Sunday, December 31, 2017

“Contrast of Blessing” (Luke 2:22-40)

As required by the Law of the Lord, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be consecrated to the Lord.  As the firstborn male child, Jesus was to be consecrated . . . to be declared sacred . . . to be dedicated to a divine purpose . . . to be given over to the Lord.  It was a ceremony of blessing . . . the blessing of a child into God’s care.  The parents of Jesus were not the first to consecrate a son in the temple; no, they were just a part of a long line of parents who had dedicated their firstborn sons to God as required by the Law of the Lord.  It was standard procedure . . . nothing special . . . or so it seemed.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph followed the rules.  They brought him to the temple, they offered a sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons . . . they presented Jesus to the Lord.  They had sought the blessing that all parents seek for their children . . . except . . . except they also receive two unexpected blessings as they were going through the ritual.  Blessings from two unanticipated individuals.

These two unforeseen individual--Simeon and Anna, were regular fixtures in the temple.  Both were quite old in age.  Simeon was on a mission, and that mission was to see the Lord’s Christ . . . the Savior . . . the Messiah.   It had been revealed to him through the Holy Spirit that he could not die until he saw this savior with his own two eyes.  Thus he waited in the temple for that day when the Savior would be revealed to him.  Anna, was a prophetess . . . a very devout . . . fasting and praying, day and night in the temple.  She, too, waited for some divine sign from God . . . some message.

Entering the temple, Mary and Joseph encounter Simeon . . . who gushes over the child.  In this child he recognizes that which he has been waiting for . . . the Savior, the Messiah.  He declares with great gusto the role of this child as the savior not only to Israel, but to the whole world.  He blesses the child.  Then he turns to Mary and tells her that though this child will be a blessing, there will also be grave consequences to this blessing.  Simeon tells her: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of may in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

Then Anna comes up to them.  Like Simeon, she too, gushes over the child.  She gave thanks to God and declared the child to be the one “who all were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”  In her own way, Anna too, delivers a blessing.

Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but on those days that Dana and I brought our children before the congregation to dedicate and bless, we were filled with great joy and hope in what we were doing.  In our actions were handing over to God our children to be blessed with all the love and grace that is God.  We were proclaiming our children to be God’s gifts to us.  We dreamed of the promise that they would be, and rejoiced in the gifts that they were.  Most of all, we hoped for the best . . . for them . . . for ourselves . . . and, for God.  And, as I said, it was a joyful time.

I expect that it was not much different for Mary and Joseph; and, yet, it was much different.  Sure, there was the joy, but there was also an ominous feeling accompanying the blessings.  There was a contrast in the blessings they received.

Of course, the Gospel of Luke does not tell us whether or not Mary and Joseph were perplexed or anxious about the blessings they had received from Simeon and Anna.  No, basically it tells us that they did what they were supposed to do, returned home to Nazareth, and that Jesus grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom, and that the grace of God was upon him.  Pretty much a typical childhood, wouldn’t you agree?

So, it would seem.  But, as a parent, I know that I listen to what others say about my children . . . the good, the bad, the affirmative, the negative--all of it.  And, as a parent, I know how the words of others about my children play upon my heart.  Thus it is that I can only imagine what the words of Simeon must have done to the heart of Mary.  In her moment of great joy, she receives that not only is her child going to be a great blessing to the people of God, but that he will also be a thorn in their side.  And, to add a little spice to his words, he tells her: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

Talk about raining on someone’s parade!

I think that Mary and Joseph thought about what they had heard . . . what parent wouldn’t?  Such a contrast in blessings.  But as time went on, and life seemed pretty normal, I imagine that they both pushed those words to the back of their minds . . . that they chose to focus on the present moment.  It would not be until much later that they would come to see how the blessing of Simeon would be played out.

