Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lessons in prayer, from a dog

He assume his still posture
two feet from the table.
He is not grabby,
his tongue is not hanging out,
he is quiet.

He wants to leap,
he wants to snap up
meat and blood.
You can tell.
But what he does is sit
as the gods
his masters and mistresses
fork steak and potatoes
into their mouths.

He is expectant
but not presumptuous.
He can wait.
He can live with disappointment.
He can abide frustration
and suffer suspense.

He watches
for signals,
he listens for calls
of his name from above.

At hints that
he may be gifted
with a morsel,
he intensifies his
already rapt concentration,
he looks his god
in the eye
but humbly,
sure of his innocence
in his need,
if his need only.

On the (often rare) occasions
when gifts are laid on his tongue,
he takes them whole,
then instantly resumes
the posture of attention,
beseeching, listening, alert,
the posture of hard-won faith
that will take no for an answer,
yet ever and again hopefully
return to the questioning.

Rodney Clapp, author
Christian Century Magazine
February 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Do You Believe in the Resurrection?

            Can you believe in something that you have never seen?  How do you know that something is true if you have never seen it or experienced it yourself?  Those are questions that some ask in regard to the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate yearly on Easter Sunday.  Some doubt the resurrection of Jesus because it is difficult for them to grasp how a person who has died can be brought back to life again. 
            Believing in something we cannot understand is not new for modern people.  Even with all the scientific knowledge that exists, there are things that we encounter daily that are hard for most of us to understand.  Each time I flip on the light switch and the lights come on, I am doing something that I do as a repetitive motion but one that is not something I truly understand.  I simply know that, unless the electrical power to the house is not working, when I do it the lights in the light fixture will produce light.  The light bulbs themselves are a mystery as to how they work.  Perhaps Thomas Edison understood how the light bulb worked since he invented them, but for me as an average consumer I only know that if the light bulb is in the light fixture and connected to the electrical lines running through the house, then light will be produced by my action of flipping the light switch. 
            There are so many innumerable other things that we do in life that we do not understand that we have grown accustomed to simply doing them or using them without knowing exactly how they work and that is the way our lives are ordered.  I use a cell phone and a computer daily and I have no idea how simply pushing buttons or tapping a keyboard causes words to appear on a screen that I can print out on a sheet of paper or send electronically to people around the world.  I simply do these things and have faith that it will work unless there is a problem inside my computer or phone that causes it not to work (and I don’t understand how that can be either.)
            So, we all live our lives daily in ways in which we place faith in objects or customs to do the things in life we want to do without understanding how those things work or what causes them to do what we want them to do.  Why is spiritual faith something that operates out of the normal way of life when it comes to belief in something that we cannot explain? 
            When I say that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God raised Jesus from the dead in some supernatural way, I can believe in that idea without understanding how it happened.  If I believe that there was a man named Jesus Christ of Nazareth who lived over 2000 years ago in a land we now call Israel and whose teachings make sense for ordering our lives, then why can I not take another leap of faith (who is to say that any historical persons we learned about in school or at church actually existed?  We believe in them because we trust the people who taught us to believe in them.) and say that it is possible that God (another matter of faith—to believe in God takes faith on the part of the believer) could raise Jesus from the dead and bring him back to a spiritual life that is beyond explanation. 
            The celebration of Easter precedes the celebration of Christmas by many centuries.  Persons in the Early Church saw the resurrection of Jesus as one of the hallmarks of what it means to be called a Christian.  The life, teachings, and death of Jesus are vastly important to society and humankind but the resurrection of Jesus sets Christianity apart from other religions because Christians believe that if Jesus was raised from the dead, then we too will experience a spiritual resurrection when we die.   
            I choose to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because I can explain how it happened but because it gives me hope for the future and purpose in life knowing that this life is not all there is.  I am not wishing for a quick exit from this life because I enjoy life and living but I do not have to be afraid of death or dying because God has prepared something after this life that I believe exists through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
            Each time I officiate at a funeral I begin with the same words called “The Word of Grace”.  It says, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Those words of Jesus give me hope that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all can experience a continued existence after this one ends.  That hope conquers any fear that society’s ills may produce.  We have hope in Christ because Christ has conquered death and our lives are contained in his life so we too will have life beyond death when our time comes.

