Monday, December 19, 2016

We Need a Little Christmas!

Ah, it's almost here.  Less than a week now until Christmas Day will be here.  We have been waiting with anticipation since November 27 when we first began Advent.  We had Sundays with big attendance, on the first Sunday of Advent and the Sunday when the children presented their play.  That is always a big one---158 in attendance.  Then, we had low attendance Sundays, both shaped by the weather.  First there was the deluge one Sunday and then the freeze last week.  Both dampened and froze spirits and kept many home.

Advent provides this progression through the season leading up to Christmas that helps us reflect upon what we think and believe about the coming of Christ into the world and what we should do in response to this cosmic event.  We heard from Old Testament prophets and considered what they had to say about what it meant to go home at least when you have been far away from home and what the sign would be that would speak of hope for the future, a promise found in the birth of a child.  We stopped to see a loud-mouthed badly dressed man on the banks of the Jordan River shouting to all who would hear that they should REPENT and wondered what he had to do with us.  We considered the plight of a young peasant couple when both of them received news from an angel that they should consider a surprise birth to be a blessed hope, both for them and for the entire world.

Now, we are on the brink of celebrating another Christmas this next weekend, with Christmas Day coming on a Sunday, the day when Christians are supposed to go to church anyway.  What do we do with a holy day/holiday that intrudes into your routine and forces you to break with your normal Christmas routine and substitute a regular Sunday routine in its place?  Do we forget about going to Jesus' birthday celebration because it interrupts our regular routine that is reserved for Santa and his crew?  Does wishing him another good birthday trump sitting around the house in our pj's and sipping hot cocoa or another beverage of your choice?

We need a little Christmas to interrupt our lives and make us think about why we go through the trouble of doing this every year.  Are packages and presents and parties what make Christmas special to us?  Is buying or receiving the best possible gift what really gives this special day meaning?  OR is there a much larger, much more cosmic reason why we need Christmas to interrupt our routine and force us to think about something outside of our normal lives?

Perhaps the Christmas that we need to jar us loose from our normal lives is the one that is the most simple to consider.  Maybe something tiny and innocent and helpless is what we need to make us take notice.  Maybe seeing a peasant couple in the cold night air trying to shelter a newly born innocent one is a stark reminder to us that such ones as these are still with us, on a daily basis wherever we may be.  There are ones among us whom we overlook often who need a little Christmas to be interjected into their lives, and we may be the ones to bring about the Christmas miracle they need.

Advent has come and almost gone.  Maybe it has provided the time and space we need to really understand what it means to us, this year and always.  We NEED a little Christmas in our lives to help us see what is really important in life and how that understanding shapes us into being who we are.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Going Home

Home is where the heart is....
Home is where you hang your hat...
Home is the place where they have to take you in....

What does home mean to you?  Does the word "home" conjure up visions of a place, a real piece of property where you can walk on the acreage and go into the house and experience a feeling of welcome there?  Does the word "home" bring a feeling to you, a feeling of warmth, of welcome, of acceptance?  Are you lucky enough to have a "home place" to visit even if you do not live there, a home place that has belonged to your family for generations past, where a house stands that has historical significance to you and your other family members?

I have know people who can relate to all of the questions asked above.  They have a place to go to where it feels like home.  They have people who still live in houses that have special significance to them or they can see the people on the land where they have visited before even if the house where they once lived is no longer there.  They have a "home place" to return to to think about the past and imagine that it has to do with their future.

I am not so lucky.  I grew up in three different homes and the one that my elderly mother lives in is one where I never lived as a child or young adult.  I have no "home place" to go to.  Even when I go to see my mother in her home, I am a guest there.  I never feel completely "at home" but always feel I must ask permission before I do anything there because it is her home, not mine.

Children who grew up in military families and families with parents who had occupations that required them to move frequently may have this same feeling in their lives.  We often feel like gypsies or strangers, even in places where we should belong.

The people called Israel were strangers in a foreign land when they resided in Babylonia.  They never wanted to live there but their ancestors were kidnapped by the Babylonians and years later the children of those original captives were still stuck in captivity due to the actions of the Babylonian government.  So, they mourned and wept and wished they could be back in the place where they thought they belonged--Israel.

Finally, God spoke through Isaiah to tell them that they would go home, and when they went home, even the very landscape would welcome them as they went home. The wilderness would blossom and the way would be made safe and straight so that they would not get lost along the way.

"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:10)

They would soon be home, where they belonged, because God would make the way for them to come home, at last.  Isaiah's writings are often idealistic and Utopian because they describe a perfect world where everything works out well.  Deserts bloom.  Paths are made straight.  Valleys are lifted up and mountains made low.  Lions get along with lambs.  Little children have no fear of wild beasts and lead them along to follow them.

Even those who actually did "go home" when Cyrus, the King of Persia, finally gave the order for them to leave after he conquered the Babylonians, found the way hard and rough and found a pile of rubble waiting for them to repair after they made it to Jerusalem.  The Babylonians had pretty much destroyed everything in sight when they had invaded the land decades before.  It was up to Ezra and Nehemiah and others to repair the walls and rebuild the Temple and it took many more decades for that to be accomplished.

But, they were home, where they belonged, back in the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of David, where they felt a spirit that united them and gave them strength to make everything right again.  Home may be all those things that I began with above because when you find your heart is in the same place that you hang your hat, then it may indeed be the place where others take you in when you are there.  You may find the Shalom of God as you settle in to the place where God would have you to be, home, at last.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Waiting for a King

The Advent Season is a season of waiting, and we wait in Advent as we wait in the culture for the coming of Christmas.  Each of these is intertwined.  Christians count the days of Advent for the revelation of Jesus to happen in hearts and homes once again.  People in their homes and out in the cities count the days until Christmas Eve so that Santa Claus will come once again and bring them what they have desired to receive.  The two seasons run concurrently because we are Christians who live in the culture we inhabit and we cannot escape this.  It is part of life that cannot be changed because it has been part of it for such a long time.

Waiting for the Messiah to come was part of Jewish tradition also.  The Prophets spoke of one who would come who would set things right.  Life would be changed in such an extraordinary way that even nature would respond so that the animals lived together in peace even as human beings learned to get along also.  This week's reading from Isaiah 11 describes the one for whom Israel was waiting.  He would be wise and strong and be able to help others to see the way they should live by his words and actions.  All the nations would come to him and seek his advice.  People would see him as the glorious embodiment of God.

Isaiah and the other prophets wrote of the one to come but he never came in their lifetimes.  Hundreds of years passed and the people of Israel lived in their land that was occupied and ruled by a foreign power, the Romans.  People still waiting for the Messiah to come but this time their idea of what a Messiah would be like was based on their yearning to be free from the domination of Rome.  They wanted a king who would conquer the Romans and make them a world class power.

John the Baptist became the last prophet to speak of the coming Messiah.  He stood on the banks of the Jordan River and cried out for people to repent and get ready for the coming of the Messiah.  John told those who would listen that the one he was talking about was powerful and would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.  He would do remarkable things that reminded them of the image of the Messiah the earlier prophets had spoken of.  The Messiah that Christians embrace, the man Jesus, was not the powerful ruler the Jews wanted.  He was the gentle teacher that wanted to change them from inside out.  So, John had spoken correctly of the coming Messiah.  He would be the one who would bring change through the repentance that John preached.

It is now the year 2016.  We are still waiting for a Messiah to come and set things right.  The world is still in a huge mess where powers are in competition to see who can be the most powerful and rule the most people in the most demonstrative way.  Nations rail against nations and threaten to destroy us all by unleashing powers that we cannot comprehend or describe.  We need a savior, a Messiah, a shepherd to lead us and bring us into the way of right living.  We all need that one....when will he come?

Or perhaps he has come already....and we refuse to give him the reins to our hearts, wanting instead to be in charge of our own lives instead of submitting to his control.  Will the world be ready when he comes to stay?  Waiting for a king....will this be the day?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Advent Begins this Sunday!!!

Happy New Year!!!!!  No, this is not a very early New Year's wish.  The First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Christian Year, so this Sunday is like New Year's Day of the Christian Church.  We begin a new phase of our three year lectionary cycle so we are now in Year A, back at square one after traveling through all of the cycles and this year we will have Matthew as our main Gospel of focus.  All that many not mean much to the average church goer but for pastors it makes sense.  We are beginning again on our travel through the Christian Year.

The First Sunday of Advent marks the season of waiting, watching, and hoping for the return of the Messiah.  Advent offers us a two prong perspective--we wait for the Messiah to come at the End of the Age (whenever that may be) and we wait for the Christ-Child to come once again into the manger on Christmas Eve and into our hearts daily.

