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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thinking About the Spirit

This Sunday is called Trinity Sunday on the Church calendar.  It is the day we think about the concept of The Holy Trinity and talk about how the three persons in the Trinity work together.  Explaining the concept of the Trinity to non-clergy persons is a daunting task at times.  We are always wanting to find something to compare it to.  Some people think about the three forms of water...liquid, steam, and ice, all water but just in different forms...or there is the idea that it is like an egg which contains a shell, yoke and white which is still an egg regardless of how you put the parts together.

I think that trying to explain a mystery of the faith is a bit like trying to explain how electricity works or why a plane can fly or a boat can sail even though both are heavy and should not be able to go in the air or the water without falling or sinking.  There are just some concepts of the faith that are inexplicable.  They just are.

The idea of the Holy Trinity is a bit like that.  I like to think about God the Father, an old man in a big chair and he has a long white beard and white hair and he is very stern.  You cannot get anything past him.  Then, Jesus is a young man with long brown hair and a brown beard and he is very pleasant and kind looking and smiles a lot.  The Holy Spirit is right there with them but he/she is a bird, a white bird, hovering in the air above the other two.  Sunlight shines on all of them and they sit, stand, and fly always as the look over humans and the mess they are making of the world, wanting to do something about it but not able to because of the free will they granted everyone at creation.

If your idea of the Trinity is a bit like mine, then it is because we have all been shaped by the paintings that artists made of religious figures during the Medieval period of afterwards.  Religious art and also religious media that followed in the age of technology has made many of us think about the Godhead in humanistic ways.  We have made God in our own image, in other words.

I really think that the Godhead is only one being, the Holy Spirit, of which all three persons are a part, actively involved in the lives of humans on a daily basis.  Jesus taught his followers that the Spirit would come to be an Advocate, a Comforter, a Guide, to assist all who would call on God to find healing, hope, and help in their time of need.  I think that Jesus is already here, not sitting on a cloud waiting for the cue from the Heavenly Father to come to earth to bring about some cataclysmic era that needs to happen.  I think that Jesus came already in the form of the Holy Spirit on that day of Pentecost and all of those things that Peter preached about happening in the universe happened as the Spirit brought energy and a divine spark where it was needed for humans.

The Holy Spirit is involved in the daily lives of humans beings who ask for divine intervention.  The Spirit is Spirit of Truth whose mission it is to remind us of all that Jesus said and taught while he was a human being on earth.  The Spirit is meant to bring peace to persons who need peace in their lives in the midst of distress.  The Spirit is present to everyone, everywhere on earth all at once taking the place of Jesus who was bound to a human body, as we are, so that we can all find help in our time of need, even if it is in the middle of the night in China but in the lunch hour in New York City.  God is an ever present help in the time of need, as the psalmist said.

So, the idea of the Trinity is bound up in the working of the Holy Spirit, bringing to our lives what we need to live and learn and grow and help one another on our paths of life.  The Spirit is a mystery, not to be understood but to be trusted to show us the love of the Father and Son when we need it most.    

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A New Wind Blows

Last Sunday night we had quite the wind storm.  The wind seemed to howl for hours, nonstop, just blowing furiously and creating that big noise it does when it is as powerful as it was.  Some in town had their electricity go out for a short while.  There were signs of the wind everywhere--leaves and limbs on the ground to gather and discard, garbage cans knocked over, even a tree here and there that gave way---and its effects were felt all over town.  Today, the sun is shining bring the the winds are calm but we still remember what happened last Sunday night because we were part of the experience.
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday.  We will read the story from the book of Acts once again as we recall what happened to those who waited expectantly for what God would do for them and with them on that first Pentecost day.  They did not know what to expect but their senses were illuminated by the sound of a violent wind that shook the place where they were gathered and their eyes seemed to see things that were not there, tongues of fire above their heads as they began to speak languages they did not know for the benefit of others passing by on the streets outside.

The coming of the Holy Spirit was a new experience for the entire world.  God's presence had always been in the world but it was revealed to humans just now and then in the ancient world of the Old Testament to kings and prophets and seekers of God.  Then, Jesus Christ entered the world and humans could see another human who demonstrated in the way he lived and spoke what God was about.  "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father," Jesus says in the Gospel reading for this Pentecost Sunday.  Jesus showed his followers throughout their short endeavor together how much he was like the One who had sent him.

Then, Jesus spoke in the same Gospel reading of the Holy Spirit who would come as Advocate and Teacher to speak to and on behalf of all who needed the Spirit.  Those first disciples had little idea of what the coming of the Spirit would mean and what it would be like and perhaps that is why it had to be revealed to them in such a dramatic manner.  Wind and fire and foreign languages being spoken by people who had never learned them---all things that revealed to them that this was a new thing that God was doing for humankind.  Jesus had returned to be among them but this time he was present in the form of the Spirit who could be everywhere and among everyone at once across the planet.

