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.