Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Welcoming--A Ministry of Hospitality” (Matthew 10:40-42)

“He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
(Edwin Markham)

This past week, at my other job at Montana State University Billings, we held a camp for high school students with disabilities who want to consider going to college.  We hosted 17 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all over the state of Montana.  For four days we had them tour three college campuses, take classes, listen to presenters, and hear from college students who attend college.  We also entertained them with lots of social activities.  It was a wonderful experience . . . but, I discovered that I am getting too old for this stuff.  It is tough keeping up with teenagers at my age.

It was a great experience for the kids . . . and, it was experience of the heart for me.  Let me explain.

For a moment I want you to think back to your days in high school.  High school, no matter what generation, is tough.  Think about how everyone broke themselves up into social groups . . . cliques . . . and achieved some sort of pecking order.  There were the “in” groups, and the “out” groups.  Which group or groups were you a part of?  We you among the popular kids, or were you one of the outsiders or outcasts?  We you included, or were you left out?  And, do you remember how it made you feel?

Well, these kids, for the most part, in their schools and lives, are probably what most of us would consider to be outcasts or outsiders . . . those who are in the shadows of most of society’s circles.  They are not the popular kids . . . they are not the athletic kids . . . they struggle with learning . . . some of the look different . . . some of them act different . . . and, all of them had some sort of disability that those around them saw as making them second-class citizens at the best.  These are the kids who other kids made fun of . . . picked on . . . these are the kids who were excluded from the circle.

There were three students from one of the schools that serve the Crow Reservation.  Where they went to school they learned to exist in the shadows of the school . . . learned to make themselves invisible.  It was tough enough for them to be Indians, but add to that the fact that they had disabilities . . . and, well, they had two strikes in a game of life that only allows three before you are out.

There were two students who were on the Autism Spectrum complete with their little idiosyncrasies and behaviors that made them peculiar and different to their classmates and the rest of the world.  Stuck in their own worlds, but desperately attempting to fit in.  Made fun of by others, picked on by some . . .

There were three hard of hearing students.

Most of the students had learning disabilities.

And, most of them knew well the feeling of being left out . . . of not being included . . . of living life on the outside and always looking in.

It was a motley crew that we encountered that first day.  Apprehensive.  Quiet.  Scared.  It was fairly quiet that first day, but as the camp went on and the students felt more welcomed and accepted . . . well, it got quite loud.  Out of the shadows these students slowly came out . . . they let their defenses down . . . and, they felt included for who they were.  There was lots of laughter . . . lots of teasing . . . there were “aha” moments . . . trust was built . . . friendships were discovered.  Where there had been apprehension and fear at the beginning, there were tears and a reluctance to go home . . . to go home to their non-existent lives.  They just wouldn’t leave no matter how much I wanted them to leave.

In the end, the last student left.  After the high of seeing lives transformed, the reality set in for me . . . a sadness filled my heart.  These kids were going right back into those situations in which they would never be included for being themselves.  The brief respite from exclusion while at the university for four days . . . despite embracing and experiencing inclusion . . . these kids were facing a really tough life ahead of them.  For some of them this reality broke my heart.

Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receive me receives the one who sent me.  Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives  a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.  And if anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

These were the closing remarks that Jesus spoke to his twelve disciples before he sent them out on a mission trip.  The key word that is repeated in this statement to the disciples is “welcoming”.  Over and over again, Jesus lets his disciples know that in welcoming the reward is theirs.  To “welcome” another is to greet with hospitality . . . it is to accept another . . . and, it is to do so with gladness.  Hospitality is to receive another into one’s presence . . . to bring them into the group . . . to receive them, to receive them just as they are.  It is here that I believe that Jesus encourages his disciples to embrace a ministry of “welcoming” . . . a ministry of hospitality.  He tells them that if they would practice such a ministry, the rewards would be greater than they ever imagined.  

Though it seemed as if Jesus spent a lot of time speaking to large crowds in public places, he does his miracles and most powerful acts of love in the shadows of the crowds among those who are not allowed into the circle.  Consider his many miracles . . . his many acts of graciousness . . . the many times that he welcomed the outsider or stranger into the circle of grace and love.  After having served as an ordained minister for over 30 years . . . preaching lots of sermons . . . studying lots of scripture and reading lots of commentaries, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus preached and lived a ministry of hospitality.  A ministry of “welcoming”.