With the birth of Jesus, the season of Advent ended and the season of Christmas began.  The season of Christmas is the shortest season of the Christian year . . . a mere twelve days.  In those twelve days the faithful celebrate the gift of the Christ Child . . . a gift of love and grace.  At the same time, the faithful receive the blessing . . . and, an ominous warning.  That warning is that this will not be typical blessing . . . that it will be one that will take a tragic turn before it is fulfilled.  The words of Simeon reminds us this.

The blessing of God . . . the life and story of Jesus . . . begins with a bang, but it ends with a shock before it is full received.  Though we are celebrating the gift of Jesus during this Christmas season, we cannot let ourselves forget the rest of the story . . . the ministry, the preaching, the healings and miracles, the betrayal, trial, and eventual crucifixion.  It is all a part of the blessing . . . the fulfillment of the blessing. 

It seems strange to consider the contrast of these blessings because we want to focus on the positive of the blessings . . . to receive the gift . . . to receive the salvation.  Nowhere in the Gospel of Luke did the writer ever write, “And they lived happily ever after.”  No, the blessing was not that simple . . . through this small child, we follow his life and example, in which he ultimately demonstrates the greatest act of love . . . he gave his life for those he loved.  You and me.

Though we are apt to push those contrasts to far reaches of our mind, especially during this Christmas season . . . they will still be there to remind us.  Simeon reminds us with his words of blessing, that sometimes the blessing doesn’t come until the very end.  And, that between the utterance of the blessing until it fulfillment there is a lot that can happen . . . even the unimaginable.  On that first Christmas day, the world was blessed with a promise . . . a promise that was not fulfilled until Jesus laid down his life for the lives of all.  At first glance, Simeon’s blessing doesn’t seem much like a blessing; but, in the end, out of what seems a terrible mistake comes the true gift . . . the love and grace of God for all. 

This Christmas season, let us celebrate the gift and wait for the blessing.  Amen.   

Friday, December 22, 2017

Leave the Light On" (John 1:1-18)

This morning we have heard a lot about Jesus as being the “light”.  We hear in the Gospel of John this reference to “light”: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; and without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men . . . The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”

This metaphor of “light” to describe Jesus is appropriate and relevant because it is “light” that reveals.  The “light” takes away the darkness and allows that which seems hidden to be seen.  In this case, Jesus as the “light” reveals God . . . God’s presence . . . God’s love . . . God’s grace.  Jesus, as the “light”, reveals it all for anyone and everyone to see . . . it is there for anyone willing to see.

I remember from years ago, how my parents used to tell me on those evenings when I was going to be out late, that they would “leave the light on” for me.  And, I can remember how much I appreciated this act and what it came to represent to me . . . a sense of security, a sense of welcome, and a deep sense of home . . . that there was someone who was waiting for me.  I can also remember, as a parent of teenage children, how Dana and I would tell them that we would “leave the light on” for them on those nights they were out.  It was our way of letting them know . . . that we cared for and loved them . . . that we would be waiting for them.

I am sure that this is something all of us have heard from those who love us when we are away . . . that they will “leave the light on” for us.  It was in 1986 that Motel 6 took advantage of that old saying making it their recognizable motto in their advertising.  Hiring Tom Bodett--an author, voice actor, and radio host on National Public Radio--they acciddently stumbled on the saying when Bodett ad-libbed it at the end of the first commercial he did for them.  He said, “I’m Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we’ll leave the light on for you.”  For over 32 years we have heard that reassuring voice telling us that we are “welcome” . . . that we are always “wanted” . . . as the light will be left on for us.

I have always said that the secular world has trumped the religious world when it comes to simple theology . . . and, in our case this morning, Motel 6 has done the same thing.  As we celebrate the gift of the “light of the world” being given to us, we need to remember that this celebration is a reminder that the gift represents the fact that God will always “leave the light on” for us.

It is a “light” that shatters the darkness.

It is a “light” that allows us to see . . . to see God.

It is a “light” that shows us God’s love . . . God’s grace.