            May the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be yours both now and always.  Amen.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Living Water That Brings Restoration and Reconciliation

How thirsty are you?  Do you ever thirst for the truth?  Do you thirst for the peace that calms the troubled heart?  Do you thirst for restoration and reconciliation with God and neighbor?

The theme for this next Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, is reconciliation.  We will read three scripture lessons that all tell stories of reconciliation and restoration.  First, from Exodus, comes the story of thirsty people in the wilderness.  The People called Israel are wandering in the desert as they make their way from Egypt to Canaan Land.  There is little water in the dry land they are crossing.  They are thirsty and begin to call out to Moses to give them water.  Moses, in turn, calls out to God who tells him to strike a rock and water will gush out of it and sure enough it does, as Moses does what God commands him to do.   Thirsty people drink of fresh cool water gushing out from beneath a rock, a hidden spring that needed to be tapped.

Then, John's Gospel tells the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus encounters and asks for a drink of water from her.  She is a troubled woman and Jesus senses her distress, since she is at the well at noon rather than early in the morning when most women came to the well to avoid the midday heat.  Her conversation with Jesus makes her believe he is a prophet and she calls the townspeople to come and see this remarkable man.  Jesus gives her the "living water" she seeks as she is restored to relationship with her community and to the God she seeks to know.

Paul addresses the church at Rome in chapter 5 of his epistle to them and talks about being justified and reconciled to God through the love of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for all humanity.  Jesus' actions have made all justified to God and brought about full restoration of the brokenness of human beings, both to God and one another.  The live and actions of Jesus have brought those who seek restoration into full and right relationship.

Living water is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman, the same living water that Paul offers to the early church at Rome.  The living water could only come through the Spirit of God working in Christ and evident in the lives of Early Christians who found a new way of living after Pentecost.  Living water is what modern day persons need also, water that stimulates the human spirit and revives the refreshes the soul.

The people of Israel who were crossing the barren wilderness after they left Egypt and were searching for a home needed real physical water to quench their dry throats and bring them relief so they could continue their journey.  God showed his love and compassion for them as he supplied their needs.  The physical water represented the love of God to them because God heard their cries and responded to their need.

God hears our cries also and answers our prayers, perhaps not always in the way we anticipate but in ways that are for our own good and welfare.  God's love is made known to us through the actions of others who come to our rescue when we need to hear words and see love demonstrated in tangible ways.  We find refreshing streams of water when we need them as we continue to seek God in our daily lives and to gather with God's People regularly to gain spiritual strength and renewal.

How thirsty are you?  How much do you need to know God's presence in your life?  Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you who are heavily laden and I will give you rest."  The waters of restoration and reconciliation are always flowing.  One simply has to come to the waters and receive what God offers to find relief.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lessons From the Goose

Lessons from the Goose (taken from an anonymous source):

1. As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follow.  By flying in a "V" formation the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

2. When a good falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone.  It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go.  We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.

3. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies to the point position.
Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership.  As with geese, people are interdependent on each other's skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, and resources.

4. The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
Lesson: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging.  In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater.  The power of encouragement (to stand by one's heart or core values and encourage others with those same values) is the quality of honking we seek.

5. When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help protect it.  They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again.  Then, they launch out with another formation to catch up with the flock.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Entering the Season of Lent

February is almost gone and with its departure will begin the Christian season of Lent.  It starts this week on March 1 which is called Ash Wednesday.  That is the first day of Lent, the official start of 40 days of fasting and prayer, piety and solemnity, devoting oneself to contemplation, meditation, and reflection on one's own spiritual condition.  This practice dates back to the days of the Early Church where it was customary to observe a time of preparation for those who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday morning.  The time of preparation allowed the new converts to Christianity to consider what they were going to do because baptism was a serious undertaking.  In a world where Christianity was often outlawed, then becoming a Christian was literally a life or death matter.

Lent was also a time when those who had been separated from the Christian Community or persons who had committed serious sins could be reconciled and restored to the Church by penitence and forgiveness.  The entire congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.

