Sunday, September 28, 2014

“Ya Got to Wonder” (Exodus 17:1-7)

Ya got to wonder . . . is God with us or not?
That was the question the Israelites were wondering as they waited for Moses to produce some water for them to quench their thirst in the desert.  Our reading this morning is the fourth occurrence of the Israelites complaining since they hightailed it out of Egypt . . . the fourth time that they moan and groan . . . whine and lament . . . and, it is still early in the story as this is still only the beginning . . . this story goes on for forty years and they are well on their way to setting a record for complaining.  The Israelites keep looking at back to their time in captivity . . . sure life was hard, but they had shelter and were not wandering around in the middle of nowhere; they had food and were not hungry; they had water to drink and were not thirsty; they had a life—as bad as it was—and were not constantly wondering where their wandering was going to lead them.  They really wondered about God . . . is God with them or not!

Don’t we all?  Don’t we all wonder from time to time whether or not God is really with us?

If any of us is half-way participating in life then we should all know that life is not always easy . . . should know that life can be difficult . . . overwhelming . . . depressing and oppressing . . . a burden that sometimes feels as if it is more than we could ever bear . . . down-right crummy.  Life is hard.  Author and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley puts it this way:
“Life is filled with so many senseless events. Mindless tragedies fill our newspapers every day--airplane crashes, the murder of innocent children, insane terrorism, natural disasters. And much in our own lives seems without purpose or meaning--like a rainstorm on a picnic day, a bad cold when we are having a party, a handicapped child, the early death of a parent or spouse, a broken marriage, a car that won't start in the morning, a wrong number in the middle of the night, the treason of friends and envy of neighbors.”

Life is hard and sometimes, we the faithful, wonder . . . where is God!

Sometimes we are quick to judge the Israelites as being ungrateful and whiny people after everything that God has done for them up to this point: brought plagues and disasters upon the Egyptians to get them their freedom; led them through the Red Sea when it seemed as if they were about to be annihilated; fed them when they were hungry and thought they were going to starve to death; and, now, gave them water to quench their thirst.  It seems as if the Israelites have a memory problem . . . have they forgotten all of these experiences of God’s presence in their journey?

And, yet, we are no different than the Israelites when it comes to our own faith journeys.  Whatever memory defect that the Israelites suffer from seems to be one that even we experience from time to time in our own lives.  Often our faith is based upon what we want God to do for us . . . how we want God to conform to our needs and necessities in ways that make sense to us and happen when we want them to happen.  We judge God’s faithfulness to us by God’s ability to deliver the goods.  God is with us when God is doing what we want God to do for us.

The problem with this is that we don’t want to stop and consider what God has done for us in the past . . . we don’t want to consider the evidence that is all around us that speaks to God’s presence being with us.  The Israelites, with short-term memory loss apparently, do not consider all that God had done for them despite the fact that all of them experienced it first-hand.  They have forgotten the plagues . . . forgotten the splitting of the Red Sea . . . forgotten the bread from heaven.  They are thirsty and they want something to drink and they want it now!

And, that is the problem . . . it must be instantaneous . . . it must be right now.  Like the Israelites we lack patience.  Our concerns are immediate . . . we are looking toward the future . . . we want God to solve the issue right now.  In our minds, if God is everything that we think God is, then what is the big deal for God to clean up our lives for us, after all, God created the heavens and the earth.  We throw at God our desires and we want God to fix them . . . fix them now or at least no later than tomorrow.  And, we wonder . . . is God with us or not?
This sort of faith is great as long as we get what we want when we want it . . . but, does it ever really work that way?  What happens in those long pauses of silence and stillness when the darkness descends and there is no response from God to the prayers we lift up?  What happens when nothing turns out the way that we want it to . . . things don’t work out as we hope that they will?  Well, we wonder . . . is God with us or not?

How quickly we forget.

When was the last time you sat down and reflected upon your life and God’s presence in that life?  When was the last time that you considered those times in your life that God answered your prayers . . . provided a miracle . . . helped you through the difficulty you were experiencing?  When was the last time you paused, reflected, and acknowledge God’s presence in your life whether it was a good time or a bad time? 

We need to remember . . . we need to look back on our journey of faith.  We have all seen the story about the footprints in the sand . . . where there are a series of two footprints in the sand that represent Jesus walking with us . . . and, how there were times when there were only one set of footprints in the sand.  The assumption is that Jesus has left the companion to make the journey on his or her own; but the truth is that those are those moments when Jesus actually carried the individual in hard times.  That is what we need to remember . . . we need to remember that God’s presence is always with us . . . always!