It is the “light” that shows us the way . . . “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)

And now, it is our responsibility to keep the “light” shining.  It is our job to “leave the light on” for those who are still in the darkness, those who have yet to come . . . those who are seeking.  Together we spread the “light” in the world where we are.

God has left the “light” on for us . . . let us share the “light” . . . let us “leave the light on”.  Amen.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

“Through and Through” (I Thessalonians 5:16-24)

The epitome of the Chicago Cubs was Ernie Banks . . . “Mr. Cub” was his nickname . . . and, he was a Chicago Cub through and through.  Though I admire the tenacity of the Cubs and their old bear logo, I have to confess that I am a Baltimore Orioles baseball fan.  For me the individual who epitomized what it meant to be an Oriole was . . . nope, not Cal Ripken, Jr. . . . but, ol’ number 5--Brooks Robinson.  He played 23 years for the Orioles, was an 18-time All-star, won the Gold Glove Award 16 straight years as a third-baseman, played in four World Series--winning two, and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His nickname?  The “Human Vacuum Cleaner”.  He was and still represents everything that a Baltimore Orioles player should be . . . he is an Oriole through and through.

Sports fans will tell you that there is always one player . . . one individual . . . who epitomizes what their favorite team represents.  For the Chicago Cubs it is Ernie Banks . . . for the Baltimore Orioles it is Brooks Robinson . . . for the Boston Celtics it is Bob Cousy . . . for the Boston Bruins it is Bobby Orr . . . and, for my Minnesota Vikings it is Alan Page.  But, sports fans are not the only fans who elevate individuals into the role of whatever it is that they are representing.  Take for instance religion . . . Christianity.  Every Christian probably can name someone who they believe epitomizes what it means to be a Christian . . . Billy Graham, Mother Teresa--to name two.  Whoever that individual might be, they are said to be whatever they are “through and through”.

Basically “through and through” means “in every aspect, thoroughly or completely.”  Synonyms for the phrase are “thoroughly, utterly, absolutely, completely, totally, wholly, fully, entirely, unconditionally, unreservedly, altogether, and out-and-out.”

The Apostle Paul calls the followers in the church in Thessalonica to become the epitome of what it means to be faithful in their daily lives.  Paul tells them: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, Paul wants the Thessalonians to be the picture of faithful . . . to be “thoroughly, utterly, absolutely, completely, totally, wholly, fully, entirely, unconditionally, unreservedly, altogether, and out-and-out” faithful . . . faithful “through and through”.

Of course, Paul's admonishment comes at the end of his words of encouragement to the Thessalonians.  Prior to that he gives to them a model of how they are to be faithful “through and through”.

First, he tells them to “be joyful always”.  He tells them to rejoice . . . always rejoice.  Understand, Paul is not telling them that they are to rejoice at a particular time or place, but to always rejoice.  Nor is he telling them to only rejoice when something good happens . . . no, he wants them to rejoice always . . . in the good times and in the bad times.  He wants the people to develop and live a positive attitude.  He tells them, “. . . give thanks in all circumstances . . .”

Second, he tells them to “pray continually”.  This is a favorite theme of the apostle’s . . . to “pray continually”.  Now, I know what you are thinking . . . you are thinking about how you pray . . . the actual act of praying.  And, you are thinking, how in the world am I supposed to do that twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year?  When am I supposed to sleep . . . eat . . . work . . . play?  Well, as important as your prayer life is and the way that you pray, Paul was not actually talking about prayer in that manner.

No, what the apostle was talking about is developing an awareness or consciousness of the presence of God . . . the God that surrounds us like the air that we breathe.  God wants the faithful to become aware of God’s presence in all of life . . . in each waking and sleeping moment.  God is there . . . always there!  The problem is that the faithful are not always there.  Paul wants the people to develop an awareness of God so that they are living their lives in and through God.  In this way, their lives become a prayer.

