Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christ our Refuge and Refugee

Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23

Once again, in today’s scripture, Matthew lets us in on one of Joseph’s angelic dreams. Once again, the angel gives Joseph information that will save Jesus. Once again, Matthew gives testimony to God’s vulnerable power.
Herod, who was the Jewish Roman appointee over Israel, was infamous for his cruelty and suspicion. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod's later years were full of attempts to defend his throne against the Jewish Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees. In the final years of his reign his three eldest sons were killed on suspicion of plotting to seize Herod's throne. Earlier in his reign he eliminated all the prominent Hasmoneans. He had an elaborate network of spies, and he often executed people for real or imagined conspiracies against his throne. Josephus even talks about a plan, never carried out, to have all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at the time of his own death to ensure that everyone would be mourning at his death
However, Matthew’s account of the plot to slaughter the innocent boys under two years of age in Bethlehem is not recorded in Josephus or other historical records. population statisticians estimate that the “slaughter of the innocents” probably took the lives of around 20 children: By historical standards, not enough to recount.
So, with God’s warning, Mary and Joseph take their little baby out of Israel and into a land where their ancestors had before been subject to another paranoid plot by a Pharoah to thin out the population of Hebrew slaves by killing the infants because they were becoming too numerous and threatened his authority.
Matthew’s story also begins the commonalities with the Exodus narrative of Moses, also born under the threat of a tyrannical ruler executing children for fear of being overthrown. Matthew is the only gospel writer to show Mary and Joseph taking Jesus into Egypt, further highlighting the similarities between Moses leading his people out of bondage and Jesus leading the world out of bondage to sin and death.
Though I do my best to relate to Jesus and let him relate to me through our commonly shared humanity, I cannot claim to be a refugee like he was. Just because I have at points in my life “run away from my problems” doesn’t make me a refugee, and Jesus never ran away from his problems. But there are many in this world for whom today’s scripture reading provides a special touchstone of connection to their own lives.
Through scouting around on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website, I learned that the total number of "people of concern" in the world stood at 21 million at the end of 2005. By the close of 2006 it was 33 million, the most dramatic one year increase in memory.
Hundreds of thousands of people became newly displaced in Columbia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sri-Lanka and Timor. Increased data-gathering in other nations such as the Cote d'Ivoire, Congo and Uganda increased the numbers dramatically. Even North America experienced dramatic rises in internally displaced persons as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
The point is that we now have a world that is increasingly "on the move" against its will. I hope that “hearing the numbers” in the context of today’s scripture reading gives you a stronger sense of connection with this issue than would normally be the case when hearing statistics of “millions of people.” Those of us who deny the issue or consider it unimportant remind me of the lazy person condemned in Prov. 24:33, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.."
One of the issues of justice that I have covenanted to work on through our covenant discipleship group has been to appeal to our national representatives in Congress to take a more diligent approach in facilitating the resettlement of Iraqi refugees displaced by our war in that country. The “land of opportunity” that we call home has been less enthusiastic about receiving refugees than we have been creating them. There are currently around 2.5 million internally displaced people in Iraq, meaning they have either lost their homes to destruction, or have been evacuated, but have not left the country of Iraq, and there are another approximately 1.5 million refugees in the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan.
Of the comparatively small number who are actually processed as asylum seekers by the UN and submitted to industrialized countries for processing, this year the USA was given almost 15,000 applications, and as of Dec. 1st has only accepted around 2400. 2.5 internally displaced people in Iraq, and we absorb .1% of the load. I think we can do better, I think our representatives can do something about it, so I let them know that. We are currently being out-hospitalitized by the notoriously open-armed Swedes, who received almost half of the asylum seekers in 2007.
And so our savior shares this in common not with us, but with those Iraqis, Haitians, Lebanese, and Eritreans. How do our actions cause the Son of Man and sons of men to seek shelter? How does our callous disregard for and disinterest in the actions and inactions of our super-powerful empire of a culture contribute to the life of the little Sudanese baby who goes to sleep each night in the dirt in a refugee camp in Chad?
What about the little girls who pass the hours not going to school or talking on the phone, but standing in line waiting for their daily rations at an internally displaced person’s camp in Iraq? “The foxes have their holes, and the birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.”
The Good news for us is that God doesn’t judge us for having things easy. God doesn’t judge us for being born into fortunate circumstances just because his own son was born into such desperation. But God does judge us for sitting in the lap of luxury and doing nothing for those who are sitting in squalor. We are the goats whom Matthew tells us are turned away at the judgment seat when Christ says to us, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
God, being incarnate in the life of a little boy who had to be whisked away into hiding, was a refugee, but through the sharing of a human life also became our ultimate refuge. We can take comfort in God because we know God has been though it. And we can offer our sisters and brothers who are hurting comfort by assuring them that Christ walks with them. God has experienced the hardships of life, and usually more so than we. So when we seek refuge in God, it is not in some distant Deity: it is in a shared experience.
Isaiah says that “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” God doesn’t redeem or love or pity from a pedestal. It is his “presence” that saves us.
And it is his presence in the least of those among us where we will find salvation. Through the giving of our lives, or the giving of some portion of our lives, to the alleviation of suffering in the world, Christ presents us with the salvation from the damnation of believing the word revolves around us.
While Christ is a refugee, and because Christ is a refugee, he is also a refuge. He is an embodiment of God’s empathy. He cannot offer us refuge in the form of protection from the world. Belief in him will not keep you from getting into a car wreck or suffering from cancer, but he can offer refuge in the way of a loving embrace, a held hand as we face our days and trials. His name is Immanuel, God is with us. Amen

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4 Sermon: Vulnerable Power

Sermon Texts:
Deuteronomy 22: 13-30
Matthew 1: 18-25

I like word games. I sometimes get on the internet and play scrabble with people from all around the world. That’s fun. I also love a game called “Boggle” where you shake up this game-board that has all these dice with letters on each side, an then you try to make words out of the die that are touching each other.
Another of my favorites is called “Balderdash,” where you are given a word that you most likely don’t know, and then you make up a definition that you think will convince other people. You submit your definition for the word along with all the other players in the game, and the real definition is read too. The object is to try and guess for the right definition, and make other people vote for yours.
One game that kind of gets the engine in my mind working for sermon writing is free association. I read a word, and then I write down all the words or images that come to my mind when I hear that word.
When playing “free association” with the word “power,” or even more specifically “the power to conquer sin,” I can’t help myself but think of things like “triumphant,” “strength,” “overwhelming,” “defeating.” I may think of images like a “Mighty Wind,” or “an Empty Tomb,” or the “Fourth Horseman.” In my own mind, the word “Power” may be associated with a million other words and never attract the word “vulnerable.” “The Power to Conquer sin” might take on various costumes without ever reaching the image of a baby’s hand reaching out of a straw filled manger.
So this is how we know this idea comes from the mind of God and not from the mind of mankind. It just doesn’t correlate for us. It isn’t natural. It is non-sense. Power is the ability to have no vulnerability, right? A newborn baby can’t even conquer the art of standing on two feet, much less conquering sin.
Such things just don’t spring out of a creative author’s imagination, they are too counter-cultural and counter intuitive. So, we read this story in Matthew and in Luke with wonder and awe and mystery. Some have discounted the stories as factual accounts of history, but it matters not. Whether or not they are factual, they are true!
Never has such power been so vulnerable at any time in history as what we witness in this passage of scripture. Though it wasn’t what the lectionary prescribed for today, I wanted us to all hear Deuteronomy 22 so that we would all know just how vulnerable the Christ child was!
This Power is so vulnerable, All it would have taken for it to not have come into being would have been for one person to shut her heart to the prompting of the Spirit. It would have only taken one man closing his mind to the possibilities presented to him in a dream. If instead he had thought of those laws prescribed by Deuteronomy and said to himself, “It was only a dream, this is what the law requires.” How many of us act on what comes to us in our dreams, anyway?
This sin conquering power that is embodied in this little child might have not even made it to the world if Joseph had of followed the letter of the law found in Deuteronomy. Our Lord, the conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, might have been stoned to death in the womb, along with his mother, Mary in the doorway of his grandfather’s house. But this vulnerable power prevailed!
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. By “righteous” he means that Joseph lives by the Law. He is a just man. Yet, Matthew shows Joseph balancing the words of the law with what the Spirit stirs in his heart, he portrays Joseph opting for compassion over strict adherence. What does the Lord require of us?
The New Interpreter’s Bible Suggests:
As modern hearers of this story, we’re struck by the similarity between Joseph’s quandary and their own. We want to “do the right thing,” and we believe that somehow it is revealed in the Bible. We may belong to a church that claims to accept the Bible as the norm for its faith and practice and, yet, sense that the “Christian thing to do” does not follow the letter of the Bible.
There are some biblical commands that many churches, in all good conscience and with reverence for the Bible as the Word of God, simply do not obey. This is not only in such matters as the washing of feet (John 13:12-17) and holy kisses (1 Cor 16:20), but in more basic directions concerning divorce (Mark 10:2-12) and household structure and lines of authority (1 Pet 3:1-6).
Matthew writes for the same kind of church. As Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them (22:39-40). If they neglected the Law, they were accused by others, and perhaps by themselves, of rejecting Bible and tradition as the “unrighteous.”
But Joseph is pictured as “righteous,” even though he had decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the Law. As it turned out, Joseph did not have to carry through on his decision, but the point is made: Matthew wants to instruct his church in being “righteous” (just, committed to justice) in a way that respects both the Law of the Bible and the Christian orientation to love, even if it seems to violate the Law.
Thus Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples—indeed, for each reader of the Gospel. Joseph is already facing the “you-have-heard-that-it-was-said- but-I-say-to-you” tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48)—the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.
By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom (5:20). In a difficult moral situation, he attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of this word from the living and saving God.
Truth be told, the rabbinic tradition had mitigated this portion of the Law by the time Mary and Joseph were faced with their respective decisions. The teachers of Law had decided that Deut. 22 was a bit harsh, and it was already uncommon to find people adhering strictly to these tenants, but still—the Power of God incarnate came into some pretty precarious circumstances, nonetheless.
The mysterious and earth changing power that is brought to life in this story about a boy coming into the world in precarious circumstances is a revelation to us about our God: who show’s forgiveness in a Father’s embrace, who takes flight in something like a gentle dove, in one whose power is through suffering, death, and finally resurrection.
God’s power is shown in our lives when we love our enemies, when we turn the other cheek to those who wrong us, and when we help those who are dire straits. The power of our God takes place in humble human lives and loves, and in this way we are part of this manger story.
Likewise, Joseph’s choice to follow his heart over the letter of the law is an example of power in vulnerability, because he is making himself vulnerable to the possibility is doing a “new thing,” instead of just “sticking to the ‘gameplan.’” The law is solid, it is cornerstone of Joseph’s culture, and yet Joseph opts for another path. He’s going out on the limb that God is communicating to him, an ordinary carpenter. He’s willing to trust the angel’s message in a dream: that the unknown baby his fiancĂ© is carrying will save his people from their sins. And instead of distancing himself from such a crazy circumstance, he embraces that vulnerable power.
The vulnerable power becomes a boy, and Joseph teaches him and raises him. That vulnerable power grows into a man who teaches and loves and forgives his people. He walks up a mountain with a beam on his back and nails that vulnerable power up on a cross. And through this vulnerable power he saves his people from their sins, and lives up to his name: Immanuel, Jesus, God is with Us! This is how God is with us!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent 3 Sermon: Shall we wait for another?

