, literally in the Greek driven — the same word the Bible uses for how Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden when they sin and Israel is driven out of the Holy Land for her sins during the exile — by the Holy Spirit away from his comfortable home, from his daily job, from his family and friends, out to fend for himself desertin the wilderness.  Instead of what I expect when I hear the word “wilderness”, this is a lonely journey not into beautiful treelines but into punishing desert, the same deserts that Abram and the patriarchs wandered through looking for a promised land, and the same deserts which Jesus’s ancestors, the people of Israel, passed through for a generation after leaving slavery in Egypt.  It is a journey for whoever takes it into hardship, into heat, into thirst and hunger.  It is a journey not just to be comfortably alone, cut off from the business of the world, but into a crushing kind of isolation most of us have trouble imagining.

When I think about what facing into that isolation must have been like, I imagine another kind of isolation: imprisonment and exile.   I think of the experience of people like Nelson Mandela who resisted racist apartheid in South Africa, Martin Luther King whose birthday we are celebrating on Monday, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer who stood against the NAZIs, when they were cut off, isolated from others, by being thrown in jail StAnthonyInTheDesert_basic_drawing 04for their fight for justice.   Such a journey forced them to come face to face with their deepest selves.  Writing about his experience being imprisoned while awaiting his trial at the hands of NAZI Germany for resisting their campaign of abuse and slaughter of Jews, gays, gypsies, those with disabilities, and many others, Bonhoeffer asked, “Who am I? They often tell me / I stepped from my cell’s confinement / Calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / Like a Squire from his country house.

“Who am I? They often tell me / I used to speak to my warders / Freely and friendly and clearly, / As though it were mine to command.

“Who am I? They also tell me / I bore the days of misfortune / Equably, smilingly, proudly, / like one accustomed to win.

“Am I then really that which other men tell of? / Or am I only what I myself know of myself? / Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, / Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, / Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, / Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, / Tossing in expectations of great events, / Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, / Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, / Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

“Who am I? This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? /Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling? /Or is something within me still like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? / Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. / Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

bonhoefferSome of you, I bet, can relate with Bonhoeffer’s questions.  Though you have not been driven into the desert alone like Jesus, and likely not thrown in jail for your work for justice or the Gospel like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer (although, who knows?  One of you might have, unknown to me, been jailed for civil disobedience), I think all of us enter into experiences in which we feel pushed, driven, into feelings of isolation, of weakness, of loss, of failure.  In such times, like Bonhoeffer, we face our deepest fears, doubts, struggles.  We face into temptation.  We are brought face to face with the darker sides of our nature – what psychologists have called our shadow sides: our many insecurities, fears, our drive to be right at any cost.

The fact Jesus has his own insecurities and fears, temptations and doubts to face into says something.   That Jesus has these and the devil can throw them at Jesus’ face even though Scripture tells us that Jesus had no sin, when Hebrews 4 says Jesus is not  One “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”, teaches us something important.  To have insecurities, to have questions, to have fears, to have doubts and to be tempted, is not to sin, since Jesus experienced all of this without sinning.  It is instead to be human, vulnerable, to struggle.

What’s more, that immediately after answering God’s call on his life, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus right into a situation where he must face head on these sides of himself, before he can go out and proclaim “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” suggests that we don’t need to fear these trying times that come upon our lives, that come upon our churches, or our families: these times we feel driven and pushed to the edge of ourselves, these times when we are forced to encounter head on our shortcomings and weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and seemingly worst qualities as individuals and, yes, these same characteristics in our families, in our communities, and in our churches.

As our responsive reading, a poem by the Muslim poet Rumi, reminds us when describing some of the surprising and challenging experiences life brings our way, Devil_vs_Jesus“Welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture, / still, treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing you out / for some new delight.”         Though difficult, if like Jesus we keep our eyes focused on God, who we are from God’s perspective, and how God is calling us to work together with God at building God’s dream for our lives & world even in the midst of our pain, such experiences can actually prepare us for better doors God is opening for us and for our future.

It is in part through his experience of imprisonment, awful though it was, that Nelson Mandala developed the character and compassion he needed to lead his people in South Africa not only out of apartheid but toward reconciliation between groups of people who had been at odds over racial issues from time out of mind.