Third, Paul tells the people to be faithful “through and through” they must have an openness to God’s calling.  God’s calling comes in many shapes and ways.  For some it may be the words spoken by others . . . for others it might be something they have read . . . it might be a dream or a feeling . . . from prophets.  God speaks to everyone differently, but God does speak . . . God does call for the faithful to listen and follow.  Thus the apostle wants the people to have an openness to God’s call in their lives.

At the same time, he warns them to be careful.  Not everything that is bright and shiny is good for you.  He tells them to “test everything”.  Here he wants the people to develop some common sense . . . to think about what they are hearing . . . to pray about what they are hearing . . . to discern.  To discern the call of God through their experience of the Holy, not someone else’s.  If is is God’s will . . . so it will be; if it is not . . . watch out!

So, there you have it.

The Apostle Paul tells the followers in Thessalonica that they are to be faithful “through and through”.  Through always rejoicing . . . always praying . . . listening to God’s call . . . and, using common sense . . . they have the ability to be faithful “through and through”.  They can be the epitome of what it means to be faithful.  Paul tells them that if they can do this, well then, “. . . the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”

What will be done?

Paul said it: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 As the Thessalonians were called to be faithful “through and through”, so are we.  On this third Sunday of Advent, we are call to be the epitome of faith . . . to be that role model that is held up as being faithful “through and through”.  To live our lives in such a way that they become a witness to others of what it means to be faithful . . . not our words, but our actions.  Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”

May God bless you . . . through and through.  Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Here is Your God!" (Isaiah 40:1-11)

      It has been said that “reap what you sow.”  If we could ask whether or not this is true of the people that the prophet Isaiah is speaking to this morning, I think that their response would be one of affirmation when it comes to that statement.  In our reading this morning, they are hearing these words in Babylon where they have been exile for failing to do God’s will and heeding the warnings of the prophet.  Their homeland has been destroyed . . . laid to waste . . . and, they are now exiled in a strange and foreign land.  This is what is covered in the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah.  The people are reaping what they have sowed. 

     In the 40th chapter there is a shift . . . Jerusalem was destroyed, the people did go into exile . . . but, that was the past.  Now comes a new word to the people--a word of comfort and hope for a new future . . . a new beginning.  For a people filled with discouragement and despair, these words shatter the hopelessness and replace it with a sense of comfort and hope.  It is a chance at a new beginning . . . a new deliverance . . . they are to return to God.

     In verses three through five we hear the familiar words of Advent when the prophet proclaims: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.”  Are these not the words that a later prophet, John the Baptist, proclaims when he speaks of the coming of Jesus?  Though the words seemingly point to the future, they also point back.

     Can you think of another time in which the people had to trek through the wilderness to get somewhere?  Surprisingly, this marks a second exodus story for the children of God.  A second chance.  Instead of a Promised Land, they are journeying towards the “Promise” . . . the “Promise” being God, of course.

     Thus it is that the prophet offers words of consolation to the people.  He tells the people that God will come in glory . . . that God’s word is sure--where humans are not reliable, that they are nothing more than grass--God’s word is sure and reliable . . . and, finally, that God’s kindness endures forever.  God wants the people to know this . . . and, God wants them to understand that this is a second chance . . . a chance to make things right . . . to make things as God always intended them to be . . . a chance to begin anew with God and one another. 

     Then the prophet looks the people in the eyes and proclaims: “Here is your God!”  The prophet challenges the people . . . here is your God, so what are you going to do?

     Ideally, the people would embrace the opportunity.  They would reconcile their relationships with God . . . begin to love God fully with one’s heart, mind, and body.  They would begin to reconcile their relationships with others . . . they would begin to love one another.  Ideally, that is what they would do . . . after all, these are the two most important commandments they are asked to follow.  But . . . well, they are human.  Humans are unreliable.