I think this “ministry of welcoming” was what those 17 high school students encountered at their camp on the campus of Montana State University Billing.  I think they experienced raw hospitality as they were welcomed, embraced, and accepted for who they were . . . disabilities and all.  In that hospitality they bloomed . . . they bloomed even if it was only for a few days.  They basked in that acceptance.  Gone were the defenses and masks they hid behind.  Out of the shadows they came into the light and felt alive and accepted . . . they felt love.  The circle that had excluded them had been erased and a bigger one was drawn.  The reward . . . the blessing . . . was mine.  Overwhelming mine.

Whatever Jesus challenged his disciples with, he challenges us for we are his disciples, too.

We are called to a ministry of hospitality . . . a ministry of welcoming.  We are called to go out into the world and to welcome others into the family of God.  We are called upon to receive others for who God created them to be . . . warts and all.  And, as a congregation, that was the ministry we agreed upon several years back when we changed our constitution and by-laws . . . we agreed to be a welcoming body of followers of Jesus.  We agreed to practice a ministry of hospitality . . . one in which all are welcome.  And, for the most part, I truly believe that we have embraced this challenged as the faithful.  

Yet, at the same time, we have yet to even delve into the potential opportunity that we could experience if we only want to.  We could do so much more!  Thus it is that the words of Jesus this morning challenge us to be more than we are.  And, then again, maybe we are already doing as much as we can.  If this is where you are, I ask you to take a moment to consider the table that is before . . . the table from which we celebrate the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples.  

Each Sunday we gather around this table to break the bread and lift the cup.  Each Sunday we reiterate that this is an “open” table in which anyone and everyone is welcome to take their place at the table.  We proclaim loudly each week “that all are welcome” . . . welcome to come and take their rightful place--not only at the table, but in the family of God.  With that in mind, I challenge you to consider who is not at the table . . . and, why aren’t they at the table?  Consider who is not at the table.

This is where we begin in our ministry of hospitality . . . our ministry of welcoming.  Welcoming those no one else will include . . . welcoming those who are in the shadows.  We begin with Nick, Cole, Jackson, JT, Ian, Summer, Whisper, Maylasia, Erin, and nine other students.  We begin moving into the shadows and welcoming those who are not welcomed in the world we live in.

The quote by Edwin Markham has been paraphrased by the followers of Jesus.  In their paraphrase they state that the circle was drawn by the world in general to exclude, Jesus drew the circle to include all.  Let us go forth and do likewise . . . let us practice hospitality.  Jesus did.  Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Here I Am” (Genesis 22:1-14)

I think the most difficult part of any relationship is trust.

Our story is a simple story . . . God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son.  God tells Abraham, “Take your son, you only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering . . .” In hearing those words, we are shocked.  How could God demand such action from Abraham . . . to kill and sacrifice his only son--an innocent child . . . to wipe out the hope and promise Abraham had for himself and this child . . . to destroy the promise of God to build a great nation from this child.  What sort of God could demand such action from any person?

Well, apparently . . . our God.

As shocking as the demand is, Abraham answers the Holy with his presence . . . “Here I am.”  Not understanding God’s desire for him to sacrifice his son . . . the son of which he had waited a long, long time to receive into his life . . . the son upon whom God had made great promises . . . deeply in shock, Abraham offers himself to God and God’s desires.  He packs up his son, the necessary items needed for the sacrifice, and he heads off to where God tells him to go.  Dutifully, father and son head off to complete the task God has asked.  The trip would take several days.

Until they reach their destination, the writer tells us nothing of what took place between the father and son; but, on the third day, as they neared their destination . . . the son began to wonder.  The son can see that there is wood for the fire . . . can see the knife needed to kill the sacrifice; but, he cannot see an animal to offer in sacrifice.  In his wonderment, the boy asks of his father where the lamb is for the burnt offering.

I feel for Abraham at this point.  He does not want to tell his son that he--the son--is the sacrifice.  He is caught between a rock and a hard place . . . stuck between a truth and what he hopes is the truth.  He tells his son, “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  That is the best that Abraham can do to answer his son’s question, all the while knowing that in a short span of time . . . he would kill his son as God had instructed him to do.

