Monday, June 24, 2019

Earth, Wind, & Fire

1 Kings 19:1-15
2nd Sunday of Pentecost 

If you are going to need to come talk to me anytime soon, don’t come to my office.  Do not come to my office.  It’s still a little dangerous in there.  My office looks like a vacation Bible school exploded in it; and it wasn’t that tidy before.  

No, if you want to come spend time with me, maybe we can go get a cup of coffee with me.  Or better yet: come sit with me on my porch.  My porch is one of my favorite places.  It’s well-shaded, it’s got comfy chairs, and a beautiful view of the flowers my wife has cultivated in our front yard.  And in addition to all of that: it’s quiet.  Quiet is good for a healthy conversation; it helps us to listen.  

I’ve spent a lot of time with God out there.  There have been times that I have not been so quiet.  I have raged, I have shouted, and I have wept.  God is a good listener.  But I have also heard from God on that porch.  Not an audible voice, of course, but in the silence.  Turns out that, even in the terrifying noise of the world, God still seeks to meet us in the Stillness.  

In today's reading from First Kings, we meet a man who has nothing left. Elijah is worn out!  He can go no further.  He is exhausted, persecuted and depressed.  This is a man at the end of his rope!  

He had fought the good fight—and that fight is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament.  Elijah had just finished battling against the false prophets in the court of Ahab the King.  He had spoken against the idolatry brought by Queen Jezebel. He did his job and lived up to his calling… and as a result, he was condemned to die for all that hard work.   

You might remember the amazing thing that happened right before all this: Elijah had a sacrificing competition with 450 of the prophets for the idol Baal.  They all prepared sacrifices, they all prayed to their gods to send fire to consume the sacrifices, but only the Lord showed up.  Only God provided a consuming fire for Elijah’s offering (which burnt up even the stones of the altar).  For a moment, the people of God were reminded of who God was, but they soon became distracted and Queen Jezebel was back to issuing threats against Elijah.  

And so Elijah fled into the wilderness—alone, afraid, feeling sorry for himself—and lays down under a miserable old broom tree (a bush barely able to give shade to bird, much less a man) and begins to tell God that he’s ready to die.

Elijah’s life had hit rock bottom.  In a way, that’s kind of comforting.  It tells me that anyone’s life can seem, at times, not worth living.  Even the great prophet Elijah got so overwhelmed and depressed that he no longer saw the point of life.  Of course, Elijah did something in his sad state that we sometimes forget to do at first: he talked to God about it.  He sat down under that pathetic tree and told God to take his life.  

I have prayed that prayer.  Maybe you have too.  When we’re that low, we don’t really see things quite clearly.  Somehow we really think that God will answer that prayer; we really think that God will see our valid argument and have us fall asleep so we can die.  To my knowledge, God never has  granted that request.  But God did answer Elijah’s prayer.  

We were talking at choir on Wednesday about what we’d be doing musically in that space before the sermon.  We didn’t have an anthem and I hadn’t picked a hymn so Sonja suggested I sing something because I haven’t in a while.  And by the way, since I haven’t played in front of anyone for a while, I also haven’t practiced playing guitar for a while.  I don’t know if you’ve ever played a stringed instrument, particularly one with metal strings, at first it hurts.  With practice, you build up handy callouses on the tips of your fingers and the pain gets less and less, but my fingers are a little ouchie right now.  

Sometimes—probably not every time—but sometimes I think God’s “no” to our prayers are a little like that.  It hurts.  Sometimes it hurts a lot, but maybe we come away with it a little stronger; maybe we come away with it a little more prepared to do what God is calling us to do.  

Elijah told God that he was ready to die and then he lay down to sleep… presumably for the last time.  But instead of letting him sleep forever, an angel woke him up with a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and lay down again.  And again the angel woke him and he ate and drank. 

Notice that the angel who ministers to him does not do 'spiritual' stuff, he does not say to Elijah, "pray about it, you'll feel better." No the angel feeds him and makes him rest, telling him that if he does not eat, the journey will be too much for him. Sometimes we just need time away and someone to support us. We really need to pause to eat and drink, so that we can continue the journey we are on. Only then are we ready for prayer, only then can we be ready to be spiritually restored.  

The story continues with Elijah continuing on into the wilderness until he comes to Mt. Horeb, to the Mountain of God, to the place where God revealed himself to Moses and to Israel in cloud and in fire: and there God speaks to him and tells him that he is about to pass by him.  God is about to be revealed to Elijah in a new way.

Elijah goes out to the mouth of the cave where he has spent the night and looks for God in the strong wind that comes upon the mountain, and then in the earthquake that shakes it, and in the fire that follows, but God is not found in any of it.