Sermon Texts:
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11

What do we expect from our Messiah?
Though it may have felt weird, there is a reason we sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” followed by “Lo, How a Rose e’er blooming” this morning. I wanted us to have a tangible experience of these shifting expectations the followers of God have always had about our messiah.
The triumphal “glory of the coming of the Lord;” who “is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;” and who “hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on” clashes, both tonally and thematically with the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispelling in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.” We can’t just gloss over these unmet expectations for the messiah, especially when today’s passage from Matthew reminds us that John the Baptist himself wondered—“Was I mistaken? Is this the guy we’ve been waiting for?”
We didn’t spend much time on the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah last week, other than to say that the qualities of human behavior that are exhibited by the branch from the stump of Jesse (a metaphorical way of saying the Messiah would come from the line of David, who was Jesse’s son.) was “unnatural behavior,” and that sometimes our call as Christians is to behave in very unnatural ways. Since, after all, violence, vengeance, fear, and self-preservation are fairly natural things.
We didn’t really focus in on things in Isaiah’s prediction that this Messiah would “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” We also kind of skipped over Matthew’s account of John the Baptist, where he is inspired by this text in his ushering in of the Messianic age, saying
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
You can’t blame all the Jews who took a look at Jesus, and thought: “nice guy, but not the Messiah.” You can’t blame them because Jesus wasn’t doing the things that the Messiah was prophesied to do. This was even a bone of contention later on when the first generation of Christians were trying to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, even though he didn’t accomplish what the scriptures said he would.
The Second Coming of Christ was an idea developed throughout the beginnings of Christianity to help explain to the Jews how Jesus could be the Messiah, accomplish some of the tasks foretold by Isaiah and the like, and then return later (what they all expected to be in their lifetime) and accomplish the other things, such as destroying the wicked, reigning in majesty, expelling the invaders, etc.
But in the midst of Jesus’ first appearance, John, who had heralded his appearance at the Jordan, and had knelt before his feet, claiming to be unworthy to baptize him. This same John is growing somewhat impatient.
Leah Goodwin, of the Swedenborgian Chapel in Cambridge, MA writes,
John knows exactly who Jesus is. According to the story about Mary
visiting Elizabeth, John’s mother, while they were both in the womb, John knows
the very sound of Mary’s voice, even from the darkness of his own mother’s
belly. John knows, even before he or Jesus has a name, that this other fetus is
the anointed one, the Messiah. And knowing that, despite the cramped quarters,
he quite clearly expresses his joy with what must have been, for Elizabeth, a
startling lurch.
But times change, and the experiences of life complicate
what once seemed so clear. In this morning’s Gospel reading we find John the
Baptist, the great messenger of God’s coming reign, the prophet of the
wilderness, in a dark enclosure vastly different from the safety of his mother’s
We find him in prison - though, ironically, still in the wilderness,
for he is imprisoned, according to other sources, in the dungeon of Herod’s
wilderness palace at Machaerus. And this time, news of Jesus’ work in the world
does not have John leaping for joy. Jesus’ lordship, at least as far as John
sees it, is not quite so self-evident as it used to be.
Matthew writes, “When
John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” What Matthew might as well
have written is “when John heard what the Messiah was NOT doing,” because as far
as he was concerned Jesus was not sticking to the script. Healing, liberation,
good news, all right, but let’s get down to some apocalyptic business. Where was
the smiting? Where was the ax lying at the root of the trees about which John
had warned his disciples? Where was the unquenchable fire?
And so John, from
prison, sends his own disciples to inquire about the matter. “Are you the one
who is to come, or shall we look for another?” they are told to ask.
question is a bit shocking, if you think about it. How can John, of all people,
John who baptized Jesus all unwilling because he thought Jesus should baptize
HIM - how can John question whether Jesus is “the one who is to
Actually, it’s a legitimate question. Jesus was not the only person
claiming to be the Messiah, the “Anointed One,” running around in first-century
Palestine. He was also not the only folk healer, not the only social justice
speaker, not the only imparter of secret knowledge in the region, either. And
John, remember, is in prison, which does not immediately seem an appropriate
place for the Messiah’s forerunner and relative.
So, the question presents
itself: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Thus
confronted, Jesus uses the words of Isaiah, as well as a matter-of-fact call
upon empirical evidence, to answer. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he
says to the Baptizer’s messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame
walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Actually, yes, Jesus seems to say, look for another. Or rather, look at me
another way. Shift your perspective. No, my ways are not precisely as John
prophesied - but look around you. Quit ruminating about the missing winnowing
fork and the disappointingly absent unquenchable fire and the ax which is so
conspicuously NOT laid at the root of the tree. Wake up! What do you hear? What
do you see?
What John's disciples had heard was the Sermon on the Mount,
with its message of forgiveness, generosity, gentleness of spirit, heavenly
reward, and God’s care. What they had seen consisted of ten miracles, which
Matthew depicts as having been accomplished with an endearing mixture of
tenderness and authority. What they had not heard was a good dose of smiting, or
separating wheat from chaff.
Meanwhile, Jesus has the wherewithal to hold
the work of his own ministry alongside Isaiah’s promises of restoration and
healing. He specifically claims compassion as the sign of Messiahship. Jesus’
deeds reveal that the kingdom of God is already at work - already present and
spread out among the people whose lives are changed by his deeds. Jesus,
clearly, is not precisely the Messiah that John expected. “One who is more
powerful than John” has indeed arrived -- but his power is different, and
unexpected, and not altogether satisfying to John, John who is in prison, John
who will die an awful death, John who is not convinced that healing infirmities
alone is going to redeem Israel.
John the Baptist struggled to square his
vision of the Messiah with the reality of Jesus -- and he had every reason to.
We struggle, too. This struggle, in fact, is what the season of Advent calls us
toward. Advent is a reminder to us to let God out of the box, to let go of our
preconceptions about who this Messiah should be, to release our grasp on just
what we think our salvation should look like and where the Lord is going to lead
us in our soul’s journey.
Advent is a time in which we are called,
individually and communally, to open our eyes to the kingdom which we claim to
believe is already spread out among us. It is a time, I suggest, in which it is
worth asking this question: Shall I follow the living Lord, or shall I simply
follow my notion of who the Lord should be?
For Jesus is saying to us what
he says to John: “I did not come for titles, or to collect my kingly dues. I
came to bring life to the dead. Do not ask me who I am - look, instead, at the
life I am stirring inside of you.” The Lord abides within us, is present in
every level of our existence from inmost soul to the tips of our fingers. And he
wants to heal us. He desires that we be whole. The Lord awaits his chance at
advent within us, and he will never leave us. There is, after all, no need to
look for another.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dec. 9 Sermon, An Un-natural peace