In our remembering we come to realize that God is not the solution waiting to happen or some sort of quick fix to numb the pain.  No, God is a presence in and with our challenges of life.  In our suffering we discover an opportunity to discover that presence of God in our lives . . . God joins us in our darkness . . . joins us in our suffering.  Thus it is that we become more than our problems or their solutions . . . we become one with the God who loves us and showers us with grace and presence never to abandon us.  As the Apostle Paul says:
“We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4-5)

In our story, Moses names the place where the water is provided Massah and Meribah.  Do you know what these two names mean . . . what they represent?  Well, I can tell you that they do not mean “the source of abundant water” or the “rock where the Lord provided”.    Massah means “testing” . . . Meribah means “quarreling” . . . Moses names this as a place of trial, contention, and strife.  It is here that the people experience the presence of God . . . it is here that they have their thirst—both the physical and spiritual—quenched and satisfied.  It is here that they know the presence of God . . . that they know that God is with them . . . always with them.

Life is hard . . . it makes us wonder . . . we wonder where God is . . . we wonder whether or not God is with us . . . we allow ourselves to utter the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

How will you answer that question for yourself?  Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

“Are You Confused About Forgiveness?”

I have a friend who has three daughters.  When they were very young, they all approached their frustration with their mother in very different ways.  When her oldest child didn’t get her way she took it in stride.  “My mother must be right, “she’d think to herself, “So I will listen to her.”

When her youngest child didn’t get her way, she’d head to her room and cry.  “Maybe my mother will feel sorry for me,” she’d think to herself, “And change her mind.”

When her middle child, also a daughter, didn’t get her way, she’d hold her breath.  “Maybe my mother will die from a broken heart,” she’d think to herself, “And change her mind.”

Hear the insanity in the third child’s thinking?  The only person who was going to die was the child herself---even though she thought holding her breath was punishing her mother—the only person she was punishing was herself.

So it is with holding grudges—nurturing resentment—the person we punish is our SELF.  We think we hurting the person who has hurt us when we hold on to resentment, but the truth is we become incredibly awful ourselves.

Years ago a woman reached out to me for friendship.  She wanted someone to go to the health club with her and swim laps in the morning, so I said yes.  Who doesn’t benefit from a lap swim? 

As we met in the locker room and changed into our swimsuits, the woman began to open up about her life.  “I have two sons,” she told me, “One’s very smart, and the other has cerebral palsy.”

Her son’s disability disappointed her greatly to the point she was quite bitter.  “I hate the quote,” she said quite frankly, “You can either get better, or get bitter.  My husband and I didn’t deserve this fate.  Everyone else in our Lamaze class gave birth to healthy children.  They went on with their lives; their birthday parties and football parties.  We were left behind.  Our life is so hard. Our son’s life is so hard. We suffer.”

Week after week I listened to this woman.  Week after week she shared her disdain for people with healthy children and sometimes for life itself.  Eventually I started making excuses as to why I wouldn’t meet her in the mornings to swim laps.  I simply couldn’t breathe the air she was poisoning with her resentment.  I wondered how her family survived it, and which was worse, the work that the family carried out on behalf of the brother with cerebral palsy, or the work the family carried out on behalf of her resentment?

What we hope will happen, if we are ugly enough to someone, if we withhold mercy, is that THEY will change.  We hope that if we withhold our love, our presence, our resources from someone, they will TURN AWAY from the behavior that is causing us grief and TURN TOWARDS the behavior that will cause us joy.  The truth is resentment changes us—robs us of our true self; our joyful, compassionate, generous self, just like the child who held her breath hoping her mother would die from a broken heart.

Because God spends an incredible amount of energy forgiving us to wholeness, God invites us to trade in resentment for forgiveness.  “You’ve got a bottomless pit of grace,” Jesus teaches the disciples, “Even though you think you have a breaking point.  The truth is there is no breaking point, only grace; use it every time for my sake, and for yours.”  What I hear Jesus saying is that forgiveness isn’t simply something we do, it’s something we ARE.  Furthermore, forgiveness isn’t something we do because we love the offender. It doesn’t come from the same place as compassion—it comes from our will.   It’s something we do because we love God and we love ourselves.

We cannot control the world—we can only control how we will respond to the world.  Will we hold our breath?  Or will we breathe? 