They say that there is vastly more space between the molecules all around us than the molecules themselves.  Something like: if you were to put a tennis ball in the middle of a football stadium, the tennis ball would be the molecule and the stadium would be the space between.  I don’t know if that’s true; it certainly doesn’t seem true.  But if it is true, I like to think that God works in the space between; in the stillness that is always there but that we can’t perceive.  

There is a great, rock splitting wind; then there is an earthquake; then a fire; but finally there comes a still small voice.  Some translations call it a sheer silence, your pew Bibles describe it as a gentle whisper.  And in this gentle whisper—in this deep silence—God visits with Elijah.

Picture it: I imagine the wind, earthquake, and fire were a bit distracting; terrifying, in fact.  Yet God is not in them; they merely proceed God’s actual presence.  Sometimes it seems like God is hard to find—like God isn’t paying attention to our fervent prayers—but we’ve been looking in the wrong places.  In the midst of all the busyness and commotion in our lives, all the hurry and activities, all the trying to cope, all the work we do to make a good life, maybe those are the only things we can see.  Maybe all that’s loud in our lives gets in the way of seeing what we need to see, and hearing what we need to hear.

Perhaps sometimes we need to just stop and wait on the stillness: to listen to the silence, to look for God in the calm, instead of in the turmoil. That is what Elijah was led to do. Elijah, in his exhaustion, in his fear, just needed some time off. He got away for a while, even from what God had called him to do.  So in his fear and his pain, his loneliness and hunger, he called out sought God's presence. And God was present with him… in the silence.  And in that, Elijah was once again prepared to go out and do those things that God called him to do.  In that whisper, he was commissioned and assured by God that he was not alone—that many faithful persons were yet with him.

Sometimes that is all we need.  We need to time away, to get in touch with God, to listen for the silence, and see past the chaos that can be so distracting. We need to pause and to listen so that we might have the strength and the guidance we need to do what we are called to do.

Think of the number of times that Jesus took time apart; how he would send the disciples on ahead of him while he paused to pray on a mountainside; how he would prepare himself for his next round of activity by first going away by himself to pray, by first going away to listen to the silence.

And so should we.  Let us not become so caught up in the winds, earthquakes, and fires of our lives that we cannot hear the silent peace that comes from God.  Let us not wait until our hearts are filled with fear and despair before we turn to God’s calming presence.  Let us seek and take advantage of those times of solitude and quiet; and may the gentle whisper of our ever-present God remind us that we are not alone and strengthen us for our life’s long journey.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pick Up Her Call

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31
Trinity Sunday 

[This is an intentionally briefer message than usual.  We just finished our annual VBS, and there were several of us that considered that the sharing of our experiences of the week, or “God Sightings,” might make a fine sermon in itself (including me).  Not to say that Proverbs 8 doesn’t say something vital for us to hear, it’s just I think it can be said briefly.]

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, in case you missed it.  The message was simple: the Spirit of God is not always a Spirit of Peace.  Sometimes, the Spirit of God runs through and around us like a freight train, lights us up like candles, and sends us singing praises into this world.  I think that most of us get that.  The shaping that God’s Spirit does in us is sometimes, is through fire.  And eventually, perhaps, we may even learn to say, “Thank you for what you’ve done in me.”  

And like I said, most—if not all—of us have seen that side of the Spirit.  I didn’t expect that part of last week’s message to spark much debate.  But there was one part of last week’s message that I thought might ruffle at least a couple of feathers.  Maybe I said it too fast and nobody heard.  Maybe after eleven years as your pastor I can just say whatever I want.  It was toward the end: I referred to the Spirit of God as a “her.”  

You know, there was a day—not so long ago—that a crack like that would have at least gotten a gasp.  Of course I wasn’t exactly trying to push anyone’s buttons; our lesson this morning reminds us that it may not be so wrong to imagine the Spirit of God in feminine terms.  My dad is here this morning, by the way.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Just so you know, the moms didn’t really get a Mother’s Day themed sermon so you’re not getting one either.  In fact, not only are we not going to talk about God’s manly side; we’ll be referring to at least the Spirit of God as a “her.”  

Our Scripture lesson today skips around to make two major points.  The bulk of our reading is oddly the easier to cover: it’s not a simple concept to understand, but it’s easy to cover.  It’s that second part of our lesson that starts at verse twenty-two.  It’s Wisdom herself, describing how she’s been around literally forever.  It’s that confounding Trinity.  It’s the notion that God is vastly more complicated than we know.  It’s that baffling thought that God is somehow in relationship with God’s self.  If all of that is clear as mud, you’re in good company.  The good news is, God does not require our perfect understanding; only that we trust in God’s love.  Do you trust?  Good.  That, oddly enough, is Wisdom.  But for today, what she wants us to know is that she has always been and God delights in her dwelling in us.  

And it’s that “in us” part that I think is the more important part for us to hear.  Wisdom, in the case of how she’s described in Proverbs, isn’t just a thing that’s thought or spoken; Wisdom is a person.  She stands on the heights, beside the way, and at the crossroads; she’s there, beside the gates in front of the town, and at the entrance of the portals.  You can hear her calling everywhere you go.  You just need to listen.  