One of my heroes in the faith is a man named Troy Perry.  Troy is a man who in the 1960s loses it all – his job as a pastor, his marriage, his family – when people discovered he is gay.   He hits rock bottom, and is driven to such despair and hopelessness he attempts to take his own life.  And it is there – in the midst of his darkest moment, while

recovering from his failed suicide attempt, that Troy senses God saying to him I love you, Troy, and have not given up on you.  And I am calling you to reach out to people just like you, who because the church has given up on them, need to be reminded I love them too and have not given up on them either.   It was only through going through that dark moment where he confronted his deepest failures, insecurities, temptations, and losses, that Troy Perry could see his calling and embrace it, at a time when a lot of our country still lay divided over race and you be jailed for being gay, his call then of beginning a work of starting some of the first churches in our country that intentionally welcome gay people alongside straight people, and people of every race and background, all around the banner of the cross, recognizing the ground is level there, with room for everyone. For there is not a person not embraced by the open arms of Christ, not a one for whom Christ did not die.

christ+in+the+wildernessCan you think of other examples of times when going through such a trying experience personally or as a family or a church, helped prepare people for something better God had before them on the other side of it?

I think this is important not just personally, but also for us as a church.   The last few years, many of our families here at our church and in our community have gone through such hard times that stretched and tried them, haven’t they?  Some of you are still going through them today.   As a church, too, we’ve gone through our own times of storms together that have shaken us, and made some of us wonder if we would get through, which also has shown us areas we need to learn, grown, and change, as well.

Such times can feel so helpless.  They can feel like the end.   But Jesus’ example shows us that passing through the wilderness  and facing our doubts, fears, shortcomings, and prejudices there — you name it! —  together may be just what we have had to go through, to prepare us to open up to the next bright thing God has on our horizon – to welcome people we never would have thought to welcome in, to see needs we would otherwise have overlooked, to serve in ways we would have never thought of before.

Friends, though it hard, let us embrace these experiences that make us face our weakness, need, temptation, and doubt.   We must let go of our impatience.  We must let go of our fear.  We must trust that, together with God, we can face not only these dark moments but the great possibilities God brings for us to change ourselves and our world on the other side of them.  Let us hear God’s call and say “yes”.  Amen and Amen.

 

Sanctuary, Resisting Babel, and the Power of the Gospel

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-cc7yr-a509e0

Derek Jones of the Triangle Sanctuary Network

With news flooded with stories of a government shutdown surrounding questions of immigration, I am excited to share a timely podcast interview.  Last year I was blessed to sit at table and interview Derek Jones of the Triangle Sanctuary Task Force about his work organizing churches and community groups to support people who are immigrants and facing discrimination and deportation.

During our talk tonight we enjoyed some Turkish lentil salad inspired by The Last Train to Istanbul, which tells the story of Turkish people who helped hide Jews from the NAZI government in World War II.  Most importantly to our questions today, we explored both the necessary politics of the Gospel claims and how these translate to our relationships with our immigrant neighbors.

 

img_5836.jpg?w=474

Week in the Word: What Will You Do With Your One Wild and Precious Life?

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, January 13th,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

What Will You Do With Your One Wild and Precious Life?

Call to Worship                              based on poem by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

grasshopper7Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

Matthew 3:1-17, New International version

john baptizerIn those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

These are the words of God for God’s people.  May God open the ears of our hearts and eyes of our minds so we might see and hear what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.

 

Does anything stand to any of you in this Gospel reading?

Our responsive reading that opened our time of worship included words from the poet Mary Oliver.  After intimately describing the beauty of nature, she asked the haunting chaplain 1question which ties into today’s Gospel reading “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  What do we plan to do indeed?

This is a question I can’t avoid asking myself again and again with my ongoing work in hospice -– sitting with people at the end of their lives and helping them as they ask themselves “what was my life for? Did it matter?”

This question of what we will do with our one wild and precious life is called in the Christian faith the question of one’s calling or one’s vocation.  In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus, together with those others who listen to the preaching of John the Baptist, facing into just this question.   Their experience, and particularly Jesus’ response, has much to teach us as we face into questions of our own callings today.

john baptizer 2I wonder, what does Jesus’ response and the response of those others listening to John preach in or Gospel reading speak to you about this question of calling?