Sermon Texts:
Matthew 3: 1-12
Isaiah 11: 1-10

“And a little child shall lead them….” This is perhaps one of our favorite images of the Kingdom of God—the Peaceable Kingdom. Isaiah casts his vision of what the world could be like, what the world will be like, when the Messiah comes. He uses the first few verses of our reading to describe the traits of the Messiah, then he spends the last few verses describing how the whole creation will respond to the leadership of the Messiah. It’s a beautiful vision, and one that has certainly made an imprint on our collective imaginations.
In this painting, made in 1820 by Edward Hicks, you see what is described by Isaiah, but you also see in the background the circumstances that caused this Quaker artist to portray such a thing. Here over the shoulders of the animals living in harmony, we see William Penn and the Indians arriving at a treaty for the settlement of Pennsylvania, which was accomplished in one of the more humane arrangements of the British colonies. Hicks painting is the perfect example of American optimism, a trait that would characterize us as a nation for the next century and beyond.
In this next portrayal of the peaceable kingdom, by John August Swanson, a contemporary artist, you see the focus of the painting on the child leading the animals, and the vivid colors and depth of the painting conveys especially well for me the wonder and mystery that is embedded in this scripture by Isaiah. So, because this is the image that I always see when I read this text, I’ll leave it here for you to focus on too as we delve into this prophecy a little more.
One of the first records that I owned was the Michael Jackson “Thriller” album. I remember being entranced with the fold out picture of Michael in his white suit, lounging on the floor, and then perched up on his knee was a Tiger cub. I used to envy Michael Jackson’s personal zoo of wild animals, all tamed and willing to play around with him.
One thing that strikes me about this passage from Isaiah, what jumps out to us all at first, is the bit about the animals co-existing peaceably, without any need to kill and devour each other. It is perhaps most striking because it is so un-natural.
But, perhaps peace is un-natural. When we are attacked, it is fairly instinctual for us to fight back, and yet, Jesus tells us “when someone slaps your face, offer the other cheek also.” Isaiah re-organizes the food chain in his vision of the kingdom. Babies are free to stick their hands into snake dens without any fear of being bitten. Cattle and lions munch straw together. Though this may be an ideal for Isaiah, I don’t think it would be for the fans and producers of “Animal Planet.” Seems like boring television to me!
Isaiah hits something on the head though when he reverses the natural order of things in this portrayal of the kingdom. He is symbolizing that many of those traits that come instinctually to us, war, reprisal, vengeance, violence, will be transcended with the coming of the Messiah. We will receive a new birth into a new world where humans have no fear of violence and bloodshed because the creation will be restored to its original blueprints.
In Genesis, Isaiah no doubt noticed that the Garden of Eden didn’t contain any predatory behavior. He probably read in Genesis 1:30, "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food"; and it was so.” And so Isaiah probably believed that a restoration to the natural order of things meant that creation didn’t inflict pain and suffering on itself in the quest for nourishment. The wolf lays with the lamb! The lion and the ox eat side by side?! The leopard and the kid?! What un-natural behavior! These are carnivores acting counter to their instincts. Or, are they transformed creatures? Are they “new creations” as Paul calls Christians in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5?
Isaiah also portrays some other un-natural behavior displayed by this “root of Jesse.” He says this leader will “not judge by what his eyes see, or by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Hmm. That doesn’t seem very natural either. Maybe Isaiah is cluing us into the seismic changes this kind of socio-economic change would have on the world by also speaking about the animal kingdom. If we expect that this kind of generosity and charity shown toward those who are poor and meek will just “naturally” come about as our society becomes more enlightened and compassionate, we are sorely mistaken.
Someone will always step in to stamp out the progress of the poor. There will always be those who view the power of the powerful resting on the firm foundation of the meekness of the meek. We must strive for the justice and peace of the world, but it won’t come if we discard God and prayer for technology and rationality. Technology and rationality are wonderful things, they are gifts of the living God, but when we abandon our hope and our faith in the power and grace of God for the solid and seemingly substantial power of technology and rationality, we are on a fool’s errand.
Isaiah told of the Messiah bearing the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might.” These virtues don’t come naturally to us. They must be bestowed on us by our creator. They are as unnatural to us as straw is to a lion. Yet, they are virtues we have the capacity for when we walk in the light of God. They are qualities that can change the world for the better through us if we open our minds and hearts to the fire of the Spirit.
So, how can we mirror this un-natural proclamation in our lives? First of all, we can pray consistently and regularly for the Spirit’s guidance, especially when it comes to acting on the behalf of justice for the poor and the meek. If we think we will just “naturally” arrive at a passion for helping those in need, we will probably go through our whole lives without ever helping those who are less fortunate. It isn’t natural for us to show concern for and expend our time and resources helping those who are on the down and out. If Darwin is right, and natural selection of the fittest is the evolution of ours and all other species, then it is far from natural for those of us of power to be concerned with the well-being of the poor and meek.
It is God’s pervasive and persuasive compassion that spills over into our own hearts and souls that stirs compassion in us, not some kind of natural response to suffering. The natural response to suffering is to turn our backs on it and run away. But God has made us more than simple slaves to our instinct. Even when our gut sometimes says “turn away,” and “run away,” our God speaks to us through our hearts and says “turn not thy face from me,” “abide here with me.”
We need God’s inspiration to be God’s people and servants in the world. It’s not just going to come to us because we find our rear end in a pew a couple Sundays a month. We need to be on our knees praying for God to mold us and make us the instruments of this branch of Jesse. We need to put to use those gifts which we call “fruit of the Spirit,” which spring from this very branch. We need to follow our Master’s lead in not judging by what we see and hear, but instead on the guidance of God.
If we want the peace that is pictured in these beautiful verses of Isaiah, then we need to recognize that peace isn’t accomplished without justice. If we want peace, we must pray and work for justice. This isn’t just a socio-economic reality. If you want peace in your family, then you must address the difficult things that we might rather sweep under the rug. If you want peace within yourself, then you must rectify the wrongs you may have wrought on yourself. For some this may come in the act of forgiving yourself. For others, it may come in holding yourself accountable for some buried sin.
Another way that we can open our hearts and minds to the life changing Spirit who makes us “supernatural,” is by consciously gravitating to the opposite of the way we “normally” or “naturally” do things. We bury ourselves in the comforting pillows of what comes “naturally” to us sometimes to the extent that we muffle out the voice of the Spirit. This season, As a way to prepare for the Christ child who turns the world upside down, try turning your own world upside down in little ways.
Do you more naturally seek comfort in the fellowship of others? Try withdrawing from others so that the Spirit can speak to you in the silence. Do you more often retreat from the world when the going gets tough? Look for solace in conversation or in the vibrancy of being surrounded by others.
Do you cherish the image that some may have of you as one who “tells it like it is,” or “always speaks his mind?” Try being more indirect. Are you one who shrinks from giving your opinion? Try speaking up.
Are you one who takes the initiative all the time? Try restraining your power. Or, perhaps you feel more comfortable “following the leader.” Maybe it is time for you to step out on a new path and lead people in a new direction.
I’m not saying this to discredit your self-understanding. I’m suggesting this as an exercise that may bring us to greater self-understanding. What we may think of as our “natural” inclination, our instinct, may simply be a barrier to the Spirit’s movement through us. Our Bible is full of stories of people who were asked by God to do things that made them very uncomfortable—for God to achieve justice and peace on this earth, it is going to take us behaving in ways that seem very unnatural. So don’t let your faith be lulled to sleep with the false notion that God will never ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable with. Sometimes grace strips us of the natural, and clothes us with something mysterious and supernatural!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dec. 2 Homily

We had the hanging of the greens service, and a communion service, so our homily was a little shorter than usual. Following is the call to worship during which we decorated our sanctuary for Advent, the scriptures, then the homily.