     The prophet knows this.  “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  The grass withers and the flowers fall . . .”  The prophet argues that this is a useless task . . . that the words will not be heeded . . . that the people will fail once again.  And, the prophet catches himself in his disbelief, and then finishes his statement with “. . . but the word of our God stands forever.”  Yes, the “grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

     The “promise” is not in the people, but in God.  God does not give up on the people . . . God will constantly be there . . . waiting, waiting for that time when the people come to the realization that they are to embrace God and rely only upon God.  Thus it is that these words spoken by the prophet are words of consolation and hope in the people’s desperation and despair.  God stands before them . . . and waits.

     Well, we know that just like the first “exodus” story, this “exodus” story fails also.  We know because if we had focused on the gospel reading this morning, we would have heard the call of another “exodus” opportunity being offered to God’s people.  Over in the Gospel of Mark, chapter three, verses two and three, we John the Baptist proclaim: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way--a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

     As Isaiah did, so does John the Baptist . . . he delivers the “good news”.  God is coming . . . God’s word is certain and reliable . . . and, it endures forever.  Then John points over to Jesus and says to the people: “Here is your God!” 

     And, the challenge has been laid.

     Fulfilment has not yet been attained . . . not then, not now.  We are still a people in exile.  The world around us is filled with desperation and hopelessness . . . it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to see that as we watch our televisions, listen to our radios, and read our newspapers . . . it is a pretty scary world that we are living in.  We don’t feel like we are “home” . . . that we are searching for that safe place.

     Some would argue that it is because we have not embraced the opportunity we have been given . . . to love God . . . to love others.  Thus we are still in exile . . . we are still longing for that which makes us whole and holy.

     The prophets stand before and offer to us words of assurance that God does not abandon us . . . that God loves us . . . and, that God is still waiting.  Thus it is that they stand before us and declare, “Here is your God!”

     The rest is up to us.

     The season of Advent calls us to make our way towards the God who loves us . . . the God who showed us the way through Jesus . . . the God who is patiently waiting.  It is up to us.  In the meantime, God loves us and offers to us comfort until we can truly embrace the God who stands before us wanting to be totally loved, and wanting us to love others as we would love ourselves.  God’s love never changes . . . it is we who have to change.  Once we do, we will be home . . . we will no longer be exiles.  This is the promise.  Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

“Wake Up!” (Mark 13:24-37)

Granddaughter Finley, age three, has a new game that she likes playing with her napping grandparents.  Whenever she catches one of her grandparents napping . . . well, she likes to leans over to whichever grandparent it happens to be and yell, “Wake up!”  Then she just laughs and laughs, while her grandfather or grandmother excuse themselves to go and change their pants.  

But, I must say, Finley is fair . . . she also enjoys being woken up by her grandparents yelling in her ears, “Wake up!”  She just gets a big smile on her face and says, “Do it again.”

As we enter into the season of Advent, I implore you to “wake up!”  Advent is the season in which the followers of Jesus anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives--in the flesh at Bethlehem, in the heart daily, and in the glory of the end of time.  It is a season of expectant waiting and preparation . . . and, no matter which of the three perspectives the followers of Jesus are focusing on, it is a season in which everyone had better be awake.  The writer of the Gospel of Mark puts it this way, “. . . do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”  So . . . wake up!

Jesus did not spend much time in apocalyptic--or end time--teaching.  He was more focused on what could be done in the present time . . . in the present moment.  His teachings focused on what could be done now . . . that relationship between the individual and God, that relationship between the individual and others.  To love God completely, to love others as one would love him or herself.  This was something that was important and urgent to him . . . and, the key word in that sentence is “urgent”.

Though he did not mention it a lot, Jesus did teach and talk about the Second Coming . . . about his return.  It was something that was going to happen . . . and, he even gave a pretty descriptive picture of what the world would be like when it would occur.  It is a description that has fit every generation since he spoke it, creating many predictions as to when the end of time would occur.  Every generation has predicted that the end was near--even this generation in its present time . . . and, yet, we are still here.