It all comes down to trust.  We know that God is testing Abraham as cruel as it might seem . . . God is testing him.  God needs to know that Abraham can be trusted . . . and, Abraham is quick to respond, “Here I am.”  Even before the demand is made, he presents himself to God . . . he is willing to do as God asks of him.  But, that is not proof enough . . . it is easy to give one’s self up in talk, it is a whole other thing sacrifice one’s only son.  And, yet, Abraham does as he is told to do.  He desires to be trustworthy in the eyes and heart of God.

At the same time, Abraham displays his trust in God.  He tells his son that God will provide . . . God will provide the animal necessary for a sacrifice.  Throughout the story of Abraham . . . countless times in the messes Abraham gets himself into . . . God always seem to come through.  Deep in his heart he believed that this is what will happen.  God will provide.  Though none of the previous demands or “tests” of God upon Abraham were as shocking or cruel, God always came through in the end.  Deep in his heart, as he utters the assurance to his son that God would provide, there had to be some doubt and fear that God would not come through . . . and, ultimately, Isaac would be sacrificed.  Despite it all, he still offers himself.

And, God does provide.  Following God’s instructions, Abraham does as he is told.  He builds the fire, places Isaac upon the wood, begins to pray as he holds high the sacrificial knife . . . he is just seconds from plunging the knife through the heart of his beloved son.  The suspense had to be nearly overwhelming.  Just inches from striking his son, he is again greeted with the Holy . . . the angels confront him . . . they tell him to stop. And, again, Abraham responds by giving himself . . . “Here I am!”

Abraham’s trust pays off.  He is provided an animal to sacrifice . . . freeing his son, together they perform the sacrifice.  God now knows that Abraham can be trusted.  For both the meaning of “Here I am” becomes clear.  Despite the fact that we know that everything is going to turn out for the best, none of us can help ourselves waiting for the suspense of that moment to happen.

God had to trust that Abraham would do what was asked of him . . . even when the stakes of the demand were to kill his only son . . . a son he deeply loved . . . a son he had waited a long, long to come into his life . . . a son upon which God had promised to build a great people.  And, up to that moment before Abraham was about to kill his son, God had received the affirmation of trust sought from Abraham.  God saw that Abraham was willing to give God whatever God wanted . . . even his only son.  Abraham gave himself completely to God.

In turn, Abraham had to trust the God that he thought he knew . . . the God who always showed up when needed . . . the God who had placed the promise of the future upon this child . . . the God he loved.  Abraham had to trust that God would do the right thing.  Only with such trust was Abraham willing to give up everything . . . to sacrifice it all.  For such trustworthiness, Abraham is rewarded . . . God comes through just as he told Isaac that God would.

Relationships are built on trust.  And trust takes sacrifice.  Sacrifice to give one’s self completely . . . to do whatever it takes to have that relationship.  

Think about it.  There are no deep friendships without the giving of one’s self to another.  There are no thriving children without the labor of enduring dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and endurance of crying screaming babies.  There are no marriages if couples are not willing to set aside themselves for those they love.  There are no communities without countless acts of generosity . . . food banks, shelters for the homeless, programs for kids, libraries, just to name a few.

Life is tough.  When we are thrown up against the hard mystery of risking and sacrifice and suffering . . . all elements of Abraham and God’s story this morning . . . it can feel as if we are being tested.  Then the question becomes: Can we trust?  Can we trust God?  And, if we trust God can we let go and allow God to take care of us . . . to never abandon us . . . to provide for us?

Abraham placed himself before God . . . “Here I am!”  Abraham was willing to lay it all on the line . . . even sacrificing his own son . . . to show his trust in God.

Despite knowing the outcome of the story, there is still a feeling of shock and disbelief in thinking that God would demand from any parent the sacrifice of a child.  And, yet, we are quick to forget . . . God went the distance to show God’s love for us.  In Jesus we see the willingness of God to step before all of humanity . . . die upon a cross . . . to show love to us . . . and, to prove that we can trust God in all things.  In Jesus, his words and actions, God stands before us and offers God’s self . . . proclaiming, “Here I am!”

God gives us everything, asks everything of us, is with us in everything, and will heal everything . . . if only we can trust.  If only we can offer ourselves.