How shall we prepare this house for the coming of the King?
With branches of cedar, the tree of royalty.
Sing 211 “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” vs. 1 as cedars are placed.
How shall we prepare this house for the coming of the eternal Christ?
With garlands and a tree of fir and pine, whose leaves are ever living, ever green.
Sing 211, vs. 2 as garlands are placed
How shall we prepare this house for the coming of our Savior?
With wreaths of holly and ivy, telling of his passion, death, and resurrection.
Sing 211, vs. 5 as wreaths and holly are placed
How shall we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Son of God?
By hearing again the words of the scriptures, and focusing on the Word made flesh.
Sing 211, vs. 6 as Bible and nativity are lifted up.
For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
Glory to God in the highest!
Sing 211, vs. 7

There's an advent candle devotion, if you have an advent wreath at home, in the middle of your upper room devotional booklet, or at Upper Rooom

Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 13: 11-14
What time is it? Well, pastor: it’s Dec. 2, and with all this stuff we’ve done this morning, if you don’t know what time it is, and we still have communion to go after this, then I’d say we have a problem! You know that I sometimes forget my watch, and have to borrow one of the choir member’s so I can make sure everything is moving along smoothly here.
But what if I were to answer that question, “what time is it,” with something like: Well, the night is far gone, and the day is near! It looks fairly light out there, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’d think I was having a meltdown right here in the pulpit. Well—I’ll risk that and repeat Paul’s words of hope and focus to us: because even though he was writing this 2000 years ago, Paul knew what time it was then, and he would tell us the same thing this morning if we could put him in a time machine. He’d say: “You know what time it is! How it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
All of this pageantry this morning is to remind us of what time it is, because sometimes we go through this season like we are asleep. These green symbols of our faith, full of meaning and beauty, are to help us wake up to the presence of the Christ child who comes into our life sometimes as unexpectedly as he came into the world. So, we’d better be awake and ready to receive the gift. You probably remember you or your children waking up on Christmas morning just as the sun peeked over the horizon, ready to open all the new gifts under the tree. Paul wants us to live with that kind of enthusiasm in our daily existence. Why? Because it is sunrise. The son has Risen, and the gift of the resurrection awaits us.
How do we prepare ourselves for such a thing? I remember as a kid on Christmas morning, my parents always made us wait in the hallway while dad got the video camera ready to film us walking into the living room, and mom would make sure Santa hadn’t left anything undone or without a tag on it. Likewise, we Christians are in something of a “holding pattern.” We’re awaiting the coming of the kingdom, and Paul tells us to get ready by living like it is already here. Like it is already daytime. We should lay aside the darkness and put on the armor of light. We can approach life like we are already resurrected, because in a very real way we already are!
But as Bob Dylan sang in “Meet me in the Morning,” “They say the darkest hour, is right before the dawn.” Sometimes the “waiting is the hardest part.” (I could go on.) When the night is far gone, and the day is near, that is sometimes the hardest time to see clearly. This is why Paul recommends we put on the light of Christ now—so others can see the resurrection life and follow us to Mt. Zion.
Isaiah proclaims that all the nations will one day come streaming in by the multitudes like a parade of salvation coming to hear their instructions. Isaiah tells us what the Lord will do—He’ll beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The world will be peaceful and harmonious. We can give testimony to this vision by living lives of peace in the here and now. This is what it means to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path. That is what Paul is talking about: living honorably as in the day, not caving into the spiritual violence of drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy.
What time is it? The night is far gone, and the day is near! Salvation is closer to us now than the day we became believers. Let us put on Christ by taking in Christ. Let us turn our back to the darkness through repentance for our sin. Let us face the coming day, which we live for and celebrate in the elements of this table: the table of communion, the table of light!


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ed Wingfield Concert this Saturday

Saturday, December 1st at 7pm, we will host Pastor Ed Wingfield as a musical guest as he share with us gospel selections and some Christmas hymns. Ed is related to the Moshier family of our church and area, is a Baptist minister, and has a beautiful voice. Please come and enjoy his gift!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nov. 18 Sermon: The Proper Attire

Philippeans 4: 4-9
Matthew 22: 1-14

Sometimes the Good News sounds fine and dandy until Jesus tweaks the story just a little bit. We have come to expect the Kingdom of God to include the last and the least. This is a familiar refrain in the stories of Jesus. It makes us feel really good about ourselves since we have claimed the invitation, and are on the inside. Today’s lesson follows the general rule to Kingdom parables. That is, until the end—when we perk our ears up and wonder if we had accidentally fallen asleep and made up the ending.
The King sends out the messengers to tell of the wedding banquet for his son. If we interpret the story as Matthew’s followers probably did, we hear in the symbols the familiar setup. God is the King, and the Good News of Christ is the Banquet for his son. The messengers are the prophets who have been sent by God to his people—to spread the news of the coming of Christ. The people refuse, and so the King, feeling somewhat rebuffed, sends out the messengers again, in order that they have sufficient notice of the announcement. This time they kill the messenger/prophets, which is a common accusation of Jesus against the people of Israel, especially in Matthew. Think for instance of Matthew 23: 37, where upon arriving at Jerusalem for the first time in his ministry, Jesus utters the famous phrase, “"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Matthew was writing his gospel in the midst of the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, and he believed this was a punishment for the people of Jerusalem’s unbelief. This aspect of the story is different from the perhaps more familiar version of the story in Luke 14:15-24 where the King is simply rebuffed by the townspeople and therefore sends invitations to the people in the highways and the hedges.
Also unique to Matthew’s version of this parable is the King’s response to the wedding guest who is not properly dressed. This being so unique, it caught my eye and became the focus of my preparations for today’s sermon.
Why in the world would Jesus tell us that God cares about what clothes we show up to the banquet in? Doesn’t Jesus usually tell us that God accepts us no matter who we are or what kind of mess we usually show up to the banquet of his Grace in? Doesn’t this seem to chafe against our common understanding of the Gospel? What could this possibly symbolize, that could justify the King telling his servants to “bind this man hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?” Matthew clearly thinks there is something more to the Christian life than just “showing up” to the invitation. Contrary to the Jesus of our popular conceptualization, Matthew tells of him reporting that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
So what do we do with this text? Do we move it over to the category of scriptures that may have had some use at some point, but clearly don’t belong in our repertoire of favorite scriptures for “making disciples.” After all, how many “Matthew 22:14” posters have you seen at football games. Perhaps this scripture just belongs with the Psalms about bashing babies’ heads against the rocks, or the Levitical laws about selling your son or daughter into slavery for misbehaving. Or perhaps we should try and parse out what it may be saying to us behind all the rough veneer.
Perhaps instead of always focusing on why we are accepted to the party, we should pay attention to what kind of attire we are wearing.
The Bible speaks quite frequently about clothing. In the Genesis story, we are told that God made “garments out of skin” for Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Joseph draws the jealous rage of his brothers for wearing the “many colored coat” that his father gave him. Jesus is said to have worn a seamless robe that the soldiers gambled for at the foot of his cross. A woman was also healed by touching his garment.
So what about these wedding robes that seem so important to the host of the banquet? In this story, the “wedding robe” is a symbol of something. Isaiah 61:10 tells us about “garments of salvation, and robes of righteousness.” In 1st Thessalonians, Paul tells us to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope and salvation. What is it that a wedding robe symbolizes anyway? This is a symbol that has been somewhat lost to us because we no longer observe the practice of wedding robes. A wedding robe was given by the host to all who attended the banquet in order to “level the playing field.”
Weddings weren’t an opportunity for the wealthy guests to show off their wealth and the poor guests to feel bad about their shabby attire. The host of the wedding provided beautiful robes so that everyone in attendance would be focused on the joy of the festivities instead of who had what. Viewed through this lens, the person who took off his wedding robe is trying to draw attention to himself. He is accepting the generosity of the host, but he is trying to do so on his own terms.
I believe today’s epistle lesson fits quite nicely with today’s Gospel lesson. Paul repeats over and over again in his letter to Phillipi to “Rejoice in the Lord, Always.” As I’ve mentioned before, this is Paul’s happiest letter, and it is written from a prison cell. Paul has tapped into the well of Christ in a way that he is now overflowing with the peace and love. He declares that this joyful exuberance surpasses all understanding, yet it guards our hearts and minds.
At the beginning of today’s reading, he pleads with two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to put their disagreement behind them and “be of the same mind.” Perhaps Paul is familiar with the “wrong attire” and is assuring his fellow banquet guests of the proper attire. Perhaps we can also hear Paul beckoning us toward the life of the light today. Perhaps when we let grudges over hurt feelings or petty jealousies stand in the way of joyful fellowship, we are wearing the wrong attire for God’s banquet! Perhaps when we allow our disagreements about the particularities to blind us to the larger truth of God’s grace, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet! Perhaps when we infect our church family with spite against someone we have a personal disagreement with, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet!
Christian friends: showing up to the banquet with an invitation in hand is a wonderful first step to accepting God’s grace. We as Wesleyans however, believe that grace continues to grow and bloom and bear fruit in our lives through the miracle of “sanctifying grace.” This is the art of living lives of personal and social holiness to be a joyful witness to the world about God’s grace and salvation. It is basically “donning our wedding robes” for the entire banquet, not taking them off after we’ve made it through the door. The idea that “many are called, but few are chosen” is Jesus’ way of telling us that the work of salvation continues in our life even after we’ve accepted the invitation.
Church membership means we are accountable to one another, and we have the privilege to be so. It is about choosing a life of reconciliation and love over gossip and grudge matches. Sisters and brothers, I will tell you as Paul told the church at Philippi, if there are two of you who are harboring feelings against each other, please put away your ill feelings for the sake of the Gospel! Paul tells us to “be of the same mind.” This mind is the mind of Christ, and Paul assures us that “we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Did you know that in the early church, when converts to the faith were being baptized, they removed all their clothing and went down into the water, then after being baptized in the name of the Trinity, they walked up out of the baptismal chamber, stomped on their old clothing, and were given new bright white robes?
The act symbolized shedding the constraints of this world and even participating in the death of Christ. The waters were entered naked to symbolize our rebirth into the Kingdom Life. The new white clothing clebrated the purity of Christ that Christians were then privileged to put on and wear with joy and righteousness. New Christians stomped on their old clothing as a symbol of rejecting the sin they had left behind on the other side of the baptismal waters.
We are invited to a great feast - a wedding feast. Let us not make light of the invitation and refuse to come. We are not required to provide our own gowns and tuxedos. It is not up to us to fashion our own garments. Instead, we are to look to God, who saw to the needs of Adam and Eve, who covered their shame, and made them to shine like the sun. We have a tailor of awesome reputation, one who, quite literally, fashions the stars and clothes the lilies of the field. In giving us Christ Jesus, God fashions for us a garment of great praise, a robe of eternal worth. We ought not be so proud as to insist on clothing ourselves, but rather humble our hearts, put on love, and clothe ourselves with Christ!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Our Biblical "Hair" itage

At youth on Sunday, we read different Bible passages, and then interpreted them with hair style.