Advent reminds us of the familiar stories connected to the birth of Jesus, taken mainly from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Those stories give us two perspectives taken from the points of view of Mary and Joseph as they hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah.  Of course, at first it is  not good news to them.  Mary is a teenage unwed mother and Joseph is her fiance who is considering calling off the wedding because he thinks she has been unfaithful to him.  Luckily, God intervenes and both are convinced that this is a special gift sent by God to the world.

This week's readings are not as cheery or holiday mood inducing.  Matthew gives an apocalyptic portrayal of destruction coming to Jerusalem with the warning to "stay awake" and "watch" and "be ready" because you do not know when it will happen.  Paul warns the church at Rome to "wake from sleep" and to live honorably because the end could be near.  Isaiah is not as foreboding, however, and promises that a day is coming when throngs of people will stream into Jerusalem learn the ways of peace, putting their weapons aside in favor of farming implements.  All of humanity will learn to walk in the light of God.

This First Sunday of Advent prepares us for the future.  The end is coming, indeed!   One day God will right every wrong and all will live in peace and safety.  We do not know when that may happen but we are to be ever vigilant, on guard, watching for the signs that will point us toward this reality.  It also teaches us to watch and wait, and stay busy doing what Jesus taught us to do while we wait.  Jesus did not want people just to sit and wait idly while the rest of the world evolves into evil and sinfulness.  He taught us to minister to those who needed us and to spread the good news of his love throughout the world.

The revelation of God's grace may not happen in a large dramatic way in our lifetimes.  It may take eons before it comes to pass, but we are urged to be on guard and ready, for we do not know when it may happen.  God's vision of peace and harmony among the nations is something that only God can make happen but we are God's messengers of peace and until it is a reality we are to be proclaiming that vision for all to see with eyes of faith.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl- What does it mean to you?

The German language contains many compound words that are tongue twisters to be sure for those of us who are native English language speakers.  Some words are fairly easy to pronounce and we often have fun with them bantering around the few German words that we may know.  Each year our community has a festival that has a German name--Gedenke!  In German it has a pronunciation of something like "Guh-dunka" but our little Texas town chooses to call it "Guh-dinky".  It translates into "remembrance" or "thankfulness".

The word that I put in the title to this blog posting is a real German word.  It is a long compound word that has a meaning of "togetherness, communal spirit, or sense of a common bond".  It is the feeling one gets from being part of something much bigger than what we are alone.  I learned about this word from reading an article that our son had written for the latest edition of the magazine for which he is editor, Zymurgy, which is the journal of the American Homebrewers Association.  David has been editor of that publication for almost a year and it provides informative and interesting information to people who brew beer at home, perhaps in their garage or basement.  The journal gives recipes for brewing, announces events for homebrewers to attend, and features articles that appeal to people who love beer and like to brew it.

David's most recent article in the latest edition of this magazine concerns German words and the meaning they have because he is fascinated with German words and is bilingual in German.  He spells out that long German word given above and says, "It's the sense of inclusion and kinship you feel from being part of a group."  Being part of something much larger than who you are alone definitely has a feeling that goes with it.

Many of us have known the feeling of what it means to belong to a church, to be part of the local body of the worldwide body of Christ.  We belong to a church because we need that connection that we cannot get alone.  We may claim our Christian experience on an individual level but that experience is made real in relationship with other Christians who share a vision of the world that we embrace.  We may search for a place where we "belong" as a Christian, where we "feel at home" and settle on a place where we enjoy worshiping and fellow-shipping and working beside other Christians.  We experience that Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl each time we are there with others.  It cannot be experience alone, by ourselves.

This shared experience is something that we must support in many ways if we value it.  We ask members to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service and to be faithful members of this local congregation.  Without members fulfilling their vow to be faithful and to give of themselves in their time, talent, and treasure the church will not be able to continue into the future.  This week at our church is Stewardship Sunday, when we think about what it means to be faithful in our vows toward our church and to be good stewards of all the gifts that God has given us.   If you are a member, we need you to be present.  If you are thinking of being a member, we need you too.  If you are not a member, you are very welcome to come anytime and worship and fellowship and work with us.  God's Kingdom is wide and large and includes all who will be included in it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All Saints Day, 2016

Today is called All Saints Day on the Christian calendar.  It is the day that follows Halloween, which is also called All Hallow's Eve.  People in the ancient world would dress in a costume on All Hallow's Eve so that the spirits that they believed inhabited the earth could not recognize them.  That is one of the reasons why people dress up on Halloween besides wanting to have fun at a party or give out candy to kids who come by dressed in costumes.

On the day following Halloween, today, All Saints Day, we think about the spirits of those who have departed the earth since last year at this time and we remember them and the lives they lived.  This next Sunday, will be All Saints Sunday, or in our church, since it has German roots--Totenfest or Festival of the Dead.  This Sunday we will read aloud the names of those members of our church who have died since this same time last year.  We have 11 names to read this year.  As we say each name, we will light a candle in their memory and ring our church bell one time.  Then those present will be invited to say aloud others whom they remember who have died this year.  We will ring a bell in their memories also.

The Gospel lection for All Saints Day and for next Sunday will be from Luke's Gospel 6:20-31.  It is the reading of Jesus giving the "Sermon on the Plain", Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount that is found in Matthew's Gospel, only in Luke's account, Jesus is down on the plain at eye level with his audience rather than sitting on a hillside with people scattered here and there.  Jesus in Luke's account emphasizes the present time status of people living rather than the Kingdom of Heaven.

"Blessed and you who are poor" (not in spirit, but really poor)...and "you who are hungry" (really hungry, stomachs growling), and "you who weep".  And the reason these people are blessed is because Jesus says their situations are just temporary and soon they will find blessings and food, and laughter.  But those who are already rich and well fed and laughing will have a time come when their situation will change also and they will need help.  Jesus was talking to poor people who struggled just to have food on a daily basis and they needed encouragement.

Then Jesus in Luke repeats what he says in Matthew about loving your enemies and doing good even to those who mistreat you, giving your shirt away even to those who beg.  Then we find the Golden Rule to sum it up..."Do to others as you would have them do to you."  (Luke 6:31)

This section from Luke is appropriate for All Saints Day and for All Saints Sunday as it gives us something to think about as we remember the lives of those who meant a lot to us on earth and now reside in heaven.  In many ways, those whom we honor on this special day or Sunday exhibited some of the ways of living that Jesus encouraged, giving to others as they could, treating others with respect, and even sacrificing on behalf of others.  We call them Saints, not because they were perfect, but because they were striving daily to live in such a way that their lives would be pleasing to God.  They attempted to live by the Golden Rule as much as they could too.  So, their lives are meant to be an inspiration to us who are still living so we will live holy lives in every way we can.

The word "Saint" has had a meaning that is not actually biblical.  Perfection is not something that is necessary for an earthly being to be called a Saint.  The term is used in the epistles to refer to those who were members of the early church who were continuing to be faithful to the church despite encountering difficulties such as persecution and social ostracism.  Paul often praised the members of the churches he had helped to establish for their faithfulness and devotion, despite things happening in their social setting.  The word "saint" was used by Paul and others to refer to these people because they continued to try to live as Christians despite the hindrances they may have in their lives.

So, we are encouraged also to try to live as saints in this world, not relying upon our ability to be perfect but upon our devotion and faithfulness to the Christian message and to the church we have been called to support.

May those who come behind us find us faithful!  Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Reformation Day, 2016

Today is Reformation Day.  It is also Halloween.  Both happen on the same day.  Halloween is when people dress up in costumes and have parties and when kids ask for candy while entertaining others in their costumes.

Reformation Day celebrates the event that happened 499 years ago today, when Martin Luther decided that he could no longer be silent but he had to announce to everyone what he really thought about the practices of his employer (the Roman Catholic Church).  So, on October 31, 1517 he nailed a piece of paper onto the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany.  It listed 95 things that he thought were wrong within the life and practice of the church he served as a priest.  The one that many people remember and recognize has to do with the selling of indulgences.  That was a thing that has been instituted so that people could buy a way for their deceased relatives to spend less time in Purgatory.  The church had convinced many that if they gave more money to the church then their dead relatives would not spend as much time waiting to go to Heaven.

Martin Luther bristled at the idea that money could buy religious favor.  He read the New Testament and came up with the idea that salvation cannot be bought.  It is a gift from God given freely.  If it could be bought, then only the wealthy could be saved but if it is given away by God to whoever asks, then it shows that God is a gracious and loving God, not one that demanded money in exchange for eternal favors.

Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the door of the castle church and then waited for the reaction from the authorities.  Those came quickly along with death threats against him.  Speaking out against authority often results in trouble for those who speak out.  Luther had to live much of his life in hiding and had to defend himself at a trial where he faced many accusations.  Eventually he was able to marry and have children and live in a sense of peace.  He eventually translated the Bible from Latin to German so that the common person in Germany could read it (thanks to the invention of the printing press that happened during the same time period.)