Modern day Christians are invited to consider the Lenten Season to be a time of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and doing good deeds for others.  People are encouraged to read and meditate on God's Word and to take the time to be more devoted to regular and faithful attendance to worship services.

The beginning of Lent is similar to the beginning of a New Year.  It gives people a chance to make a new start.  If people had made resolutions at the end of the last year and have already forgotten them or broken them, then Lent provides a chance to begin again.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and a church service is often held during which worshipers come forward to receive the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance.  Ashes has been a sign of repentance that dates back to ancient Israel.  When persons wanted God to know their sincerity in obedience to God's commands, they would sit in ashes and put on clothes made of sackcloth and cover themselves with the ashes.  Getting down to the lowest level of society in this way provided a visual that the person repenting was sincere.  Today, we receive only a smudge of ash on our foreheads but that small mark is representative of our sincerity that we want to have as we begin the season of Lent.

Then, there are six Sundays in Lent where we hear the ancient stories from Israel's history about the fall of humans, the lives of the patriarchs, and the acts of the prophets in addition to the ministry of Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem where he would give up his life for humanity.  Those six weeks help to prepare us for what we will encounter during Holy Week when we recall Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, his Last Supper with his disciples, and his death on the cross.  Silence falls on Saturday as we await Jesus' resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.

We recall anew these stories year after year to remind us of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ for all people.  It is important to our experience as Christians to be engaged and involved in our faith community during the Lenten Season in order to fully appreciate the story of Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead.  We are all encouraged and urged to be present in worship for each Sunday in Lent as we hear the stories and reflect upon their meaning for our own lives.

Will you devote yourself to practices of faith and love for the weeks of Lent?  Will you do deeds of mercy for others and acts of piety for your own spiritual fulfillment?  Will you consider fasting from a food or practice that you find dear for the season of Lent so as to connection with Jesus' story of his own temptation and testing?  If you will consider making this a "Holy Lent" through these Christian practices, then your Easter Celebration may be more meaningful this year than in years past because you set your mind on things above for a season in order to be more fully human at its end.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sermon on the Mount--Jesus' State of the Union Address?

For the past two Sundays the Gospel lection has been focusing on Jesus' teachings in Matthew's Gospel that we call "The Sermon on the Mount".  Matthew 5 begins with the familiar Beatitudes that list character traits of those who desire to follow Jesus.  It continues with the other familiar passage wherein Jesus says that his followers would be "the salt of the earth" and the "light of the world", two metaphors for how Christians are to relate to others in the world around them.

This week, Jesus' teachings confront the religious leaders of his day as he begins each section with the phrase, "You have heard it said..." and then puts one of their teachings on its head by saying, "But I say..."  These passages are sometimes referred to as Jesus' hard sayings because he confronts the teachings of his day that have to do with how people live.  Those teachings are just as relevant today because they have to do with anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing by oaths, things that all of us hear about on a daily basis as we live together.

Jesus lived in a day when males were dominant over females.  Women were considered to be the property of a man, moving from the house of parents who ruled her life to the house of a husband who provided for her needs.  Our modern marriage ceremonies once contained the phrase, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" but such language was removed from the ceremonies of most mainline churches in recognition that women are not property and cannot be given by anyone to anyone else.  Instead, we ask, "Who presents this woman...?"

Women lived with their husbands and were considered to be caretakers of the house and children and the men in the house were considered to be much more valuable than they were.  If a man who cared for a woman died, then she would be considered to be at the mercy of society.  Hebraic law commanded people to care for "widows and orphans" because they were considered to be the most helpless persons in society.  It was the duty of all to care for those who had no one else assigned to care for them.  Immigrants and refugees were also to be cared for by society because they had little to sustain them on their journeys.

Women had few rights and a man could decide to divorce his wife for no reason.  He only had to tell he that he no longer wanted her as his wife and then he could abandon her.  If a man simply tired of having a woman as his wife, he could expel her from his house and she would have no place to go.  Jesus is addressing divorce because it was part of a one sided social system of his day, with only men having the right to ask for a divorce.  Jesus was trying to teach the men of his day that they should have serious grounds for divorce before asking for one because it was not a matter to be considered trivial.