As much as Jesus proclaimed it, more importantly he proclaimed an urgency to living up to loving God and others.  Predicting the end, with the signs fitting every generation, is a nice game that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.  Why?  Because Jesus himself stated that no one would know when the end would come . . . “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  And, because no one knows, Jesus implores his listeners . . . his followers . . . to “wake up!”  He proclaims: “Be on guard!  Be alert!  You do not know when that time will come . . . if he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

In other words, wake up and get to work.

As I stated earlier, Advent is a season of anticipation that anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives: in the flesh at Bethlehem, in the heart daily, and in glory at the end of time.  Since, we actually missed the original birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, our anticipation of the Christ in the flesh at Bethlehem is primarily symbolic and metaphorical.  With Jesus’ words of no one knowing the date or time of the end time . . . that it could happen at any moment . . . this becomes a longing, a desire, something we cannot really grasp as a reality . . . but, as something that puts a little urgency into our lives.  Which leaves us with the anticipation of Jesus within our hearts on a daily basis . . . something that we can actually strive towards.

This is where the rubber hits the road . . . this is where the work really is.  It is in the present moment as we live our lives on a daily basis.  We are to put Jesus into our hearts and live out our love in our lives . . . and, we are to do it in everything that we do.  And, we are to do it right now!

I do not think that there is a single one of us seated in this sanctuary that does not know how fragile life is . . . how fragile our time is on this planet.  All of us are aware of the fact that any one of us might not wake up in the morning.  We just do not know.  Because we do not know, we should have a sense of urgency to live life to its fullest . . . to loving God wholly and holy . . . of loving others unconditionally . . . of being that representation of Jesus in our daily lives.  After all, as Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour . . .”

So . . . wake up!

As we begin the season of Advent, let us do so with a sense of urgency that calls us to explore and nurture our relationship with God and others.  If not now, when?  Let us focus our anticipation upon the coming of Jesus into our hearts on a daily basis . . . yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come, now is the only time we have.  Jesus understood this . . . Jesus called us to this . . .

Wake up!  It is our only chance.  Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

“Do the Right Thing” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Years ago, while serving a congregation in Kearney, Nebraska, the local Baptist church got a new minister.  He hadn’t been in the community too long before he came across a small shop on Main Street that upset him.  The small shop was owned by one of the few black people in the community, and had been there for decades.  It was kind of a community landmark . . . but, the Baptist pastor did not like some of the products that the shop owner displayed for sale in his front windows . . . pornography magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, and the like.

It upset the pastor that pornography was being displayed right there on Main Street for anyone and everyone to see . . . including kids.  The first thing that he did was to go to the shop owner and talk to him about the situation.  After introducing himself, the pastor explained all the reasons that he was offended by the shop owner’s display and products, and the shop owner listened.  The pastor then asked the shop owner to remove the products from the windows and to quit selling them.  The shop owner refused.

The pastor then stated that he would organize his congregation to picket the shop owner’s shop.  The shop owner explained that he appreciated the pastor’s dedication and commitment to the task, and that he should do whatever he felt he needed to do.  Then he explained that he had been selling those magazines for years and had lots of steady, reliable customers.  He doubted that picketing would make much of a difference.  But, he encouraged the pastor to do what he had to do.

And, so, the pastor organized his congregation to picket the shop.  Several members and the minister would gather at the shop each day, holding their pickets and signs condemning the shop owner.  But, nothing happened . . . nothing changed.  When interviewed by the local radio station, the pastor remarked that he was quite impressed by how many people driving by waved by one finger.  

Though the Baptist minister and his congregation continued their picketing for several months, those magazines were not removed until several years later when the shop owner died.  But through the years, the pastor and shop owner became good friends . . . and, the shop owner always encourage the pastor “to do the right thing.”  

“Doing the right thing” is not easy.

In our scripture reading this morning we hear the parable of the “sheep and goats”.  It is a parable we all know.  In the end time, the people are divided into two groups--like sheep and goats, and they are brought before Jesus for judgment.  For both groups their fate lies upon how they responded to helping Jesus in his time of need.  Both ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

For one group, the sheep, it was when they encountered and helped one of the least of these that they did it for Jesus.  For the other group, the goats, it was when they encountered one of the least of these and did nothing to help that they snubbed Jesus.