Here we are . . . Amen!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

“And, It Is Good!” (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

I waited a long time to be a “grandpa” . . . now I am a grandfather in abundance.  I have been blessed with wonderful grandchildren . . . and, in my humble opinion, they have been blessed with a fantastic grandpa!

The anxiousness behind the grandpa desire centered upon that trait all grandparents share, and all grandchildren’s parents dread . . . influence.  Grandparents have influence over their grandchildren to share and teach them all of those things their parents don’t want them to know or do.  I have waited a long time for that and I have worked hard at it ever since that first grandchild entered my life.

One of the greatest influences I have had with the grandchildren has been in the area of food.  In particular--steak.  I have shared my love of steak and the grandchildren have embraced it much to the chagrin of their parents . . . parents who are into holistic, natural, organic, and healthy eating.  Steak is not too high on that list, plus it is expensive.  All the grandchildren love steak and can pack it away--and, they are all five and under.

The other day Dana was watching the granddaughters, Harper and Finley, when she asked what she should fix everyone for supper . . . what should she grill, she asked.  With no hesitation both girls shouted, “Steak!”  This surprised Dana.  “Really?” she asked.  “Why?”

“Because . . . it’s good!” they responded with all the exuberance two little kids could muster up.  Of course when Dana shared this story with me . . . and, the fact that three-year old Finley and five-year old Harper can practically put a whole steak away by themselves . . . all Dana could do was to think, “Grandpa!”

“It is good!”  When it comes to steak my grandchildren exclaim with exuberance and joy their pleasure.  Several times in our scripture reading this morning we hear God use this phrase to describe God’s pleasure in what God had been creating.  From the formation of the earth and heavens . . . to the creatures of the land and sea . . . to man and woman . . . for six consecutive days . . . God proclaimed, “It is good!”  In my mind’s imagination I picture and hear the excited exuberance, pleasure, and great joy as God surveys all that is created and proclaims, “It is good!”

That is the message we get from this reading . . . that all of God’s creation--the whole kit-and-kaboodle--is good.  THat God finds great pride, pleasure, and joy in all that God has created.  All of it . . . every last bit of it.  None of it escapes God’s proclamation of it being good.

Living as we do in Montana it is not difficult to appreciate the handiwork and beauty of God’s creation.  As we look around we are in awe of God’s touch around us . . . it is beautiful . . . it is good.  We know that feeling that God had when God first proclaimed creation as being good . . . it’s like that first big juicy bite a of New York strip or Ribeye steak.  It is good.  Such appreciation is easy to come by when it is so easy to see and enjoy it.  But, what is harder to appreciate are the finer points of God’s creation that we take for granted . . . especially when it comes to the command of God for us to be the stewards and caretakers of it all.  As the stewards and caretakers of God’s creation we are to have the same exuberant appreciation of it all . . . that it is all good!

I’m sure that all of us might take exception to that last statement of it all being good.  Each of us can probably come up with examples of the world around us that we are less than enthusiastic of endorsing as being good . . . and, yet, our reading this morning reminds us--as God’s creation--that it is all good.  At the same time we are also reminded that we are the stewards and caretakers of all of God’s creation.  If it isn’t quite up to that level of “it’s good”, then it is up to us as the stewards and caretakers to bring it up to par.

A guy was driving down a country road, admiring the beauty of the land he was seeing.  When he came upon a farmer standing by a fence, he stopped, and told that the farmer that God sure had created a beautiful landscape.  The farmer scoffed at the statement.  Then he replied, “You should have seen it before I came.”  Yes, God created the land, but it was the farmer who transformed that land into farmland.  He removed all the rocks and trees . . . constantly was weeding it . . . planting . . . the farmer put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make it what it admirable in the estimation of the driver . . . and, yes, the farmer would say, “It is good!”

It is easy for any of us to sit back and complain about those parts of creation that we consider to be not so good; but, it takes a little effort to do the work to bring it up to the goodness that God intended it to be.  Our reading reminds us of that role we are chosen to play in God’s creation . . . we are called by God to keep it good for God’s sake and our sake.

So, where do we begin?