Jesus' social teachings were directed toward society of his day that was grounded in the ancient Mosaic law that moved society from "an eye for an eye" to exacting punishment that would fit a crime instead of promoting chaos and havoc in society.  Before the giving of the law to Israel, bands of people would attack and kill entire tribes or families in retribution for a fault that was done to one person.  The law attempted to make retribution equivalent so that the punishment would not be more severe than it should.

Jesus wanted those listening to him to consider how people should live in relationship with one another, not becoming angry over little things or cursing one another (swearing oaths against others to bring them harm) or desiring what others had including their wives.  Such were common practices in Jesus' day.  Jesus wanted those who would follow him to know that members of the Kingdom of Heaven would be different than those who inhabited earth.  They would strive for higher goals and a better way of living.

Jesus' teachings are just as relevant today as they were when he gave them.  We still have rampant violence in the world around us.  We still have some who wish to exact retribution for every slight.  We still have brokenness in society that needs repair.  Jesus' teachings of love and mercy need to be repeated often in the ears of all who would listen so that grace may heal the wounds of many who have only heard judgment preached by those who profess to be followers of the Prince of Peace.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Character Traits of Disciples of Jesus Christ

If you could make a list describing what you thought a Christian should be like, what would be on your list?  We all make judgments about others in which we determine whether or not they are Christians.  We size them up and decide that certain characteristics either include or exclude them from being part of the Christian family.  Sometimes our list is determined by earlier teachings we received from religious teachers or pastors or even from politicians or well meaning relatives.  When the criteria for Christianity is composed by human beings, there will always be a slant or view based upon the beliefs of the one making the list.

In the scripture we will read from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives us a list of the kinds of people who are truly his disciples.  We call this list "The Beatitudes" as they all begin with the word "Blessed" which means "happy" or "fortunate"  whose meanings are taken from the Greek word "markarios".
Jesus taught his disciples that those who followed him would be poor in spirit, they would mourn, they would be meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and they would hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Jesus said that those persons would receive from God gifts in response to their spiritual longings or qualities.

If someone mourns for a loss or for the world's situation that they can do little about, God will comfort them.  If someone admits that they they are dependent on God (poor in spirit), they will be drawn closer to God.  If someone is meek (agreeable), then others on earth will want to be around them.  Those kinds of persons yearn for God's righteousness to be made a reality in the world around them.  As humble, agreeable people admit their dependence upon God, and hunger for God's righteousness to be made real in their lives, they will not be disappointed.

In turn, such persons live lives where they are merciful, where they are peacemakers, where they seek God's cleansing of their lives, their thoughts, they actions.  These will be called the Children of God.  Sometimes such persons are persecuted by others because of their desire to belong to God's Realm rather than this earthly realm in which we live.  They are often misunderstood or judged by others because they see the world in a way that is not as the majority do.  They may be looked upon as different than others because their lives are in God's stream of bringing about justice and righteousness for those who are despised or oppressed by many in the mainstream.

It is not always popular to stand up for those who are being looked down upon by society.  Most of us would shy away from making a public stand in favor of our views.  We do not want to call attention to ourselves and may stay quiet when it comes to speaking up on behalf of persons who have little power in the face of the powerful.  Perhaps Jesus was preparing his disciples for the road ahead that h he knew would be rough.  Jesus knew that his vision of God's Kingdom was so different from the everyday world in which they lives in the First Century that opposition was going to happen.  He described what God's Kingdom looks like and then warned them that having those blessed characteristics may not be a popular thing among their fellow citizens.

Today, those of us who claim the name "Christian" must evaluate our own lives and determine if we are truly merciful, humble, agreeable people who seek God's righteousness to the point that we hunger for it.  We must determine if God's direction in life is more important to us than the human viewpoint that the majority possess.  We must decide if we can be silent in the face of racism and oppression of minorities or if we will work for a better way of life for those who have few friends to support them.

Happy, blessed, fortunate are you if you can make those traits a goal in your life that Jesus described to his followers in his day.  You will find a desire to be closer to God to be a part of the life that you live daily as you go about your normal way of being.  You will find a satisfaction that cannot come from simply existing but you will have a goal of serving God and neighbor as part of who are you each day that you live.