It’s funny, the notion of Wisdom being personified in a woman is a notion that really resounds with me.  I’ve been pretty open about how, about a year ago, I was faced with an emotional health crisis.  When I came to that understanding, I was immediately faced with a second crisis: that I didn’t really know that I had any close friends to walk with me in it.  I have a church family that cares about me, but I’m your pastor, you’re my flock.  It’s a different relationship.  So I went in search of friends and God led me to a wonderful team of people who have helped me through a difficult time.  I’m feeling much better now.  

But the point I was getting to is this: most of those friends are women.  It’s a pretty good balance, but it definitely leans feminine.  In fact, I have a few select friends who, whatever they tell me to do, I will do; and they are all women.  So when Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, I feel that.  

But perhaps more to the point is that Wisdom, the Spirit of God, is embodied all around us everywhere we go.  If we can have ears to hear her calling out, we will hear her everywhere we go.  

Yeah, I was out shopping yesterday, and guess who I ran into? Wisdom. Yeah, there she was. She called me over and we began talking, Wisdom and I. Then, I went down to the courthouse, and there she was again, making a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused. After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there before me, calling for students and teachers alike always to seek truth. Then I went for a walk in the woods, moving along the trail in quiet meditation. Wisdom snuck up on me and said, "Now that we are alone, I have something I want to share with you, a present I want you to enjoy. You know, I have been around a long time, really before the beginning of time. I have been whirling and dancing with God all along. I am God's delight, laughing and playing. I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that come when you welcome me. Will you set aside those thoughts, words, and deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others? Will you come and laugh and play with me? Will you come and dance with me? Will you?"

Wisdom calls to us, and as she calls let us answer.  May she move in us, that others will hear her call as well.  May the Wisdom of God that calls to all, be heard by us and be alive in us.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Under Heaven

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost Sunday 

So yes, I am preaching from a jungle today.  [Our VBS is this week and there was a giant African backdrop behind me.]  Hopefully, it’s not too distracting for you.  Some pastors would be bothered by all of that; It doesn’t bother me… I’m looking the other way.  

Besides, I’ve been watching all of the work that’s gone into this over the past couple of months; we need to appreciate this work of art.  This is cool!  

And by the way: I was talking to a pastor friend of mine a little while ago; his church has their VBS coming up soon too.  I asked him what his role was during their VBS and he said, “What do you mean?”  

I said, “You know, what’s your part during the week?  Do you run games, do you lead music, help make the snack; what do you do during your VBS week?”

He gave me this weird look and said, “What do I do?  I sit in my office and I get work done.”  

Turns out—and I asked around a little bit—but it turns out, a lot of pastors don’t even show up during VBS.  How am I just hearing about this now!?  I’ve been helping with this for about ten years now, and for the past ten years, someone (Carolyn) has led me to believe that, “Oh yeah, all pastors are intimately involved with VBS.  It would be weird if you weren’t.”   

I’m kidding, of course.  This week means a lot to me.  I am really looking forward to siding up with my church family to show God’s love to these kids.  I’m going to be an exhausted mess come this time next week, but it is going to be worth every moment.  

But there is another cool thing about having to preach from a jungle today: today is Pentecost.  Today we commemorate the birthday of the church.  Today we remember the Baptism of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus.  Today we remember the day the disciples spoke of God’s praise in languages that were not their own; the day that roared (eh, eh?) with the sound of blowing wind; the day that dazzled with sights of flaming tongues above their heads.  There is nothing quiet and meditative about our Scripture reading this morning.  It is distracting, and loud, and alarming; and that’s the point.  If today seems a bit more chaotic than most days, that’s a good thing; that is exactly how it’s supposed to be.  

A few weeks ago, on Mother’s day, I mentioned my Grandma Alice.  She passed away around this time of year, so that might be why she comes to mind this time of year; but there may be more to it than that.  It’s something about Pentecost.  There’s something about Grandma Alice that reminds me of an aspect of the Holy that we don’t always remember. 

My mother’s mother was not like my mom.  Alice was not the “baking cookies and kissing boo-boos” kind of grandma.  My mother is that kind of grandma, but her mom was not.  And Grandma Alice reminded me of the Holy Spirit in ways we sometimes forget.  Ways that become particularly obvious at Pentecost.  

The Holy Spirit has been referred to as the Comforter.  Often, we think of God’s Spirit as a comforting presence in our lives.  And although the Spirit often does bring us comfort even in our darkest times, the Spirit is not just about our comfort; and although my Grandma could be a very tender and caring person, that’s not really what she was known for.  

