Monday, January 26, 2015

“When Grace Stinks” (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

The story of Jonah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament . . . is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against  them . . . basically to “shape up and be saved.”  This is really not something Jonah wants to do.  First of all, the people of Nineveh are foreigners and really not a part of the region he is responsible for . . . and, he really, really does not like them . . . despises them . . . hates them . . . and, he wants nothing to do with them.  Yet, that is what God commands him to do: go to Nineveh, preaches repentance for salvation, and save the people.

Despite the fact that the order comes straight from God, Jonah doesn’t want to answer the call.  So, he makes himself unavailable . . . he runs away.  He takes for the hills in the opposite direction of God and God’s demands upon him . . . he first goes to Jaffa where he boards a boat that is heading for Tarshish—at that time it was known as the end of the world . . . as far away from God and Nineveh as he could get.

Of course, we know that this was no cruise that Jonah embarked on . . . the trip becomes a mess.  You can ignore God, but you cannot escape God.  The boat is hit with a terrible storm that tosses and turns the vessel threatening to sink it and drown everyone on it.  Jonah confesses that it is his fault and that if they would just throw him overboard the storm would stopped . . . but, these are good people and instead they begin to unload cargo to save the boat and themselves from sinking.  It doesn’t help . . . and, finally they toss Jonah over the side of the boat.  The storm stops, but Jonah gets swallowed by a huge fish.  For three days and nights Jonah sits in the belly of that fish.

Sometimes in the darkest hours of our lives we see the light . . . Jonah saw the light there in the darkness of the belly of the fish.  Jonah agrees to go and do what God wants him to do . . . and, the fish spits him out.  Thus Jonah embarks on the mission from God . . . he goes to Nineveh to save the people.

Well, that is what God wants, but not what Jonah wants.  Remember, he can’t stand the people of Nineveh . . . despises and hates them.  Jonah is going to go, but he is not going to give God much more than a cursory effort.  His heart is really not in it.  The city of Nineveh is huge . . . it would take three days to walk completely from one end to the other.  Jonah gives God one day.  Basically he walks half a day into the city, turns around and walks out . . . all the while telling the people to shape up or else.

As far as Jonah is concerned he did what God wanted him to do.  And, so he sets up camp on a hillside to wait and watch God wipe the people out.   Imagine his surprise when the people actually started to repent and shape up . . . from the lowest of the people all the way up to the king, the people did what God wanted them to do . . . so, God spares them.  There would be no wiping out of the people that day or any day soon.  Surely this is not the result that result Jonah expected.  He begins to moan and groan and complain . . . it ticked him off . . . and, he sat there seething with anger and animosity towards the people of Nineveh and God.

Pouting and pity parties do not make God happy.

When Jonah had gone up to that hill to observe what he thought was going to be the destruction of Nineveh, God caused a plant to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the day.  The plant sprang up in the night and then it died the next night putting Jonah back into the heat of the day.  What did Jonah do . . . he complained and lamented the demise to the plant.  This was the opening God needed, and with a wry bit of humor, God tells Jonah: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

How silly of Jonah to complain over a plant’s death than the possibility of a hundred and twenty thousand people that he could have cared less about.  In the eyes of God, Jonah’s priorities and heart were not in the right place.  And, who among us would not agree?

Silly Jonah . . . and, silly us.

For a minute I want to stop and think of a person or group of people that you find difficult to love.  Think about who that person or group of people might be.  Once you have that image in your mind, I want you to understand this: God loves that individual or group of people . . . they are all God’s children.  This is something important to consider as individuals and as a congregation as we have proclaimed ourselves to be a church where “all are welcome” to take their place at the table.  Each and every Sunday morning the elders of this congregation state, “All are welcome—all.” 

In that light, we all probably need to step back and consider Jonah . . . maybe he wasn’t so silly after all.

Would you, with open arms, invite a Muslim to the table—just as that person is?

Would you invite an illegal immigrant to the table?

Would you welcome a person of LBGQT community to the table?

If you were a Democrat or Republican would you invite a person of the other party to join you at the table?

If you were a Grizzly fan would you invite a Bobcat fan to the table?

When you stop and really think about it, is there anyone who you would not welcome to the table?

Well . . . God wouldn’t.  God would welcome them all to the table.  God is a God of second chance . . . actually multiple chances.  God is a God of grace who allows all of us the opportunity to keep retrying as many times as it takes for us to get it right . . . and, I do not think that God really cares too much about what our opinions are about other people or groups when it comes to who God wants a relationship with.  God desires to be connected to all of God’s children . . . all of them.