Today, we remember Luther and the other reformers who brought about the Reformation through the courage they had to act on their conscience despite what others may say or do.   They faced persecution and hardship but they taught as they believed and today the Protestant movement is alive and well and very diverse, thanks to their testimony.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Self-Righteousness vs. Humility

Many years ago I worked with a fellow pastor on a large church staff.  He was the senior pastor and I was an associate pastor, one of about four who were supposed to assist him in doing his job.  He came to this church after serving several other large church positions.  We had heard good things about him, how he prayed with people who had concerns and urged participation in spiritual endeavors.  All the staff were excited to receive him as the new senior pastor, after having served under a somewhat wimpy pastor who read his sermons weekly in a very dry, monotone manner.

The day came for the arrival of the new senior pastor and we all lined up, as if we were the Von Trapp kids waiting for our father to give us his orders for the day and, after being greeted by the new senior pastor and sent on our way, we regrouped and began to talk about our new boss.  Everyone wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt but we all had feelings about meeting him that we could not describe.  Was he genuine in his actions and attitudes toward us or was it all just a facade that covered up for something else?

Over the period of the next months and years we would discover that this man had few social skills and knew very little about how to approach the staff who worked for him or even the church members whom he served.  He had a pompous air about him that came out in the way he talked, dressed, carried himself, and directed others in what to do.  We came to hate attending staff meetings because invariably this man would direct his hidden wrath toward one or more members of the staff during this meetings which could go on for a long time.

Soon, the work environment had changed where there were small groups talking here and there and the sense of unity that we had experienced earlier had been dissolved.  One day the senior pastor asked me to come into his office to visit with him.  I dreaded this invitation because we had had two previous encounters which had not be pleasant.  On this day, though, he seemed a bit subdued.  I sat down in the chair across from him and he sat behind his desk.  He began to talk about his time there and then asked me, "How do you have such a good relationship with the staff?  I have seen you among others and you seem to relate to them well.  How can I relate to them as you do?"  I answered and, I am not making this up--he wrote down the words I told him.  I said, "Just be yourself."  He said, "Just be myself?"  I replied, "Of course, who else could you be."  He paused and wrote on the pad he had in front of him, "Be" and his name.  I was nonplussed.  I could not believe that a grown man who was the senior pastor of this large church had to write himself a reminder to be himself.

You see, who he was was not someone to emulate.  He was full of pride and self-righteousness, very confident in his history of being a good "church manager" but he was not someone who was easy to get to know. He would never let his guard down so that others could truly know the real person who was him, deep down inside.  To do so would have been a terrible threat to him.

The passage from Luke for this Sunday features a story that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector who went to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee told God how good he was and how valuable he was to God.  The Tax Collector hung his head and begged God for forgiveness.  He could not even look up when he considered what a sinner he was.  Jesus said that the Tax Collector went away "justified" because of his humility.

Being "full of yourself" is something we encounter daily in the world in which we live.  We see politicians, city and state leaders, and even a pastor now and then who are "full of themselves."
They think that the way they are and present themselves is the same way the rest of us act.  They cannot see that their self-absorption is so far out of line with the norm that it is ridiculous.  Every once in while when we meet up with such people, we secretly wish that life would take them down a notch or two so they can see themselves a bit more like other see them.  Perhaps their ego is their guise that they use for cover from accepting the real person that they are.  Maybe they are actually very insecure and that outward covering is their protection from considering the way they really would like to be.  Maybe they are like that senior pastor who asked me how I could get along with others on the staff and when I said, "Just be yourself" he had no idea what I meant.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Never Giving Up on Justice

There is a small little parable in Luke 18 where Jesus teaches his disciples about the necessity to pray always and not give up.  He uses two characters in his story who represent the most powerful and the least powerful persons in Hebrew society in his day---a judge and a widow.  The judge held the most power because with his word he could order someone to do something and bring about justice in situations where it was desperately needed.  The widow was the least powerful person in society because her merit, worth, and stand in the community was always connected to a man.  Her husband, her son, or some other male relative determined her income and her status.  So, when a woman lost her husband and if she had no other male relative to speak up for her, then she was dependent on society for her living and few would come to her aid if she were in distress. 

So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who asked a judge to free her from oppression by another in society. At first, the judge refused to listen to her but she returned again and again until finally he gave in, not because of his fondness for the widow or her cause but because she bothered him too much.  He was wearied by her asking for the same thing over and over again so he finally gave her what she wanted just to get rid of her. 

Jesus concludes the parable by telling his disciples never to give up but to pray constantly and ask God for what they would need.  He tells them that God "will quickly grant justice" to those who ask.  Then, he concludes by asking the question, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  A strange question perhaps but one that asks us, "Do we give up when we pray and work for justice to be done in the world or do we continue to ask and work and make something happen that will bring about justice in our broken world?" 

I have written to my senators and congressmen about issues only to receive a form letter reply which stated that they were glad to hear from me but it made little difference what I said.  They were going to do what they wanted regardless of what I said.  I tossed the letter in the trash and said, "Oh well, I  tried."  What would it take for me or you to not stop with writing a letter and instead get on a plane or train or bus and go to Washington or Austin to speak directly to our representatives and let them know we are serious about what we wrote to them about?  Why do we give up when we receive an answer that shoots down our ideas by someone we have elected?  Why do we not speak truth to power as Jesus did?  Perhaps we have been convinced by someone that "you can't fight city hall." 

Jesus was teaching his disciples that he would fight city hall and Caesar and anyone else he needed in order to bring about what he believed in for the world he would die for.  He gave his life for what he believed in and rose again to bring about a new life for all.  Today, we risk little of the harm that Jesus did when we speak up for our beliefs but we are hesitant to do so because we avoid conflict.  Perhaps it is time to pray and work for justice to be done in our world if we truly believe that the prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" is possible.  Heaven on earth may not exist today but God's Kingdom will come one day in the future.  Will we do our part to make earth a bit more heavenly in our lifetimes? 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

God of the Exile

My wife and I just returned from a two week vacation in eastern Canada where we visited Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.  This is our fifth visit to that region and our third time to stay at a wonderful cottage on the Bay of Fundy.  For a week we relaxed and had coffee on the porch while watching the tide come in go out, making the little fishing boats in the cove rise and fall with the tide while the seabirds flew and squawked and entertained us.  Who knew that it could be so relaxing just to watch water and nature?

We also explored the region, visiting places we had discovered on earlier trips to the area and finding new ones.  One place we enjoy visiting is called Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.  It is in the Annapolis Valley where they grow a tremendous amount of apples and grapes and where many wineries have popped up over the past few years.  Grand Pre is also the home to the Acadian Visitor Centre where one can learn about the legacy and history of the Acadian people who came from France in the 1600s to settle the land and who were expelled by the British in 1755.  Visiting the museum and seeing the dioramas that depict the events of the history of the Acadian people is informative and interesting but it is also a bit heartbreaking.

The Acadian people worked hard to improve land that was  not livable by building a system of dykes and walls that drained the land of its water and they were able to make the land fertile to grow much to support their colony.  They built villages and churches and schools and created a wonderful place in which to have children and live peaceably.  Then, in the early 1700s, the British and French fought for control of this part of Canada and the British eventually won.  They felt threatened  by the Acadian people because of their ties to France and demanded that they sign a loyalty oath to the British government and the King.  The Acadians obeyed and signed the oath even though some objected.  That was not enough for the British military, however.  They decided to make the Acadians leave the area so they confiscated their land and loaded them all on ships, as they watched the soldiers burn their villages and all they had created in that good land.

Families were often divided in the shuffle or boarding the ships.  Some ships left to return the residents to France resulting in two shipwrecks that killed many of the Acadians.  Other ships left to put them out in the British colonies, only to have the British citizens who lived there not accepting them so those Acadians began the long and dangerous journey to go to the only place on the North American continent still in firm control of the French--Louisiana!  These brave people traveled by horse and wagon, walked, and even went by boat to go to the place where they thought they could feel accepted and free.  When they reached Louisiana, they found others who spoke their language and who understood their plight.  They found land and settled in the lowlands again, this time in hot and swampy lands rather than cold and marshy lands.  These people eventually became Cajuns, a corruption of the word "Acadian" and today their descendants live in south Louisiana and are proud of their heritage.

I think about these brave Acadians each time we visit Nova Scotia and when we have gone to the deportation site on the beach on the Bay of Fundy, I can use my imagination to picture those poor souls who were forced to leave the land they had worked so hard to create.  They became exiles as they watched their burning villages go up in smoke.  They had no idea where they would land or where their new home would be.  They were outcasts longing to find acceptance, peace, and home once again.

Exile comes to all of us during our lifetimes.  Sometimes it is physical exile as we leave one address and move to another.  At other times it is the exile of illness or job loss or death or a loved one or economic disaster or rejection by those whom we had trusted to be our friends.  The exile we experience places us in a state of distress that leaves us confused and feeling alone.  We may wonder if anyone truly understands us or what we are feeling as we go through these experiences.