I told you a few weeks ago how her mere presence in the house would disrupt the entire atmosphere.  Grandma Alice did not live to make your life easier; in fact her presence sometimes made life harder.  She was loud.  She had her opinions about everything and would tell you what she thought… whether or not you wanted to hear it.  I can also remember a couple of Thanksgivings, where she’d pushed my dad’s buttons so hard the year before, she wasn’t invited back.  She was a cantankerous old lady… and she’s probably why I love cantankerous old ladies.  But most of all, I know that, until at least the end, she prayed for me every day.  Of course—as a minister, following in her husband’s profession—I was her favorite, but she also prayed daily for all of her other grandchildren too.  

Grandma Alice is not exactly the description of God’s Spirit we’re used to, but—reading from the second chapter of Acts—she was not too far off, is she?  A presence that you feel—sometimes uncomfortably—even before you hear that Voice; a person who will tell you the things you need to hear… and sometimes, when you least want to hear it; but also a Voice of constant and faithful prayer for us… even when we are not so constant and faithful.  

Our text from Acts two is one of those amazing Scripture texts that speak to me differently each time I read it.  As I read it this Pentecost Sunday, I am struck by the blatant lack of subtlety within the Spirit’s movement.  God’s Spirit rolls in on them like a freight train, noisy and frightening.  But does God say, “Oh, excuse me.  Were you praying?”  No, God’s just getting started.  In case the followers of Jesus still weren’t paying attention, the Spirit sets them on fire… almost literally.  It is the birthday of Christ’s Church and we are the cake and the Spirit rolls in and lights the candles!  

But hold on, here comes the icing: the Spirit fills them and they begin to give God praise.  Now we are a decent and orderly people, so the next part might be a little troubling for us; just bear with me.  You see, they didn’t just break into their favorite hymn here; they didn’t just strike up a chorus of How Great Thou Art, they exploded into a cacophony of noise!  (I love the word “cacophony,” I so rarely get to use it.)  Luke tells us here that there were at least a dozen languages being spoken at the same time; can you imagine the racket?  

That was how the Church was born!  I was in the room when my children were born… and especially with that last one, that sounds about right.  The birth of the Church was like any other birth: it was wonderful, it was loud, and it was not just a little terrifying.  

Today the Word of God reminds us of a different side of the Spirit; a side we don’t often experience, and why would we want to?  It’s messy and uncomfortable… but maybe we should want to.  Maybe our prayers for comfort and tranquility aren’t really what God wants for us after all.  Maybe instead we ought to be praying for the overwhelming presence of a God that will not be ignored!  A God that rolls over us like a freight train and lights us up like so many candles on a birthday cake and sends us out with songs of praise without a care in the world for who might hear us singing!  

We are going to sing this week.  It is going to be a cacophony!  It will be, as the sign says, wild.  The children we will serve will be from a lot of virtual places under heaven.  May we feel and embrace the uncomfortable movement of God’s Spirit.  May we be lifted by her prayers for us and for the work we are called to.  And may we obey, even when it seems crazy.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Oneness

John 17:20-26
Seventh Sunday of Easter 

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked me what my favorite Gospel was.  You can’t ask a pastor that!  That’s like asking who your favorite child is.  (It’s Wyatt, of course.  I’m kidding.  There’s a speaker up in the nursery, so they hear this; and I’m messing with them.)  

So my friend asked me about my favorite Gospel, and it occurred to me, I do have favorites, but it changes.  Sometimes it’s Mark’s brevity. Sometimes it’s Luke’s attention to detail.  Sometimes it’s Matthew’s concern for the poor and the outcast.  But right now it’s got to be John.  Lately, I have been drawn to the Gospel of John because John is all about love.  John hears what Jesus says about love in a way the other Gospel writers only hint at.  Lately, I’m drawn to John because I need love in my life; now more than ever.  I feel like we all do.  There is so much hurt in the world; so much violence, division, greed, and pain.  There’s a reason Jesus made love a command.  

I need love in my life because love, God’s love, doesn’t just make me feel warm and fuzzy; God’s love is what we’re made for; it’s what we’ve made to know and live out; God’s love makes us one.  

Notice who Jesus is talking to today: he’s speaking in the presence of his disciples, but he’s not talking to the disciples.  This is a prayer.  He’s talking to the Father.  If the Trinitarian complexity doesn’t melt your noodle, what and for whom he prays is pretty amazing.   Jesus prays for his disciples but adds, "but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word."  This part of the Gospel of John all happens as Jesus prepares for the Cross.  If you have one of those “red letter Bibles,” there’s a lot of red here.  Right before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and executed; right before he entrusts his ministry into the hands of his followers; he gathers them, he washes their feet as a sign of what their love for one another looks like, and then he begins to teach them.  He spends so much time talking with them because he knows what’s about to happen and he wants them to be somewhat prepared.  From chapter thirteen through sixteen he talks to them about what is to come, what he wants from them, and what it all means; but then, in chapter seventeen, he stops talking to them and begins praying for them.  