If God had chosen us to go out and address a person or group of people that we despised or hated—just as God did with Jonah . . . to tell them to shape up or else . . . would we jump up willingly and go do it, or would be hem haw around, drag our feet, and give a minimal effort knowing that at least we gave it a try . . . besides, if God wipes out the individual or group we don’t have to worry about them anymore. 

Sometimes grace stinks. 

Jonah would say that it does . . . especially when it goes against what we want or expect.  But isn’t that the root of grace . . . the unexpected . . . the undeserved?  God’s ways are not our ways, and for that we should be thankful.  Whenever we exclude, deny, and reject others from life . . . we become Jonah.  As Christians, whenever we use the Bible to exclude, deny, and reject others as the children or God . . . we become Jonah.  In our hearts none of us wants to be like Jonah.  But, we have to be honest with ourselves . . . the DNA of Jonah runs through all of us.  And, for that, God gives us a second chance.

That is the “good news” for today . . . despite ourselves, God gives us a second chance.  As we approach the table and offer the invitation to come and share in the meal of grace . . . do we really mean that “all are invited” or are we pulling a Jonah?  Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

“Welcoming Every Gift That Comes Along” (Luke 24:13-35)

What a week!

Last Sunday I left Billings at 4:20pm—long after the snow had begun to fall.

I reached Joliet at 6:00pm.

That’s an extra 45 minutes for the commute.

What do you do when every street is snow-packed, and the interstate is ice-packed, and it’s still snowing?  You drive slowly, and pray.

Eli and I encountered 11 cars in the ditches, one jack-knifed semi tractor and trailer, 4 police cars and 2 ambulances. 

Once we pulled into our driveway in Joliet I refused to get behind the wheel of my truck for 2 days.  I was that done!

As if that wasn’t enough, mid-week ushered in frigid temperatures and wind, wind, wind.

The wind was ferocious.

Because we have a few bird-feeders dispersed throughout the yard, both in the front of the house and in the back, the wind deposited black oil sunflower seeds ALL OVER the neighborhood.

It looked like the chocolate chip fairy had sprinkled her loot all over the snow-packed lawns.  “I hope my neighbors think sunflowers are beautiful,” I thought to myself, “Because when spring appears and warms the soil, these seeds are going to sprout!”

I’m reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Generous Sower found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  What do we hear?  “A Sower went to sow some seeds and the seeds landed everywhere.”  Jesus must have been thinking about Montana in January!

Although we have a tendency to focus on the variety of soils on which the seed fell—meaning us—the Good News is the Sower!    God scatters God’s very self quite freely; God’s holy Spirit, God’s Christ.  Whatever soil we might be upon collision with the Spirit:

…we all are touched. 

We all have the potential to grow INTO the image of God:

*non anxious

In Jesus’ parable of the Generous Sower Jesus helps us to understand that people are God’s workshop.  God sows—and we grow when and how God wants us to grow!

From God’s perspective it seems we are quite valuable, not because we say yes to the work of the Spirit, but because the Spirit says yes to us!  No matter what shape the Spirit finds us in—it still plants itself WITHIN us, working the soil of our hearts.

In the cartoon script Dennis the Menace, Denis returns home with a handful of chocolate chip cookies—crumbs flying everywhere as he stuffs them in his mouth.  His mother gives him one of those MOM looks.  Dennis notices and says to his mother, “Mr. Wilson doesn’t give me cookies because I am nice.  Mr. Wilson gives me cookies because HE is nice.”

So it is with God.

What I am talking about is a valuing of the human being.

Christ is maturing in all of us!  It’s quite an amazing feat.  And quite easy to miss.


In our story today from Luke’s gospel the resurrected Jesus comes along side of a few of his friends.  But they don’t recognize him at first.

He strikes up a conversation.

There’s quite an exchange.

But it’s only at the end of the day---when they are eating that they realize whose company they are in!

Is that how it is with us?  How easy is it for us to recognize that we are in the company of the Spirit?   

Often we are dull to the inroads God is making in our souls until we reflect back.

And that’s exactly what Jesus’ friends do today.  They reflect back, and they observe a change in their energy when they were in the presence of the resurrected Jesus.  They say, “Our hearts burned within us when Jesus spoke to us and explained the scriptures to us.”  What they are describing is a spiritual experience; energy, joy, a “shining in the soul.”  This experience culminates in an awareness of the intimate presence of Christ.