Our scripture texts for this week describe three scenes of exile.  Jeremiah writes to those exiles in Babylonian captivity encouraging them to have good lives, to marry and build houses and find meaning while they are away from the home they long to return to.  Jesus ministers to 10 lepers, outcasts and exiles from society, and he brings healing to their lives.  One leper returns to give thanks for his healing, and he is a Samaritan, an exile in the eyes of the Jews at that time.  Paul writes to his friend Timothy, encouraging him to be a good pastor to those in the church where he serves, a house church that no doubt was feeling stress because of the persecution of Christians in their time.  These secret worshipers were exiles in the Roman land in which they lived because they could not admit that they were Christians or they would face persecution and possible death.

God speaks and is revealed in these three passages as the God of the Exile, the one who cares for those whom others cannot care about.  God is the God of those poor Jews who were forced from their homes by the Babylonians as they, much like the Acadians, watched their city being burned as they marched toward uncertainty.  God is the God of those lepers and all who are ill, whose days are numbered, whose health is their stigma, and especially for those unaccepted by society who may also be ill.  God is the God of those who are persecuted because of their faith tradition, regardless of what it may be.  There is only one God who is God and Father of us all.

We will think about this God who accepts and heals and cares for the outcast this Sunday during worship.  We will give thanks to the God who loves us and takes us in when no one else will.  We will rejoice in God's love and grace and praise God's majesty.  Will you join us on this Sunday in God's House?    

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Discipleship, Acceptance, and Choices

Every once in a while the Lectionary gives us three readings for a particular Sunday when all three main readings follow a similar theme.  This is one of those weeks.  It is Labor Day weekend so I don't know how many people will be in worship to hear these scripture passages read and a sermon based on them given but we will share the Good News with whoever comes to listen.

Perhaps it being a holiday weekend makes these readings even more appropriate because the theme that they have in common is on Discipleship or what it means to actually follow in the steps of the one that we claim calls us to be Christian.  Maybe a holiday weekend reveals in a way the priorities that many of us have in our lives. Where will we be on Sunday in a holiday weekend?  What will we be doing on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.?  (That is when we have worship.)

The reading from Deuteronomy is one of those passages where the speaker in the text is challenging the hearers to make a decision as to what they will do in response to the covenant renewal ritual that is happening once again.  "See, I have set before  you today life and prosperity, death and adversity, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances,  then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess."  (Deut. 15:16)  One long sentence lays out the choice the people of Israel have to make.  Follow and serve the LORD and enjoy life and prosperity or turn to other gods and find ruin.  This reading is about all choice and the choice that is given to the listeners seems cut and dried.

Then, the Gospel lesson is from Luke 14 where Jesus is talking to a crowd of potential followers and his words are harsh.  He is trying to let them know that the cost of following him may not be easy.  He tells them to choose whether they can truly follow him, above anyone else and all else, or not.  He says they have to put him first, above "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself..." (Luke 14:26)  The cost of discipleship is one that requires dedication before all other relationships.

Jesus does not stop there though.  He also says the cost of discipleship requires one to love him without regard to the possessions that one may have.  "So, therefore, none of  you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."  (Luke 14:33)  Putting one's relationship with God above what one owns is another costly measure of discipleship, Jesus would teach.

Jesus gave two examples from life of people who had to count the cost of the decisions they would make.  If one were to build a tower, then he would need to know in advance if he had enough resources to finish it before beginning to build or open himself up to ridicule from others for having a half-built structure.  Also, if one were a king who wanted to wage war against another king, he would need to consider if he had enough troops to conquer the enemy or else he should ask for a peace treaty.  Decision making requires careful consideration of the consequences of the decision.

Finally, the epistle reading this week is from the book of Philemon, one of the shortest books in the New Testament.   It is a letter written by Paul to a wealthy member of the early church who had a slave named Onesimus who had run away and whom Paul had taken in to the quarters where he was being a house prisoner.  He was asking Philemon to accept the runaway slave back, but not as a slave, but as a brother and fellow Christian because that is what he had become during the time he had been with Paul.  Paul wanted to just keep Onesimus with him but knew he had to return him to Philemon but with this letter asking for Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to accept him as a fellow Christian and not as a slave.

Again, there are decisions to be made.  Paul decided to write Philemon and risk offended his friend by interfering in his personal business.  Paul also decided that he loved Onesimus too much to let him return to his owner and risk physical punishment and perhaps even death.  He wanted Philemon to make the decision on his own to be gracious to this runaway slave although he states in the letter that he could order him to do the right thing based on his authority as a leader in the Christian movement.  The epistle does not give a conclusion to the matter but allows the reader to reflect upon it and think about what it may mean to our own lives.

Decision making, serious matters, things we all encounter in our lives.  Do we take that job that will require uprooting our family and moving far away from home because it offers a better salary or an advanced position?  Do we join the military because we think it is the right thing to do to serve our country and provide a better way of life for ourselves?  Do we marry a person that we have reservations about because all the preparations have been made and we think we cannot back out?  Do we continue to go that school or university where we feel lost or oppressed or overwhelmed because it is expected of us by someone we know?  Do we speak up on the behalf of someone we know who is being abused or mistreated by a person or a social system or keep quiet so as not to cause trouble?  All are serious matters that need much personal reflection and prayer.

Jesus and Paul and the writer of Deuteronomy instruct us to consider the choices and make a good choice based upon what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus and the commandments God gave to the people of Israel to follow and the wisdom contained in acts of kindness and generosity.  Then, to decide, after prayerful consideration, and trust that God will be with us in the decision we make.  Decision making is not always easy but we know we do not make our decisions totally alone.  We are informed by the experiences of others on the journey of life as well as the Spirit of God that speaks to us and for us in our times of trial.  When we ask for wisdom, we will always receive it.  The answer we receive may not be the one we were seeking, but it will be the one that is best for us.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hospitality--The Strangers Among Us

Who is a stranger?  Are they the people around us that we do not know?  Yes, that is one kind of stranger.  Many of us are surrounded by people we do not know daily as we conduct our business and travel here and there.  We may seldom even pay attention to others around us as we do what is needful daily.  So, strangers are everywhere, it would seem, and we pass by them and may not even recognize their presence.

What if a stranger comes into our personal space?  What if someone we do not know asks something of us?  It may be simply asking the time of day or directions to an unfamiliar place but many times we encounter others whom we do not know and we form an opinion of them based upon our interaction with them.  We may have even been a stranger to others if we have traveled and have needed assistance.  We may have asked others to perform tasks for us as we tried to negotiate unfamiliar territory.

My wife and I love to travel and we have been to Europe several times.  We have driven in the United Kingdom where they drive on the other side of the road as opposed to how we do it.  It always seems odd to drive on the left instead of the right and I have had times when I have nearly gotten involved in accidents because of my ignorance of their system.  They have those traffic circles which they call "roundabouts" which cause no end to terror or distress when one is trying to negotiate them.  How does one know where to get out of the circle once you enter it?  That was a question that plagued me as we traveled so I asked a woman we knew who lived there how to successfully negotiate the circle without getting into an accident.  She laughed and explained how the circle works and told me to think of each road leading away from it as an exit.  She said to determine which exit to take and then to steer in that direction.  Her advice was "right on" and the next time I entered a roundabout I thought about the exits and was able to drive onto the road that would take me to the place where I wanted to go.  How easy it was to understand what to do when it was simply explained.

Interacting with others is easy when one understands that each of us on this planet are in relationship with everyone else.  We all exist to be involved in the lives of everyone else around us.  Our involvement may be on a surface level or we may just be "on call" to others as we all try to negotiate the world around us.  When someone else asks something of us, then we determine if we can be of assistance to them or if we need to direct them to others who may be able to help them more then we can.  Extending hospitality to others may involve being creative in our world so as to not put ourselves in harm's way or to become so involved that we cannot reasonably meet our own needs.

Hospitality to strangers often happens as others visit our homes or churches where we worship.  In our homes we offer strangers the necessities of life (food, water, rest) and in our churches we offer the same things but in spiritual ways as well as material ways.  We invite strangers to feel at home as they rest in our worship spaces, to participate in worship as they feel they are able, and to join us in fellowship after our worship to share a drink and a conversation.  We attempt to be inclusive so that all feel welcome despite the differences that may exist between strangers.  Hospitality crosses the divisions that are apparent as we welcome others into our space and venture into theirs.

"Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."  (Hebrews 13:1-2)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Was Blind But Now I See

We have been studying the lives of the composers of hymns this month in order to gain a new appreciation both for their lives and for the music they left with humanity as a legacy.  Isaac Watts was our first hymn composer, dating back to the first of the 18th century.  Then, Charles Wesley was next, about fifty years after Watts.  Next Sunday, we will jump a century ahead to sing and talk about the hymns written by Fanny Crosby.  She was a remarkable woman, writing around 5000 hymns but doing so while being totally blind.