And notice, his prayer is for us, too.  Us, those who will believe.  That's you. That's me. Here in the future. Prayers are not held to time and place. 

So what does Jesus pray?  “That they may all be one."  How do we take that?  What does mean to be one? One what? One community? One church? One faith? One in dogma? One in doctrine? When? When were Christians ever one in unity in anything? Christians started fighting amongst ourselves from the get go. Unity? Name the Unity for me if you can.

But it isn’t just our unity, is it?  Jesus says, " As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  Now hold on, that is more than just us getting along, isn’t it?  That’s pointing to something bigger than just what we choose to do; that’s pointing to something the Spirit of God does in us; something reflected in this meal we share.  

As he prays for his followers, both then and now, he doesn’t just call us to know a thing; he calls us to be in a thing; he calls us to be in him. Please God, Jesus prays, please God, let the Oneness that We share be shared with and among My disciples, who You gave to me. That is His prayer for us, for you and for me. Unity is not about what we know, it is about Love. Unity is about my soul and your soul being United in Love with God, being Loved by God. God is Love. 

But it’s not just for us, is it?  Jesus adds, “That the world may believe.”  There is a point to this prayer that is beyond those unsteady few in that room; there is a point to this prayer that is beyond the unsteady us; the point is that the world might believe.  That the love made known in us—a love that is proven in our unity—might make a point in the world.  

Jesus came to show us that God Loves us. Love is the proof. And then, check this out: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.”  Jesus wants us to shine with Him, to shine like Him, to share that same Love with Him. You and me.  And I don’t think he’s just talking about some far away place of clouds, wings, and harps.  The glory of Jesus is here and now.  His glory is real now because his love is real now.  

The last part of this prayer might be the most important.  Jesus prays, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

We have a job: to embody Jesus, as we remember here at this Table; to embody His love, as we remember here at this Table; by his Spirit, to be united, as we remember here at this Table; and then to go, bringing his love to the world in all we do and say… as we remember here at this Table.  

May we be the answer to our Savior’s prayer as we are made one to show his love.  


John 5:1-9
Seventh Sunday of Easter

I’m not a fan of censorship.  I think our nation’s founders were wise ensure free speech (right along side of freedom of religion, by the way) and I bristle at times when it seems that the right of free speech is being pushed against.  Words are important to me and we need to be able to use them effectively, even when they might not be something someone wants to hear.  But I also think we should be nice to each other.  Maine recently made it illegal to use imagery of a Native American as a mascot and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  On the one hand, that sounds like it’s limiting free speech; on the other, why—in this day and age—would anyone still be using imagery of Native Americans as mascots.  They’ve asked us not to; shouldn’t that be enough?  If my name is Brian and you insist on calling me Frank, I’m going to ask you to stop calling me that.  It’s not censorship, per se; it’s human kindness.  Words are important in the ways we express ourselves, but they are also important when it comes to caring for each other as well.  

All that to say: there is a word I would love to eliminate from the English language; call it censorship if you will.  It’s a word that’s right there in our Scripture reading today.  I would love to never again hear the word “invalid.”  What an awful word!  You know it’s just in the pronunciation, right?  If you pronounce it one way, it’s a noun that means someone who is disabled.  If you pronounce it another way, it’s an adjective that describes something that isn’t valid.  What an awful word.  

It’s so awful because there’s something subtly true about it; something in our culture, and probably a lot of other cultures, that we say about those who are on the fringes.  There are those we consider in-valid.  But not so with Jesus.  With Jesus, valid has nothing to do with it.  With Jesus, you take up your mat and you walk.  

According to the legend, the Bethzatha Pool was supposed to have healing powers whenever its waters were troubled and agitated, presumably by an angel, a heavenly messenger. So we can understand why, as the story says, there were many “invalids” lying around down by the poolside. They were waiting for a chance to get into the pool when the waters got stirred. You had to get wet to get well.

Well, the story zeroes in on one of those castoffs of society—a crippled man who had been lying down by the poolside for 38 years. And here's what the text says. Listen to it again. 

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.”

He never got wet. He did get well. Jesus healed him.

Now who is this person down by the poolside? Who is this 38-year, crippled castoff of society? Most of the time, we hear this story, read the story—I’ll admit, preach on this story—and we celebrate him and romanticize him as a combination of genuine faith in Jesus and the intestinal fortitude to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. After all, didn't he believe Jesus and so was healed? Didn't he obey Jesus when he got up, picked up his mat, and walked around? This is the kind of person who really deserves to be healed. You see, he played by the rules of both faith and practice—down by the poolside.