The tower of Babel

Samson and Delila

"I am the vine, you are the branches"

Paul shipwrecked (the entire can of mouse is in my hair)

The burning bush

The parting of the red sea.

The line from Song of Solomon, "Your hair is like a flock of goats."

Workin' hard for their money.

These images are from a few weeks ago, but I just found my camera in the box of rags that I was using to clean the bars we were using for the shelves. Thanks to all the men who helped put our new shelves together for the storage shed!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/11/07 Sermon, "Ye shall be changed"

Sermon Texts:
1 Cor. 15: 51-58
Luke 20: 27-38

The Harvest of Life
I’m sure we’ve all been noticing it in the past week. The seasons have changed; we are being enchanted by the colorful spectacle of the fall. I wrote in a little meditation for the experiential worship service a few weeks ago that the colors of fall are one of the most effective evangelists of the natural world. Do you have favorite places to go during the fall? If you’ve never been, I’d recommend the mountains just east of Poteau, on the Queen Willomena highway. It is truly beautiful there.
God’s creation gives us a grand finale of celebration before the leaves fall to the ground and decompose. One day the nutrients that they generate seeps into the very roots of the tree from which they once sprang forth. Do you think the leaves lament their separation from the tree of life? As the chlorophyll drains from them, as their ability to nurture the tree drains, they seem to celebrate to me! The marvelous colors we see in the fall are a testament to the mystery Paul writes about to the Corinthians---“We shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye—we shall not die, but instead we shall live.”
I read a magazine article about the cellular process of apoptosis. Has anyone heard that word before? In Greek it means “falling leaves” and is a reference to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary as leaves falling from the trees in autumn. During the past 20 years or so, the scientific world has realized that the process of death is a part of every moment. Each day, millions of cells are dying in our bodies, allowing physiological balance and the movement of life within us. We are only 6 weeks in the womb when our cells begin to die, through the process of apoptosis. Our fingers are webbed together, and through the voluntary death of cells in that web membrane between our fingers, our hands take shape with these miraculous little digits that we call “fingers.”
In adult life, the right balance between living and dying cells means harmony and health, while disturbances in this balance are the basis of every chronic disease. Cancer is the failure of cells to die through the natural process of apoptosis. A particular and crucial role of death within life is found in the immune system, where bacteria fighting cells armed with sophisticated biological weapons actually self destruct after releasing their “weapons.” The increased or decreased rate of apoptosis lets the body know if it needs to be on high defensive alert (with fever, cough, sneezing, etc), or if the rate of apoptosis decreases, the body knows that the invading bacteria has been dealt with.
Life and the end of life are such mysteries! We cease to breathe, our brains stop generating electricity, our heart stops pumping the blood through our circulatory system that delivers our breath to our cells. Yet Paul tells us that the mystery is that we do not really die at all. Our perishable body puts on imperishability, our lives become something more than we are quite aware of. Perhaps like cells which undergo “apoptosis,” our life and death contributes to some whole, some greater birth, which we can’t comprehend.
Last week we lifted up the names of our beloved family members and friends who have passed from this world to something we can never know until we get there.
At a preaching workshop I attended years ago, the presenter had a favorite phrase. He’d say, “Preaching the gospel is hard, because we’re standing six feet above contradiction.” Deep in the back of our minds we have some awareness of it—we don’t spend much time thinking about it until it looms at our door like the picture of the “grim reaper,” but our lives come to an end and our bodies are put in the ground or incinerated. What we know of ourselves ceases to be in existence.
Is the Good News that has been passed down from 2000 years ago any match for the cold, hard reality of death? When it comes down to it, do these ideas we subscribe to, these beliefs we keep in our hearts—do they rise to the challenge when we are laying on our death beds? A very wise Indian philosopher named Krishnamurti said, “IF one can find out what the full meaning of living is, the totality of living, the wholeness of living, then one is capable of understanding the wholeness of death. But one usually enquires into the meaning of death without enquiring into the meaning of life.” Normally we are in denial about our mortality. This is not to say that we believe we won’t physically die—we know with our intellects that we will—but the reality doesn’t enter our interior life, our feeling, and our being. The process of death is so uncomfortable that we avoid thinking about it.
Paul tells us that we are resurrected in a new life in a new form. As the harvest of our fields leads to the complex foods we create, our newly created lives will be in the service of God in ways which we can not imagine any more than a grape could comprehend its place in a glass of wine, or a grain of wheat its place in a loaf of bread.
Leon Trotsky, a father of the Russian socialist revolution, said “We only die when we fail to take root in others.” Jesus Christ took root in others, and continues to take root in our lives today, 2000 years after he lived on earth. It is through his “taking root in others” that we believe he continues to live to this day. Through his holy spirit, he continues to live and participate in our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our triumphs, and our salvation. We cannot escape him—he is as inevitable as death. In fact, Christ is more powerful than death, and through his victory through death and resurrection, he takes us on his back to eternal life.
Life and death are woven together in an intricate design. We celebrate death as a part of life, giving birth to a greater whole. We believe death is not the final chapter, but instead the end of the prologue. We celebrate the lives who have gone before us because we believe that in the remembering, in the celebration—their life carries on.
Jesus said in today’s scripture that those ancestors of the faith that Moses knew and recounted at the burning bush were “alive to God.” We hear that our earthly relationships and ways of relating to one another are transcended in the life to come. This is why, when we give ourselves to one another in Christian marriage, the priest blessing that marriage asks each person, “till death do you part.”
Our covenant with one another is bounded by our earthly lives, but our covenant with God is everlasting, and through our covenant with God, we know that we become truly living beings: alive to God and alive to one another. We are alive in a way that can never die. Though this may be reassuring to us on an ultimate level, it may be jarring or shocking to us on a worldly level. We’re used to thinking about our relationships with one another as something that defines us and gives us life. Well, perhaps this difficulty with the passage begs us to dig a little deeper here.
Jesus tells the Sadducees that the cultural and relational structures of "this age" are superfluous in "that age." The notion of marriage to the Sadducees pertains to procreating and giving an everlasting future to men and women through the lives of their children, (because to them, by a reading of the first 5 books of the Bible, that was the only route to immortality, was through the perpetual remembrance of your family line. That is why we see so many genaeologies in the Bible, and that is why the bible commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow.) The Sadducees meant to juxtapose the cultural realities of marriage with the idea of the resurrection to show that resurrection is absurd. Jesus takes their juxtaposition and turns it. In the reality of resurrection, he says, it's your cultural idea of marriage that's absurd.”
In this age of death, the focus is on having children. But for "those who are considered worthy of a place in that age," the focus is on being children, "children of God . . . children of the resurrection." In that age where all are children of God, there is no need for having children or having a partner. The having of people, one by the other, will be finished. All relationships will be equalized, all relationships transfigured.
However, To conclude from this that cherished intimacies on earth will be discontinued in the resurrection has no warrant in the text. A central part of our faith is that at God’s very basic nature, God is 3 in 1. God is a being who is relational in nature. The three persons of the Trinity, probably best portrayed by this icon, are constantly in fellowship.
Friendship and love are elemental to God’s revelation of himself. So, instead of being concerned that those whom we are united within friendship and family in this life will “cease to be connected to us” in the life to come, we should instead look forward to our relationships blooming into a transcendent love—one that surpasses what we have experienced in this life. As Charles Wesley writes in the hymn we will sing together today, “Come, let us join our friends above who have obtained the prize, and on the eagle wings of love to joys celestial rise. Let saints on earth unite to sing with those to glory gone, for all the servants of our King in earth and heaven are one.” I hope that you don’t read this passage and fear that those people who have taken root in us and whom we have taken root in will cease to be connected to us. In the life to come we will see that those interwoven roots, those connections we have made during our lives in this gift of life are more deeply and wonderfully intricate than we can possibly see right now.
This is what we can count on from a God who is Love. Death is overcome, our love is perfected, and we are changed into a new reality.
“Oh what fellowship, Oh what joy Divine, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Monday, November 05, 2007

All Saints Day Homily: "She Went on"

We lifted up the following people who have "Gone on" during our All Saint's Day Great Thanksgiving, if you would like to add the name of a loved one, click the comment tab below and we can have a sort of "virtual All Saint's remembrance"
Jerry Holland
Dixie Standifer
Esther Moore
Genevieve Ledbetter
Grace Lemon
James Lemon
Nelly Admire
Latricia Phillips
Johnny Shock
Ruth Garrison
Deanna McAlister
Barbara Luttmer
Soldiers and Casualties of war during the past year.