Both groups had the same opportunity.  Both groups had the same choice.  The goats did not do “the right thing”, while the sheep did.  One is rewarded with their heavenly slots, while the other is sent away in eternal punishment.  

So, are we “sheep” or “goats”?  Which side of Jesus are we on?

I would like to think that all of us would want to be on the side of the “sheep” . . . after all, who doesn’t want to receive his or her heavenly slot?  For the most part, I think that all of us would attempt to do something for the “least of these” . . . to feed the hungry, offer a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, invite the stranger in, visit the sick and those in prison.  I like to think that we would at least make an effort.  

At least that is what I would like to think . . . but, for some gnawing reason, deep down . . . I am not sure that that is enough.  True, it is providing a ministry to those who have needs . . . but, is it enough?  Is it enough when the root causes of those needs are never dealt with?  Or are we, through our efforts to meet needs, only providing a bandaid while never taking away or healing the cause of the bleeding?  Are we doing the “right thing”?

I don’t know.
When that Baptist minister decided to take on the issue of the shop owner displaying pornography in his shop windows, did he solve the problem?  Did he get rid of the issue . . . or did he just put it out of everyone’s sight and minds by wanting it removed?  The shop owner was not dumb.  He knew that removing the pornography would not get rid of the problem of pornography . . . he knew his customers would still buy it.  And, if they didn’t buy it from him, they would just go down the street and buy it at the local convenience store.

We live in a world in which more than enough food is produced to feed every single person . . . and, yet, there are those who go hungry and are starving . . . even in our country, our state, and community.  It seems that our local food bank never runs out of business.

We have the homeless . . . we see them on the corners of the streets in Billings whenever we run into town.  And, it is just not those who come from out of town . . . the Billings school district has an almost ten percent homeless rate among its students, and it is the largest district in the state.  It seems that the shelters are never empty.

As we look around the world . . . around our country . . . our state . . . and, even our own community . . . it is not difficult to see the “least of these”.  They are all around us . . . hungry, thirsty, naked, alone . . . in need.
So, we reach out to do the “right thing” . . . we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and invite the stranger in.  We ease them in their pain . . . we place the bandaid upon them . . . but the need will never end.  The need will never end until we take away the cause that is creating the need.

Because of that, I think we see the predicament that we--as the followers of Jesus--are in.  We are wanting to do the “right thing”, but the “right thing” seems to demand a little more than just feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and inviting the stranger in.  It prods us to consider how we can make a difference in the world by doing more than providing the bandaid, but by also considering how we can begin to really confront the deeper issues that cause these needs in the first place.

We all remember the story about the cobbler who had the dream that Jesus was going to visit him the next day.  We remember how he prepared a wonderful meal, made some clothes and shoes.  We remember how he waited all day and was visited by three strangers . . . three strangers that he ended up giving away all the stuff he had prepared for Jesus.  And, we remember how he cried himself asleep because Jesus did not come and visit him.  In a dream, Jesus tells him that he had visited him . . . three times . . . when each stranger came to his door and he responded to their need, he was responding to Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we broadened our understanding of “doing the right thing” to include an effort to rid the world of the causes of the pain and suffering of those who are in need?

Deep down, where the Spirit likes to wrestle with our hearts, I think that we all know that Jesus calls us to consider the “least of these” . . . to help them in their need; but more importantly, to consider how we rid our world of that which causes the “least of these” to suffer . . . to bring about the Kingdom of God.

That line between the “sheep” and the “goats” is a lot more blurry than we thought . . . Jesus calls us to do the right thing . . . is it enough to just place a bandaid on the need?  Or, does Jesus expect more?

I don’t know . . . but, I do know that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways to touch our hearts.  May we all do the “right thing” . . . Amen.

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.