We begin where we are.  In God’s natural creation we strive and work to keep it beautiful, and to keep it functional to do what God created it to do.  The natural world is an intricate, delicate organism created to sustain of all of creation.  Because of that we must be good stewards and caretakers of the natural creation in our presence . . . to take good care of our yards, gardens, the streets we live on, the communities where we live . . . we spin out from where we are.

We begin where we are in relationships with others.  Others, like us, were created in the image of God.  We are all chips off the ol’ block . . . all of us are good.  In honesty . . . we wonder about that, especially as we view the direction humanity seems to be going.  Things with humanity do not look too good right now.  Thus we begin where we are . . . we start with the people where we are . . . the people in our lives--spouses, children, grandchildren, friends, etc., then we spin outward to expand our relationships.  If a relationship is not good, then it is up to us to make it good.

In the beginning God created it all . . . God surveyed it all and declared that it was good.  From the beginning it was all good . . . God expected it always remain good.  Unfortunately we humans have not always been as good of stewards and caretakers  of God’s creation as we should be.  It has taken us a long time to get where creation is today . . . it is going to take a long time to get it completely back.  We cannot ignore it any longer, nor can we wait to do something about it.

No, we begin where we are to make a difference.  We take care of God’s creation.  We take care of our relationships.  We put in the work that is necessary to bring God’s creation back . . . and then, we work even harder to go one step further to make it even better.  God looked down upon creation . . . including each and every one of us . . . and, proclaimed that it is good.  God never said, it was good, but that it is good.  If we believe it, then let us live it.

God is good!  Even better than steak!  Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

“The Pyramid Scheme of Faith” (Ephesians 1:11-23)

As an impressionable young couple in a new community, we were flattered when a slightly older and more affluent couple in the community and church I was serving invited Dana and I to supper one night.  The couple represented the “it” crowd and what everyone in life seemed to be striving to attain . . . they were among the “beautiful people” with the perfect tan, big house, new cars, and the status to go with it all.  Needless to say, all things that we wanted as we were starting in a new place; and, needless to say we were more than willing to jump at the invitation to jump-start our arrival in the community.

We thought we were at the beginning of something great . . .

. . . what we were was suckers.

Somehow we miss all the tell tale signs of warning that what we were being set up for was what I and many others would consider to be a scam.  After a wonderful meal . . . after we were wined and dined . . . we all went into the living room.  Our host said that he wanted to show us something as he set up a screen and projector.  Then the lights were dimmed and the scam began.  Showing us products that we could sell from the comfort of our home, our host began a hard sale on Dana and I.  In broad descriptive strokes he painted a picture of all those things that impressed us about him and his wife, and how we--too--could have it all if we would just agree to join up with his sales team.  All we had to do was to recruit two people to do just as we were doing . . . and, we would get a cut of their profits.  And, as those two went out and got two more people, we would get a cut of those profits.  Our host told us the potential was tremendous, and all we had to do was to sign on the dotted line . . . besides, he said, the products would sell themselves.

Do any of you recognize this scenario?  I am pretty sure that I am not the only person in the sanctuary to fall into this trap.  The trap is a classic  “pyramid scheme”.  A pyramid scheme is a legitimate business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme.  This is a great business model if you are the person at the top of the pyramid receiving payment from all the people below you.  It is a crummy model if you are one of the people at the bottom.  In some places the pyramid scheme is illegal . . . thus it takes on many different shapes and sizes to sucker people in.

Fortunately, Dana and I might have been impressionable, but we were not stupid.  After enduring the hour-and-a-half presentation, we thanked our hosts, walked out the door, and never talked to them again.

I suppose not all pyramid schemes are “bad”.  A few weeks ago I shared the story about Catherine Ryan Hyde . . .  her 1999 book Pay It Forward . . .  its eventual movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joe Osment . . . and, the start of her non-profit organization, the Pay It Forward Foundation.  It was all based on a simple charitable idea of doing acts of kindness for others.  In the story the young character named Trevor takes to heart the challenge of one of his teachers to “change the world”.  Trevor decides that he would do acts of kindness to others, instead of gratefulness for his acts, he challenges those he has helped to go and do likewise . . . in fact, he challenges them to go forth and do five acts of kindness.