Christian blogger and ordained UCC pastor Nancy Rockwell recalls the life Nelson Mandela in her reflections on this passage from Matthew.  Rockwell writes, “Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in a South African prison, said, Forgiveness liberates the soul.  It removes fear.  That’s why it is such a powerful weapon.  When asked about his jailers, he responded that forgiving them was a choice to set his self free.  He could leave those guards there in the prison instead of remembering them always by nursing resentment.  And soon after his release, before his election, when he came to Boston, he danced a little freedom dance for all of us to see.”

Do any of you recall the story from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the 32 year old man named Charlie who entered an Amish school and killed ten girls before killing himself?

That evening the young man’s mother’s first thought was, “I’ve got to leave.”  But the Amish came to her the night of the shooting to say they wanted her to stay.  Some of the victims' families attended her son's funeral.  “We’re a forgiving people,” the Amish said.

"There are not words to describe how this made us feel that day," said the mother of the shooter.  "For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us -- wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”And every Thursday, she cares for the most seriously wounded survivor of the shooting, who is now 13 and lives with the help of a feeding tube and a wheelchair.  “I had to forgive our son, too,” said the mother, “Or else I would have a hole in my heart as big as his.”

 As someone observed, "You have this mother who raised a son who did this horrific damage to this young woman and the mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for this young woman, and the parents of the young woman welcome her into their home. It's a powerful, powerful story.  We need to remember that there is always hope. To walk into the future knowing each day has something that we can be thankful for, and not to live in the sorrow 24-7.  Ask God to provide new things in your lives, new things to focus on," she said. "That doesn't take the place of what is lost. But it can give us a hope and a future."

A future only made possible by forgiveness.   
When it comes to forgiveness, we get confused because we think its contingent on the behavior of the offender.  We want forgiveness to be the result of everything OUTSIDE of us being okay.  We’d prefer the offender to have a change of heart.  We fear being taken advantage of.  So we think, “I’ll forgive so and so this time, but the next time, watch out!”   What’s that saying, “Fool me once, shame on YOU.  Fool me twice, shame on ME.”  And we think, “I’ll forgive so and so when they say they are sorry.”  Either way we still are setting ourselves up to be in the passenger seat while clearly placing the offer in the driver’s seat.  The only way to sit in the driver’s seat ourselves is to let the hostility go.

But it’s even deeper than that.  The real gift would be to never experience resentment; to never feel offended, or slighted in some way, indignation.  The only way to truly remove an indignant spirit, such as the woman who gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy, is to become aware of that part of ourselves that takes everything so personally, and throw it out.

  “The weeds and the wheat grow up together,” Jesus teaches us, “the joy and the sorrow. Learn to live with the tension.”  Jesus sets a different world view in front of us by this teaching.  All of life is a banquet, or a feast, to which we’re all invited; the seeding and the harvest; life and death.  We’re not the chef.  We are the guests. What do we know?

The remedy for an indignant spirit, or a wounded spirit, or a spirit that says, “I don’t deserve this,” is humility; a spirit that says, “Why me Lord, what have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known?”

This is the true path of faith and religion; humility.  Humility is the only road peace.  This sets us up for the Tao of Forgiveness:

                                  The Tao Of Forgiveness

Prayer:  Gracious Lord, help us to relinquish the entire sack that we might be free FROM indignation and free FOR forgiving.  Amen.
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on Sunday, September 14 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)

“Cheese, Please” (Exodus 16:2-15)

I have to admit that I have enjoyed being a grandparent since the arrival of the granddaughters into my life.  Grandchildren make life so much richer . . . so much more fun . . . and, I get to send them home at the end of the day when I am done corrupting them.  Grandchildren are a joy . . . most of the time.  There are times when they remind me that children can be a real hassle and not a whole lot of fun to be dealing with . . . just like most of us in the human race.  From time to time though, they remind me of something I had forgotten . . . hungry kids are grumpy kids . . . whiny kids . . .complaining kids . . . or what the writers of the Bible like to refer to as lamenting sorts of kids.  In fact, I think most people are pretty much that way when they are hungry.

At least that seems to be the case in our scripture reading for this morning . . . the Israelites are hungry.  As the story from last week continues, the Israelites have quickly packed up and hightailed it out of Egypt when given the chance.  They have survived the frantic attempt of Pharaoh to recapture them or to wipe them out at the Red Sea when Moses, through God, split the sea for the people to escape.  Thus far it has been a pretty hectic and wild adventure with very little planning on the part of Moses . . . the goal is just to escape toward freedom. 

