Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Enough” (Luke 17:11-19)

In the dusk of the evening this past Friday, I drove over to Cooney Dam in the hope that I would be able to get some wonderful pictures with my camera.  For the most part, I didn’t have much luck.  I saw the usual suspects . . . lots and lots of deer and geese; but nothing spectacular.  Having driven two-thirds of the way around the lake, I pulled into a camping area to turn around.  Just as I was about to make a turn I saw a flash of white.  It landed on a fence post.

Of course I stopped my car.  I had to see what it was.  It was a pretty bird that was gray, then black, then white.  At first I thought it was a Clark’s Nutcracker . . . but, it was too small.  So, I whipped out my camera and started taking pictures.  Amazingly, it let me take quite a few pictures before it tired of me and flew off.  

I didn’t know what it was, but I was certain I would figure it out when I got home.  All I knew was that it was something I had never seen before and it was a strikingly beautiful bird.  All I could utter at that moment was “thank you.”  I had been blessed.

Well, it turns out that the bird was a Northern Shrike.  The Northern Shrike is a bird that is uncommon and fairly rare in this area.  It is a hunter that feeds itself on small birds and rodents.  Upon learning this, once again, all I could say was, “Wow!  Thanks!”

It was pretty nice to receive a blessing at the end of a tough couple of weeks.  With my job at the university I have been on the road eight out of ten days . . . lots of miles . . . and, lots of kids . . . looking in their ears and testing their hearing.  It was nice to receive an unexpected gift.  And, it was nice to be able to acknowledge that gift.

We are entering into the season of Thanksgiving . . . a season when we are encouraged to be thankful.  But, it is tough to be thankful when we are constantly worrying about life and the world around us.  There seems to be plenty to worry about whether it is as a nation, state, community, or even family.  We are living in some pretty worrisome times.  We might do better with a little moaning, groaning, and complaining . . . good ol’ biblical lamenting, than lifting up thanks.  But, we are called to giving thanks . . . thanksgiving.

It is something we should consider, especially in light of our scripture reading this morning.

As with many of the stories in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encounters a group of outsiders . . . ten lepers.  These ten individuals called out to Jesus to heal them of their leprosy.  From a distance, Jesus heals them and tells them to go to the local priest to be declared healed.  And, they went . . . except for one.  One of the men, seeing that he was healed, returned to Jesus, threw himself at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him profusely.  

Now, in this story, there are a couple of things taking place.  First, there is the healing . . . Jesus said that they were healed and they were healed.  By sending them to the local priest this would be confirmed . . . and, the ten did exactly what they were told to do.  They did nothing wrong and they still received the blessing.  But, it was only one who recognized the immensity of the blessings . . . only one who returned to give thanks for the blessing he had received.  Now, remember, the other nine had done nothing wrong.  They did exactly what they were told to do.

Second, the man who returns to give thanks . . . well, he is blessed a second time.  True, like the other nine he was blessed with healing, but this time he receives something deeper . . . he receives wholeness . . . he is saved.  He received the blessing that comes from recognizing blessing and giving thanks--the blessing, that is, of wholeness and salvation.  This guy got the whole picture, and for getting the whole picture he discovers the wholeness and holiness that comes with complete intimacy with the Holy.

It is powerful to not only receive a blessing, but to also acknowledge it . . . to name it and give thanks for it.  Think about those moments when you have felt that power.

Last Sunday, as I sat back and watched our choir and others sing and fellowship with the residents at two care facilities . . . to see the residents singing along, laughing, talking . . . I was blessed in a powerful moment of hospitality, and all I could do was to say, “Thank you.”

On Friday evening, as I drove around, the sun was setting on the mountains . . . the clouds were vibrant in color . . . and, soaring in the air, playing in the wind currents, was a solitary Bald Eagle . . . looping and playing in glorious sky.  Again, I was blessed . . . and, all I could say was, “Thank you.”

At our first soup supper and discussion a few weeks ago, I sat there listening to conversations, enjoying the laughter, relishing the food . . . and just looking around at those who were gathered there . . . and, I was blessed.  In that blessing, all I could utter was, “Thank you.”

According to one biblical commentator, “Thanksgiving is like that.  It springs from perception--our ability to recognize blessing--and articulation--giving expression, no matter how inadequate it may seem at the time, or our gratitude for that blessing.  And every time these two are combined--sight and word--giving thanks actually grants a second blessing.”

Gratitude--giving thanks--is huge.  It draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself . . . into the presence of God . . . into the Holy.  It frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagine.

Which brings us back to that tenth leper . . . the one who came back.  This was a man with many strikes against himself.  Not only was he an outside because of his leprosy, he was also an outsider because he was a Samaritan.  In his healing he realized that he was more than leper or a Samaritan . . . he realized that he had been acknowledge as a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as he was.  With his words, Jesus affirms this, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

The world is full of blessing and challenges . . . which will we focus on?  True, there are times for lamenting . . . but, given the day and age we live in, maybe we need to remember the tenth leper.