How do you and I talk about our intimate presence of Christ?  After all, we are God’s workshop.  God visits us like God visited Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the Wise Men and Jesus.

I’d like us to take a couple of minutes and reflect on what we are hearing today:

YOU are God’s workshop.

YOUR NEIGHBOR in the pew is God’s workshop.

Your NEIGHBOR on the street is God’s workshop.

No matter the condition God finds us in, God still plants God’s spirit within us and begins to work the soil of our heart on GOD’s terms in and God’s time.

SPRITUAL EXERCISE:  Let’s close our eyes.  And while they are closed, let people’s faces come to mind—your family and friends---your work—your neighborhood—your church.  Every time a face comes to mind, say to yourself “This person is loved by God.”  Thank God for sharing this wisdom with you.

Now, what does this awareness ask of you, of me, of all of us who desire to form a welcoming community that follows the call of Jesus to love God and Neighbor?

Remember our purpose statement?  Let’s say it together:  To form a welcoming community that follows the call of Jesus to love God and Neighbor?
I think what we are trying to describe on paper,

And ascribe to in action,

Is quality—a common life together characterized by mutual trust and respect.

But where do we begin?  We begin with this statement:  This person and THAT person are loved by God.  We start with a valuing of people.  If we can live out of this awareness, perhaps the welcoming will take care of itself—the tender effort to receive everyone.  Every person that comes along is God’s gift—we didn’t make them happen—how could we let them go unnoticed, or unloved?
Let us pray:  Loving God, we are growing in our understanding that we are instructed and formed by you through the whole human community.  Oh that we grow in our valuing of humanity and the human condition!  May we leave room for others.  May we welcome others as we would like others to welcome us.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener, Central Christian Church in Billings, on January 11, 2015.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Hineni: Here I Am” (I Samuel 3:1-20)

This is what we know about Samuel: His mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah who have no children due to the fact that Hannah had a difficult time conceiving.  In her barren state Hannah prays to God for a child outside the sanctuary in Shiloh.  Eli, the priest of Shiloh, hears the mumbling prayers of Hannah and thinks that she is drunk; but upon discovering that she is not drunk and only hoping that God will grant her a child . . . Eli blesses her after she promises the child to God.  Subsequently Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child that is named Samuel.  The name Samuel can have two meanings—“name of God” or “God has heard” . . . I will let you decide which meaning you prefer on your own. Upon weaning the child, Hannah takes Samuel to the priest Eli to raise. Samuel would be a transition point in the story between two eras . . . between the time of the judges and the prophets.  In rabbinical literature he is the last of the Hebrew judges and the first of the major prophets.  And, we know that God spoke directly to him.

Our story this morning begins in Samuel’s youth.  The writer tells us that it was a time in the history of the people in which God rarely spoke to them . . . a time when “there were not many visions.”  It is night and Samuel is asleep in the temple when he is woke up by a voice calling his name.  Thinking that it is Eli, now old and going blind, he runs to the priest and declares, “Here I am.”  But the priest tells the boy that he did not call him and tells him to go back to bed.  A second time, the voice calls out Samuel’s name . . . a second time he runs to the old priest only to be sent back to bed.

The third time that this happens, Eli begins to suspect that something is going on . . . that maybe, just maybe, the voice calling Samuel’s name is none other than God’s voice.  Eli directs Samuel to return to bed and that if he hears the voice again he is to tell the voice: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  And, sure enough, the voice calls his name a fourth time and the boy does as he is instructed. 
And, God does speak to Samuel . . . brings judgment against Eli and his family for the sins that they had committed against God and the people.  Not the sort of thing that one wants to hear.  The words of God troubled Samuel and left him sleepless the rest of the night.  He was scared to tell Eli what God had told him . . . scared to share the vision.  Come morning, though, Eli wanted to know what God had told Samuel.

Eli called for the boy.  Samuel responded: “Here I am.”  Samuel then proceeded to tell the old priest everything . . . everything!  In the end, Eli could only respond: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”  The shift in the story had begun.

“Hineni” is the Hebrew word that translates to “Here I am.”  In the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, we hear it uttered.  In the story of Moses at the burning bush, Moses responds with the phrase.  And, in our reading this morning, Samuel responds: “Hineni . . . here I am.”

Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked.  The phrase in not meant to be an acknowledgement of one’s presence to another, but something deeper and more profound . . . more spiritual . . . it is an acceptance . . . a vulnerability to let go of everything one knows and to allow another to guide your actions.  In the examples I shared, it was to let go and allow God to lead the way.  Not an easy task.

Not an easy task for a boy to bring judgment against the man who raised him . . . against a priest.  Yet, Samuel does what he is told.  It was not an easy task for Abraham to do as God told him . . . to sacrifice his son, but Abraham goes the distance.  It was not easy for Moses to drop everything, leave behind security, and follow God’s directions. 

”Hineni” is more than acknowledging one’s presence in the presence of another . . . it is a vulnerability, a willingness, to do what is asked.

It is not easy, yet that is what God does.

The gospel reading for this morning, John 1:43 through 51, tells about Jesus’ invitation to the Philip and Nathanael to follow him.  Philip apparently had no qualms about following Jesus, but Nathanael was a little more leery.  To Philip’s statement of the Messiah being found in Jesus, Nathanael remarks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Pretty typical of the half-heartedness that began the relationship between the disciples and Jesus . . . they wanted to believe, but they were going to throw in the whole shebang just in case it didn’t work out.  Yes, they announced their presence, but they did not fully embrace and accept.  It is not easy to let go and let God have control.

It is not easy being fully present to God’s will.  Yet, it seems that those who are and are fully engaging to that presence, there comes great blessing.  Please note that I do not say that life is going to be easy, but that there will be great blessing.  So it was for Abraham as God spared the life of Isaac.  So it was for Moses as he led God’s people out of captivity into a land of their own.  So it was for Samuel.  And, it would be for those who would choose to follow Jesus.

For it to happen we have to make ourselves vulnerable.  We have to lay it on the line . . . risk it all . . . and have the trust and faith that it will all work out in the end.  And, it will.  That is what Jesus told Nathanael: “You will see greater things than these.”

Remember those Verizon commercials in which some guy was wandering around the United States, holding up his cell phone, and yelling, “Can you hear me now?”  Samuel played his own sort of that game with God when he kept mistaking God’s voice for Eli’s.  He was hearing it, but he hadn’t yet fully embraced it.  How often do we miss the opportunity to proclaim “Hineni” when we hear the voice of God in our own lives?  What?  You say that you don’t hear the voice of God in your lives?  That is impossible . . . God speaks to us all the time.  The problem is that we don’t want to move into the realm of “Hineni”.

God speaks to us globally.  In the reign of terror sweeping across the world . . . God speaks to us.  In growing cold war with North Korea . . . God speaks to us.  In the murder and violence in Africa . . . God speaks to us.  In the poverty and famine of third world nations . . . God speaks to us.  Can you hear the voice of God?

Regionally, God speaks to us.  In the booming sex trade and trafficking market of the Balkens area . . . God is speaking.  In the growing population of the homeless that are wandering the streets of Billings . . . God is speaking.  Looking at the things that Montana ranks in the top ten in the nation . . . suicide, DUIs, and poor education rates—to name a few . . . God is speaking.  Can you hear the voice of God?

Even within our community, God is speaking.  If I asked you to take five minutes and write down on a piece of paper all the things that our community needs to address to make it a better and more accepting community for a diverse population to call home . . . how many things would you write down?  How many problems would you come up with that need to be fixed?  God is speaking . . . can you hear the voice of God?

And, lastly, God speaks to us individually . . . personally.  Try the same exercise that I asked you to consider for the community . . . in your own life, how many things can you come up with?  God speaks to us.

Still think that God does not speak to us? 

God speaks to us all the time . . . but, it is not so much a matter of whether or not we want to listen, it is a matter of vulnerability . . . a willingness to trust God with our lives . . . a sense of courage to step up and proclaim, “Hineni—I am here!”

We are here today because there were those who came before us willing to be vulnerable in the presence of God . . . willing to step up and proclaim, “Hineni!”  We live in a time, much like Samuel, in which people do not believe that God is speaking . . . but, the truth is, God is speaking.  God is calling us into a new relationship . . . a new direction . . . calling us towards the Kingdom.  Constantly calling . . . and, the time is now ours to respond.  God wants more than our heads, God wants our hearts.  “Hineni” is a response of the heart.

God is speaking . . . how shall we respond? 

“Hineni” is also a simple prayer . . . I am here.  May it be so.  Amen.