Fanny Crosby composed the words to many hymns that have become favorites to Christians over the years.  "Blessed Assurance,"  "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,"  "I Am Thine, O Lord," and many others have been sung for well over a hundred years now by Christians in many denominations.

Crosby was celebrated in her own day for her gospel hymns, but she was also very publicly involved with New York City's rescue mission and other benevolent efforts.  She rubbed shoulders with Grover Cleveland, Dwight Moody, Jenny Lind, and P.T. Barnum.  She was praised as a gifted Protestant woman, beloved and treasured by those who knew her.

Her hymns reflect the mood of the era in which she lived and her concern for social issues which plagued industrial America.  We will think about her life and the legacy she provided through the music she shared during worship the next Sunday.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The hymn as we know it in our usual style of Christian worship dates only to the eighteenth century in England when a man named Isaac Watts decided that the chanting or singing of psalms only was causing great boredom and much sleeping during worship services in England.  Watts was a member of a dissenter church, following after the lead of his father, who refused to become an Anglican minister and was persecuted for it until finally freedom of religion was granted to all in English churches.

Isaac Watts as a young man often sat in the worship services in the dissenter church (Congregationalist) where his father was a minister and observed the worshipers present either sleeping during worship or looking so bored that they would rather be any place except where they were.  Isaac complained about the rote chanting or singing of psalms and how he could think up better music to be sung and his father challenged him to do so.  So, that very day, Isaac Watts composed his first hymn (Behold the Glories) and it was sung during worship the following Sunday.

After that experience, Watts composed a new hymn for each Sunday, most based upon one of the 150 psalms or another scripture passage.  The hymn would not be known by the worshipers in the service so Watts would try to teach them to sing it using "line-singing" which was common in worship in that era.  The leader would sing a line and the congregants would sing the same line.  Each line would be repeated until finally they had sung the entire hymn.  It was still not as lively as in the future when Watts' hymns would be published and played by organists and sung by worshipers during worship services but it was a step ahead of the rote psalm singing they had been experiencing up to that time.

Isaac Watts was the first person to compose and publish hymns written in English for worshipers in England.  He lived between 1674 and 1748 and wrote several hundreds of hymns.  We will sing a few of his hymns this Sunday in worship as we consider his life and his impact on Christian worship.  Did you know that he wrote "Joy to the World" which we sing at Christmas?  What if we sung it this Sunday on the first Sunday in August?  How would that make you feel?  What if you knew that this Christmas hymn is based on Psalm 98?  Would Christmas feel different to you?

We begin a 4 part sermon series this Sunday based on hymn writers who have influenced the church over the centuries and whose hymns we have come to love.  This Sunday we will sing the songs of Isaac Watts and think about his life and influence and give thanks for how these songs help us offer praise to God during worship.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Rich Fool

When I was growing up, I was forbidden to call someone "a fool".  My mother had a very literal interpretation of the Bible and there is a verse in the King James Bible that says "...whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."  (Matt. 5:22)  So, if we called anyone a fool, we would get called onto the carpet and have to repent because it is there in plain red type (Jesus' very words) that anyone who calls someone else "a fool" is in danger of hell fire.  My mother wanted to be sure that I did not go to hell for the words I said so she was the word censor in our house.

I strayed away from her literal interpretation of the Bible and in modern times have occasionally used the word "fool" to describe someone.  I normally do not use that word directly to the fool I intend to label but behind his or her back as I talk about them to someone else (another sin I rack up).  The reference to someone as being a "fool" or "foolish" seems to describe someone's lack of common sense and misunderstanding of a situation or the world in general.  I think that if we use the word cautiously and do not do it to someone's face or hearing then perhaps the use of the word "fool" is acceptable in a non-King James' world.

Besides God, God's-self uses the word to describe a human in our Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 12.  Jesus tells the parable about "The Rich Fool" (see there is it again, Jesus using the word this time) in response to a request from someone that Jesus order a brother to give another brother what he deserves from an inheritance.  Jesus does not do what the person requests but instead tells him a parable about a rich farmer who had so many possessions that he had nowhere to store them all so he decided to tear down his barns and build larger barns so as to store all he had.  Then, he congratulated himself on all he had and told himself to take it easy and eat, drink, and be merry.

God's voice is heard in the parable and God (again) calls the man a fool and says that he will face the judgment and then what will happen to all of his possessions.  Whose will they be after he is gone?

This parable is not about the danger of having riches.  It is not about being rich versus being poor.  It is about values and generosity and making right choices when it comes to possessions.  Jesus and the Early Church were supported by people of all income levels, rich and poor.  Sometimes, a wealthy person would host Jesus at a meal.  Sometimes wealthy people allowed Church services to be held in their homes as the Early Church emerged.  Jesus valued all persons and did not preach against people having wealth.  He taught against people being self-centered and not sharing with others who have little.

The rich farmer was a fool because he thought only of himself and never of anyone else.  He did not even think of those who worked for him who grew the crops and built the barns.  He most likely had slave labor and considered them his property also.  So, he thought all he had was because of his own doing and he could benefit from all of his possessions and take it easy on his forever retirement plan.  What he forgot was that he would not live forever.  He would one day die and then who would benefit from what he owned?

Giving away part of what we own is part of what it means to be a good steward of what we have.  We have all been abundantly blessed beyond our capabilities.  We have been given good health, strength in our bodies to accomplish our tasks, and a support group of friends and relatives to cheer us on to great things.  What we have accomplished is in part due to all these benefits so it is only natural to return part of what we have to bless others who have little.  We do this in many ways--through our church as we give our tithes and offerings, through charitable organizations, and through reaching out to those in need whom we recognize in the world around us.

Thank God for those who have generous hearts and who give so that others will be blessed.  When we keep all we have so that only we benefit from our blessings, we turn inward.  When we share what we have, we turn outward and toward God.

John Wesley urged his followers to "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can."  Words to live by both in his time and in the world in which we live.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Bother to Pray?

That is a question many people ask as they try to sort out what prayer is and how prayer works and does prayer actually do anything for anyone.  Is God really concerned with what goes on in our lives or is God just the "watch-maker God" as some have said in the past, creating the product and then standing by to see what happens as it works?  That question has been pondered through the centuries and, as is true with many faith issues, it seems to be a matter of faith.  Do you believe in a God who cares about humans and desires to act on behalf of humans or do you not believe at all or believe that God is but God does not really care?

That is part of why the Gospel lection for this next Sunday is so important.  It contains the prayer that many of us say weekly in worship, the prayer we call "The Lord's Prayer".  It also contains a short teaching story, perhaps you can even call it a parable, and a teaching passage about the nature and character of God.

Jesus was involved in his own prayer time when his disciples asked him to "...teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."  (Luke 11:1)  What follows through verse 4 is what we call The Lord's Prayer, containing all of it except the conclusion that was added later by the Church during its history.
Each phrase of The Lord's Prayer deserves its own sermon or posting but suffice it to say that many consider it to be a complete summation of the needs of the one doing the praying and an opening of one to God's will for one's life.  Praising God, asking for one's daily needs to be met, asking for forgiveness as one attempts to forgive others, and asking for God's guidance to avoid the many trials of life are petitions that touch each part of human life.  Then to pray the parts that are not found in Luke's Gospel add even more meaning to the pray we say together in worship weekly.  "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven" opens the one praying to the completion of God's intent in both the life of the pray-er and the world in general.

Then Jesus tells a story about a man who has settled down for the night with his household when suddenly a friend knocks on his door asking for food.  The drowsy sleeper at first tries to tell the seeker to go away giving him the reason that everyone is already in bed.  The friend will not be deterred though, needing some bread to offer a guest so as not to be rude.  Jesus concludes that even if a person will not grant the request of a friend simply because one is a friend, the person will grant the request so as not to be bothered further.

Then, Jesus teaches his disciples to ask for what they need.  God will give them what they need because God is good, as earthly parents should be, giving good gifts to children such as fish or eggs and not bad things such as scorpions or snakes.  Jesus concludes that if earthly parents can give good gifts to their children, then why should humans think that God would not give good gifts to God's children.  He sums up the passage with idea that God is always willing to give what is needed through the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans.

So, if one believes that God exists and one believes that God is good to humans and wants them to have what is good for them, then why shouldn't humans ask God for what they need, relying on God's wisdom to grant requests according to God's will and intent?  (Remember in the Lord's Prayer--"thy kingdom come, thy will be done...")  Prayer is the thing we do when we want to include God in our lives after we have done all we can do and seem to be at the end of our own resources, so we pray and ask God to intervene.  Perhaps Jesus is teaching that a relationship exists between humans and God much like the relationship between parent and child and that relationship includes the giving of good gifts between parent and child.  The relationship should be enough reason to talk to God even as we talk with humans with whom we have a relationship.