The 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart reminds us, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  May we become a people of giving thanks . . . a people of wholeness and holiness.  Amen.    

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Witness" (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25)

One of the things that I enjoy and appreciate about our fellowship time after worship is listening to the conversations about Joliet.  Especially those conversations that recall the community's past.  I enjoy hearing the stories that are told about the "old timers" who helped to establish this community, this area, and even this church.  I appreciate the knowledge that is shared by the two Bobs--Hull and Jensen, that is . . . the tidbits shared by Nellie and Anne . . . and, all the juicy memories of others who are gathered around the table.  And, I appreciate the fact that they have stepped into the role as "witness" to this community and its journey as a community.  This is a big role, and an important role, because they are telling our story as a community.

A community's story important because it presents to those listening the foundation of that community . . . it's beliefs, morals, and who they are as a community.  Through their past they learn from where they have come, how that makes them who they are in the present, and points them in a direction to go in the future.  They hear of the struggles and the celebrations, the victories and defeats to be the people they are.  Through the stories the listener begins to understand the intricate weaving of the threads that hold the community together.  And, through the stories, the storyteller keeps the story alive as he or she passes it on to the next generation.  The storytellers bear witness to what was, is, and is yet to come . . . they bear witness to being.

Our scripture reading this morning comes after a long journey by God's people . . . 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with many frustrations and doubts.  A hard 40 years . . . and, now they stand on the brink of fulfillment of their dreams and hopes . . . a land of their own.  Gone are those older generations . . . gone is Moses.  Standing before them is Joshua, the one chosen to lead them into the Promised Land.  Standing before the people he tells them a story . . . a story of their past. . . and, of their future.      The story Joshua tells the people goes back to their roots . . . to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . to their captivity in Egypt . . . to their wandering in the wilderness.  He tells them of their loyalty and disloyalty to the God who made it all possible . . . how this God has made it all possible and brought them to this point.  It is their story . . . their journey . . . and now it is time for them to claim it as he challenges them to serve God and only God.

Joshua challenges the people with these words: "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living."      With no hesitation, Joshua then declares his loyalty, and sets the challenge: "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."        The people are quick to give lip service to Joshua's challenge, more or less saying, "Yea, yea, yea . . . God is our God."  Joshua then warns them that God is a jealous God who does not take kindly to lip service . . . so, watch out.  But the people assure Joshua that they are not giving lip service to God . . .they promise that they will serve the Lord.  Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord."      

"Yes, we are witnesses," they replied.  

With those words a covenant was declared.  Joshua shared with them the foundation of the story . . . the laws and decrees of what it means to serve the Lord . . . how they are to live their lives in faith with God.  In proclaiming themselves witnesses they have picked up the mantle of being tellers of the story . . . their story.  With their proclamation they add a new chapter to the story.  It is now their responsibility to keep the story alive . . . to pass it on from one person to another, from one generation to another.  Only they can do it.      We, too, are called to be witnesses of the faith journey . . . of the community of faith.  On that day that we declared our faith to God through Jesus Christ, we declared ourselves to be witnesses to his story as it is lived out through our lives.  We declared our acceptance to be witnesses when we proclaimed our faith in God through Jesus, and with that came the responsibility to tell the story.

Now, don't panic.  This does not mean that you have to become a Bible scholar, though that is okay if you want too . . .no, we have those individuals who are somewhat competent in that role--we have Bible scholars, theologians, ministers, elders, deacons.  But it is good to have at least a Sunday school understanding of the story from which you can fall back on.  The story is too big, for just one person to know it all.  Shoot, all the people who stood there listening to Joshua tell the story did not know all of the story, if any of the story.       But, they did know the story as it involved them and their relationship with God.  And, that is where they begin their story . . . their witness of the story.  They tell the story of their faith journey . . . how they came to know God . . . their frustrations and hopes . . . their victories and defeats.  With their stories they witness the presence of a living God who is full of love and grace . . . a living God of love and grace that they can trace all the way back.  In this they witness their faith and the faith of those who came before them.

One of the coolest things that I stumbled across years ago is something that is called a "story quilt".  A story quilt is simply a quilt in which the blocks that it is made up of tell a story.  A lot of these quilts were made by slaves years and years ago to be able to share the stories with future generations . . . some were biblical, some personal.  But as the quilts were passed down through the generations, so were the stories.      That is how I see our role as witnesses in this story today.  I see each of us as furnishing a block--our story of faith--to a majestic quilt being sown.  Each block or story is different, but each is necessary, in telling the story.  And, running through each of the blocks . . . each of the stories . . . is the thread that holds it all together as the greatest story ever told.  That thread is the living God of grace and love.  That thread binds it all together as a story of love.  Together we are the witnesses to that story . . . together we make the quilt to pass on.