The homily was based on the following Texts:
Romans 6: 3-11
Hebrews 11:1- 12:1-3

She went on….
I’m not quite sure I’ve heard this phrase in this part of the country, but in Arkansas and other parts of the south, this is a way to refer to those who die. We also say, “pass away.” I’ve always been intrigued by the way we speak about death. The word “dead” just has so much finality, it has a muffling effect, it seems. I do think it is appropriate to use the word in a theological sense, but perhaps the words “pass away,” or “went on” communicate better our understanding of death that has been shaped by our religious perspective.
We believe that our departed have “passed away,” and have “gone on to glory,” and thus, death is as much a beginning to celebrate as it is an end to mourn. Because this life is not all that God has in store for us, we live on in a way that our mind cannot quite comprehend, but in a way that God has assured us will bring us great joy. We are born, we live life, we die, and then by the miracle of resurrection, we shall live again. This is an aspect of our faith life that sustains many through trials and hardships, through pain and illness, and so it deserves our focus for at least one day out of the year—and judging by how often this congregation chooses the hymn “When we all get to heaven,” when you are given the chance, I’d bet that this aspect of our faith life is pretty important to you.
On this day, we give thanks for the individuals in our midst who have “gone on” to the great cloud of witnesses. That is a Biblical term that we use to define who the dead have now become to us, the living. They are a cloud of witnesses who surround us, encourage us, and speak to us in a way that is not necessarily detectable to the five senses of this earthly body, but instead to our Heavenly spirits.
Whenever we think of the word “saint,” we most likely have several mental images come to mind. We may think of some of the famous saints of the past, like St. Nicholas or St. Francis. Perhaps we think of ourselves? For me, hearing the word “saint” brings to mind the words from the Anglican communion liturgy, when the saints are weekly lifted up and blessed with the words, “may light perpetual shine upon them.” I don’t know why I like these words as much as I do, but it aptly describes for me the experience of being in the presence of God.
Today I want to speak a little bit about someone many of us think of as a saint, though she has not yet made it through the official “process” of being declared a saint by the Roman Catholic church, still when many of us hear the word “saint” we think of Mother Theresa, who spent the majority of her life working for and among the poor in India.
Though she seems to be universally loved and appreciated by Catholics and Protestants alike, she has been in the news lately because some of her writings have surfaced that may cause some to take pause.
Basically, in a book that recently came out called “Come be my Light,” those whom she came to for pastoral care and corresponded with over the decades have revealed that she felt a deep and abiding emptiness when it came to the experience of God. She privately referred to Jesus as “the absent one,” and wrote about the hardships of “keeping up appearances” while the world watched. What is shocking is that the onset of these feelings of emptiness came immediately after she obtained the patronage and blessing of the church to begin a new order of women dedicated to the service of the poor in India. She felt God pull her toward realizing the goal of beginning a ministry, and then after she had gotten there, it is as if God disappeared from her life entirely.
This darkness did not abate. She didn’t “get through it.” She stayed in it until she died. This is a heartbreaking realization for us, and yet it is also hopeful. It is heartbreaking because those of us who may experience an absence of God’s presence in our lives may take note and assume that it will never get better for us, especially because it never got better for Theresa. It is hopeful for us, because even after 60 years of the felt absence of God, Theresa “went on” with the charge she was given. She stayed faithful to the truth that God cared for the poor and wretched, and that her love for them was showing his love to them, even if she did not experience it herself.
She was willing to stand by her commitments and finish the course that was set before her because that is what she had heard Christ call her to do. Perhaps these revelations about the absence of a felt sustaining presence are a testament to us about the importance of the unequivocal call of God on our lives. Perhaps we privilege the “experience of feeling” too much in our society and need to understand that God stakes a claim on us whether or not we feel “moved” to be a good Christian, or come to church, or give to the poor.
Maybe, especially when the experience of giving to or helping the poor leaves us feeling drained or unsatisfied or even used—perhaps Theresa’s witness to us is that…it does not really matter how it makes us feel---when God calls us to action, we should give it our all to respond as faithful servants of our master!
So, Theresa “went on” with her calling and now she continues to “go on” to us as a member of this “cloud of witnesses.” And those others whom we will name today who have “went on” in the past year to the great cloud of witnesses also push us to “go on,” in our own witness of Christ in the world. As the author of Hebrews has said, “they have died, but by their faith they still speak.”
Listen! Do you hear them speaking? If you can’t hear their voices, then listen with your hearts. If you can’t honor them with your words, then honor our God with the words of your actions. We are called to make complete their faith—let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us—with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. And may we pay tribute to those recent additions to the “great cloud of witnesses” who encourage us to “go on” living for Christ no matter what difficulties face us. And in this way, we too shall “go on” in the life of the community of faith after we have “went on” ourselves.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chili Supper this Friday

We will host our annual chili supper before the last home football game of year this Friday (Nov. 2) at 5:30. Come to the church for dinner before heading over to the game! Adults $4, Kids under 10 $2. See you there, Nathan will be preparing his "Pastor certified Hotter than Hell Chili" to add to the mix!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Oct. 28 Sermon: Whose Persistence?

Every once in a while, I encounter a sermon that leaves me speechless. What I mean by that is that after coming into contact with this particular sermon, by Robert Dunham (a Presbyterian pastor at University Church in Chapel Hill, NC), I realized that there is not much I could add to its poignancy and challenge. So, I slightly adapted his sermon to fit our context, and "passed it on" to you. He brings up the movie "Hotel Rwanda," which I have also seen and been convicted by, and would recommend to you.

Sermon Texts:
Sirach 35: 13-24
Luke 18: 1-8

There's not much question as to the meaning of this parable of the widow and the unjust judge. There's not much question because Luke tells us why the parable is important before he tells it and then remembers Jesus offering his own interpretation after he finishes telling it. This is a story about persistence in prayer and God's compassion and responsiveness. It is...isn't it? There is this judge, says Jesus. We know about judges in Israel. We know their role was to maintain a reasonable harmony in the community and to adjudicate disputes fairly, impartially. It is particularly worth remembering that Jewish law, the Torah, described a particular responsibility for such judges when it came to protecting the rights of the poor - of widows and orphans and sojourners in the land. Then Jesus says: there is this widow. And therein lies the plot. There is this widow. The choice of character automatically raises the stakes for the judge, because any God-fearing jurist would feel obliged by the Torah to take especially good care of her.1 The problem is that this jurist is not God-fearing and not especially interested in justice at all. And so he tries to ignore the widow's pleading. But the widow is not going to take "no" for an answer. She keeps coming back to him day after day, resolutely pressing her case, until finally the judge has a conversation with himself. Luke describes other such internal conversations elsewhere - the rich fool, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward - all of them talk to themselves. But this judge figures that if he doesn't grant the widow's petition, she will wear him out. So, eventually, despite his callousness and his lack of integrity, he gives the woman what she wants. The progress of this parable is known as an argument from the lesser to the greater - if a wicked judge will finally relent and hear the woman's case, how much more will God. The point is that God is full of compassion, willing and ready to hear the prayers of the poor and oppressed. And the counsel is thus to be persistent in prayer, knowing that God will answer the prayers of God's children. It's an unclouded parable and a neat conclusion. And it is unbridled good news for those who pray day and night for justice, for it promises that their prayers do not go unanswered. Of course, if that's the point - and it seems to be - then we have a dilemma, if we are honest with God and ourselves. The dilemma is that nearly two millennia later the poor and oppressed are still calling out for relief and, for the most part, don't seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice and compassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If one reads this parable as it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there will always seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes a difference. Unless Jesus is talking about deferred compensation - the kind of "pie in the sky by and by" vindication that many Christians resist - then, frankly, the claim for persistence isn't very convincing...or at least not always.