God does not promise to give humans everything they ask for.  God promises to give humans what they need for daily living.  What we think we need and what we actually need to survive creates a giant chasm that often blocks our relationship with God.  Even when we think what we needs is best for us or others for whom we pray, God seems to know best what we need.  Trusting God to act according to our needs may be the biggest test of faith in an invisible God for it involves giving control over to another and humans rarely like doing that.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Keeping a Balance

"Marsha, Marsha, Marsha..."  Most of us remember that chant of a name from the television program The Brady Bunch.  Poor Marsha was always getting into a pickle and sometimes out of frustration someone would say her name repeatedly and with a certain tone.  It seems that when one's name is said in a certain fashion that it carries more meaning or weight, such as when a parent uses a child's first and middle name to call them.  That often means that someone is in hot water.

Jesus loved to visit with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They lived at Bethany, only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, but it must have seemed light years away from the noise and confusion of the big city to Jesus.  He could simply be their friend and could sit with his feet up and enjoy socializing with people who accepted him for who he was.

The Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 10 has a vignette of a visit from Jesus to the home of his friends.  The two sisters were in the house tending to the needs of Jesus and perhaps preparing a meal for him.  Lazarus is not mentioned in this story.  Perhaps he was gone on a journey or taking care of chores somewhere away from home.

The story says that Martha is busy with the many tasks that needed to be done so that Jesus could be properly entertained.  Perhaps she was cleaning or cooking a meal.  Her sister, Mary, however was simply sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him talk.  The text does not tell the content of the conversation.  Maybe he was telling her stories about his ministry or just talking about life in general as two friends often do.  Martha noticed that Mary was not helping her in the chores that needed to be done and complained to Jesus about it.

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to help me."

Jesus, instead of coming to Martha's rescue, gently challenges her thinking.  Here comes the repeating of her name as he does it..."Martha, Martha..."  We do not know the tone of Jesus' voice but I can imagine that he is weary from his ministry and perhaps there is a slight weariness in the way he addresses her.  " are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of one on thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."  (Luke 10:41-42)

Jesus was trying to tell Martha that she had been busily working around the house making sure that everything was perfect for Jesus as the honored guest she thought he was.  She wanted to be sure that all of his needs were met and that everything was to his liking.  Jesus, however, wanted only one thing--to rest and sit and talk with his friends.  Whatever they ate and whatever the house looked like was not important to him.  His relationship with these friends and the opportunity to be with them was much more important than those extraneous factors.

Can't you just sense Martha's despair after hearing these words of Jesus?  She had expected him to come to her rescue and command Mary to get into high gear and help with the chores.  Instead, he defended what Mary had chosen to do and commended her for sitting with him and talking.  Mary was giving her full attention to her friend and also did not care about other factors.  She simply wanted to be with her friend whom she loved so much.

The example of the two sisters in this story are a metaphor for life for many of us.  We have to have a balanced life, full of activity to take care of the chores of life but also must include times of simply sitting and resting and meditating on what is needed to give us emotional and spiritual strength.  There is a reason we have a Sabbath built into our week each seven days.  God chose to be busy in the task of creation but then rested the final day to admire what he had created.  God commanded the people of Israel to follow the same pattern as they lived their lives.  To this day, devout Jews set aside the seventh day of the week as a day of rest and worship and being with family.  It is too bad that many Christians have decided that their Sabbath is not needed and instead they can spend it busily doing chores or activities that they can do any other day of the week.

Sunday is the day of rest for Christians because they honor the resurrection of Jesus and follow in the pattern of early Christians who met on the first day of the week instead of the seventh because Jesus rose from the day early on Sunday morning.  Sunday just has a different feel about it.  It is as if nature and even society are inviting all to pause and rest and worship on this day.  People need rest, and reflection and community...all these are found in gathering with others on the day of worship set aside by Christians.

Many in society today say they do not need to go to church in order to be Christians.  Even members of churches neglect to go to church because they do not feel the need to be with other Christians regularly on the day of worship.  Perhaps Jesus would say their name gently, wearily, admonishing them with love, the way he always does, guiding them into reconsidering so that they can be refreshed, renewed, and encouraged in spirit by being part of something much larger than themselves that they cannot find anywhere else in the world around them.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Gentile is Healed

This Sunday's Old Testament lesson from II Kings contains an ancient story where the God of Israel grants a miracle to someone from outside the nation of Israel.  The prophet Elisha was on his own after his friend and mentor Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind to heaven so he began to travel through the countryside exhibiting the power of Yahweh to all.  This story concerns a man named Naaman, a commander of an army of Aram, a Gentile and foreigner to the people of Israel.  Even though he is in a position of authority, he has the disease of leprosy, which was feared by all in the ancient world.

A servant girl from the land of Israel who had been captured by the Arameans tells Naaman that the prophet Elisha may have the power to cure him of his leprosy.  So, he went to see Elisha, taking along with him an abundance of gifts to present to him as a token of his thanks for the healing that could come.  Naaman went to Elisha's house and Elisha sent a servant out to meet him with the the command, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."  (II Kings 5:10)

Instead of immediately obeying the prophet, Naaman became angry and went away complaining about the command, thinking that the prophet should have at least come out and seen him personally and performed some kind of incantation to ward off the disease.  He also resented being told to wash in the Jordan River, thinking that the waters of his homeland were cleaner and better than this river in Israel.

Naaman's servant girl helped him come to his senses, however, by asking him if he would not have done something even more difficult than what he had been commanded to do if it would bring his healing.  So, he finally obeyed the word of Elisha and was miraculously made free from his disease.

The result of the miracle was that Naaman believed in the God of the nation of Israel, of whom he knew little.  "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel..." (II Kings 5:15b)  When Naaman saw the result of his obedience to what the prophet had asked him to do, it changed his heart as well as his body.

This story speaks to us as well as to the ancient hearers to which it was addressed.  It spoke of Naaman's humility that he had to achieve in order to obey the word of the prophet.  Naaman had to put aside his own concerns and objections to washing in the Jordan and simply do what the prophet asked him to do so that he could receive his healing.  He had to yield his own ideas and accept those of another in order to gain what he desired so much.  We often have to act in humility also in order to achieve positive results in life.

After returning to Elisha, Naaman demonstrated his healing by returning in a state of submission and knelt before Elisha, identifying himself as a servant to both Elisha and Elisha's God.  He confessed his faith in the God of Israel.  His healing of body and spirit had been accomplished by his obedience to the word of the prophet.

The experience of healing in our own lives is an active process.  The progression from humility to a change of mind to submission and confession translates into a series of actions for our lives.  We must go down, turn around, kneel before and finally stand up before God's power and grace.

Do we have the ability to see and admit our own need, asking for God's presence in our lives?  Can we admit that we too need healing in our lives and are ready to take the steps to allow God to be present and active in our lives?  We believe in an all powerful, all knowing God, one who is aware of who we are and what happens in our lives.  We also believe in a God who cares for each of us and wants our lives to be complete and whole.  If God knows and cares, then perhaps God is ready for us to trust God for what God would provide for our lives so that we would be the most complete people we can be, ready to assist others in their own struggles in life.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Chariots of Fire

There are many supernatural, un-explainable, unbelievable stories in the ancient writings of the Bible.  The miraculous stories are just that...miracle stories that were never meant to be explained.  These stories were recorded in scripture to make a statement about humans and the interaction between God and humans.  The stories say something about the nature of God also.  God is present and involved in the lives of humans and has an overarching plan for all of humankind.  Perhaps the story from the book of II Kings that we have heard preached many times says something to us about God, humans, and the nature of God.

Elijah, the crusty old prophet of old, had done many miraculous things as God used him in ministry to and for the people called Israel.  Elijah represented the covenant that God had established with Israel through Moses in decades past.  The kings of Israel and Judah had imported strange gods into their lands and had encouraged worship to these idols.  Elijah railed against idol worship since it was forbidden by the first commandment given by God to the people of Israel.  Elijah used violence to combat the high priests of Baal and then retreated to the wilderness to hear the voice of God speak to him and reassure him that God was with him and would protect him.  God gave Elijah a coworker in the effort named Elisha and the two of them worked together to do what they felt God had called them to do in their efforts to bring righteousness into the land.

The day came, however, when Elijah's ministry had been completed and God would take him miraculously to the heavens to live with God.  Elisha had been warned at least twice by other prophets in the area that Elijah would soon be leaving.  Elisha could hardly bear the thought of his friend and companion no longer being with him so he tried to put it out of his mind but he was confronted by the reality again and again by others.