Is that really what this story says? So who is this castoff? Well, there's not one word about his faith in this text. Not one hint that he believed in Jesus or anything else except the magic water in the pool. And, if we read just a little further, we find out that he wasn't even grateful for being healed. In fact, when the religious authorities see him walking around carrying his mat (like you’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath), they ask him, "Who healed you?" and he says he doesn't even know. When they inform him that healing and mat-carrying is illegal on the Sabbath, he snitches on Jesus as the one who healed him and told him to carry his mat. "Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, not me!" This is the one Jesus healed.

Who is he? He's a real bum, that's who he is! He had no gratitude, no faith, no humility, no guts. He didn't deserve to be healed. He didn't deserve anything. This is the one Jesus healed. This is the one, the one who had been on the welfare rolls for 38 years. Who is he? He's one of those people right here in the United States that Michael Katz calls "the undeserving poor." The undeserving poor. And Katz puts it this way in his book From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. These are Katz' words:

For the most part, Americans talk about the poor as them. Poor people usually remain outsiders, strangers to be pitied or despised, helped or punished, ignored or studied, but rarely full citizens...on the same terms as the rest of us.... They are "Those people...."

Now those are the people lying around, down by the poolside. Those people are the ones Jesus healed.

I don’t know how you feel about “those people,” but they show up at church sometimes; during the week.  I have an envelope of twenties that the church budgets for me.  It means I can show kindness without being too kind… or even too interested.  There are those who would take advantage of a pastor who was doling out twenties.  

I think I met one of “those people” the other day; only, she didn’t ask for money.  I was putting my things in my car, getting ready to head home, and a woman and her five-year-old daughter walked up.  She asked if we had a clothing closet, which of course we don’t.  

You probably noticed how the weather recently turned from summer to winter, and back to summer again.  When it was winter, this woman realized that her daughter needed a sweatshirt.  So off they went, walking from “Pine River Something” to “Pine River Something,” looking for a sweatshirt that would fit this kid.  Now, I didn’t have a sweatshirt, but I did have ideas, time, and a car with a car-seat, perfectly suited for a five-year-old; so off we went.  By the way, if you meet one of “those people” and they’re looking for a clothing exchange: Pine River Shares is the organization you’re looking for.  Unfortunately, they are currently moving into the old Primary School, so their clothing closet is not up and running.  But while we’re driving around town and finding this out, I heard some of her story.  How, she used to have so much stuff: cars, a place of her own to live, apparent security; and it didn’t make her happy.  I imagine roaming around town trying to find a sweatshirt for her little girl didn’t make her very happy either.  Somewhere along the way, she stopped being for me one of “those people.”  As we drove around this town, at some point, she started sounding a lot like me—with a few subtle changes.  

Interesting, isn't it, that the pool in this story from the Gospel of John is right in the shadow of the temple, right in the shadow of the church.  There are hurting people in this community—our community.  People living in the shadow of this very church, that we might treat as “those people.”  Following our Savior’s example, may we meet them where they are; may we look them in the eye; and may we bring our Savior’s healing in whatever ways he calls us.  

The Glory

Psalm 148 & John 13:31-35
Fifth Sunday of Easter 

Sometimes Scripture can be a little hard to understand.  That’s why people like me go to seminary and learn things like how to read Greek.  But sometimes, Scripture does not require a master’s degree.  Sometimes, like with Psalm 148, it isn’t at all difficult to understand what the writer is getting at.  In the fourteen verses of Psalm 148, we hear the word “praise” thirteen times.  Hmm, let’s check out the commentary to see what this one’s about.  

Psalm 148 is all about praising God; it’s about all of creation praising God, beginning with the highest heights and ending with you and me.  Psalm 148 calls upon everything that God has made to praise God because God has created everything and God should be praised for that.  

The point of Psalm 148 is clear.  But perhaps, what is not so clear is how we ought to give God praise.  Should we create poems like Psalm 148?  Should we sing?  Should we dance?  Should we, like good Presbyterians, sit very still or should we put up our hands, jump around, and shout “halleluiah?”  How do we praise God?  

Well, although I can’t answer that question exactly, I do have a thought: perhaps, our truest praise of God doesn’t really happen… while we’re in here.  Maybe our greatest praise begins only after we go out and join the rest of creation.  

(As we seek to praise the God who made us, saves us, and sustains us, let us gather our hearts and minds to God in prayer.  Please join me.  Loving God, as we turn ourselves to your Eternal Word, we ask that, by your Spirit, you would help us to understand what you have done for our redemption.  Help us to see and understand what you have done for us in Christ, that he may live in our hearts by faith and be proclaimed in our lives by our love.  This we pray in the name of Christ our Savior. Amen.)

Speaking of repeated words, our Gospel lesson begins, “When Judas was gone, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son himself, and will glorify him at once.’”  If you were keeping score, that was five glorifys in two verses.  Hmm, perhaps that points to a theme.  