As the followers of Jesus we have declared with Joshua and our ancestors of the faith before us, that as for ourselves and our households that we will serve the Lord.  We have declared this before God and others, but more importantly before ourselves and God.  The responsibility falls upon each and every one of us to become storytellers of the faith . . . to share our stories.  The future depends upon us.  Go forth and share the story as you know it . . . the thread will bring it all together.  Amen.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Separation of Religion and Faith” (Matthew 23:1-12)

You have probably heard it before, but “you can put lipstick on a pig, and it is still a pig.”  Variations of the saying go all the way back to the mid-16th century when the famous proverb was, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”  No matter when or how the proverb was stated, the meaning was the same . . . no matter how much you attempt to dress something or someone up, they are still whatever they are.  

This understanding of portraying one’s self as something other than what one really manifests is easily older than the “pig with lipstick” proverb.  I am pretty sure that is what Jesus is implying in his words this morning when he states this about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels of their prayer shawls long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues, they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Jesus might as well had said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.”

In our reading this morning Jesus pronounces a pretty scathing commentary on the so-called important people of the Jewish society . . . the teachers of the law and Pharisees.  Mincing no words, Jesus is saying that these people and the image that they project out to others is nothing more than “lipstick on a pig”.

In this passage Jesus is confronting an old conflict between what one says and what one does.  He bluntly proclaims that these teachers of the law and Pharisees “. . . do not practice what they preach.”    There is no congruency between their words and their actions.  What they teach and preach is nowhere close to what they do in their daily lives.

I would define “religion” as a belief system that most of us carry around in our minds . . . a set of rules, mandates, and standards about what we believe.  It is a “head” thing.  I would define “faith” was the actions that one takes on behalf of those beliefs we carry around in our heads.  Faith is a heart thing that dictates action . . . it is the way that we actually live our lives.  For example, we don’t only believe in love, we live in love with our actions showing that love to others.  It is more than words, it is action.

The teachers of the law and Pharisees separated their “religion” from their “faith”.  The words that they taught and preached . . . as sound as they were . . . were nothing when it came to the way that they lived their lives.  They put on a good show, and that was all that it was . . . a pig in lipstick.

And, everyone knew it.

I do not think that Jesus is saying anything that the people were not already thinking.  He just said it out loud so that everybody could hear it . . . including the teachers of the law and Pharisees.  He pointed out the hypocrisy of the whole matter . . . specifically stating the demand of these leaders for the people to practice what they taught and preached.  Jesus had no problem with what they taught or preached . . . he had a problem with the fact that they did not live up to what they taught and preached.  They practiced religion, but did not have faith.

To this Jesus was the angriest and most disappointed . . . to burden others with a religion that they themselves were not even willing to practice themselves.  Jesus tells those who are listening to him, “. . . do not practice what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”    

As we can see from our reading this morning, this problem of pigs running around in lipstick is nothing new.  Yet, we seem to be living in an age in which there seems to be an abundance of pigs running around in lipstick.  Though this is not something new, maybe we are just more aware of it thanks to the age of technology.  It seems to be everywhere thanks to newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and social media we find on our phones and computers.  There does not seem to be any realm that is not touched by this separation of religion and faith . . . we see it with celebrities, politicians, athletes, actors, media moguls, and even within the “church” itself.  It seems as if there is a not a day in which we don’t learn about some new pig with lipstick . . . that we learn about someone whose image and words do not jive with his or her life actions.

With each new report . . . with each new individual charged with this hypocrisy . . . we shake our heads in disappointment, sadness, and disbelief.  These are the people we admire . . . the people we trust . . . the people we hold in esteem . . . the people, who deep down inside us we want to be like.  They have been caught in a lie . . . their words do not stack up to their actions.  Their actions betray them.

I guess, in a way, this is a wake up call to all of us.  It is a wake up call for us to consider our own lives . . . to consider the words that we speak . . . to consider the actions we take.  Are they one and the same?  Or, are they incongruent?  Are our actions betraying our words?

Well, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, I think that we have all separated our religion from our faith at certain points in our lives.  I think that it is only human nature that this happens.  And, I think that it is good to remind ourselves to consider our words and actions every so often to keep ourselves on track.  That is what Jesus is telling us this morning in our reading, “. . . do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  

The journey of faith is a movement from the head to the heart . . . and, from the heart one lives out his or her life.  The journey of faith is a movement from words to action . . . the words that are spoken are lived out in such a way that in reality, no words are needed.  The journey of faith is a melding of religion and action until it becomes faith.  With faith, no words are needed . . . it is just the way that one lives life.

So, as I have been saying, it is good for us to consider whether or not we are living up to the words we proclaim as the followers of Jesus . . . that our actions are not betraying our words.  Thus if we proclaim that we love all people . . . well, we better love all people.  If we proclaim that all are welcome in this building and at this table . . . then we better be making room for everybody.  In other words, we better not be dressing up our words with fancy lipstick and projecting an image; no, we better be living up to the words we speak and say that we believe.  Trust me, people know a pig even when it has lipstick on.  We do not want to be betrayed by our actions.  The hymn tells us that others will know that we are the followers of Jesus by the way that we love . . . not by the words that we speak.

Now, remember, Jesus is just saying . . .  because it is something Jesus is saying, we should consider it.  Let us be a people of action, not words.  May we continue to strive to be a people of faith, not a people of religion.  Amen.