So, Elisha asked his friend if he could receive a special blessing to strengthen him once Elijah was no longer nearby.  "...if you see me as I am being taken from you," Elijah promised, "it will be granted you; if not, it will not." (II Kings 2:10b,c).  Elisha stuck close to Elijah the reminder of the day until suddenly a miraculous event occurred.  A chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared in the sky and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  Elisha saw it happen and the mantle that Elijah had been wearing fell to earth.  Elisha picked it up and used it to strike the Jordan River so that the water parted for him just as it had done for Elijah in days of old.  Elisha became the new Elijah that God would use in ministry with a hot and dusty people who needed to know of God's love for them.

This miraculous story says something about God's providential care for human beings.  God cares for all humans on the planet and wants to equip all with the tools to achieve and live a happy and productive life.  Unfortunately, not all humans are prepared to receive what God has provided in the planet and in human life so that they can live better lives.  The rejection of education and learning, the wastefulness and misuse of the resources of earth, and the failure to live in ways that would bring harmony into individual lives has caused some to not grasp the care that God would have for them.

God cared for Elijah as he performed the ministry tasks that God guided him to do.  God cared for Elijah also when it was time for him to leave the earth and go to heavenly places.  God had provided a co-worked for Elijah to assist him in his duties and when it was time for Elijah to leave, God equipped Elisha with the same tools that he needed in order to do ministry in the way that his friend had done.  Elisha received the spiritual energy necessary to work for God in the land and among the people of Israel.

God equips all who seek God and desire to be of service to God and humankind.  God provides all we need to find strength in our bodies and spirits so that we may help others to live in ways that will bring them joy and peace.  When we seek God and ask for God's blessings, God will always provide what we need in order to continue the ministry on behalf of others around us.

God's mantle of blessing falls upon all who seek a deeper understanding of God and how God can be involved in our daily lives.  As we pray and read God's Word and seek the guidance that God would give us in our lives, we will always receive what we need for our future and for that of others.  It does not take a chariot of fire streaking across the sky to open our eyes to God's miraculous universe.  If we look around us with eyes of wonder and curiosity, we will see God's Spirit in action wherever we may look.  It is enough to believe that God is, and that God is the rewarder of all who diligently seek God.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

God is Still Speaking, Quietly

The Old Testament lesson for next Sunday is the story from I Kings of Elijah the prophet running away from the wrath of the evil queen, Jezebel.  Elijah has displeased her by having a contest with the priest of Baal and then doing away with them.  So, Jezebel threatened revenge upon Elijah if she could catch him.  Elijah ran away to the distant wilderness area as most of us would have done also.  God miraculously provided food and water for Elijah while he was in the wilderness and then God is revealed to Elijah through the world around him.

Elijah figured that a God as mighty and powerful as YAHWEH would be revealed in the power of the world around him.  So, when an earthquake happened, Elijah thought God's voice would be heard in the earthquake but it did not happen that way.  Then a fire appeared and Elijah thought that surely God's voice could be heard in the fire but that was not the way it would work either.  After that there was nothing but sheer silence.  No noise at all, just a silence peaceful assurance that Elijah would be okay.

Elijah needed God's assurance that God would care for Elijah even in the midst of the threat that Jezebel had uttered against him.  He told God all that he had done to bring about righteousness in the land of Israel, despite the idolatry that Jezebel and Ahab had instituted in the land.  "I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away," Elijah told God.  (I Kings19:14c)

God listened to Elijah's complaint and, I believe, understood what Elijah needed in order to feel cared for by God.  He needed to know that God knew what he had gone through and that he was not alone.  God's word for Elijah in this instance was: ..."all the knees have not bowed to Baal..." (I Kings 19:18b)  Elijah was not alone in his quest to bring worship to the One God of Israel back in existence in Israel.  There were others who would assist Elijah if he needed them.

Sure enough as he went done the road toward Damascus he met the one who would be his helper, the prophet Elisha.  Elisha was plowing with oxen when Elijah met him and threw his mantle around him.  Then, after making peace with his family, he "set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant."  (I Kings 19:21c)

We all go through times of loneliness and despair.  Perhaps it is because of our ill health or due to circumstances that are beyond our control and we think that no one cares or understands what we are enduring.  We may even think that God does not care for us because we have not recognized God around us in a long time.  We may think that God may speak through something dramatic in our lives and expect it to happen in a thunderstorm as the lightning flashes or when the skies are threatening.  Those circumstances could speak to us but more often God speaks to us in the quiet moments of life when we have the time to really listen for God's voice.

God's voice is often heard in the quiet working out of history such as when the wall of Communism fell in 1989 and suddenly people who had been held captive by an oppressive society experienced personal freedom for the first time in many years.

God's voice is often heard in the daily lives of ordinary people as we are around them.  People quietly doing their jobs in the world often have something to say that encourages us and lifts our spirits, perhaps in the way they smile at us or say something cheerful to us.

God's voice may be heard in the birth of a child or a wedding or even at a funeral.  God is present in joy and in sorrow and there at times that those events make us slow down enough to listen for God to speak to us.

God is still speaking, even in the midst of tragedy.  I am writing this on the day after our country experienced the worst mass murder rampage by a gunman in our the history of our country.  Fifty persons going about their daily lives were murdered by a crazy, hateful person whose own life was taken in the conflict also.  God did not cause this event to happen but God wept for those whose lives were taken by this act of violence and hatred.  And in the midst of  the bloodshed and confusion, God was present and speaking through the actions of courage and bravery and love as humans helped other humans in need and as first responders worked diligently to save the lives of many who were wounded by this madman with a gun.

God still loves humanity and God still speaks even in the darkest of hours to reassure us that we are not alone.  God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What is Yours is Mine

I was just finishing my seminary education at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas in 1994 when I heard the news that one of my fellows students, an older woman who was attending seminary also, had suffered a great tragedy.  She and her husband were returning home from dinner out, and as they pulled into their driveway, suddenly they were ambushed by three young men who surrounded their car and demanded the keys.  One of the young men shot this woman's husband and he fell to the ground.  She crawled under the car in hopes of saving her own life as he husband lay dying a few feet from her.  The bandits drove off in their Mercedes without harming the woman who had crouched under the car, and as they sped away, they ran off a curb and damaged the car so that it was soon not drive-able.

The police began looking for those who had committed the crime and soon the evidence led them to a small town in Texas not too far away from where the crime had happened.  The three young men who had committed the crime were arrested and soon two of them named the other as the trigger man in exchange for two less severe sentences.  The young man who had pulled the trigger and killed the owner of the car he wanted was only 17 years old.  He had been president of his senior class and was from a well respected family in his small town.

What would cause such a fine young man from an upstanding family in a small town, an athlete that many looked up to, to want to steal an expensive car and in the process murder the man who owned the car?  No one can really answer that question but even the man who committed the crime could not give an adequate answer.  He was interviewed by Texas Monthly prior to this execution in 2002 and all he could say was that it not only a heinous act, but a senseless one, a realization that came too late to save his own life or that of the man he had murdered.

The reading from I Kings 21 for this next Sunday is an ancient story that has a similar theme.  The story involves the current king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife Jezebel.  It also involves a man who is a neighbor to the king, and who owns a vineyard.  The man's name was Naboth.  Ahab wanted the land that Naboth owned upon which sat his vineyard.  Ahab talked with Naboth and offered to buy the land from him but Naboth did not want to sell his land for any price.  In fact, he claimed the land was an ancestral inheritance and he could not sell it because it had been given to him by his ancestors and they had received it from the Lord.

Ahab became resentful and sullen and went home and turned his face toward the wall as he lay on his bed.  His wife, Jezebel, asked him why he was depressed and he told her that he wanted Naboth's land and he would not sell it to him.  Jezebel had an answer to his dilemma.  "Get up, eat some food, and be cheeful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."  (I Kings 21:7)

Jezebel went about a plan to falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King with false witnessed to make the case.  She carried out her plan and soon Naboth was stoned to death and Jezebel delivered the news to Ahab that the land and the vineyard now belonged to him.  Case closed.

But if you read a bit farther in the story, the case is not entirely closed.  It may have been a cold case until God got involved but soon God spoke to the prophet Elijah and told him the story that had happened and Elijah delivered the news to Ahab that God would soon judge and punish Ahab and Jezebel for the despicable thing they had done.

Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" (v.20)
He answered, "I have found you.  Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord."
Then Elijah told Ahab the fate that would befall him and Jezebel because of their wicked deeds.
Ahab repented after hearing Elijah's stern warning and immediately put on sackcloth and fasted.  Because he humbled himself before God, God forgave him and did not bring disaster on him but did judge his house and bring disaster upon his son's reign.  Jezebel lived a while longer but she did not escape judgment.  In II Kings 9, her violent death is explained.

Ahab and Jezebel broke at least three of the Commandments given by God to the People of Israel.  Ahab coveted what Naboth owned and when Naboth refused to sell it to him, he and Jezebel brought false witness against him and had him murdered in order to take the land from him.  Ahab was involved in idol worship before and during his reign as king of Israel.  His reign is described as one of the most evil and wicked in the history of Israel.