We time-travel a little in our Gospel lesson this morning.  For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing some post-resurrection stories, watching for what Jesus calls his followers to be and do.  And then we jump back in time to read a part of the Gospel of John that is appropriately read during Holy Week.  As if, perhaps, these words are meant to be like the wisdom our parents spoke when we were young… when we weren’t completely listening… only to treasure many years later.  There’s a reason we celebrated our graduates last Sunday instead of today, the day they actually graduate: they wouldn’t hear a word about our hopes and admiration for them today; they have too much to distract them.  Now that the somber, reflective season of Lent is over—now that the distractions of Holy Week are behind us—now, perhaps we can go back and really hear the words that Jesus spoke to us during those days.

In the passage we read this morning, Judas has just walked out the door; he’s gone to betray Jesus.  Jesus knows what’s coming.  Jesus knows that his friend Judas has just waked out the door to betray him and to set things in motion that lead to his death.  Jesus knows all this… and yet the words he speaks at that moment are all about glory.  

I’m struck by how out of place this seems.  It seems like such a tangent that I initially want to skip past it and on to the “New Commandment” part: Judas goes out to do what Judas is going to do and Jesus responds by saying, “Now God is and will be glorified in me.”  Betrayal, persecution, suffering, and death are not exactly things that come to mind when we speak of glorifying God.  Perhaps an uplifting worship service comes to mind.  Maybe a song or a poem that draws our hearts to dwell on God’s majesty is what we think of.  Perhaps the wonders of creation that we see in a sunset or a newborn baby move us to remember the grandeur of God.  But pain?  Makes about as much sense as calling the day of crucifixion “Good Friday.” 

But in the end, it is good; it is glory.  The glory of God that was revealed in Jesus was revealed thorough his pain.  Sometimes glory isn’t revealed in a song, or well-crafted words, or a beautiful sunset.  Sometimes glory isn’t pretty.  

Which brings us back to my original question from Psalm 148: how do we praise God; how do we give glory to God?  We see how Jesus did it, but suffering is probably (hopefully) not how we’re called to do it.  Jesus says as much: “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  Whew!  And then Jesus goes on to tell us how we do it… sort of.  He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  

When Jesus speaks of glorifying God by his work on the Cross and then jumps right into the New Commandment to love one another, I think Jesus is talking about the same glory.  One is the glory of God revealed in the work of Jesus; the other is the glory of God revealed in us.  Just as the glory Jesus demonstrated was through something much greater than words or sentiment, so also is the love that we are commanded to show.  Remember, Jesus did not simply command us to love one another; he said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  For those of us who have found new life, we are commanded to love, but we have been commanded to love as Christ has loved us: a love that glorifies God through our lives.  

After losing his job in 2010 amateur photographer, Brandon Stanton, moved to New York and began an ambitious project: to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants. Armed with his camera, he began crisscrossing the city, covering thousands of miles on foot, all in an attempt to capture New Yorkers. Somewhere along the way he began to interview his subjects in addition to photographing them. He asks one of two questions, which seem to open the doors into people’s lives: “What is your greatest struggle?” or “Give me one piece of advice.”

Alongside their portraits he includes quotes and short stories from their lives. Brandon’s portraits and captains became a blog “Humans of New York” and now the project has over 20 million followers on social media.

One of the Humans of New York helped Brandon understand his project is really about the power of stories. She was older woman photographed.  Her story kind of answered both questions. 

She said, “When my husband was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’

He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.’”

Isn’t that just beautiful? Take the love you have for me and spread it around. I think Jesus tells us the same.  

Take the love I’ve shown you and pour it out in the world. “Just as I have loved also should love one another.” In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t really give us anything else to do—no turn the other cheek or walk a second mile or give away your cloak. Just love one another. The only thing he seems to want from us is to let him live in the world through the love of his followers—not just our love for him, but in our love for one another.

So let us pour out his love in this world.  Pour it out, on strangers and friends; from the cashier at the grocery store to the difficult family member. Pour it out, every day, in every interaction, and in every place. Take the love you’ve known through, and give it away again and again and again. And May God give us the grace to allow such love to embody and pour out of us every day. 

The Voice

John 10:22-30
4th Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 12, 2019

They ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense?”—an unlikely source for such a good question.  The religious leaders corner Jesus, looking for something religious leaders always wish they had: clarity.  They want black and white, like we all want it black and white.  But if you’ve met Jesus in any way, you know that’s not what you’re going to get, right?  

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask Jesus.  At least, that’s how the Greek is translated in your pew Bibles.  As language translation goes, of course, sometimes it isn’t completely clear.  Sometimes you need to look at clues from the context to get a more-precise translation.  In this case, there are a couple of ways you can go here: one is the way we read it.  The other is more like, “How long will you annoy us?”  Hate to say it, but Jesus can be vexing.  

You can see how context might play a role in how that would get translated, right?  But here’s the thing: it’s actually hard to tell.  The verses right before our reading today say, “Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”  Which crowd was this today?  Was it the friendlier group or the annoyed one?  Honestly, from the context, there is no way to tell.  