At its heart this question of calling – “what will we do with this one wild and precious life?” —  challenges us to recognize who we are.  When Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, that is what He does.  The heavens part.  The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, hovering over him like a mother dove hovering over her baby birds, sheltering them under wing.  The voice of God the Father echoes — “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”   Jesus’ choice to be baptized by John re-affirms his identity as God’s Son, one loved by and delighted in by God.

As Marianne Williamson reminds us in her book A Return to Love, ultimately recognizing our worth and value to God as God’s own children, is the starting place for our own journeys, too: “Our deepest fear,” she writes, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Yet, rather than making us self-centered, recognizing ourselves as God’s very own, loved and of infinite worth as Jesus does, leads us to put aside our anxieties and fears so we may see others and our world more clearly.  As Henri Nouwen writes in his book The Life john baptizer 3of the Beloved, “First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting” Love.

“When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones,” he continues, “we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.”

Jesus’ baptism also is about recognizing such a wider vision.  Notice the preaching that quote-the-kingdom-of-god-is-not-a-matter-of-getting-individuals-to-heaven-but-of-transforming-walter-rauschenbusch-73-24-39precedes this baptism:  Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near. For John the Baptist and also for Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is less about the place we go when we die and more about making this world here and now more like how heaven where we are headed already is: in the words of the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Micah, a place where swords are beaten into plowshares, where spears are beaten into pruning hooks; where people of all backgrounds are welcomed as one family, and where no one need learn violence anymore.

John’s preaching that this kingdom of heaven has come near is his way of saying: don’t wait for heaven to make the world better.   You, today, be the change you want to see in this world.   As Frederick Buechner once said, “”By and large a good rule for finding out” your calling “is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that kingdom of god within thomasyou need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.   We each have some way each day and throughout our lives that as children of God our unique gifts, passions, talents, time, and energy, can be put to work in ways where we come fully alive and in ways that make the plot of ground we are on a little bit more like it is already in heaven.

And yet, we also each have ways we hold back from this, don’t we?  And ways in which we often put our gifts, passions, time, and talent, to work in ways that are purely selfish, spiteful, or hurtful.

This is why John uses such strong language about repenting.  Don’t just say you are Abraham’s children, in other words that you grew up in a religious family.  Don’t just say you will repent or change your life.   Do it!  Bear fruit in your life that is proof you are being changed.  It is not just paying lip service and wishing God will make the world a better place.  It is not just having thoughts and prayers.  It is actually doing the work, joining God in this effort yourself.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism does not flesh out what these fruits of repentance will look like here and now, but in the Gospel of Luke we find out such repentance is us giving up ways we are unjust, unfair, ways we take advantage of and harm others, for ways we can make this world today more as it already is in heaven.  Notice how it describes repentance: ‘ “What should we do then?” the crowd asked’ in Luke 3.  ‘John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized. Baptism-of-Christ (1)“Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”’       Jesus will go further in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, saying to not return evil for evil, violence for violence, but instead to love your enemies, to forgive those who harm you; to give generously to all without expecting repayment.   As Dr. Martin Luther King used to say, we are not to simply be thermometers reflecting back to the world the temperature all around us, but to be thermostats, ones who help set the climate and temperature of our communities in ways that set the tone for others.

Which brings us to the final part of our question “what will we do with this one wild and precious life?”: Jesus and those others joining John’s baptism commit to face into their own shortcomings, giving those over to God to be made new.

When John talks about how Jesus is coming, he says it will be like Jesus sends a fire on the earth, sorting out wheat from inedible chaff on the threshing floor, preserving the good while burning up the worthless.

You see, the call to be children of God means to grow into being ones who as Jesus did reflect God in how we live and act, showing God’s love, compassion, and goodness in our actions, just like children reflect the image of their parent in their appearance.   We each have sides to ourselves that are anything but like God: sides that are selfish, thoughtless, uncaring.   This is a part of why baptism uses water: as water washes away dirt and filth, so God wants to wash away from us all those parts of us that keep us from reflecting God and bearing God’s image.   It is no fun at all to face into the sides of ourselves that aren’t our best, but facing into them head on, naming them, giving them to God, and cooperating with God as everyday God shows us how to lay them aside, helps us live more fully into all God has made us to be.  This is a vital part of this call to live this one wild and precious life.

Friends, let us take this plunge with Jesus.  May you, may I, may all of us, discover how to embrace our one wild and precious life together!  Amen and Amen.