This ancient story is contained in sacred scripture, I think, to continue to teach the lessons that we all need to continue to remember even in our modern age.  Ahab wanted what Naboth possessed and would stop at nothing to have it for himself.  The young man that I described in the opening story, only 17 years old, wanted a luxury car of his own.  He stopped at nothing to have it, either, resulting in the murder of another person.  Too many times, people become fixed upon an object or a person or a goal that they want to have as their own and they will not stop until they obtain it.  Their vision and sensibility are clouded by their desire to have as their own the thing they covet.  They see no need to stop at anything until they have achieved the goal they have set before them.  The news stations report such incidents on a daily basis in our country.

Ahab began his killing spree by dabbling in idolatry with his new wife Jezebel.  He was influenced by her to begin straying from the path of righteousness laid out in the Commandments given by Moses to his people.  Then, when he began to desire what his neighbor had, he again listened to what his wife would have him do and his common sense seemed obsolete.

We can all be swayed by what others say we should do, either as individuals or as part of a group.  We can listen to their arguments or advice and decide for ourselves whether or not it will be good for us as part of our lives.  Even someone close to us can send us in a wrong direction if their advice is not good advice, as Ahab learned.  Our need for prayerful consideration of what we do in life is made real as we consider both ancient and modern stories that serve as illustrations of what can go wrong in life when we make decisions that take us places where we do not need to go, either literally or in our thinking.  Perhaps Ahab's story is provided as a story of warning, helping us who live in this modern world with so many choices confronting us daily, that we need to involve God in our lives and in our decisions so that the choices we make will be good ones both for us as individuals and for the land in which we live.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Endless Supply

Now and then there is a scare presented in the media that there may not be an ample supply of one product or another.  Often, these scares cause a run on the product that is in the news causing hording by some persons.  I remember a few years ago there was a story like that about rice.  Supposedly, the rice supply was about to dry up because of many environmental factors.  This story caused the price of rice worldwide to rise for a while so many people began to stock up on rice and store it in their freezers so that the bugs could not get into it.  Not too long ago, there was a story in the news that the same thing was going to happen to olive oil.  We use a lot of olive oil in cooking so I bought an extra container of olive oil when we were at the store where we normally buy it.  We have an extra amount of olive oil but the story soon disappeared from the news and I have not heard anything else about this.  Such a story helps certain industries because it increases the amount of purchases done for these products.  Who knows if there is a connection there?

Anyway, shortages have been part of life for as long as people have been living.  In the ancient world, people lived just one harvest from starvation at all times.  If for some reason, the crop they depended on was ruined by insects or weather or drought, then many people would die of starvation.  They did not have the variety of foods we enjoy today.  They subsisted on basic foods such as bread as the mainstay of their diets.

Such is the story from I Kings that is our Old Testament reading for this next Sunday.  The old familiar story of Elijah and the widow of Zarepheth is one that has been preached through the years but it continues to be one that will speak to us today.  Elijah was growing hungry and God sent him to a widow who was very poor.  She only had enough meal and oil to make a small cake for herself and her son.  After that they would starve to death.  The country in which they lived was stricken with drought and it had not rained in a long time.  Elijah went to that widow and had the audacity to ask her to make a cake for him instead of for her and her son.  She must have been a very patient person to comply with his request or perhaps she simply resigned herself to die and decided that she would just die sooner if she obeyed him.

So, the woman went to the kitchen and made the cake for the prophet.  She must have watched him eat greedily wishing she or her son could have a morsel of the food and then heard the prophet tell her to go into the kitchen and make a cake for herself and her son.  Don't you just imagine that she thought this old man was crazy?!  After all, she had told him that there was only enough meal and oil to make one cake and then it would be all gone.

She obeyed the prophet again and a miracle happened.  There was just enough meal and oil to make another cake for that day.  She and her son ate the cake heartily and enjoyed having a bit of food in their stomachs once again.  The prophet stayed around with the pair for a while later and each day she found sufficient meal and oil to live for another day.  That continued until the drought broke and the rains began again to restore the land to producing a crop.

This wonderful old story is about God's providence in our lives.  God will always give us what we need....understand, it is what we need, not what we want, necessarily.  God will supply our needs so that we may be rich in our spirits and our bodies too.  When we pray and ask God to supply our needs, God will always answer our prayers.  God may not answer our prayers as we desire for him to do but God will answer them according to his good will for our lives.

I often quote that verse that says, "All things work together for good for those who are called according to God's purpose." (Romans 8:28)  This verse does not say that all thing that happen to us will be good.  It says that all things will work together for our good.  I understand this to mean that through all the experiences of life, both good and bad, God will bring about something good in our lives that will enrich us and sustain us for the future.  We may have to endure hardship or suffering (as Paul describes earlier in that chapter and elsewhere in Romans) but in the end our lives will be better because of all that God has done in our lives in response to the lives we live for God.

There will always be enough to go around.  There is always enough to share.  There will never be an end to God's abundant blessings as we continue to seek God's will for our lives and follow the path in which God leads us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Faith of an Outsider

"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."  (Luke 7:10)

Jesus' words quoted above are in reference to a Gentile, a Centurion, a guard in the Roman Army.  Most Roman soldiers had little use for religion, either their own mixture of gods and goddess for which temples and worship sites were erected or for the god of the Israelites whom they regarded as just part of a myth that was being promoted by the Jewish population.  This soldier, however, had a reason for asking for Jesus' help.  He had a slave whom he "valued highly" who was ill and close to death.  This man of importance thought of himself as unworthy of having Jesus to come to his house to see the sick man but sent servants to ask Jesus to simply "speak the word" and his slave would be healed.

Jesus' astonishment at these words of the Centurion have their roots both in the faith he has seen exhibited by this man and by the fact that the man who said the words was a Gentile.  Jews regarded Gentiles as dogs or low-life and Gentiles generally regarded Jews as less than reputable and given to myths and superstitions.  For a Gentile to ask a favor of a Jew, even a miraculous one such as Jesus, it took a lot of courage.  This Centurion was a man of importance who was accustomed to giving orders but he ventured into an area of society that most people in his social standing would not have gone.

The Centurion received what he was seeking--the healing of his slave, given in response to the words he sent to Jesus, the healer.  Jesus' recognition of his great faith, faith that even Jesus thought of as exceptional and unusual, was such that he did not need to make a visit to the home of the Centurion.  Jesus could provide the healing being sought through the positive energy he sent along with his greetings to the Centurion by way of the servants who delivered the message.

Many who use the word "Christian" to describe themselves will attribute faith in God as something owned by Christians.  In fact, some Christians deny that God even hears the prayers of those who do not call themselves Christians.  A few years ago, one minister in a certain denomination made the national news with his statement that God did not hear the prayers of Jews except for prayers of repentance.  He believed that only "Christian prayers" truly were ones that God honored and heard.

How arrogant are we when we negate so many in the world who do not call themselves Christian but do have prayers that they say to their Higher Power in order to bring themselves comfort or peace or joy!  Our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters share a common heritage with us who claim the name Christian as we are all Children of Abraham and we pray to One God who is Father of us all.  Other religious persons in the world may not share in this heritage but may be true seekers of truth and light. Jesus said in the Gospels that God would not turn away anyone who comes to him seeking what God may offer to all.

In the ancient world, there were clear divisions between those of various religious identities.  Now and then, someone would cross the line and seek out others who did not believe as they did.  Jesus did this many times in the Gospels, for example with the woman at the well in John 4 and with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15 who sought healing for her daughter.  He was constantly open to all who were seeking him or a new understanding of the God of Israel.  Jesus did not worry that a person did not belong to the People of Israel.  He was concerned for what they needed from him and open to help meet their needs.

We have a plethora of religious expressions in our world today.  They range from the tradition to the odd or unique.  Persons who are part of different religious groups are there for different reasons.  Sometimes it is because they were born into a certain religious group.  Other times it is because something about that group attracted their attention and they converted and became a part of it.  Even persons who have called themselves Christians have aligned themselves with non-Christian groups and given up their Christian identity, much to the amazement of others in the Christian movement.

Jesus demonstrated in his life that God's love is for all who live in God's world.  We may all be seeking God on different paths in life but the paths are illuminated by truth from God if seekers of truth are sincere.  There is still light to be revealed to those who honestly seek the light that comes from the God of all.  Christians share the light they have received with others as they attempt to live in peace and harmony with others who may adhere to other religious traditions or who may not have a connection to religion at all.  Many today see no need for religion in their lives.  Perhaps it is the God of us all who calls those of us who claim faith as part of our lives, whatever our tradition may be, to live out our faith daily so that some can recognize God's presence in our lives, not by our words we speak but by the way we treat others in our world....the very visible presence of the God of us all at work in our lives daily.