If you like clarity—if you like things like the Bible to be black and white—this is not going to be your day.  Sometimes Jesus will still confound us; sometimes what Jesus calls us to do and be is not so black and white.  The religious leaders corner Jesus and ask him to just speak plainly and sometimes we think, “I know, right?”  

Fortunately, we are reminded of something important today: our Risen Savior doesn’t just call us to understand; he calls us to listen and follow.  

You may notice that, when the Gospel of John refers to “the Jews”, I tend to call them “religious leaders”.  I do this on purpose for a couple of reasons: first, John does not mean it in an anti-Semitic way.  John doesn’t have a problem with Jewish people, and neither does God.  Seems like I shouldn’t have to say that, but you never know.  So for clarity’s sake, I am careful to indicate which specific group of Jews the Gospel of John is talking about: John is talking about a specific group of religious leaders.   But also, I call them “religious leaders” to point out that we’re often more like them than we want to admit.  As I said, for whatever reasons, they are looking to Jesus for clarity; just like us.  We want a plain and simple Savior; we want a plain and simple understanding of Scripture; we want a plainly understandable God whose actions in the world can be plainly explained to those around us.  In fact, we want those things so badly that we speak sometimes as though those things are actually plain and simple.  But the trouble with talking plainly about the things of God is that the things of God are anything but plain.  When we begin speaking with certainty about God, it is a sure sign that we are no longer actually talking about God.    

And because it’s in my “religious leader” nature to do so, I feel the overwhelming urge to ask the question: why doesn’t Jesus just speak plainly?  Wouldn’t it have been easier?  They come to Jesus and ask him if he’s the Messiah and he says, “Yep.”  Story over; everyone goes home happy.  But of course, that is not at all what Jesus says.  

There’s a Jesuit priest named Anthony DeMello who wrote a parable he called "The Explorer".  It’s about a person who left his home and his village to explore the faraway and exotic Amazon River.  When he finally comes back home to his village, his fellow villagers are understandably captivated as the explorer tries to describe his many experiences.  He tries to tell them about this seemingly alien world: the thundering waterfalls, the beautiful foliage, the extraordinary wildlife, along with its many dangers.  But no matter how much he described his journey, there were so many things he just couldn’t put into words: there just weren’t words to tell them about things like the feelings that flooded his heart when he heard the night sounds of the forest or the sense of danger he felt as he flew down the rapids.   

So in the story he finally tells them they simply must go and visit the Amazon and experience it for themselves.  So to help them with their journey, the explorer draws them a map. Immediately the villagers pounced on the map.  They made copies of the map, so that everyone can have his or her own.  They framed their maps for prominent display in their town hall and in their homes.  They would gather regularly to study the map and discuss its many features.  These maps became so central to the villagers that many began to consider themselves experts on the Amazon itself.  For did they not know the location of every waterfall and rapid; do they not know this river’s every turn and every bend?  But are they really experts?  Do they really know the Amazon?
I suspect that the reason Jesus doesn’t just speak plainly to us is because he knows us all too well; and what we want is not always what Jesus wants for us.  We want to know; we want to have all the answers; we want to solve all of the mysteries.  But Jesus wants something else for us: Jesus wants us to follow.  Jesus calls us to walk with him and experience him for ourselves.  They ask Jesus if he’s the Messiah and his answer can’t be found in a simply “yes” or “no”; it is found in what he does; it is found as his sheep hear his voice and follow him.  Which is maybe not the answer we were looking for, but it’s the answer we need.  Today we remember that we are sheep; and sheep follow.  The only thing a sheep needs to know is the voice of the shepherd.  

As it is Mother’s Day, I often find myself mindful of the mothering people I’ve had in my life.  This morning I’m thinking about Alice.  Alice was my grandmother, my mom’s mom.  I may have mentioned her to you before.  I may have mentioned that, without hearing her voice, her presence would make a palpable change in the atmosphere when she visited our house.  Honestly, I remember sitting in my upstairs room on a Thanksgiving morning and feeling the air just change.  She was a gracious woman who brought Jesus to the very least in our world, but man, that woman had a presence!  

I was sitting in my room, feeling the atmosphere shift, wondering what happened, and then I heard it: the laugh; cackle, really.  She had this laugh you could hear from space.  It rings in my ears sometimes.  It was a laugh that was unlike any laugh I had heard before or since.  You could feel her presence, but her laugh confirmed it.  She had a voice.  

Jesus tells the religious people something that religious people should keep in mind today too: listen for the voice.  Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus does not call us to perfect understanding; he calls us to listen for his voice and follow.  We are called listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd who will care for us forever.  We are called to remember who we are as God’s beloved sheep.  Let us strive to listen for our Savior’s voice as we seek to be his faithful sheep.