Okay, do the math.  If each of those five people do five acts of kindness . . . and, then those people go out and do five acts of kindness . . . well, the potential is unlimited.  Imagine what the world would be like if this really happened.  This is a “pyramid scheme” . . . a charitable one that seeks to spread kindness . . . everyone profits from this, not just the person at the top.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he is concerned with making “God’s plan . . . to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”  (Ephesians 1:10, TEV)  It is an appeal to God’s people to live out their lives in the meaning of this great plan for the unity of all through the oneness that comes in Jesus Christ.  It is Paul’s goal to sell this idea to the Ephesians.

Thus it is that Paul begins with his sale’s pitch.  “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”  He is softening up his audience . . . making them feel good . . . pointing out to them that they were chosen for the task that is at hand . . . to go forth, share the “good news of Jesus Christ” and bring about the Kingdom of God.  In Paul’s mind and words, he is telling the people that they have been chosen--hand picked from the boss at the top-- for this gift and task.  The goal?  To grow the company . . . to grow the church . . . to grow Jesus’ message and way of life . . . to establish the Kingdom of God.  And, says Paul, God has chosen you.  And, for this, Paul gives thanks.

Once the apostle has primed his audience, he shares the product . . . God’s Kingdom as demonstrated in and through Jesus.  The Kingdom of God . . . that is the goal.  To bring all of God’s creation, all of God’s family, back together as one.  It is a product that the Ephesians know well as they have been chosen by God to experience it.  In Paul’s mind, the product sells itself . . . who wouldn’t want a little slice of heaven?

Then he hits them with the task . . . go forth and share the “good news of Jesus Christ”.  Go forth and recruit others into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Brings others into the family of God.  To join the ranks of the “chosen”.  Then in return, those who have come into the family will go out and do likewise.

Sound familiar?

Sure it does . . . it is a “pyramid scheme”.  It is a pyramid scheme of faith.  Surprisingly, we have all been caught up in its potential and allure at establishing God’s Kingdom.

Because we have all received--been chosen--to receive the gift through Jesus, we have all been scooped up into this “pyramid scheme”.  We have all been tasked with the job of sharing the “good news” of Jesus with others through the words that we speak and the actions that we take.  We are called upon to bring others back into the family . . . and, in turn, those people are called upon to bring others also.  It is almost like a cosmic, holy game of “tag”.

Surprisingly, the apostle knew what he was doing.  Research over many, many years continues to show that the greatest factor in getting people to believe is not fancy evangelism efforts or programs within a church . . . it is not in hiring some fancy talking preacher.  No, when most people are asked what got them involved, they always answer that it was because somebody took the time to talk to them and invite them to join.  It is through a grassroots approach . . . people talking to people . . . that the “good news” of Jesus has always spread in building God’s Kingdom.  It always has been and it always will be.
Whether we like it or not, we are all a part of this “pyramid scheme of faith”.  We number ourselves among the “chosen” . . . we have received the product of grace, and the promise of God’s presence . . . we have been told to share that with others . . . to build the Kingdom of God.  It really is a good--no, great--product . . . it practically sells itself.  All we have to do is to share it with another.  It is as simple as that.

Think about it . . . the potential is unlimited.  As we have heard before, “Go forth and multiply!”  Amen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“One God, 31 Flavors” (Acts 17:19-35)

True confession . . . my favorite flavor of ice cream is . . . vanilla.  Actually, it is Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia . . . a vanilla ice cream blended with chunks of chocolate and cherries.  But, if I cannot have Cherry Garcia, I will take plain ol’ vanilla.  You are probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, that that explains a lot about me . . . pretty plain.  But, I would bet, that the very first ice cream was vanilla, and that everything else has been a variation of vanilla ice cream.

You like chocolate ice cream . . . it is just vanilla that has had chocolate added to it.  Like strawberry?  Vanilla with strawberries added.  I believe, and I might be wrong . . . but, I believe that all ice cream comes from the same basic recipe and only varies once a flavor has been added to it.

This is probably a way too simplistic way that I speak to children when it comes to the many different denominations and religions that there are floating around in the world.  I explain that there is one God, and that there are 31 flavors of that one God.  And, not too surprisingly, everyone has his or her own favorite flavor.  Some people favor the Methodist flavor, others the Presbyterian flavor, and still others the Catholic flavor.  Some like the Christian flavor, others the Jewish, while others chose Buddhist.  One God, 31 flavors.