Don't get me wrong. I believe persistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered in the ways we think best. It is important to be unrelenting in our prayers...not only because of the changes our prayers may elicit in God's mind, but for the changes such prayers can work in our own hearts and minds. As Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistence is a key, "not because you have to beat a path to God's door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there's no way of getting to your door."2 Buechner's comment set me to thinking that maybe there's more to this parable than we have sometimes seen. What if Jesus offered this parable not only as a call to prayerful persistence but also as a reminder to the church of the importance of securing justice for the poor and the oppressed in their midst? Alan Culpepper says, "To those who have it in their power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the stranger but do not [do so], the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of their lives."3 What if we stand this parable on its head and hear it as a testimony to the persistence of God, who wants us to grant justice to God's chosen ones who cry out day and night? Might this parable speak to the resolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on our door, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God's claims, urging us to work for the good of neighbors in need? All through the Scriptures we can trace God's unwavering claim on God's people - the covenant with Abraham, the giving of Torah (that set forth a way of faithfulness and integrity and righteousness), and when God's children rebelled and fell into selfish ways, the sending of prophets to press God's claims and to call for justice and fairness...and later when the people ignored the prophets, in the fullness of time, God sent the Christ into the world to demonstrate once and for all the character of God's grace and love toward all of God's children, and especially the poor and the outcast. "Behold," said the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." That knock is the sound a conscience makes in the life of the faithful. A few years ago I saw the film, Hotel Rwanda, the difficult story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, when that African nation descended into madness, with the powerful Hutu majority beginning a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority. One writer would later call that massacre "the fastest and most efficient killing spree of the 20th century;" in one hundred days, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis.4 The film tells the story of that horror through the person of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a Hutu who made a promise to protect his Tutsi wife and the family he loved and ended up finding the courage to shelter and save over 1,200 people by hiding them in the luxury hotel he managed. As the horror built, Paul initially protested that there was nothing he could do, but his hesitance was challenged by the steady beating of truth upon his door. What was it Alan Culpepper said? "To those who have it in their power to relieve ... distress ... but do not, the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of their lives." Paul began to see the horror and experience the shame. It was a truth he didn't want to admit; but in the end, his conscience prevailed and he acted to save as many lives as he could. But Paul was not the only one to hear the beating on the door and to experience the need to reorder his priorities; it happened also to many viewers of the film. And I think it happened especially in one telling moment. About midway through the story, as the slaughter of the Tutsi people escalated in Kigali, Western reporters began to capture scenes of the genocide on tape.
Paul was heartened a bit, because he assumed the broadcast of such images would prompt immediate Western intervention. When a skeptical Western reporter expressed doubt, Paul was dumbfounded. "How can they see that and not intervene?" he asked. But the reporter had seen it all before. "More likely," he responded, "people will see the footage, say 'Isn't that horrible?' and then go right on with their dinners." It was for me a particularly disturbing moment in a deeply disturbing film, for I knew he was right. Who could see and hear that exchange and not feel shame?
And yet shame could be our full-time preoccupation. Across the span of our lifetimes we have experienced a steady drumbeat of news reports of injustice after injustice, perpetrated by one group or another. And what has been done? In this country, of course, some civil rights laws were established; and they have brought some progress, though such progress more often seems to follow the path of a pendulum than of an arrow. We have seen some of the worst offenders elsewhere being brought before international tribunals and tried for crimes against humanity. We've watched celebrities who have staged worldwide concerts to raise awareness and to try to end poverty in our time. But many of us, seeing such things, have spoken our laments and then have gone right back to our dinners or whatever else it was we had been doing.
So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for our lives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror is the face of the judge who, as Jesus said, "neither feared God nor had respect for people." Is that not who we are in this story?
Oh, it's not very flattering to read the parable that way, to be sure. Who wants to be characterized that way? But, then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, and even if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant the widow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake. It's what the outcasts of the world most often want, and we know - from reading the Torah and the prophets and from listening to Jesus - it is what God wants for them as well. Maybe the good news in this story for the non-outcasts - for the rest of us - is that God is like the widow - unrelenting, persistent, assertive. God hasn't given up on us, even when we have acted as though we "neither feared God nor had respect for people." So maybe there's hope, not only for the widows and orphans and sojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend to the shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us to open doors to those who knock persistently; maybe there is hope that we will hear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape relief and reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us. I believe there is. More importantly, I believe God believes there is. "Behold," says the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." Maybe today we'll open the door. Maybe. And what a good day that would be...for everyone! O Lord, let that day come. Let it come. Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oct. 21 Sermon: Overhearing Prayers

This sermon was an adaptation of one my dad preached a couple years ago. It fit with the theme we're on lately--"Prayer Life of a Christian." Thanks for the help, dad.

LUKE 18:9-14

My grand-father was a self-educated Pentecostal preacher on the weekends and a skilled carpenter throughout the week. Consequently, my father has told me that my grandfather’s nighttimes were often devoted to bible study and sermon preparation, as well as prayer. As a young boy, my father’s bedroom was the converted utility room right off the kitchen, and he often overheard his father’s prayers. Though my grandfather died almost twenty-five years ago, my father still cherishes the memory of those overheard prayers, because many of those prayers were for him!
You can tell a lot about people by listening to how they pray. Praying is absolutely vital to the church. Prayers are vital for the spiritual well-being of the Christian. This is one reason we are creating a prayer chapel off the sanctuary in this room to the right. It will be a visible and practical encouragement to this faith community to make prayer a discipline. We read in the letter of James that “the prayer of a righteous person availeth much.” (James 5:16)
But perhaps, as we see in the parable, we do not intuit what righteousness truly is! Prayer gets to the heart of the relationship between God and us. Is prayer knowing all the right words to say? Sometimes, not knowing the right words to say communicates more effectively the depth of the experience of a relationship than being an articulate word-smith.
Sometimes, if we cannot find the words, we may turn to the beautiful resources in our hymnal and book of worship and resonate with the spirit led words of others. Other times, if we turn simply to what writer Anne Lamott calls the only two prayers: “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,” and “Help me, Help me, Help me!” God will respond to us, indeed!
Jesus also believed in the vitality of prayer, but he also sought to expose the futility of trusting in your self alone. He did so by telling the parable you heard this morning.
Let’s review something very important about parables. By their very nature, parables draw the listener into the story, and, before you know it, we (the listeners) are involved like one of the characters actually in the story! In a parable, one states a truth but disguises it so that the meaning is not quickly and immediately obvious. Its meaning is to be deduced, and when you finally do get the “point,” you might even have a great “ah-haa” experience.
In telling a parable, you change the scene to throw the listener off a bit until you can insert your needle without the listener knowing it has been inserted. John Killenger has called such practice, “literary Novocain.” If you tried to get in your point without the “parable-Novocain” your “patient” would run a way and your point is then rendered useless. Likewise, if you brought up your subject directly, it could easily fall flat.
The parable Jesus tells about he Pharisee and the tax collector who prayed is a perfect example. The problem is, in the many years that have passed since Jesus first told this parable to his first listeners, the two characters in the story have virtually changed places, and we’re in danger of losing the “ah-haa” that I believe Jesus intended.
In our day, it’s easy to not despise the tax collector and instead, despise the Pharisee! Fred Craddock has rightly said, “Popular caricatures present the Pharisee as a hollow hypocrite and the tax collector or publican as generous Joe, the Bartender or Goldie, the hooker, both whom we might admire for the rejection of religion!” (Interpretation, Fred Craddock: John Knox Press-1990, pg.211).
But, you can be certain that this is not the way Jesus’ original hearers first reacted. To them, the Pharisee was a true pillar of society, the kind of material respectable communities desire. In fact, if the Nominations Committee of First Church, Palestine was meeting to gather names for submitting to the Charge Conference for election to the Church Board, you can rest assured this Pharisee’s name would be at the top of the list! If the Evangelism Committee was seeking to respond with hospitality to newcomers who had visited the church, you’d be safe to assume this Pharisee would be one of the most sought after.
Why? Not only does he fast once a week, as some Jews did, he fasts twice a week! He was zealous, not merely to keep the law, but to go beyond it. He’s not an extortionist; he’s not a swindler or an adulterer. And when it comes to the temple budget, not only did he tithe 10%, he went even further and tithed on all he bought! Ordinarily, in buying corn, new wine, and oil, he could have assumed that a tithe had already been paid by the one who had produced it. But this Pharisee took no chances, so he paid a tithe on these purchase as well! You could call him a religious neurotic, if you wanted to, but he meant well. In any case, those who first heard this parable would easily recognize this man to be unusually diligent and upright.
Likewise, in our modern attempts to romanticize the tax collector/publican, we often forget just how revolting and mean his lifestyle really was! Publicans not only cooperated with a foreign occupying power, Rome, but padded their living by defrauding others as well. True repentance of such reprehensible activity required that they quit their job as tax collectors and restore all that they had illegally taken, plus 20%. Since it was unlikely that they could even name, let alone repay all those whom they had defrauded, they were treated by others as robbers—and essentially, they were! They were hated, so it’s no wonder he’s found praying in the shadows of the temple, certainly not in full view of everyone. It’s a wonder the Pharisee even sees him!
Now I’m not one who would say you should keep your eyes closed during prayer, as we discussed last week, but it would be helpful to keep your focus on God and your praying, not looking around the temple to see who’s there------.
I think I recognize what the Pharisee does in his prayer.
“I may have failed you Lord, but, compared to _____, I’m
not half-bad!”
I recognize that kind of praying, because I’ve done it!
Have you noticed, though, that most of the times when we pray like that, we’re making the wrong comparisons? Rarely do we compare ourselves with our moral superiors. Instead, we compare ourselves with scoundrels and pridefully say, “Hey God, comparatively speaking, I’m not so bad…” Employing that same tactic in woodworking or sewing can have disastrous results. Constantly cutting new pieces from a faulty pattern might be quicker than measuring each time, but the end product might be grossly distorted.
Yes, it seems the final offense of the Pharisee’s prayer is his sidelong glances toward the publican/tax collector in the shadows, instead of his focus on God. Without denying all of those things he did, fasting, tithing, upstanding behavior… all very good, he was NOT looking in the direction of God. Smugly seeing how much better he fared (he thought) in the conduct of life than the poor sinner standing in the shadows.
The hated and despised tax collector had nothing to gain in prayer by comparing himself to others or contemplating how others felt about him. He knew already! All he could do was throw himself on the mercy of God, who is the God of saints and sinners alike.
Would that the poor Pharisee knew the song, “It’s not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer!” For you see, the prayer of a truly righteous person has nothing to do with a religious “pedigree” or our church work experience—time spent teaching Sunday School, or even how much or how little we give to the church. The prayer of a truly righteous person has everything to do with whom we gaze upon in prayer—so we should ask ourselves. Is prayer to contemplate God or is it to announce to God who we are? The prayer which justifies the person is the prayer which seeks God and leaves self behind. And thus, we arrive at this parable’s “bottom line.” The Pharisee trusts in self and all his accomplishments. The Publican trusts in God alone. That is the difference.
You see, the world can still make judgments as to who in human eyes is justified. God, however, makes another. Some truly righteous people are not the world’s so-called perfect people. And therein lies Jesus’ agenda, so remarkably told by Luke in his radical “upside-down” way.
Even though many times Jesus seems to exalt those whom the “respectable” deem to be morally inferior, Jesus, in so doing, is after something deeper than “respectability”…something far more crucial than observing religious rituals. Instead, he’s intent on doing business in each human heart, where there are no secrets, not pretenses. So yes, each of us can say, “it’s me, it’s me oh lord, standing in the need of prayer.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