A new wind blows across the globe every day as those who are attempting to live out the way of life that Jesus taught interact with others in their neighborhoods and in town, country, and farms everywhere.  As people see the needs of others and respond to those needs as they can, the Holy Spirit is at work through them to bring about healing, peace, comfort, and renewal.  We are the breath of the Holy Spirit at work in the world.  We are the ones commissioned to go and teach and bring love and peace where it is needed.  We are the ones to speak of God's extravagant love and inclusive acceptance to all who need to hear words of inclusion and forgiveness.  We are God's hands and feet at work in the world, empowered and equipped by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Christian Unity

Christian Unity.....is that an oxymoron?  Can there be unity among Christians when we are a very diverse people, when we think as we will, independent of any authority figure?  Even when there is a person or board or group who speaks for a religious body, individual members of that body will think for oneself and will decide that the authority does not in reality speak for each member.

Even our Catholic friends who respect the authority of the Pope as one who speaks on behalf of God on many religious and moral issues will beg to differ with the Pope is they do not agree with something that he has said.  His authority goes as far as their right to think individually when it comes to matters that are not specifically addressed in the Bible.

Jesus' prayer in the Gospel according to St. John in chapter 17 contains the text for this last week of Easter.  Jesus prays that after he is gone back to heaven that the Father will bring unity among those who have followed him and learned from him over the years they have been together.  Jesus prayed that "they may be one, as we are one." (v.22b)  Unity with the Father was something that Jesus did not have to strive for once he was reunited in heaven in the Holy Trinity.  Unity of humans with one another was and is another matter.

The Handbook of Denominations in the United States is published regularly.  It enumerates and classifies religious bodies in the United States and gives brief descriptions of the major groups.  In the last edition of this book it contains listings for 29 different groups who use the word "Baptist" in their name.  If one wanted to research what Baptists believe so as to join a Baptist church, then one would need to read or visit or experience many different Baptist churches in order to ascertain what it may truly mean to be a Christian with the name Baptist attached to it.

Baptists are not the only group with this distinction, however.  There are also many religious groups that use the name "Church of God" in their title.  One can read over the entries in the Handbook of Denominations and get the idea that Christianity is such a diverse faith that one can never be sure what a Christian truly believes.  Followers of Jesus Christ have divided and subdivided so many times since the Reformation that no one religious group truly can describe what all Christians are like or should be like.  Being Christian, like being American, is a unique, individual experience.

Jesus' priestly prayer, however, does not ask for persons to stop being individuals, because Jesus recognized that each of his earthly followers were unique individuals with their own temperaments and personalities.  Jesus' prayer was asking God to assist these humans to be more closely connected on earth, just as Jesus would be connected to the other members of the Godhead in the heavenly realm.  Jesus knew that humans would need a lot of divine intervention if they were ever going to achieve some form of unity that would overcome the frailties of human life.

That unity is seen now and then when Christians of many different flavors work together for a common goal.  When Christians work to help persons during disasters such as floods or earthquakes or fires, they put aside their need to promote their unique theological or religious viewpoints and concentrate instead on showing mercy to those who need to feel God's love in a tangible way as they try to make sense of life once more.  What we may believe or think about one of the tenets of our faith tradition that may make our religious group unique in the world around us is not nearly as important as helping another human who has little to eat or no place to sleep or needs medical care in order to survive.  Suddenly, we are at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  Food, clothing,  shelter and safety trump religious dogma any day.  

"That They May All Be One" is one of the mottoes of my denomination, The United Church of Christ.  Even within the boundaries of this church tradition, we are a varied people.  We may have mottoes to unite around but our views on moral and religious matters are as wide as the sea at times.  Individual congregations have departed and joined our denomination because of our social views.  So, we are an ever-changing religious body from year to years.  Yet, when a disaster happens somewhere in the world, our denomination is often the first to respond with financial and practical assistance.  Our Disaster Relief Team springs into action almost immediately when a need arises.  Our offices at the national level send funds that we have gathered through special offerings from local churches to assist those in need throughout the world.  We may not have realized the goal to "All Be One" even within the bounds of our own denomination, but we do have moments when we can see a glimpse of what it may mean to live out what Jesus prayed.

Jesus' prayer for Christian unity is an ongoing effort, a project that is always in process.  As we all continue to strive for unity, we will see those occasional glimpses of what it may look like.  As we work to put aside our differences in favor of the common goal, then we will see what Jesus may have been praying for so long ago.  Let it be so, Lord, we pray.