The Apostle Paul, while evangelizing in Athens, hits upon this idea.  Having come to Athens to share the good news of Jesus, he was startled to see that the city was filled with idols.  But his message rattled the cage of the educated in that city and confused them . . . stated that he was babbling nonsense.  Thus it is that urge him to come to a meeting at the Aeropagus to explain these strange ideas he was espousing.  

The Aeropagus was a gathering place where the people gathered to discuss ideas.  Now, remember, this is taking place in Athens . . . the literary capital of the ancient world.  This was the most cultured city on the earth and the one in which every Roman sought a finished education.  It was a place of philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters, and poets . . . and the great university where people from throughout the world gathered to study.  Aeropagus was the place of great debate.

In Paul’s presence the debate centered on what these educated individuals considered to be strange teaching from some unknown teacher known as Jesus.  They tell Paul, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we what to know what they mean.”  

In what I would consider to a very uncharacteristic move by the apostle, Paul is diplomatic in his response.  He compliments them on their religiosity having seen their many statues and objects of worship throughout the city.  He even points out to them one particular item . . . an altar that is inscribed with the words, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”  It is at this point that Paul loses his diplomatic touch as he proclaims, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you . . .”  From there he goes on to describe the one God.

But, this is not the only time that Paul dabbles in this idea of one God, 31 flavors.  In is dealings with the church in Corinth he describes their conflict being centered around the fact that there are factions within their body of faithful on which teacher of the good news is the right teacher.  Paul wrote, and I quote from I Corinthians 1, verses 11 and 12: “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”

Then, to emphasis the “oneness”, he asks the question in verse 13: “Is Christ divided?”

I think that the apostle poses a pretty good question.

This past Wednesday evening the ministerial association hosted the baccalaureate service at the high school for the graduating class of 2017.  In that service there were represented four of the six churches in Joliet.  There was a Lutheran, an independent Baptist, a Wesleyan, and a Christian . . . missing were the other Baptist and the Catholics.  There would have been seven churches, but the Episcopalians are no longer open.  That is one church for approximately every one hundred people in Joliet . . . and, if you got down to the brass tacks, the key ingredients of what each believes, they would all tell you the same thing.  They would tell you the good news of Jesus . . . to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbors . . . it would be vanilla ice cream.

So, what happened?  Why isn’t there just one church?  

Well, I think that we all know the answer to that . . . everybody seems to like a different flavor.  Or as Paul put it to the Corinthians . . . some like Paul, some like Apollos, some Cephus, while others like Christ.  Everybody has their favorite flavor even when it comes to faith.

Who’s right?

On the count of three, I want each and every one of you to shout out your favorite ice cream.  I am going to give you a minute to think about it because I know that sometimes it is difficult to chose just one favorite flavor; but, on the count of three . . . shout out your favorite flavor of ice cream.



Well, I am not surprised . . . I could not determine on particular flavor of ice cream as being the right flavor.  No, what I heard was a lot of noise as everyone shouted out his or her favorite flavor.  Yet, I remind you, my earlier contention that all ice cream comes from the same basic ingredients.  There is only one recipe for ice cream.

This is what Paul poses to those who are gathered around him in that place of debate in Athens . . . there is one God who created it all, but there are 31 flavors.  The real issue is how do we set aside those differences in flavor to get down to what really matters?

Everyone knows the answer to that question . . . Paul reiterates it time and time again.  We look toward Jesus who shows us the way through the words that he spoke and the actions that he took.  It is a simple teaching that every Jew already knew, and one that he emphasized with his followers . . . to love the Lord, our God, completely . . . to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Jesus stated that if people would do this they would fulfil all the laws and teachings of the prophets.

It really is not all that difficult once you get down to the basics . . . just like ice cream . . . there is one God.  Jesus has shown us the way.  The flavors just spice things up.  May we all focus on that which makes us the children of God . . .

    . . . God.  Amen.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

“From Nobody to Somebody” (I Peter 2:2-10)

“But you are a chosen people . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  

As you may remember from last week, the purpose of the Apostle Peter’s letter was to encourage those followers of Jesus in the northern part of Asia Minor to remain steadfast in their faith and witness in the face of persecution and suffering.  Typically the Roman government was tolerant of the Jewish religion.  As long as the Jewish religion remain fairly docile and didn’t create any waves, the Jews were allowed to practice their religion.  This is important to understand.