October 14 Sermon: Praying With our Eyes wide Open

Sermon Texts:
Psalm 66: 1-12
Romans 8: 26-39

Paul states in today’s passage that there’s nothing that separates us from the love of God. Nothing stands between us. God’s Love is consistently emenating toward us. This is why I accentuate the Holy Spirit as the “Breath of God” in my own thinking and prayer life, and why you’ve heard so much about it from me. For many of us, it is a re-orientation of thinking to perceive of God’s Spirit as something that is as tangible and present to us as the very air we breathe.
But, our Scriptures point us in this direction, the Psalmist writes that “as God give us breath, we have life, and when God takes back that Breath, our life is taken back into God.” For me, envisioning my life as a “Breath of God” has been an enriching insight. There’s a Muslim saying that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. That is both a comforting thought and an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps the association with the “jugular vein” makes things a little uneasy. It makes me think that my life is not entirely my own….well, perhaps that’s the point!
Paul begins today’s passage by saying that even though we don’t know how to pray, this Spirit, this Breath of Life, seemingly enters into our lungs and prays “with sighs too deep for words.” It doesn’t matter that we may get caught up in our own needs and wants and prejudices and errors in our prayer life. God knows what we need, and God’s Spirit interacts with us so deeply, so intensely, that our prayers are influenced by the inaudible “sighs of the Spirit” even if we aren’t aware.
I was remembering something I had talked about with some kids a few years ago this week. It stayed in my mind for a while, it jumped around in my heart a little, and from these stirrings, I reckon it must be something that I should share with us as a congregation as well. I asked the kids if we were supposed to pray in a certain posture, and was met with a resounding “NO!”
It is good that the children have a sense of what is important to God, and prayer posture certainly isn’t it. It may be important for us to have a certain way to pray so that we can prepare ourselves for being with God in a communicative way. Some may pray with hands open in front, some may pray with elbows on knees hunched. When we are children, we are usually taught to pray with our hands folded and eyes closed. I explained to the children that we are probably taught this way so that we can shut off the racing of our minds and concentrate on what God has to say to us.
There is certainly a use for this kind of prayer, and it has been the dominant form of prayer in our church. If not hands folded, then certainly eyes shut. We are so accustomed to this form of praryer, that usually we preface our prayers with “Will you bow with me in prayer?” It has become our custom to pray in this way.
Yet, if we think of things a little differently, if we allow our “custom” to be flexible in some way, it may give the Spirit enough room in our life of prayer to get in there and shake things up a bit. (That is after all what the Spirit likes to do). Perhaps we may even be able to attune our ears to the “sighs too deep for words”
I remember what a revelation it was to me when I was a teenager and heard or read somewhere that Native Americans pray with their eyes open instead of closed. Now, whatever source it was that I got this information was certainly generalizing—of course there are Native Americans who pray with their eyes closed. I’ve seen a lot of United Methodist Native Americans praying just like most United Methodists, in the familiar head down, shut eyes fashion. But, traditionally, so I’m told, in the native spirituality of the Native peoples, prayer is an eyes open type of experience because it is an acknowledgement of the Great Spirit’s presence in the things that surround us.
In many Indian cultures, God is experienced in the Rain, in the Mountains, in the Wind, in the Animals we come into contact with. It was probably this sense of the Sacred in the World around us that confused many of the Christian pioneers who came into contact with the Native Peoples and decided they needed to be missionized. I agree that we as a Christian church had something very special and enriching in the Gospel to share with the Native Americans, but at that time, the Spirituality that we Christians were wanting to give to the Native peoples was a very “closed eyes” kind of faith.
Perhaps God’s intention was not only for us to share our love of the Gospel with the Native People, but perhaps it was also to let the Native people share their worldview with us as well!
When I started praying with my eyes open, I started looking at the world in a different way. Instead of being something to distract my mind from a good intellectual, strictly verbal relationship with God, I began to understand what the Psalmist meant by “O taste and see that God is good.” When I started to pray with my eyes open, I began to see God’s face in the faces around me, I began to feel God’s presence in the warm sunshine or the refreshing rain, I began to taste God’s complexity and bounty in a blueberry or an ear of corn. I began to hear God’s voice in Beethoven’s symphonies. I began to understand what the Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalm meant by writing “All the earth worships you, they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”
In short, when I prayed with my eyes open, I began to LIVE MY LIFE as a prayer. I began to see what Paul meant when he said, “38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing separates us from the Love of God. For me, this revelation came with a change in my prayer life. And for me, it was like finding a treasure in a field that I had previously experienced as empty. It was a surprising pearl to my life. Living our life aware of God’s close proximity to us is a life in the Spirit, as we have been talking about over the past few weeks. It is a Kingdom life, a life that reveals God’s Kingdom to the world. Jesus said that God’s Kindom is here in our midst, and we have not opened our eyes to it. Opening my eyes in prayer was for me the precious glimpse into God’s kingdom. When I mentioned this kind of prayer to the children I mentioned earlier, I remember looking at these fresh faces, these innocent eyes, these children who seem to know more about God than anybody. As I prayed, open eyed, with them—my heart was filled, God’s Spirit in them was made visible for me, and I thanked God In the clear, knowing eyes of children lies a life attuned to this prayerful life.
Children experience wonder in the world, and this wonder in the world is something that seemingly evades us in our adult years. We become used to it all. The magic of the world around us loses its luster for some reason. We become “grown up” and forget about the mystery and excellence of our surroundings.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to look at the roots of trees that crawled out over the ground, and I’d imagine the world it must be for all the bugs that lived in the tree’s shade. I remember looking at clouds for hours. For me, flying in airplanes was a late experience in life, so fortunately I haven’t lost the child like wonder when looking out the window at the earth from 30,000 feet. Seeing the rivers and patches of farms and mountains, and the billowy clouds--Remember when we used to see the whole world that way from 4 feet up in the air?
In the acknowledgement of the wonder and mystery of life itself, the Spirit sighs deeply in us. We return thanks to God in the acknowledgement of our place among this magical Creation of God. In the human family, the complexity of which baffles us with mystery and wonder as well. Meister Eckhart, a German mystic of the 14th century, said, “IF I spent enough time with a caterpillar, I’d never need to preach another sermon in my life.”
When we are astounded, when we are baffled, when we are engaged by the world, by the face of God in the faces around us, that is when we can hear the “Sighs too deep for words.” That is when we can attune ourselves to God’s prayer for us!
I invite us today to be in an eyes open attitude of prayer while we go our separate ways today. With an open eyed faith, we may see things that our eyes have grown accustomed to in a new way. In a spouse about whom we more typically can name faults and weaknesses, we may instead see partners who support us and possess strengths we may not have recognized in a while. In a teenager we may more quickly judge, we may see a brave, young soul who achieves great things in a world that is very different from the one in which we lived those years. In a co-worker whom we more often find annoying, we may see the private difficulties they silently face.
May we pray with open eyes, so that we don’t overlook God’s presence in the everyday world around us! Amen.