Having packed up and left in a hurry the Israelites did not plan on what they were going to do for nourishment . . . did not think about how they were going to feed themselves.  After a while what little food they had ran out . . . people started to get hungry.  Hungry people get grumpy.  Hungry people complain.  The Israelites were hungry and so they began to whine.
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!  There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Let’s see . . . Moses, through God, has secured the people’s freedom from a cruel oppressor.  The people now are a free people.  Moses, through God, got the people out of the sticky situation at the Red Sea when it looked like certain doom would happen.  And, now this is the “thanks” that Moses gets in return . . . a bunch of complaining?  I am surprised that Moses didn’t just ask the people if they would like a little cheese with that whine.

Poor Moses . . . he is just the scapegoat in all of this.  He’s taking the heat for all of this as we all know that it is actually God running the show.  Moses knows it.  God knows it.  Moses tells the people: “. . . he has heard your grumbling.  Who are we?  You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”  But, what do the people care . . . they are hungry.  At this point they would take cheese with their whine.

Something is not right in this age that we are living in.  In the world around us we see great discontent . . . people are not happy . . . people are oppressed . . . people are whining as represented by the great upheaval we are witnessing across the globe.  There is a great hungry that is sweeping across the world today and it is getting nasty in its violence against one another. 

We see it in our own nation as our leaders in government cannot seem to tolerate one another . . . cannot even seem to stand in the same room with one another without pointing fingers and complaining . . . there is lots of division and animosity in our nation . . . lots of whining from everyone.  There is a hunger that is sweeping across our nation . . . our communities . . . our lives.

We see it in the “church”—the body of Christ—as the “old” complains about the “new” and the “new” complains about the “old”.  We see it as the mainline and established denominations—both liberal and conservative—struggle to exist.  We see it in the division of the body of Christ where the faithful point fingers at one another and complain about things that they don’t like the other representing.  There is a lot of whining going on that represents a hunger within the “church”.

Across the holy domain of God’s creation there is a hunger . . . a cry to be feed.  All of God’s creation whines.  All of God’s children want to be fed . . . bring on the cheese!
And, that is what God does.  God feeds the people.  God provides the meat.  God provides the manna.  God has come into their midst once again . . . made God’s presence known to the people . . . and fed them.  For the people this is to be a sign—once again, that God is with them.  For the time being, the whining stops as the people are fed through the presence of God.

Though the world’s hunger is not a physical hunger it is still a cry out to be fed . . . it is a deeper hunger that the world and its people are crying about . . . a spiritual hunger.  A hunger for acknowledgement.  A hunger for purpose and meaning.  A hunger for relationship . . . a hunger for relationship for it is truly relationships that bring life to all of us.  It is a hunger to be loved and to love.  Looking at the world today in its disastrous condition I think that the world does not love itself much . . . after all we love the way we love ourselves.

The hunger that the world . . . and humanity . . . whines about can only be eliminated through what our Lord and Savior told us to be about—relationships.  Remember how he affirmed the lawyer’s answer that the purpose of life was to love the Lord wholly and completely . . . to love one’s neighbor as one’s self?  Remember how Jesus said that these two commandments fulfilled all the law and words of the prophets?  Remember how he told the lawyer—and ultimately, all of us, to go out and do likewise?  It comes down to relationships between us and God, us and others . . . it comes down to radical accepting love.  That is the manna that feds us . . . that is the cheese that takes away the whining.

That is what we all want . . . to be full of the life that God offers to each us of through an intimate and holy relationship with God.  We want to be loved . . . we want to be acknowledged . . . we want to have a purpose and meaning . . . we want to be. 
     In this time of respite in our lives this morning from the crazy busyness of the lives we live . . . let us consider the whining we do in our lives . . . let us acknowledge our hunger . . . let us ask what it is that we truly need and want that will satisfy this hunger that is trashing our souls . . . killing our hearts.  In this time of pausing for worship and fellowship, let us lift up our deepest hope that our hunger will be feed . . . that our lives will receive the manna—the bread of life.  In this time of quiet reflection let us step into the presence of God . . . let us embrace the love and grace of God . . . and, let us enter into the intimacy of our relationship with God and others.  It is here that we will find what we need.  It is here that we will be fed.

God said to the people: “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”  So it will be for us.  Amen.