Christianity grew out of the Jewish religion, after all, Jesus was a Jew.  The model of the first disciples was to bring the message of Jesus to the Jews in the synagogues since Jesus saw his ministry and message of the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.  Thus it was that many of the followers were Jews.  In the beginning this sect within the Jewish religion was tolerable for both the Jews and the Roman government.  The Romans basically ignored them as they saw the new movement as nothing more than the Jewish religion.  Unfortunately, not all the Jews were too thrilled with the movement.  This movement was based on a person and his teachings that were a burr in the Roman government’s and the leadership of the Jewish religion’s backside.  It’s what got Jesus killed . . . he stepped outside of the acceptable boundaries.  Those hard line Jews began to complain . . . they did not want this new movement within their places of worship or within their religion.  These Jesus followers were upsetting the cart.  They wanted them out.

Suddenly, these people were seemed to be like everyone else in the Jewish religion . . . pretty much oblivious the Roman government . . . were people of interest.  Being pushed out by the Jewish religion, they were no longer protected . . . they were on their own.  Now they were getting attention even though it was not the sort of attention they wanted . . . persecution from their religion and the government.  It was enough to make the followers want to return to that time when they were “nobody”.

I believe that the most basic human need is to be acknowledged and wanted.  From the day that we are born, that basic need is there.  Countless studies have been conducted about this need.  Studies that show the effects of being ignored . . . of not being allowed to come into relationship with another.  Decades ago there was a study conducted on the babies in Romanian orphanages where it was observed that those babies that we held did so much better than those that were not.  Studies in education . . . in particular, classrooms, show that those teachers that take the time to acknowledge their student--develop a relationship with them--do better than the classrooms of those teachers that do not.  What the research shows it that with acknowledgement, relationship, and being wanted . . . people thrive.

Everybody wants to be somebody . . . by that, I mean, everybody wants to be acknowledged and wanted.

In Peter’s message this morning, he explains that through Jesus everyone has the opportunity to enter into that relationship in which they are desired, acknowledged and wanted . . . desired, acknowledged, and wanted by none other than God.  That they are not only acknowledged, but that they are chosen . . . chosen by God.  God, through Jesus, lets them know that God desires a relationship . . . an intimate, personal relationship between the Holy and that which the Holy has created.  Where they once seemed to be nobodies, now they were somebodies . . . they were God’s.

Isn’t that what everybody wants?

Of course it is.  Jesus shows us the way.

But, no relationship is a one-way street.  Relationships are tricky business.  As each acknowledges the other . . . as each lets the other know that they are wanted . . . there also comes some expectations with the relationship.  Peter reminds the followers of Jesus of these expectations.  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Through this acknowledgement and reception of the relationship, there comes some expectations.  The greatest of these is being and living as who God created you to be . . . to let yourself and your relationship with God shine forth in all that you are, do, and say,  It is to follow the call of God in your life . . . just as Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry.  And, it is to share this opportunity with others.  And, lastly, as implied by Peter, we are to do this because if God wants us, God wants everybody.  God wants all of God’s children returned to the family.

God wants us to share what we have found in God as shown to us through Jesus.

As I stated earlier, relationships are not easy . . . they come with expectations.  To move from “nobody” to “somebody” is to step out of the shadows and into the light . . . and, people are going to notice.  Some will notice and react with positivity, wanting to know all about the change; while others will react negatively, and only want to destroy the new found confidence and relationship we have with God.  That is the risk that comes with any relationship . . . especially stepping into that relationship with God through Jesus.  Not everyone is going to agree.

Yet, the Apostle Peter reminds us that God desires us . . . acknowledges us . . . and, steps into relationship with us.  God chooses us.  We are welcomed into our place in the family.  This acknowledgement of us as the children of God . . . as a chosen people . . . as a priesthood . . . a holy nation . . . should carry us through any difficulties that life should throw our way.  Thus, we are to share that experience with others . . . offer to them the opportunity that we have received.  And, we can do it because we are “somebody”.  Ain’t it great to be “somebody”!  Amen.